Question: "Who were the sons of Korah in the Old Testament?"
Answer: The story of the sons of Korah in the Old Testament is truly a tale of two fathers and two destinies. The story begins with the Israelites of Moses’ time as they journeyed through the wilderness just after leaving Egypt. In Numbers 3, God set aside the Levites, out of the tribes of Israel, for full time service to Him. They were ordained to take care of the tabernacle and all of its implements, as well as the Ark of the Covenant. Only the descendants of Aaron, however, were allowed to serve as priests.
The three sons of Levi were Gershon, Merari, and Kohath. The Gershonites were responsible for the care of the tabernacle and tent, its coverings, the curtain at the entrance to the tent of meeting, the curtains of the courtyard, the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard surrounding the tabernacle and altar, and the ropes—and everything related to their use. The Merarites were appointed to take care of the frames of the tabernacle, its crossbars, posts, bases, all its equipment, and everything related to their use, as well as the posts of the surrounding courtyard with their bases, tent pegs, and ropes. The Kohathites were responsible for the care of the sanctuary. They were responsible for the care of the ark, the table, the lamp stand, the altars, the articles of the sanctuary used in ministering, the curtain, and everything related to their use. They were under the direct supervision of Eleazar, son of Aaron.
Unlike the Gershonites and the Merarites, who were allowed to transport the items under their care on carts, the Kohathites had to carry their items, the holy things of the tabernacle, on their shoulders. They had the arduous burden of transporting these items from place to place as the camp moved, but they were not allowed to actually touch the items or they would die. The priests had to wrap the sacred objects in special coverings before they were transported (Numbers 4:15). Many of the Kohathites began to disdain this task and to covet the role of the priests.
Korah was the grandson of Kohath, and he began to run with another group of Reubenite malcontents, namely, Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On, son of Peleth. In pride, they roused a group of 250 men together to challenge the right of Moses and Aaron to the priesthood (Numbers 16). Moses summoned the rebellious men to stand before God and burn incense. God warned Moses to let the assembly know to get away from Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, their households, and the other rebels. Then a remarkable and terrifying event happened.
“Moses said, ‘This is how you will know that the LORD has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea: If these men die a natural death and suffer the fate of all mankind, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the realm of the dead, then you will know that these men have treated the LORD with contempt.’ As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions. They went down alive into the realm of the dead, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community. At their cries, all the Israelites around them fled, shouting, ‘The earth is going to swallow us too!’ And fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense” (Numbers 16:28–35).
Although this clearly marked the end of Korah, we discover that Korah’s sons, perhaps too young to understand their father’s uprising or maybe too cognizant of God’s authority to join in the revolt, were spared (Numbers 26:9–11). God judged those who turned against Him in active rebellion and purified His people, but He still had a purpose and plan for even the line of Korah. After seven successive generations, the prophet Samuel arose from the line of Korah, the genealogy of which is recorded in 1 Chronicles 6:31–38 and 1 Samuel 1:1, 20. The Korahites became doorkeepers and custodians for the tabernacle (1 Chronicles 9:19–21; 1 Chronicles 2.) One group of Korahites (1 Chronicles 12:6) joined King David in various military exploits and won the reputation of being expert warriors. However, the most remarkable thing to note about the sons of Korah is that during the time of King David, they became the great leaders in choral and orchestral music in the tabernacle. Heman the Korahite had a place of great importance as a singer, along with Asaph (a Gershonite) and Ethan or Jeduthan (a Merarite). These individuals played an important role in the thanksgiving services and pageantry when the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem. David formed an elaborate organization for song, instrumental music, and prophesying through these men.
Of all of the psalms in the Bible, eleven are attributed to the sons of Korah. These beautiful psalms express a spirit of great gratitude and humility to an awesome, mighty God. They express a longing for God and deep devotion. These poetic songs include Psalms 42, 44—49, 84—85, and 87—88. Psalm 42:1 contains the beautiful line, “As the deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” Psalm 84:1 states, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O God.” Psalm 46:1–3 conveys the powerful message, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”
One wonders if the poet who penned these lyrics was remembering his ignoble beginnings, his distant ancestor who perished in an earthquake for his pride and rebellion. Perhaps it was that reflection that prompted the following words of the same psalm: “He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth’” (Psalm 46:10). For each of us, our own songs of renewed purpose and redemption should flow out of a heart of humility as we remember the fallen state from which He raised us and the redemption that we experience through His grace. This was certainly the case for the sons of Korah.