#246. Who rebelled against Moses (and Aaron): Dathan, Abiram and On OR Korah and 250 chieftains? (Num 16:1, 12, 27 vs Num 16:1-11, 16-19)
#247. Who did they rebel against: Moses OR Moses and Aaron? (Num 16:2 vs Num 16:3-11)
#248. Why did they rebel: because Moses lords it over them OR because they sought the priesthood? (Num 16:13 vs Num 16:10)
#249. Yahweh commands the rest of the congregation to move away from the tents of Dathan and Abiram OR to move away from the tabernacle of Korah? (Num 16:26 vs Num 16:24)
#250. How does Yahweh punish the rebels: by opening up the earth and swallowing them and their households OR by consuming them with fire? (Num 16:32 vs Num 16:35)


Scholars and close readers of Numbers 16 have long noticed that the text as it now stands is a composite of two different and once separate rebellion stories, each with their own individual characters, motives, divine punishment, vocabulary, style, and theological emphasis.

Both of these stories additionally exhibit unique themes, vocabulary, and agendas found in other passages attributed to these same textual traditions. Here we’re looking at a story from the Yahwist tradition and another from the later Priestly tradition, both of which were later edited together to give us the text as it now stands.

Compare other places in the Pentateuch where a later redactor cut-and-pasted together 2 once separate versions of the same story from the Yahwist and Priestly textual traditions in contradictions #14-18 (2 Flood stories), #72-73 (2 Joseph stories), and #120-122 (2 Crossing of the Red Sea stories).

One of the rebellion stories in Numbers 16 is about the Reubenites’ questioning and criticism of Moses’ authority over them and his inability thus far to bring the people to the promised land (16:13-14). This coup is led by Dathan, Abiram, and On—all from the tribe of Reuben, and may actually hint at a real historic conflict between the tribe of Reuben and other Israelite tribes, at least as perceived by the Judean scribes who wrote this story. At any event, for their disobedience and questioning of Moses’ authority, Yahweh punishes them by opening up the earth and swallowing “them and all their households” (16:32). You can still read the whole original Yahwist story by reading Num 16:1b-2a, 12-14, 25-26, 27b-32a, and 33-34 together.

The other story, now woven together with this story of Reubenite rebellion, describes how a specific family of the tribe of Levi, the Kohathites questioned Aaron’s (the Aaronids’) prerogative to be Yahweh’s sole and only priests: “You seek the priesthood as well?”(16:10). The task to prove that Yahweh had indeed only chosen those from the seed of Aaron to be his priests (although see #152), is to have Aaron and Korah and his 250 men present incense to Yahweh in the Tabernacle, and to see which incense burner Yahweh accepts. But before Korah and his cohorts are even able to enter Yahweh’s Tabernacle, Yahweh consumes them all with fire: “And fire had gone out from Yahweh and consumed the 250 people offering the incense” (16:35).

As seen elsewhere in our survey of this Priestly source, it is no coincidence that in a text written by Aaronid priests Yahweh is presented legitimating the sole rule of the Aaronids on the one hand and on the other hand violently consuming all non-Aaronid Levites who approach the Tent of Meeting or who attempt to perform any priestly functions. In other words, as I’ve stressed elsewhere, this is what ancient literature was—propaganda legitimating through divine sanction the ideology of its writers! It is yet another example of this elite priestly guild forging an archaic story wherein Israel’s god, Yahweh, condemns all non-Aaronid Levites who challenge their rule and conversely is presented choosing only the Aaronids as his priestly anointeds. Since according to this ideology only the Aaronids can approach Yahweh, Korah and his 250 chieftains are immediately consumed by Yahweh’s fire and die. “No outsider, one who is not from Aaron’s seed, will come forward to burn incense in front of Yahweh” (Num 17:5).

