We are first introduced to the Sons of Korah in scripture by their absence. This absence is a significant part of the worth of the Sons of Korah as a model and an inspiration for Christians today. What the Sons of Korah did that is so remarkable and so worthy of emulation is that they refrained from supporting an ungodly rebellion against divinely ordained leadership, and by so doing preserved their physical lives, their spiritual lives, and allowed the family to carry on for centuries of righteous example for Israel   .
Why is it so hard to resist the pull of rebellion? As someone who has witnessed the multigenerational folly of rebellion against religious authorities by those who were called to serve God but instead sought to serve their own selfish political interests, I have witnessed the bad effects of parental example on the behavior of others. I have seen fathers receiving pensions insult the very organizations that allow for them to live in dignity, while teaching their sons to insult their employers and treat their bosses with disrespect while claiming to serve as ministers of God. I have seen men who claimed honorable religious offices use their sons and daughters for their dirty work–threatening lawsuits against those who exposed the truth, engaging in deliberate campaigns of misinformation and propaganda and sedition while keeping their hands clean officially. I have seen husbands resign to keep peace in their households with contentious wives, following after the example of Adam who ate the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil because his wife Eve was deceived, rather than setting a godly example of leadership and obedience to God.
Nevertheless, I have also seen examples of brothers who avoided following their erring siblings into folly, but remained true to God. I have seen children struggle (and largely succeed) to overcome the bad examples of their own fathers, despite the struggles and difficulties that entails. It is this sort of example that we find in the Sons of Korah and not only here (witness, for example, Heman’s devotion to God despite the bad example of his father Joel  ). It is this example of godly refrain from rebellion that starts the story of the Sons of Korah and makes them worthwhile for as long as the Bible is opened by people looking to live godly and obedient lives.
Conspicuous By Their Absence
In Numbers 16:23-35, we see a lot of judgment by God of rebellion, but one thing we do not see (thankfully!) is the presence of the Sons of Korah as part of the rebellion of their father. Let us, in examining Numbers 16:23-35, look at the uniqueness of the action of the Sons of Korah in the immediate context, and reflect upon its consequences in the long run.
Numbers 16:23-27 presents a very serious scene: “So the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the congregation, saying, ‘Get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.’ ” Then Moses rose and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. And he spoke to the congregation, saying, “Depart now from the tents of these wicked men! Touch nothing of theirs, lest you be consumed in all their sins.” So they got away from around the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram; and Datha nand Abiram came out and stood at the door of their tents with their wives, their sons, and their little children.”
As much can be said from absence as can be said from presence. In this example we see the seriousness of rebellion to God. God requires respect to authorities, despite the fact that all human authorities are flawed . We also see the scene of the families of Dathan and Abiram, their wives, their sons, and their little children in the tents with their doomed and rebellious fathers. But we do not see in scripture anyone in Korah’s family rebelling with him. Korah rebelled alone, and was punished alone, while his family survived to serve God in their appointed roles. Dathan and Abiram rebelled with the support (or at least consent) of his family, and therefore the entire family of those rebellious men was punished with destruction.
Numbers 16:28-30 ups the ante by providing the carnal Israelites with a test that even these unperceptive people could understand: “And Moses said: “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.”
Let us pause for a bit and reflect upon this passage. For one, the rebellion of Korah and his supporters against Moses was not only against him but against God. For it was God who made the unwilling Moses leader of Israel. Moses did not desire the responsibility, and indeed had very reluctantly served in that office because of the vehement and direct command of God (Exodus 4:1-17). By ascribing Moses’ leadership to selfish ambition what was the direct will of God, and by seeking to cloak their own selfish ambition as a concern for transparency and openness, Dathan and Abiram were directly attacking the legitimacy of God to set up and tear down authority as He chooses.
It is this attack on God that leads Moses to set up a test of the legitimacy of his God-given authority. If Korah and his fellow rebels die peacefully and under normal processes, his own rule is illegitimate. If they are swallowed alive by the earth, then Moses’ authority is vindicated. Since Korah and his fellow rebels attacked the authority of God, then God gets to show which authority is legitimate. Likewise, when rebellious ministries or efforts seek to rebel against their rightful authority, the “trial by ordeal” that follows is the demonstration of God’s will and support. If a rebellion survives and prospers, it acts with the will of God. If it is crushed or if it falls apart, it does not have the backing of God.
