Korah and the Incense Burners

Korah and the Incense Burners

This is an in depth look at Korah and the time he gathered a number of Levites to challenge Moses. Why did Korah feel he could challenge Moses? What we the consequences? What do the symbols point to? What does that event teach us about modern Christianity?

Numbers 16:1-7 NLTse One day Korah son of Izhar, a descendant of Kohath son of Levi, conspired with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth, from the tribe of Reuben. (2) They incited a rebellion against Moses, along with 250 other leaders of the community, all prominent members of the assembly. (3) They united against Moses and Aaron and said, “You have gone too far! The whole community of Israel has been set apart by the LORD, and he is with all of us. What right do you have to act as though you are greater than the rest of the LORD’s people?” (4) When Moses heard what they were saying, he fell face down on the ground. (5) Then he said to Korah and his followers, “Tomorrow morning the LORD will show us who belongs to him and who is holy. The LORD will allow only those whom he selects to enter his own presence. (6) Korah, you and all your followers must prepare your incense burners. (7) Light fires in them tomorrow, and burn incense before the LORD. Then we will see whom the LORD chooses as his holy one. You Levites are the ones who have gone too far!”

This is another story that’s usually skipped over, or people take it out of scripture, and try to make it stand on its own. Based on previous chapters, we already know, this story has a direct bearing on previous stories. We may not see it now, but with the right amount of time and prayer, details will begin to reveal themselves.

The Tabernacle, Temple, and Sanctuary: The Book of Numbers
The Tabernacle, Temple, and Sanctuary: The Book of Numbers. You can download the eBook here.

Here Korah confronts, attacks, and challenges Moses’ authority. Korah is a Levite. We see how Korah decided to join forces with people from the tribe of Reuben. We could look back to see what Reuben represents. I know a lot of people who would look at that connection and immediately look back at sections like Jacob’s, or Israel’s prophecy concerning his sons, blessings he placed upon them, and warnings Jacob gave them before he died in Egypt. There are other stories and other ways you can study this. You can use the rule of first mention. Look back at the first stories Levi and Reuben are mentioned in. Look at their birth order and who their mother was.

Those are lessons for another book or study. Here we want to look at the connection to the Tabernacle and not be drawn too far off the subject. I was going to skip this story until I saw a connection with the Tabernacle about 2/3rds through this chapter.

Korah was one of Moses’ relatives. He may have been an uncle or a cousin. With 250 members opposing Moses, he was facing off against some close relatives. That fact tells us, Moses had no choice but to leave matters in God’s hands. Moses didn’t want to fight against his relatives or their friends.

We also see a movement from the enemy which began with the Egyptians who left with Israel, traveled with them for two years, then convinced Israel there was a better life. Israel never tasted the better life the Egyptians talked about. Israel never tasted anything better than the manna God gave them. Israel had their freedom for the first time in generations. But that didn’t hamper the enemies plans. It only altered them a little bit.

Isn’t it true, when a person is born again and becomes a new believer, that’s when the enemy steps up his attacks? Satan takes evil angels and demons off some people and rallies his forces around every new believer in an attempt to win them back as quickly as possible. Moses gave us an excellent illustration of that battle.


Korah looked at those two prophets walking around the camp telling people how to return to God. They told people about the mistakes they made by turning God down and the life God intended for them. While Egyptians started from the outside working their way in with their message of the better life the world had to offer, God’s prophets told people about a life they never imagined. They told them about the kingdom or society God planned for them, where everyone communicated directly with God, and all His people were priests and prophets. Those elders shared what God showed them.

The two prophets explained what that food brought back from the promised land showed. That food showed them the life God had planned for them. They explained to the people why God’s first personal meeting with them was at the mountain he chose, and why He began their education with the Ten Commandments. Then they reminded the people about the oath they swore to God and promises they made to God. Those prophets told the people how they quickly gave up on God’s law, but God never expected them to keep the full extent of the law. That was what the sacrificial system was supposed to teach them. Sin carries a penalty, but that penalty was transferred to the sacrifice.

