What was the identity of the Sons of Korah. Were they Levites or members of the tribes in whose territories they lived? The answer, according to the Bible, is both. One of the reasons why the Sons of Korah have remained so obscure, despite their frequent appearance in scripture, is because of questions about their identity. Indeed, some people believe there is a contradiction between what 1 Samuel and 1 Chronicles say about the identity of the Sons of Korah, specifically concerning Elkanah , the father of the famous Samuel, prophet and judge extraordinaire. By examining the scriptures about the identity of the Sons of Korah, we may understand more than we realize about their obscurity and their importance.
1 Chronicles 6:31-38: The Genealogy of Heman The Ezrahite
Heman the Ezrahite is one of the heroes of the Sons of Korah , a man who despite struggling with great depression  managed to prove himself as a faithful servant of God during the reigns of both David and Solomon, and a servant of God whose devotion and leadership skills can be found numerous times in 1 Chronicles   . His genealogy is provided in 1 Chronicles 6:31-38, and it is one of the pivotal pieces in connecting the puzzle of the Sons of Korah together.
1 Corinthians 6:31-38 reads as follows: “Now these are the men whom David appointed over the service of song in the house of the Lord, after the ark came to rest. They were ministering with music before the dwelling place of the tabernacle of meeting, until Solomon had built the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they served in their office according to their order. And these are the ones who ministered with their sons: Of the sons of the Kohathites were Heman the singer, the son of Joel, the son of Samuel, the son of Elkanah, the son of Jeroham, the son of Eliel, the son of Toah, the son of Zuph, the son of Elkanah, the son of Mahath, the son of Amasai, the son of Elkanah, the son of Joel, the son of Azariah, the son of Zephaniah, the son of Tahath, the son of Assir, the son of Ebiasaph, the son of Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, the son of Israel.”
This passage is a key passage in understanding the Sons of Korah and their identity as Levites. For one, the passage links together Heman with Joel, Samuel, Elkanah, and the line of Korah, links that would otherwise have remained unknown. The passage therefore shows that the Sons of Korah were known widely and recognized as a vitally important family within Israel. Heman and Samuel are both mentioned several times in key places in scripture as servants of God, and this genealogy places them in a context of lengthy and faithful service to God throughout generations of godly believers. Despite the fact that genealogy is a subject that bores most people, the lineage of faithful believers shows God’s mercy to thousands of generations of those who believe in God and act on that belief in faithful obedience. Such an example is vitally important for us to know as we seek to pass on our faith to future generations.
This passage though, does present a different picture than that found in 1 Samuel 1:1-2, which provides a smaller portion of the same genealogy found in 1 Corinthians 6:33-38, but with a different identity as an Ephraimite: “Now there was a certain man of Ramathaim Zophim, of the mountains of Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, and Ephraimite.” Noticing that Elihu and Eliel and Tohu and Toah appear to be variant forms of the same name, we are clearly talking about the same family–and yet 1 Samuel calls them Ephraimites and 1 Chronicles calls them Levites.
Despite appearing superficially as a contradiction, though, the Bible provides the obvious answer in both passages. In 1 Samuel we read about Elkanah in the context of their residence in the tribe of Ephraim, and therefore their political identity was Ephraimite because they dwelled under the authority and in the territory of that tribe. However, 1 Chronicles shows that by ancestry (i.e. ethnicity), the family of Elkanah, part of the sons of Korah, were themselves Levites. This family ancestry meant that Samuel was able to perform priest-like service in sacrifices, given the fact that his family was already very close to the priesthood by family origin. The Bible, in providing both the political and genealogical context of Samuel’s family, puts the Sons of Korah in a fascinating context for us to study today, pointing to one of the more intriguing mysteries of scripture.
How And Why The Levites Became Scattered
How and why the Levites became scattered among the tribes of Israel is a great and profound point that touches on some of the more intriguing aspects of curse and blessing within the Bible as a whole. In the case of the Levites, what was originally a curse became a blessing as a result of the actions of descendents. This larger story of curses becoming blessings also involves the Sons of Korah, whose own story of blessings and curses is a part of the larger story of their tribe, and reflects the same pattern.