Numbers 16:31-35 provides the stunning repudiation by God of the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram: “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. 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. Then all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up also!” And a fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering incense.
This passage is significant for several reasons. For one, Korah’s associates, the false priests offering “strange incense” were punished in the exact same manner as were two of Aaron’s own sons, Nadab and Abihu, for serving as false priests despite their ‘legitimate’ position (Leviticus 10:1-7). Those who attack the legitimacy of the priesthood by proclaiming ungodly and unworthy men in the offices of godly service will be held accountable by God and judged accordingly. When ungodly men serve God in positions of honor, they bring dishonor to those offices and lead men to blasphemy God and mistrust legitimate authority because of the scars and pain of the abuse of power and authority. This is one of the most insidious threats against the establishment and development of godly leadership in the realms of family, community, church, and state.
Additionally, the response of the faithless children of Israel to the punishment of Korah reflects their own hard hearts and their own fear of judgment for their own faults. The fleeing of the children of Israel from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram could reflect on the one hand the threat of ‘contagion’ of God’s judgment from close presence and contact with those who had been seen to have obvious disfavor with God, something that God himself encouraged them to feel by telling them not to touch anything of the rebels because of its impurity and stain with the corruption of rebellion (Numbers 16:26).
Additionally, though the fleeing of the children of Israel may suggest at least a vague awareness that they themselves, in their disobedience to God through Moses, were worthy of the same judgment. God’s words about the generation that left Egypt under Moses in scripture are not flattering. Psalm 95:7b-11, quoted extensively in Hebrews 3 and 4 , describes the generation as follows: “Today, if you will hear His voice: Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, when your fathers tested Me; they tried Me, though they saw My work. For forty years I was grieved with that generation, and said, ‘It is a people who goes astray in their hearts, and they do not know My ways.’ So I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’
Lest we forget, Paul says about the experiences of carnal Israel in the wilderness that “these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted” (1 Corinthians 10:6) and that “all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:11-12).” Therefore, we are fully justified and encouraged by scripture in examining ourselves and the actions of our own times to make sure that we are not being motivated by the same evil motives of selfish ambition and rebellion in our own lives as received judgment by God in the wilderness.
Exploring The Repercussions
Having seen the severity of the judgment that the Sons of Korah avoided by virtue of their absence from the tent of their rebellious father, let us therefore examine the serious and long-term consequences of their obedience to God as shown by their refraining from the evil of joining their physical father and instead staying in the tent of their spiritual Father in heaven.
First, the sons of Korah themselves lived rather than died in the pit. As Numbers 26:9-11 says: “The sons of Eliab were Nemuel, Dathan, and Abriam. These are the Dathan and Abiram, representatives of the congregation, who contended against Moses and Aaron in the company of Korah, when they contended against the Lord; and the earth opened up its mouth and swallowed them up together with Korah when that company died, when the fire devoured two hundred and fifty men; and they became a sign. Nevertheless the children of Korah did not die.” God did not judge the sons of Korah with the sin of their father, but rather judged the father himself for his sin. For, as scripture says, “The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20).
Additionally, the amount of service that the Sons of Korah provided to God is staggering to the imagination. Scripture records the obedience and faithfulness and service of the Sons of Korah from the time of Phineas the priest during the time of the conquest of the promised land under Joshua (Joshua 22:30, 1 Chronicles 9:19-20) to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra 2:42, Nehemiah 7:45), a period of nearly 1000 years. The sons of Korah wrote a substantial portion of the Psalms, and included among their number a major prophet (Samuel) and numerous other biblical heroes of the faith.
None of this millennium of service recorded in scripture would have been possible, though, had the Sons of Korah followed their father into rebellion. For choosing to obey God rather than follow their physical father into judgment, the Sons of Korah were rewarded with their lives, with the preservation of their honored position, and with a name in scripture that their descendants were proud to maintain, whether they called themselves “Korahites” or “Sons of Korah.” Their service and their works remain in scripture as a light and an inspiration to believers. Let us therefore follow their example in refraining from ungodly rebellion, and appreciate their many generations of faithful and honorable service to God and to their fellow believers of all nations.