Those two prophets told people how much more was in the promise land, and how God planned to move the present inhabitants out. They told Israel how those people turned their backs on God, made their own religions, appointed their own priests, and built their own idols and alters. Israel should have seen the connection between the people they would replace and the sins they committed by moving away from God. But the enemy had other plans to counter those thoughts. The enemy had other people waiting in the wings ready to move Moses out of place and seize power for themselves. The enemy knew how easy it was to get people to do what he wanted them to do. All Satan needed to do was promise them power and glory.

Israel should have seen how the food brought back from the promised land exceeded all their expectations. That food from the promised was much better than the food those Egyptians described. There should have been no doubts of misunderstanding. God was not only capable of giving them a better life than ever imagined, He was ready to fulfill His promises.

Korah should have learned from the reports he heard. But be concentrated on his pride and jealousy. Since the day Korah watched those seventy elders climb that mountain with Moses, something raged within him. He wanted to be a part of that group. He thought he deserved to be a part of that group. But he was left behind.

When Korah heard those two prophets describe the promised land, it reminded him about the stories the seventy elders told about that banquet they attended on God’s mountain. It reminded Korah about how he felt left out and neglected. Those stories sparked a rage inside Korah that burned into a raging fire.

Korah had been talking to the other leaders in Israel since the day he watched Moses, Aaron, his sons, and those seventy elders climb God’s mountain. Korah paid attention to what the other leaders said and what the people thought. Korah figured out how he could use that to his advantage.

Korah agreed with the people when they made negative comments about Moses and Aaron. Especially how Moses appointed Aaron high priest because he was his brother. And how Moses made his sister Miriam a prophetess. Korah told those people how Moses was protecting himself by keeping the leadership in the family. It wasn’t difficult to get people to agree. Korah learned how to tell people what they wanted to hear.

Korah’s plan was to take charge himself. It seemed like the perfect opportunity. Korah had the other leaders dress in their best clothes. Clothing they took from Egyptian houses. Then to make it look official, Korah had all the leaders carry incense burners.

Korah should have known it was against the law to use the incense recipe for personal purposes. Using the usual techniques of the incense maker, blend the spices together and sprinkle them with salt to produce a pure and holy incense. Grind some of the mixture into a very fine powder and put it in front of the Ark of the Covenant, where I will meet with you in the Tabernacle. You must treat this incense as most holy. Never use this formula to make this incense for yourselves. It is reserved for the LORD, and you must treat it as holy. Anyone who makes incense like this for personal use will be cut off from the community.” (Exodus 30:35-38 NLTse). But Korah convinced himself, he was a leader in God’s eyes. Korah looked back and remembered God’s offer to be a nation of priests, and used that to his advantage. It wasn’t hard to convince people that offer was still valid. The deception worked two ways when people agreed with Korah, convincing them, his actions were right and holy. Korah and his followers also convinced themselves, Moses misunderstood God’s intentions, and they needed to correct the situation before it was too late.

Korah had incense burners made for all the leaders who followed him. Korah designed his so they were taller and grander then the simple pans used by the priests. Incense burners like Korah’s design were not part of the pattern for the Tabernacle. Aaron’s sons misused the incense burners, or fire pans designed for the alter, and God destroyed them. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu put coals of fire in their incense burners and sprinkled incense over them. In this way, they disobeyed the LORD by burning before him the wrong kind of fire, different than he had commanded. So fire blazed forth from the LORD’s presence and burned them up, and they died there before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD meant when he said, ‘I will display my holiness through those who come near me. I will display my glory before all the people.'” And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3 NLTse). Korah and his followers should have learned a lesson from that event, but their pride blinded them.

God knew how to use that mistake to his advantage. It was time to repeat another lesson. “Tomorrow morning the LORD will show us who belongs to him and who is holy. The LORD will allow only those whom he selects to enter his own presence. Korah, you and all your followers must prepare your incense burners. Light fires in them tomorrow, and burn incense before the LORD. Then we will see whom the LORD chooses as his holy one. You Levites are the ones who have gone too far!”

Do You Want the Priesthood Too?