The story of how the Levites became scattered begins in Genesis 34. Without covering the entire story at length, let us note a few aspects of this story. We see Dinah, the full sister of Levi (along with Simeon, Judah, and the other sons of Leah), finding company among the Canaanite girls of the area of Shechem. After falling in with the wrong crowd, Dinah is raped by Hamor, the son of Shechem, who nonetheless wants Dinah as his wife. Simeon and Levi, particularly incensed by the mistreatment of their sister by the Canaanite Hamor, hatch a plan to weaken the defenses of the city by calling for all of the Shechemites to circumcise themselves so that Hamor may marry Dinah honorably. And then Simeon and Levi together lead the brothers in betraying the marriage treaty between themselves and the people of Shechem by sacking the city while the men of the town are still weak from their circumcision operations. A cruel rape had been avenged by the use of circumcision as a ruse of war rather than a sign of coventantal obedience (a serious offense to God), and by genocidal violence against someone with whom one was at peace as a result of a marriage covenant and treaty alliance.
As might be expected, Jacob replied to this offensive behavior in Genesis 34:30-31: “Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have troubled me by making me obnoxious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and Perizzites; and since I am few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and kill me. I shall be destroyed, my household and I.” But they said, “Should he treat our sister like a harlot?” Clearly, this was a serious and unpleasant matter. Jacob, of course, had the last word in Genesis 49:5-6, pronouncing a divinely inspired curse upon them: “Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are in their dwelling place. Let not my soul enter their counsel; let not my honor be united to their assembly; for in their anger they slew a man; and in their self-will they hamstrung an ox. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.”
This is a curse that has serious implications. We should expect descendents of Levi and Simeon to be ferocious in defending honor (like the honor of womenfolk, for example), and also people of ferociously harsh tempers and fierce personalities. We should expect them to be somewhat divisive in nature, perhaps a bit clannish, and also very strong-willed. Nonetheless, while the Simeonites never seemed to reverse their curse through later obedience and faithfulness to God, the Levites were able to find their curse result in a greater blessing (and responsibility) through future conduct. Indeed, the difference between the ferocity of the Simeonites and that of the Levites is the difference between guerrilla or clan warfare on the one hand and ferociously zealous faith on the other hand. One man’s zealot is another man’s terrorist, though.
The next time we see the zeal of the Levites is during the infamous Golden Calf incident, in Exodus 32:25-29: “Now when Moses saw that the people were unrestrained (for Aaron had not restrained them, to their shame among their enemies), then Moses stood in the entrance of the camp, and said, “Whoever is on the Lord’s side–come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘Let every man put his sword on his side, and go in and out from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.’ ” So the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And about three thousand men of the people fell that day. Then Moses said, “Consecrate yourselves today to the Lord, that He may bestow upon you a blessing this day, for every man has opposed his son and his brother.” Here we see the zealous wrath of the Levites in service to God rather than their own selfish wills, and for that they did receive a blessing from God.
That blessing was to be chosen by God for His service instead of the firstborn of Israel as a whole (see Numbers 3:40-51). The tribe of Levi, therefore, was set aside to God as His firstborn, to set a model of obedience and faithfulness, and those firstborn of Israel over and above the number of the Levites had to be redeemed with five shekels for the tabernacle treasury. Additionally, we find that the curse of being scattered throughout all of Israel now serves as a blessing, since the Levites can serve as a faithful example of zealous obedience to God throughout all the tribes.
We see Moses (himself a Levite and a Kohathite) discuss this matter of the blessing of Levi in Deuteronomy 33:8-11: “And of Levi he said: “Let your Thummim and Your Umim be with Your holy one, whom You tested at Massah, and with whom You contended at the waters of Meribah, who says of his father and mother, ‘I have not seem them’; nor did he acknowledge his brothers, or know his own children; for they have observed Your word and kept Your covenant. They shall teach Jacob Your judgments, and Israel Your law. They shall put incense before You, and a whole burnt sacrifice on Your altar. Bless his substance, Lord, and accept the work of his hands; strike the loins of those who rise us against him, and of those who hate him, that they rise not again.” Here we see Levi as a blessing, teaching God’s law to Israel and being blessed by Moses for their obedience to God and refusal to prefer the family of blood to the family of faith during the wilderness travels, as the sons of Korah showed in rejecting their earthly father’s rebellion to obey their heavenly Father.
