Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and certain Reubenites—Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—became insolent and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council. They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”
There were 12 tribes in Israel. Of those 12, only the Levite tribe was allowed to camp around the Lord’s Tabernacle where His Presence resided with them. The Levites all had different duties which mostly involved the care or transport of the Tabernacle. Of these Levites, only Aaron and his descendants could be priests and actually minister inside the Tabernacle to God.
Korah was a Levite, but not a son of Aaron and therefore not a priest. Korah and certain other leaders of Israel got it into their heads that it wasn’t fair that only Aaron’s sons could serve before the Lord as priests in His Tabernacle, forgetting that it was the Lord who had made this decision and blaming Moses for it instead.
When confronted, the humble Moses reminds Korah that he did not make that decision, God did. Moses even quips that he didn’t even want his own job as leader (a job he tried very hard to get out of many times) but submits to the Lord’s decisions. He reminds Korah that, as a Levite, he already has a great blessing and the great job of camping near and taking care of the Tabernacle.
Korah persists, so Moses challenges Korah and his followers to appear before the Tabernacle with divine censers of incense and try to minister before God like priests. If God is with them, He will accept their worship.
They do this, and God comes down in His cloud of glory. God tells Aaron and Moses to get out of the way so that He can consume these men for rebelling against Him. Aaron and Moses fall facedown and pray that God would forgive this rebellion and not punish the whole assembly for the sins of one man: Korah.
But God tells the other Israelites to get away from the tents of Korah’s families and those of the other rebels. God then consumes the rebels with the censers with holy fire and causes the earth to open and swallow up all of their families and descendants.
The next day, this happens:
The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. “You have killed the Lord’s people,” they said.
But when the assembly gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron and turned toward the tent of meeting, suddenly the cloud covered it and the glory of the Lord appeared. Then Moses and Aaron went to the front of the tent of meeting, and the Lord said to Moses, “Get away from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once.” And they fell facedown.
Instead of learning to fear God, the people once again blame Moses for what happened and rebel in their hearts. This time it’s the whole Israelite community that’s in danger of being destroyed for its sins. Again Moses and Aaron fall facedown and pray that God would spare them.
Suddenly, Moses realizes this isn’t going to work. This is exactly what they tried yesterday to save the people who rebelled, and it didn’t work.
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put incense in it, along with burning coals from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the Lord; the plague has started.”
Moses realizes that the reason they were unable to stop the former rebellion from ending in the death of all involved was because they had not made atonement for the sins committed the way God had told them to. Moses himself had said just a few chapters earlier that while God forgives sin and rebellion, “He does not acquit the guilty.” Just asking God to “look over it” was not enough. Atonement for the sin must be made.
Moses tells Aaron to run to the altar and scoop some of the burning coals from the altar into his censer. These were the burning coals that accepted the blood from the sin offerings. The blood that God had said over and over in the Law atoned for sins. Moses tells Aaron to hurry, for the plague had already started killing the people.
So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them. He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped. But 14,700 people died from the plague, in addition to those who had died because of Korah. Then Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance to the tent of meeting, for the plague had stopped.
Aaron runs into the midst of the dying Israelites, getting ahead of the plague and made atonement for the people just as the Law prescribed. When he did, the plague instantly stopped where he stood and no one else died. Aaron had fulfilled God’s demands for atonement in this case, and so God did as He promised and forgave the assembly and relented from the disaster He was bringing to them.
We are told by Paul in the New Covenant that:
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.
1st Corinthians 10
All of this God used to teach His people, both then and now, an important lesson. Atonement for sin must be made, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness for sins. God is just and must punish sin with dire consequences, but God is also loving and forgiving and wants us to have a path of atonement. He has now made that possible through His Son Jesus Christ, whose blood was sprinkled on the burning coals of the true altar in Heaven. For it is written:
But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
The burning coals of the altar took in the blood of the lambs who were killed for the atonement for sin, and so by God’s decree could make atonement. Consider the power of the coals in the true tabernacle in Heaven which took in the blood of the Lord Himself to cleanse away all sins:
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
In this passage Isaiah, a sinner, had entered into the Most Holy Place in Heaven itself and gazed upon the glory of the Lord Almighty. No sinner could see such a sight and live. But the coals that soaked in the blood of Jesus were taken and touched to him and he was made clean and holy. True atonement was made. Isaiah was now free to minister before the Lord and he did so by becoming the Lord’s prophet to the people of Israel.
We must remember that we are all by nature sinners and rebels against God who are selfish and want nothing to do with Him. Our just verdict is death, and God the Just must render that verdict and punish our wickedness. The plague had already begun in the camp, and many had already died. But the Lord, being full of lovingkindness, sent the true High Priest, Jesus Christ, His own Son, to rush into the gap between the plague of sin and death and the children of God. There the plague was arrested and stopped. Jesus swallowed the plague and the curse for us. He died for us. His blood was sprinkled onto the burning coals in Heaven and our sin was atoned for. This was the price of salvation and it is paid for all who believe in the Son of God – who are given the right to become the children of God.