We have seen this Aaronid ideology divinely sanctioned elsewhere in this same Aaronid written Priestly tradition. In Numbers 3-4 the role of all non-Aaronid Levites is laid out, including that of the Kohathite family of Levites, where it is expressly stated that they are not priests, but are to minister to the Aaronid priesthood and the components of the Tabernacle (see #220). And Numbers 7-8 again speak of the election of the Aaronids only as Yahweh’s anointed priests and all non-Aaronid Levites as the mere servants to the Aaronid priesthood (#221).

In other words, these stories exemplify what ancient literature is and how it was often used. Its “moral legislation”—that Yahweh will slaughter any non-Aaronid Levite that challenged the Aaronids’ authority as sole priests, approached Yahweh’s tabernacle or directly touched any of its components—is not some objective moral with a supernatural origin, but rather a carefully crafted lesson created by elite Aaronid priests whose purpose was to endorse, legitimate, and safeguard their own authority and ideology, and often against the views and claims of rivalry priestly groups, such as the Kohathites or Levites in general (#152), by using the deity as their spokesperson. This is what we learn when we objectively study these ancient texts that were later compiled together to form “the Book.” This is what I’ve been touting as being honest to the texts, their authors, and the hows and whys of their composition as products of their unique historical contexts and authorial beliefs and agendas.

5 thoughts on “#246. Who rebelled against Moses (and Aaron): Dathan, Abiram and On OR Korah and 250 chieftains? (Num 16:1, 12, 27 vs Num 16:1-11, 16-19)
#247. Who did they rebel against: Moses OR Moses and Aaron? (Num 16:2 vs Num 16:3-11)
#248. Why did they rebel: because Moses lords it over them OR because they sought the priesthood? (Num 16:13 vs Num 16:10)
#249. Yahweh commands the rest of the congregation to move away from the tents of Dathan and Abiram OR to move away from the tabernacle of Korah? (Num 16:26 vs Num 16:24)
#250. How does Yahweh punish the rebels: by opening up the earth and swallowing them and their households OR by consuming them with fire? (Num 16:32 vs Num 16:35)

  1. The other place the name Korah appears prominently is in header to some of the Psalms, which are “for the sons of Korah”. These psalms have a “northern” character and may have been associated with Bethel or Dan. Could this story be an attempt to not just promote the Aaronid priesthood as the only legitimate one, but also to denigrate a specific competing priesthood?

    1. Yes, exactly Robert. And this seems to have been a literary technique employed in many of those passages from the Hebrew canon that bear on ancient Israel’s internecine priestly rivalries. For example, the Elohist (?) text of Exodus 32—the Golden Calf story—promotes the clan of Levites as Yahweh’s priests (implied in the text as they perform the proper rite of expiating the sin), while subtly denigrating the Aaronids by portraying Aaron as the fabricator of Israel’s greatest wilderness sin. All this happens of course concomitantly in the now redacted JEP text at the same time Yahweh in the Priestly source (Ex 28, 40) is selecting Aaron and his seed as his sole priest! Likewise Ezekiel 44 has Yahweh select the Aaronid Zadokites as his sole priests in the post-exilic period, while demoting all other Levites to servants of the Zadokites (contra Jer 33). For more specifics see #299.

      According to Levine’s Anchor Bible series on Numbers, the priestly dispute represented in Numbers 16-17 most likely alludes to real internecine rivalries in the post-exilic period, even though such specifics elude us. Since both the Aaronids and the Korahites are descendents of the Kohathite Levites, the claim that the Korites might have advanced is one that attempted to legitimate the whole clan of Kohathites as Yahweh’s priests. However, the narrative of Numbers 16-17 strikes back rather forcefully!

      The Korahites do seem to survive and are mentioned as temple musician in later sources. I’m not familiar with the Psalms, but they are mentioned as musicians in several genealogies in the 4th century works of Chronicles (1 Chr 9:19, 12:6, 26:1).

