Written on: September 1, 2023

Article by: Chad Ramsey


Although God does not always punish wickedness immediately, Scripture assures us justice will eventually be served. Making this point to the churches of Galatia, Paul wrote: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life” (Galatians 6:7-8 NKJV). Sometimes justice is handed down in this life; sometimes it is not. In these instances, the wicked seem to prosper. Even so, Scripture promises: “the way of the unfaithful is hard” (Proverbs 13:15). Ultimately, however, God will “repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:6-8). God will see justice served sooner or later.

In Numbers 16, we find an occasion when justice was served quickly and punishment was appropriately doled out. Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and the two hundred and fifty men who challenged the leadership position of Moses and the priestly work of Aaron, are afflicted in an obviously divine manner. As He did when Miriam and Aaron challenged Moses’s authority (cf. Numbers 12), God acted in a way that left little doubt about who He intended to be over His people. His actions were not covert. Rather, God caused the earth to open up and swallow the offending rebels and their families (Numbers 16:31-33).

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Importantly, God also forced the Israelite nation to choose between Moses and his challengers. The people were first instructed to remove themselves from the offenders (Numbers 16:26). After doing so, Moses declared that God would make it clear that he had not taken the leadership position upon himself. Warning the people about the way God would punish Korah, Dathan and Abiram, Moses stated: “By this you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, for I have not done them of my own will” (verse 28). If anything, this account reveals that man has no right to challenge the authoritative plan of God. But if such does occur, punishment will undoubtedly follow. In this case, the severity of the punishment is striking. Regardless, God will not be mocked.

God’s Message (Numbers 16:23-26)

Following Moses and Aaron’s plea for God to have mercy upon the congregation and not punish the entire nation for the sins of a few (Numbers 16:22), the Lord instructed Moses to warn the people: “Get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” (verse 24). Obviously, God intended to punish the guilty. But the language issued here is as much about choosing sides as it is about safety. The people had to make a choice. They could stand with Korah, Dathan and Abiram, or they could stand with Moses and Aaron. Adding drama to choice the people had to make is the Hebrew word Moses used to refer to their “tents.” Instead of using the common word for a personal dwelling, Moses chose the word normally associated with the tabernacle–miskan. Explaining the possible importance of this choice, Ronald B. Allen observed: “We may wonder whether the term is not used sarcastically: the Lord has his miskan, and now these false claimants to the priesthood have their miskan” (Numbers 840).

Whether this was the intended use of this term, Israel was not to have any association with Korah, Dathan and Abiram. Making this clear, Moses, in the very presence of his challengers, declared: “Depart now from the tents of these wicked men! Touch nothing of theirs, lest you be consumed in all their sins” (Numbers 16:26). The meaning of this statement is abundantly clear. Israel was to have nothing to do with the rebels. To refrain from touching things belonging to them was to avoid being contaminated by their misdeeds (cf. Haggai 2:12-14). To ignore the warning and continue with Korah, Dathan and Abiram was to consent to their rebellious cause. This was unacceptable. Therefore, God instructed the people to openly declare their allegiance and face the consequences.

Moses’s Test (Numbers 16:27-30)

Upon hearing the instructions of God, the people obeyed and separated themselves from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16:27). For their part, Dathan and Abiram, who previously refused to meet with Moses (verse 12), “came out and stood at the door of their tents, with their wives, their sons, and their little children” (verse 28). Although the nation had chosen to remove itself from the side of the challengers, their family members did not relent in their support. It is possible, as Woods and Rogers acknowledge, that the phrase “came out and stood,” which depicts the defiance of Dathan and Abiram and their families, “implies taking up arms (cf. 1 Samuel 17:4, 16)” (Leviticus-Numbers 281).

At this juncture, Moses proposed a test to reveal God’s decision in this matter. He stated: “By this you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, for I have not done them of my own will. If these men die naturally like all men, or if they are visited by the common fate of all men, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates a new thing, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the pit, then you will understand that these men have rejected the Lord” (Numbers 16:28-30). The test involved the eventual fate of the rebellious individuals. An eventual natural or common death would indicate Moses was a presumptuous leader; an unusual death (presumably by immediate and undeniable divine intervention) would indicate Moses was truly chosen by God—the very fact denied by Korah (verse 3) and Dathan and Abiram (verse 13).

God’s Action (Numbers 16:31-35)

As Moses finished explaining the terms of the test to the people, God responded in an amazing, yet terrifying way. According to Numbers 16:31-32: “Now it came to pass, as he finished speaking all these words, that the ground split apart under them, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men with Korah, with all their goods.” Rather than allowing the opponents to continue to live until death came by natural causes, God expedited the process by consuming them all in one startling moment. “There is no mercy, no pleading, no help. The children, wives, and even toddlers died with their wicked fathers. It was the wiping out of a family. In this judgment we see that which was immediate, catastrophic, horrible, and complete. Yet there is something in it that is also satisfying: something of the honor of the Lord; of the servants he had named; of the purity of the camp; and, in a sense, of poetic justice” (Allen, Numbers 841).

Perhaps most startling is the description found in Numbers 16:33. Moses wrote: “So they and all those with them went down alive into the pit; the earth closed over them, and they perished from among the assembly.” The term translated “pit” (NKJV) is elsewhere translated “Sheol” (ESV) or “grave” (NLT). Such a scene could hardly be forgotten! God did not simply punish the rebels, He demonstrated His great power in so doing. Those who were not swallowed by the earth—the 250 Levites who had joined with Korah (verses 2, 16-18)—were consumed with a fire sent from the Lord (verse 35), a fate that mirrored that of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3). Whether Korah was swallowed by the earth or burned with fire is debated. Passages that have bearing upon this question include Numbers 26:9-11 and Psalm 106:16-18. What is not debated, however, is whether Korah died.

Not surprisingly, the Israelites reacted to the scene of divine punishment with panic. Describing this, Moses wrote: “Then all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, ‘Lest the earth swallow us up also!’” (Numbers 16:34). Nevertheless, the power of God, and the position His appointed leaders occupied was obvious to all. It is no small matter to challenge God’s authority.

A Lesson for Today

Although some have questioned the severity of the punishment inflicted upon the families of the offenders in Numbers 16, we must remember that God is both completely just and righteous. His choice to destroy Dathan and Abiram along with their families was not cruel, for “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:9). We would do well to remember that our just God sent Jesus to rescue us from punishment. This does not mean justice has been replaced by mercy. Instead, “in Christ both mercy and righteousness meet. In Christ the righteousness that Israel was called to is fulfilled and the wrath of God against sin is simultaneously expressed. God’s mercy and justice are seen and fulfilled in Christ” (Stubbs, Numbers 147). God remains completely just today. At the same time, He is longsuffering with us (2 Peter 3:9). Jesus paid the price for our sins when He died upon the cross. We must obey Him!

Works Cited:

Allen, Ronald B. Numbers (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary). Vol. 2. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990.

Stubbs, David L. Numbers (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible). Ed. R. R. Reno. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009.

Woods, Clyde M. and Justin M. Rogers. Leviticus-Numbers (The College Press NIV Commentary). Eds. Terry Briley & Paul Kissling. Joplin: College Press, 2006.