As Numbers 15 ends, the Lord told Moses to instruct the people of Israel to make and put tzitzit (tassels) containing a blue thread on the corners of their garments as a reminder to do all of the commandments of the Lord and be holy for God. These are to be worn throughout all the generations of God’s people. I do not know why Christians do not follow this practice but it is something that should be observed.
Numbers 16 continues by explaining that Korah led a rebellion against Moses which included Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben (firstborn of Jacob and Leah).
Korah was the son of Kohath who was the son of Levi. The duties of the sons of Kohath are found in Exodus 4:1-15. Basically, they were supposed to carry the furnishings of the tabernacle whenever the camp moved. They could only do this after the sons of Aaron had covered everything and prepared the holy furnishings for transport. The sons of Kohath were forewarned that if they touched a holy thing, they would die. You see, Korah and those who joined his rebellion were not content with their assignments. The problem was they wanted the priesthood too. This shows us they weren’t just gathered against Moses and Aaron but also against the Lord who had given them their original duties.
Korah’s rebellion also included 250 leaders of the congregation. They felt that Moses and Aaron were taking too much upon themselves. They considered every member of the congregation to be holy and believed the Lord was among them. They believed Moses and Aaron were exalting themselves above the assembly of the Lord.
The Bible does not tell us exactly why they thought this way but the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan provides more details of this account by saying, “But Korach bar Tizhar bar Kehath, bar Levi, with Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On bar Peleth, of the Beni‑Reuben, took his robe which was all of hyacinth, and rose up boldly, and in the face of Mosheh appointed a (different) observance in the matter of the hyacinth. [JERUSALEM. And Korach took counsel, and made division.] Mosheh had said, I have heard from the mouth of the Holy One, whose Name be Blessed, that the fringes are to be of white, with one filament of hyacinth; O but Korach and his companions made garments with their fringes altogether of hyacinth, which the Lord had not commanded; and two hundred and fifty men of the sons of Israel, who had been made leaders of the congregation at the time when the journeys and encampments were appointed, by expression of their names, supported him. And they gathered together against Mosheh and Aharon, and said to them: Let the authority you have (hitherto had) suffice you, for all the congregation are holy, and the Lord’s Shekinah dwelleth among them; and why should you be magnified over the church of the Lord? And Mosheh heard, as if every one of them was jealous of his wife, and would have them drink of the trial‑water on account of Mosheh; and he fell on his face for shame. And he spake with Korach and all the company who supported him, saying: In the morning the Lord will make known him whom He hath approved, and hath consecrated to approach unto His service, and who it hath pleased Him should come nigh in ministering, unto Him. Do this: Let Korach and all the company of his helpers take censers, put fire in them, and lay incense upon them before the Lord, to‑morrow; and the man whom the Lord shall make known, he it is who is consecrated. Let it suffice to you, sons of Levi.”[i]
Apparently, the problem was over the tzitzit (fringes, tassels) the Lord commanded the people of Israel to make. Korah wanted them to be completely blue (hyacinth) but Moses said they had to be white with a single strand of blue as the Lord had commanded. It is clear that Korah and those who sided with him were jealous of Moses’ leadership position and did not agree with Moses’ decisions or the commands of the Lord.
What is the significance of the colors of the tzitzit? Surely hyacinth or blue represents the law which is the covenant and Jesus who is the Living Word. There is only one Lord so there should only be one blue strand. The white strands must represent the righteous ones who are joined in covenant with the Lord. To insist on all strands being hyacinth is in opposition to the Lord and the significance of the tassel.
When Moses heard their complaints, Moses fell on his face and spoke to his opponents. Moses said the Lord will show who is His and who is holy, and will cause him to come near to Him. In Numbers 16:6-7, Moses said, “Do this: Take censers, Korah and all your company; 7 put fire in them and put incense in them before the Lord tomorrow, and it shall be that the man whom the Lord chooses is the holy one. You take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi!” NKJV
Moses knew this would be a death sentence for all of these men because offering unauthorized fire is what caused the death of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-2). Only Aaron and his descendants had been chosen to do this. The result of this act would prove who God had chosen to come near Him just as the water in the trial of the jealous husband proves the innocence or guilt of the husband’s wife.