      But to answer your original question—yes. Unfortunately the practice of many modern readers to “spiritualize” these texts to suit their own religious purposes and readings amounts to, in many instances, decontextualizing these ancient texts and thereby neglecting their own historical issues, concerns, and even propagandistic natures as evidenced in the Priestly story of Numbers 16-17!

  2. As expressed at the top of the page, #247 does not indicate a contradiction.

    The statement, “They rebelled against Moses and Aaron”, implies that “They rebelled against Moses”.

    The statement, “They rebelled against Moses”, does not negate the statement, “They rebelled against Aaron”, and the two statements may be conjoined to read, “They rebelled against Moses and Aaron”.

  3. Psalm 106:16-18 and Deuteronomy 11:5-6 don’t mention Korah, which may be additional proof that the Korah portion was added later:

    Psalm 106:
    16 They were jealous of Moses in the camp,
    and of Aaron, the holy one of Yahweh.
    17 The earth opened and swallowed up Dathan,
    and covered the faction of Abiram.
    18 Fire also broke out in their company;
    the flame burned up the wicked.

    Deuteronomy 11:5-6:
    5…what he did to you in the wilderness, until you came to this place; 6and what he did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab son of Reuben, how in the midst of all Israel the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households, their tents, and every living being in their company;

    There’s another contradiction in this pericope. Verses 36-40 (which form the beginning of chapter 17 in the Hebrew text) read:

    Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: 37Tell Eleazar son of Aaron the priest to take the censers out of the blaze; then scatter the fire far and wide. 38For the censers of these sinners have become holy at the cost of their lives. Make them into hammered plates as a covering for the altar, for they presented them before Yahweh and they became holy. Thus they shall be a sign to the Israelites. 39So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers that had been presented by those who were burned; and they were hammered out as a covering for the altar— 40a reminder to the Israelites that no outsider, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, shall approach to offer incense before Yahweh, so as not to become like Korah and his company—just as Yahweh had said to him through Moses.

    The problem is that the altar was already covered in bronze:

    Exodus 38:1-2 (see original command in Exodus 17:2):
    [Bezalel] made the altar of burnt-offering also of acacia wood; it was five cubits long, and five cubits wide; it was square, and three cubits high. 2He made horns for it on its four corners; its horns were of one piece with it, and he overlaid it with bronze.

    In fact, the LXX author(s), aware of the discrepancy, includes this harmonization attempt in Exodus 38:22: “He made the brazen altar of the brazen censers, which belonged to the men engaged in sedition with the gathering of Core.”

    1. John,

      Thanks for the addition of Psalm 106 and the Deuteronomy excerpt. They convincingly lend support to the fact that the Priestly story of Korah and his cohort were later spliced into the Dathan and Abiram story. Conversely, this is yet another passage that might lend further support to D’s lack of knowledge about P. Obviously I have been following the consensus here that P follows D. But there are still a few (Friedman for example) arguing for the priority of P. Yet Deuteronomy 11:5-6 is yet another retelling that fails to acknowledge the Priestly portion of the story. Nice!

      What I really like, however, is your contradiction about the bronze censers. I had mulled over whether the bronze platting of the altar with these censers in Numbers 17 contradicted or conflated with the construction of the altar in Exodus 38, since I’ve spoken of this elsewhere (#137), but I had determined that perhaps Numbers could be seen as another platting. However, what clinched it for me was the LXX quote which you provide. Even if we wished to see this as a second, or another platting—which now I’m inclined not to—the LXX verse itself, an attempted harmonization as you rightly point out, introduces yet other contradictions: When was the altar platted with bronze? And from where did this bronze come? (cf. #163). Even more preposterous, the statement that the bronze was platted with the bronze censers of Core (Korah) is not a prophetic announcement, but a severe chronological disruption since the incident of Korah and the brazen censers happens more than a year later! It looks like Bezalel did some time traveling into the future, grabbed the brazen censers, and warped back! Brilliant! Now we have prophecy and time travel in the Bible.

Leave a Reply