These chapters show how God directed His covenant partner Israel after their great failure of faith at the southern edge of the Promised Land in Numbers 13-14. Numbers 15-19 offers few novelties. God continued to be faithful and the people continued to complain against their leaders. Numbers 15-19 repeats God’s command that Israel revere Him and respect their leaders—since His holy presence would yet reside among them in the Promised Land.
God’s faithfulness to Israel is seen in His first words to them after their rebellion at the southern edge of Canaan. He said: “When you enter the land I am giving you to settle in…” (Num 15:2). The remainder of Numbers 15 records God’s instruction for how Israel was to revere their God when the next generation eventually entered Canaan. The scenes in Numbers 16-17 are composed of two significant acts of rebellion against Israel’s leaders, along with the Lord’s rebuke of each. First, some prominent Israelite men, under the direction of Korah the Koathite, led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron (Num 16:1-40). Together, they challenged the authority of Israel’s leaders, saying: “You have gone too far! Everyone in the entire community is holy, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?” (Num 16:3). Moses interpreted Korah’s rebellion to be indicative of many Levite murmurings, and said, “You and all your followers have conspired against the LORD!” (Num 16:11). Moses’ inference resulted from the fact that Korah and his followers grumbled not just about him but also about their present surroundings, even proposing that Egypt was the land flowing with milk and honey (Num 16:13)! Ultimately, “The glory of the LORD appeared to the whole community” (Num 16:19). God’s wrath caused the earth to open—swallowing all of Korah’s people and consuming with fire Korah’s 250 fellow-rebels (Num 16:15-35).
Second, despite the warning of Korah’s rebellion, the entire Israelite community broke into rebellion against Moses and Aaron (Num 16:41-50)! Just as the Lord’s glory appeared at the tabernacle for Moses and Aaron during the previous rebellion (Num 16:20), so here God vindicated Israel’s leaders before the eyes of their accusers: “When the community assembled against them, Moses and Aaron turned toward the tent of meeting, and suddenly the cloud covered it, and the LORD’s glory appeared” (Num 16:42). The death toll among the rebels grew by 14,700—cut off only by Aaron’s atoning firepan (Num 16:46-50). God affirmed Aaron as head of the Levites by causing his rod to blossom while the others remained dead wood (Num 17:1-13).
On the heels of these episodes of rebellion, God confirmed the Levites as assistants for the priests (Num 18:1-7), perhaps encouraging the priests to rid themselves of suspicion against the Levites who had troubled them. The matters of leaders and leadership in Numbers 15-17 give rise to instruction regarding their provisions through the sacrifices and tithes Israel would bring to the tabernacle (Num 18:8-32). Numbers 19 reinforces the prominence of the tabernacle in the Israelite community. Only those who were ceremonially clean could enter without defiling it and experiencing God’s wrath.
Israel’s leaders were God’s gift to His people and the people were blessed if they listened to the ones God has set over them. Paul, Jude, and the author of Hebrews employed imagery from Numbers 16-17 to remind their audiences of the need to heed those speaking for God in their day.
(1) In 2 Tim 2:19, Paul cited Num 16:5 to encourage Timothy and those under Timothy’s charge to remain true to the Lord in their leadership. When Korah and his delegation rebelled, Moses was confident that the Lord would vindicate him and Aaron. Moses presented himself and Aaron as the Lord’s servants, the Lord’s possession. The Lord vindicated Moses and Aaron by destroying Korah and those who rebelled with him. Paul wanted the story of Numbers 16 fresh on Timothy’s mind to remind him and those with Timothy that as they relied upon God, He would take care of them.
(2) In Heb 9:4, the author of Hebrews noted that the ark of the covenant contained Aaron’s rod that budded (Num 17:1-10). Following the destruction of Korah and those with him, the Lord instructed Moses to place one staff from each head of the twelve ancestral families of Israel and place them in the tent of meeting. The staff that the Lord caused to bud would signify the Lord’s blessing on that tribe. The Lord caused Aaron’s staff to bud. The remaining tribes were to fear the Lord and honor those who spoke for God. The author of Hebrews briefly described Israel’s tent of meeting and temple (Heb 9:1-5), noting that Aaron’s rod was placed in the ark of the covenant. Aaron’s rod represented the power of God to speak to His people and the importance that His people listen to those God appointed to speak to His people. Throughout Hebrews, the author warned his audience to heed God’s word (Heb 2:1-4; 3:7-4:14; 5:11-6:8; 12:25-28; 13:7, 17), and the mention of Aaron’s rod served as a reminder that God blesses those who heed His spokesmen.
(3) In Jude 11, the author listed Korah’s rebellion alongside the actions of Cain and Balaam to encourage his readers that God will punish those who stray from His word. Jude wrote that though the Lord saved His people out of Egypt and destroyed the unbelievers, many in his day yet perverted God’s word. Jude reminded his readers that they needed to stand strong against heresy; Korah’s rebellion reminded them why.