Numbers 16:8-11 NLTse Then Moses spoke again to Korah: “Now listen, you Levites! (9) Does it seem insignificant to you that the God of Israel has chosen you from among all the community of Israel to be near him so you can serve in the LORD’s Tabernacle and stand before the people to minister to them? (10) Korah, he has already given this special ministry to you and your fellow Levites. Are you now demanding the priesthood as well? (11) The LORD is the one you and your followers are really revolting against! For who is Aaron that you are complaining about him?”

Moses directly addressed Korah and the Levites with him. Moses knew who the leaders behind the plot were. Moses didn’t try convincing the other people they were misled. Moses pointed out the responsibilities those people were given. Isn’t it better to serve God the way chosen for you to serve, before you decide how you want to serve? Don’t people have to first learn how to carry out orders before they start giving God suggestions on how they think they should serve?

Look what’s happening here. Korah is making the same mistake Aaron made when they were waiting for Moses to come down from that mountain. Korah was one of the leaders who convinced Aaron to take the role of high priest. Korah was among the leaders who created a whole new religion. Korah suggested services and features that golden calf should have. Korah saw how those ideas didn’t work. But did he learn anything from that experience? Evidently not. Korah made a few little changes, ran the ideas past a few people he knew would agree with him, and when the time looked right, made his move to seize power.

It’s true, God was working hard to draw Korah and the other people closer to Himself. But people wanted to establish that relationship on their own terms, in their own way, and following their own steps, process, and timing. They wanted fame, glory, notoriety, and leadership roles before they began the process of sanctification, the process of being right with God.

Let’s look at this story from the facts we’ve collected. Korah wanted to be in charge. He convinced people to make him their leader. Korah promised those people leadership roles if they supported him. Let’s look at this from God’s view. Korah wanted to tell people what to think, now to worship, and how to act. If God placed Korah in the leadership role he wanted, what was going to stop Korah from using the same qualities, methods, and skills he used to gain that position, and try to convince God, he had better ideas and better ways of running everything? Nothing was going to stop Korah from abusing whatever power he had. Korah would misuse power the same way Israel made gluttons out of themselves when God gave them the meat they asked for. Korah was no more prepared to lead then Israel was prepared to enter the promised land. See how all those stories fit together? God was not teaching lessons that are difficult to understand and follow. We understand what lengths God went to teach those people once we look back to see how all those stories are related.

Moses Tried to Talk to the Leader of Reuben

Numbers 16:12-14 NLTse Then Moses summoned Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, but they replied, “We refuse to come before you! (13) Isn’t it enough that you brought us out of Egypt, a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us here in this wilderness, and that you now treat us like your subjects? (14) What’s more, you haven’t brought us into another land flowing with milk and honey. You haven’t given us a new homeland with fields and vineyards. Are you trying to fool these men? We will not come.”

When Moses called the next group of leaders, they refused to come. They had their minds made up. They were convinced Moses was trying to kill them. They forgot God decided how they should pay for their doubts. Moses didn’t decide how they should be punished, God did. We have to remember, Moses is dealing with the group of people God said would wander in that wilderness until they died. Those people would never see the promised land. That began a series of events. Some of them led to open rebellion. Other events were plots and schemes behind the scenes.

You can see a half truth in their statement to Moses, as well as a distinct link to Korah. It is true, those individuals were not in the promised land. But people they appointed went to the promised land for forty days. It seems they appointed the wrong people. At least they decided to believe the wrong group of people. That was an example of majority rule. Something they were hoping to use to their advantage to out vote Moses and God.

The Challenge is Given

Numbers 16:15-17 NLTse Then Moses became very angry and said to the LORD, “Do not accept their grain offerings! I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, and I have never hurt a single one of them.” (16) And Moses said to Korah, “You and all your followers must come here tomorrow and present yourselves before the LORD. Aaron will also be here. (17) You and each of your 250 followers must prepare an incense burner and put incense on it, so you can all present them before the LORD. Aaron will also bring his incense burner.”

We’ve seen Moses get frustrated in previous chapters. What did Moses do when He got frustrated? He took it to God. When Moses heard what they were saying, he fell face down on the ground. Then he said to Korah and his followers, “Tomorrow morning the LORD will show us who belongs to him and who is holy. The LORD will allow only those whom he selects to enter his own presence. We saw that in the introduction to this chapter. Moses had a moment with God where he received instructions on how to handle the situation. Moses was used to the process. That was one of the most important lessons for God’s priests to learn. We can tell how important it is by how often it was repeated. If only we could learn that lesson today.

