The Israelites are now wandering in the wilderness for 38 years because of their refusal to take possession of the Promised Land. The events of chapters 16 and 17 take place some time during this time period, but the author does not tell us exactly when.
Once again, the leadership of Moses and Aaron is questioned. In the first 3 verses of chapter 16, we learn that a man named Korah (who is a Levite), along with 3 other men – Dathan, Abiram, and On (all Reubenites) – have risen up against Moses and Aaron. They question why Aaron should be High Priest and why Moses should have his privileged leadership role as mediator for God.
Moses proposes a test to see who God has chosen to lead Israel. The next day, Korah and the 250 men who have stood with him, are to burn incense in front of the tabernacle. Since incense is only to be burnt at the tabernacle by God’s anointed priests (remember that two of Aaron’s sons were killed for offering unauthorized incense), then God would make clear who His chosen priests are.
In verses 8-11, Moses asks Korah why he is not content with the privileges he already has as a Levite. Gordon Wenham reminds us of the privileges Korah would have had:
The Levites camped next to the tabernacle separating it off from the other tribes. What is more they had the duty of doing service in the tabernacle, that is dismantling, carrying and erecting the tabernacle. Though Moses does not make the point here, the Kohathites, of whom Korah was one, had the task of carrying the most sacred objects such as the ark (4:1–20). They were next in rank to the priests. But they want the priesthood itself.
Moses then tries to speak to the Reubenites, but they refuse to come and instead send word that Moses has failed to bring Israel to the Promised Land, and that he is a deceitful leader who needs to be replaced.
In verse 16, we arrive at the testing of Korah, Aaron, and the 250 others who have aligned themselves with Korah. The implication is that Korah and the 250 men all believe that they are fit to be priests, in addition to Aaron and his two sons. They all stand in front of the tabernacle and light their incense censers. Immediately God appears and tells Moses and Aaron to move away so that He can “put an end” to the assembly of people rebelling against Moses and Aaron.
Moses and Aaron, being the humble servant-leaders they are, throw themselves on the ground and beg for God to have mercy on the assembly. God relents, but tells Moses to move the people away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.
With the elders of Israel watching the tents of the rebel leaders, Moses tells them that they will know God has truly chosen Moses to lead them if the “earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave.” In verses 31-34, this is exactly what happens. The ground opens up, swallows their entire families along with all their possessions, and then closes back up. Not to be exonerated, the 250 who thought they should be priests and lit incense in front of the tabernacle, are also killed by fire.
God tells Moses to have the 250 censers melted down and reshaped into a cover for the brazen altar in the tabernacle courtyard. This is to be a reminder that “no one except a descendant of Aaron should come to burn incense before the LORD, or he would become like Korah and his followers.”
Why does God take the lives of these men who rose up against Moses and Aaron? Because God Himself has chosen Moses and Aaron to lead Israel. God has demonstrated numerous times that he speaks only to Moses. Only Aaron and his sons were anointed as priests in a week-long ceremony where God planned every little detail. The priests are the only ones authorized to present atoning sacrifices to God for the people. God’s earthly home, the tabernacle, is administered by Aaron and his sons. To question the authority of Moses and Aaron was to question the choices God had made. This rebellion was a repudiation of God and His leadership of Israel.
Unfortunately, Israel is still not convinced. In verses 41-50, a second incident of rebellion is recorded. This time, a large number of Israelites complain that Moses and Aaron have just killed Korah and his followers. Again, God seeks to “put an end” to them, and again, Moses and Aaron intercede. Aaron carries an incense censer into the tents of Israel where a plague has broken out, and his offering to God stops the plague. Aaron’s rightful role as high priest is re-confirmed, as only his atonement for the people stops the deadly plague.
Finally, in chapter 17, in order to, once and for all, confirm that Aaron is God’s chosen high priest, God instructs Moses to gather one staff for each leader of each tribe of Israel. Each staff would have the name of the leader inscribed on it. The staffs are placed in front of the Ark of the Covenant and the next day the staff that sprouted leaves would signify God’s choice.
Verse 8 reads, “The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Testimony and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the house of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds.” At this point, Aaron’s leadership has been confirmed three times, and the Israelites finally realize that without Moses and Aaron, the people cannot be in the presence of God. They will literally die without the intercession of these men.