It seems Dathan and Abiram were afraid of Moses’ command because they said they wouldn’t come up. They accused Moses of taking them out of a land of milk and honey (description of Promised Land applied to Egypt) to kill them in the wilderness and act as a prince over them. Obviously, they didn’t see their position any better than it was in Egypt because Moses hadn’t brought them into a land of milk and honey or given them an inheritance of fields and vineyards. They failed to see this wasn’t Moses’ fault. Even though they said they wouldn’t come up, Moses insisted they be there the next day.
The following day, the men came and stood at the entrance of the tent of meeting. The rest of the congregation also assembled there to see what would happen. The glory of the Lord appeared and was ready to destroy all of them but He didn’t destroy the entire assembly due to Moses’ intercession. After Moses commanded the assembly to separate from the wicked men, the Lord caused the ground to open up so that Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and their families were swallowed by the earth. In addition, a fire consumed the 250 men who were offering unauthorized incense. This is exactly what happened to Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-2). Since the censers were used to offer incense, they were holy. Because of this, Moses commanded them to be collected and be hammered into a covering for the altar as a reminder that only the descendants of Aaron could offer incense before the Lord.
The next day, the people accused Moses and Aaron of being the ones who killed the people of the Lord. This was ridiculous because man can’t cause the ground to open or fire to fall from heaven. Only God can do these kinds of things. The people did not understand that those who died the day before had rejected the Lord. They were so angry they intended to kill Moses and Aaron.[ii] The Bible says the glory of the Lord appeared to destroy the congregation and they fell on their faces. The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan clarifies it was Moses and Aaron who fell on their faces to pray for the people and not the congregation who fell on their faces out of fear.
This assembly quickly forgot that Moses had interceded for them the day before so they would not die but live! This time the Lord rapidly unleashed a plague on the people. Moses responded by instructing Aaron to quickly make atonement for the assembly by taking fire from the altar, putting it in his censer together with some incense, and taking it to the people. As the smoke of the incense rose, it created a barrier between the people and the plague in manner similar to how a cloud of incense protected the High Priest from death when he entered the Most Holy Place and stood before the mercy seat in the presence of God.
This incense can be compared to a physical representation of the intercession of Moses and Aaron. It also represents the seal placed on the foreheads of the 144,000 in Revelation 7 to protect them from the coming plagues. Unfortunately 14,700 other people had already died in the plague in the wilderness before Aaron had prepared the incense to cover and protect the people from the plague.
To put a stop to the power struggle for Moses’ leadership and the High Priesthood, the Lord commanded the leaders of each tribe to get a rod, write their name on it, and give it to Moses. These were placed in the tabernacle of meeting before the Lord as He had commanded so that the Lord could cause the rod of His chosen one to blossom. The rods were examined the following day and shown to the children of Israel. Aaron’s rod had not only blossomed but also had ripe almonds on it. It was kept as a sign against the rebels so they would stop complaining or else they would die. The people believed everyone would die.
Aaron’s rod represents Jesus who was dead in a grave for 3 days yet was raised to life. If we who are dead in our trespasses and sin choose to follow Jesus’ leadership and obey God’s commandments, we can bear fruit of the Spirit and have eternal life.
Living in the wilderness of life can be challenging at times. We often want to rebel against those who are in position over us. As long as our leaders are walking in obedience to the Lord, we should submit to their leadership. All of us must obey the Lord, avoid lawlessness, and produce fruit that demonstrates faith in the Lord.
[i] Targum Pseudo-Jonathan http://targum.info/pj/pjnum16-18.htm