Moses repeated himself here. There was nothing more he could do. Moses tried talking to Korah. That didn’t work. Moses tried talking to the leaders from Reuben’s tribe. They refused to listen. The next step was to follow God’s plan. It was the only alternative left.

Moses Prepares for the Inevitable

Numbers 16:18-27 NLTse So each of these men prepared an incense burner, lit the fire, and placed incense on it. Then they all stood at the entrance of the Tabernacle with Moses and Aaron. (19) Meanwhile, Korah had stirred up the entire community against Moses and Aaron, and they all gathered at the Tabernacle entrance. Then the glorious presence of the LORD appeared to the whole community, (20) and the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, (21) “Get away from all these people so that I may instantly destroy them!” (22) But Moses and Aaron fell face down on the ground. “O God,” they pleaded, “you are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Must you be angry with all the people when only one man sins?” (23) And the LORD said to Moses, (24) “Then tell all the people to get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.” (25) So Moses got up and rushed over to the tents of Dathan and Abiram, followed by the elders of Israel. (26) “Quick!” he told the people. “Get away from the tents of these wicked men, and don’t touch anything that belongs to them. If you do, you will be destroyed for their sins.” (27) So all the people stood back from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Then Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the entrances of their tents, together with their wives and children and little ones.

Little did those people realize they were breaking God’s law by using incense for personal gain. They chose to make incense burners and burn incense as a sign of their leadership. A leadership God never gave them. There is a ton of spiritual lessons we could apply that decision to today. People take little bits and pieces of symbols and other parts of God’s Word and apply it to some man made idea that was never part of God’s plan of salvation. They use those things to set themselves apart as leaders. Many of those details today involve spiritual gifts. Especially gifts of prophecy, teaching, and leadership. Today people claim those gifts are only available to people with years of education from man made institutions following made made study courses. Here we’ve been following God’s method and order of teaching. Can you see the difference? Can you see how God’s methods are designed to reach everyone, including the foreign rabble traveling with them? And best of all. God’s education doesn’t drive people into debt. As a matter of fact, He provided meals in His classroom.

Korah used the time to drum up additional support. He showed his true colors and intent. That’s when God said, “enough is enough,” and showed His glorious presence to the entire community. God could have appeared to only Moses, or the people who supported him. If there were any left. That is besides the seventy elders and a few people who listened to them. God showed Himself to everyone.

Then God showed His concern for the few people who followed Him. “Get away from all these people so that I may instantly destroy them!” God spoke to everyone again. But since those people didn’t want God to talk to them, Moses had to repeat the message.

Notice how Moses wasn’t the only person to hear God’s message. The people didn’t want to hear God. But that didn’t stop Aaron and the elders from hearing God. Just because the majority doesn’t want to listen to God, doesn’t mean God stopped talking to the few who wanted to listen.

We see a lot of that these days. Most of the world insists, God doesn’t talk to us anymore. They convinced the majority of people that’s true. But it never has been true. When Jesus was born a few people listened. Only a few. But those who listened, believed, and saw a part of prophecy the rest of the world missed.

Not only God showed His concern, but Moses, Aaron, and those seventy prophets with them showed how concerned they were for the people. This is a contrast to the way Korah and his people wanted to lead. They lusted after power to such a degree, they were willing to put their families and friends at risk. We see a lot of that attitude today when we see preachers leading people to themselves and not to God. How much clearer could God have made that simple lesson?

All of the people who followed God ran through the camp with the same message. “Quick!” he told the people. “Get away from the tents of these wicked men, and don’t touch anything that belongs to them. If you do, you will be destroyed for their sins.” It was a simple message. But keep in mind, they had to tell well over a million people. If we did the math, each of those 72 people were responsible for telling over 13,000 people. A rough estimate. To get the job done in time, there had to be more people helping to spread the warning.

Even after the warning, Korah’s followers boldly stood their ground. God gave them a moment to look over the situation and think about it. They could see they were no longer among the majority. Most of the people recognized the message as God’s message and the truth.