This mechanics of how Levi was to serve as a godly example to the other twelve tribes is dealt with in Numbers 35, concerning the Levitical cities, six of which served as cities of refuge where manslaughterers could escape from the hand of the avenger of blood and live in a sort of house arrest or exile until the death of the high priest and have their lives spared. Numbers 35 provides an exact accounting of the towns and their common-lands (2000 cubits on all sides of the city) so that the Levites could have an inheritance in Israel, lacking a land as a result of the curse put on them by Jacob. We find, furthermore, in Joshua 20:7-8 that Kadesh in Galilee, Shechem in Ephraim, Hebron in Judah, Bezer in Reuben, Ramoth Gilead, and Golan in Manasseh were chosen as the cities of refuge. The fact that many of these cities later played vital roles in Israel’s history suggests that the Levites had a very powerful role in keeping the peace and in preserving a sense of unity among Israel as a whole. We may also note that Shechem came full circle from a city of treacherous murder to a city of refuge. The Levites also came full circle from a tribe cursed with division and scattering to a tribe whose scattering became a blessing to all Israel and an example of zealous faith and obedience to God, and faithful service to Him.
1 Chronicles 6:61, 66-70: The Inheritance of the Sons of Korah
In Joshua 21:4-5 we find the first comment about the inheritance of the Sons of Korah, the Kohathites: “Now the lot came out for the families of the Kohathites. And the children of Aaron the priest, who were of the Levites, had thirteen cities by lot from the tribe of Judah, from the tribe of Simeon, and from the tribe of Benjamin. The rest of the children of Kahath had ten cities by lot from the families of the tribe of Ephraim, from the tribe of Dan, and from the half-tribe of Manasseh.” This would suggest that the sons of Korah would become citizens of the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh (the half-tribe west of the Jordan), and Dan.
In 1 Chronicles 6:61, 66-70 we find further details. First, 1 Chronicles 6:61: “To the rest of the family of the tribe of the Kohathites they gave by lot ten cities from half the tribe of Manasseh.” And then 1 Chronicles 6:66-70: “Now some of the families of the sons of Kohath were given cities as their territory from the tribe of Ephraim. And they gave them one of the cities of refuge, Shechem with its common-lands, in the mountains of Ephraim, also Gezer with its common-lands, Jokmeam with its common-lands, Beth-Horon with its common-lands, Aijalon with its common-lands, and Gath Rimmon with its common-lands. And from the half-tribe of Manasseh: Aner with its common-lands and Bileam with its common-lands, for the rest of the family of the sons of Kohath.”
We see from 1 Chronicles 6, therefore, that the sons of Korah, as the “rest of the family of the sons of Kohath,” were given cities in Ephraim and Manasseh. As citizens of those tribes, and as inhabitants of some of the most important cities and towns of those areas, they would politically be considered citizens of those two tribes. We might note that those members of the Sons of Korah who did not leave Israel for Judah after the division of Israel into two kingdoms and the establishment of the institutional golden calf worship by Jeroboam I (which set up non-Levites to serve in that debased state religion and set his capital in Shechem, see 1 Kings 12:25-33) would have been considered as Ephraimites and Manassites and would have lost their separate identity over time during the wanderings of those tribes after the Assyrian captivity.
In conclusion, let us note that the Sons of Korah themselves were given an inheritance among Ephraim and Manasseh, and though they were citizens of those realms, their ethnicity was Levite and they were of a separate tribe from their neighbors and fellow-citizens. The scattering of Levi was originally a curse, but it became a blessing through their zealous obedience to God. Therefore the sons of Korah were given the charge of teaching God’s law and modeling obedience for Ephraim and Manasseh, and may still be doing so through their faithful obedience, sound teaching, godly service, and musical abilities to this day wherever they may be found.