The Earth Opened Up

Numbers 16:28-34 NLTse And Moses said, “This is how you will know that the LORD has sent me to do all these things that I have done–for I have not done them on my own. (29) If these men die a natural death, or if nothing unusual happens, then the LORD has not sent me. (30) But if the LORD does something entirely new and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them and all their belongings, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have shown contempt for the LORD.” (31) He had hardly finished speaking the words when the ground suddenly split open beneath them. (32) The earth opened its mouth and swallowed the men, along with their households and all their followers who were standing with them, and everything they owned. (33) So they went down alive into the grave, along with all their belongings. The earth closed over them, and they all vanished from among the people of Israel. (34) All the people around them fled when they heard their screams. “The earth will swallow us, too!” they cried.

Notice the sequence. After the simple warning of stay away from them was given, Moses filled in the details. That’s another important quality of a prophet. It doesn’t make sense to fill in details when people are stuck on their own beliefs and won’t listen anyway. For Korah’s friends, there wasn’t much of a chance to repent. As soon as Moses filled in the details, it happened.

Moses also pointed out, it was something he couldn’t do. God did everything. The warning was from God and the punishment was from God. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed the men, along with their households and all their followers who were standing with them, and everything they owned. So they went down alive into the grave, along with all their belongings. The earth closed over them, and they all vanished from among the people of Israel. No human force could have caused that event. To make certain people couldn’t attribute it to a natural event, God went a step further by closing up the hole after they sunk in.

The Incense Burners Didn’t Go Down

Numbers 16:35-40 NLTse Then fire blazed forth from the LORD and burned up the 250 men who were offering incense. (36) And the LORD said to Moses, (37) “Tell Eleazar son of Aaron the priest to pull all the incense burners from the fire, for they are holy. Also tell him to scatter the burning coals. (38) Take the incense burners of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and hammer the metal into a thin sheet to overlay the altar. Since these burners were used in the LORD’s presence, they have become holy. Let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel.” (39) So Eleazar the priest collected the 250 bronze incense burners that had been used by the men who died in the fire, and he hammered them into a thin sheet to overlay the altar. (40) This would warn the Israelites that no unauthorized person–no one who was not a descendant of Aaron–should ever enter the LORD’s presence to burn incense. If anyone did, the same thing would happen to him as happened to Korah and his followers. So the LORD’s instructions to Moses were carried out.

This is amazing. All of the people, their families, and everything they owned fall into the earth when it opened up. Everything but those 250 incense burners. God had plans for them. He burnt them with fire. When we check the original Hebrew word, it means God purified those incense burners. After they were purified, God called them holy.

Many people think, because God called them holy, those incense burners were originally part of the Tabernacle and its services. But that’s not true. You can go back and check yourself. God designed firepans and utensils to clean out coals and ashes from under the alter. They were completely different than incense burners Korah designed to show their status as leaders.

God had Korah’s incense burners collected and hammered out to sheets used to cover the alter. That extra covering served as a reminder of the event and how God dwelt with Korah’s uprising. Did people notice the extra layer? Did you see the connection fire had with cleansing those burners and see why they covered the alter of burnt offerings? Those burners would see the fires made for sacrifices as long as that alter was in service.

Aaron Stopped the Plague

Numbers 16:41-50 NLTse But the very next morning the whole community of Israel began muttering again against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have killed the LORD’s people!” (42) As the community gathered to protest against Moses and Aaron, they turned toward the Tabernacle and saw that the cloud had covered it, and the glorious presence of the LORD appeared. (43) Moses and Aaron came and stood in front of the Tabernacle, (44) and the LORD said to Moses, (45) “Get away from all these people so that I can instantly destroy them!” But Moses and Aaron fell face down on the ground. (46) And Moses said to Aaron, “Quick, take an incense burner and place burning coals on it from the altar. Lay incense on it, and carry it out among the people to purify them and make them right with the LORD. The LORD’s anger is blazing against them–the plague has already begun.” (47) Aaron did as Moses told him and ran out among the people. The plague had already begun to strike down the people, but Aaron burned the incense and purified the people. (48) He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague stopped. (49) But 14,700 people died in that plague, in addition to those who had died in the affair involving Korah. (50) Then because the plague had stopped, Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance of the Tabernacle.

Can you imagine the scene? God opened up the earth to swallow up the people who opposed Moses. The earth also swallowed up their families as well as everything they owned. But their censors were still there. To make sure it wasn’t a mistake, God gathered those censors together and purified them with fire. Then He had people gather those censors to use their brass to add a new covering to the alter. There couldn’t have been any doubt, everything was from God.

But the next day, a whole crowd pf people decided it was Moses who did all of that and God had nothing to do with it. Were those people nuts? Did they really think Moses had that kind of power? And if he did, why didn’t they want to follow him?

It seems since those people heard they weren’t going to make it into the promised land, they were determined to either change that, or make life miserable for Moses. God reached His limit. God told Moses to stand back. God was ready to wipe out the whole community and start over.

People walked up to the Tabernacle to confront Moses one more time. God knew it was coming and moved into position to protect Moses and Aaron. God covered the entire Tabernacle in a cloud. People couldn’t see the Tabernacle at all. It was hidden. Moses and Aaron walked out of the cloud to find out what was going on. Moses saw the crowd of angry people and heard God’s voice. “Get away from all these people so that I can instantly destroy them!”

That wasn’t the answer Moses wanted to hear. Once again, Moses went directly to God to plead for the people. That was becoming a regular event with Moses. Why couldn’t those people see that quality in Moses? If he really wanted to be in charge, God gave Moses plenty of opportunities.

This time Moses told Aaron to jump into action. “Quick, take an incense burner and place burning coals on it from the altar. Lay incense on it, and carry it out among the people to purify them and make them right with the LORD. The LORD’s anger is blazing against them–the plague has already begun.”

The incense burner Aaron used was far different than what Korah and his people used. Check the transaction. Aaron grabbed one of the firepans used to clean coals from the bottom of the alter. This time Aaron added incense to the coals on the pan, then ran out into the community. It must have been a long trip for Aaron to travel among the community in all four directions. It worked. People stopped dying after they saw how the high priest God chose could save them.

Something happened with those coals and incense when they burned long enough to travel the entire day to cover all the land Israel and the people on the outskirts were camped. The entire day was filled with a series of events that should have left an impression on those people. Obviously it didn’t. What about today?

At the end of October 2015, a quick check of the Internet will show what people are interested in. There are two major events much of the world is following. The first is reports of some meteor just discovered that week that is the largest object ever found to come as close to the earth as this one is supposed to come. I’m not sure those reports are true. People reporting that event are not known to be reliable sources. But their online videos have tens of thousands of views.

The other event concerns reports of scientists discovering a parallel universe. Scientists are supposed to fire up some atom smashed in Switzerland to a higher level ever attempted. That is supposed to open a door to some parallel universe. Some people are calling that universe Hades. Of course they claim that event will free imprisoned evil angels, demons, and Satan, giving them a free path to this world. I’d hate to tell them, but their prophetic timing is off. Satan is alive and active in this world today. Science has nothing to do with it.

Both those events show where people look for answers, to science. Did God ever need science to help Him with the messages and lessons He is teaching? Like those people in the wilderness, people today are willing to follow anyone with any simple answer. Even when that answer comes from some Hollywood movie.

On the news, the worse hurricane in the world just hit Mexico. This follows the worse hurricane that ever hit the east coast in history. And those followed the most powerful hurricane in history that hit the Philippines a year ago. Is God sending messages? Or is some control being given to the enemy to do what he wants to do, like in the book of Job?

At this place we can’t be certain. The only choice we have is to go to God’s throne to ask for answers. We do know God included the fulfillment for every prophecy in His book. Speaking of parallels, I know God uses parallel chapters so we know the proper fulfillment for every prophecy in the Bible. So there shouldn’t be any guesswork. I posted information and step by step instructions about parallel chapters in the Bible. I have a series of books with over 160 examples of parallel chapters. But compared to the number of views on my website to those on the stories about that comet and parallel universe, there is no comparison. People would rather go after the Hollywood version of the Bible then learn how God recorded His book and why.