1The LORD said to Moses: 2Tell Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, to remove the censers from the embers; and scatter the fire some distance away, for they have become holy— 3* the censers of those who sinned at the cost of their lives. Have them hammered into plates to cover the altar, because in being presented before the LORD they have become holy. In this way they shall serve as a sign to the Israelites. 4So taking the bronze censers which had been presented by those who were burned, Eleazar the priest had them hammered into a covering for the altar, 5just as the LORD had directed him through Moses. This was to be a reminder to the Israelites that no unauthorized person, no one who was not a descendant of Aaron, should draw near to offer incense before the LORD, lest he meet the fate of Korah and his faction.
6The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the LORD.” 7But while the community was assembling against them, Moses and Aaron turned toward the tent of meeting, and the cloud now covered it and the glory of the LORD appeared. 8Then Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, 9and the LORD said to Moses: 10Remove yourselves from this community, that I may consume them at once. But they fell prostrate.
11Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer, put fire from the altar in it, lay incense on it, and bring it quickly to the community to make atonement for them; for wrath has come forth from the LORD and the plague has begun.”a 12Aaron took his censer just as Moses directed and ran in among the assembly, where the plague had already begun among the people. Then he offered the incense and made atonement for the people, 13while standing there between the living and the dead. And so the scourge was checked. 14There were fourteen thousand seven hundred dead from the scourge, in addition to those who died because of Korah. 15When the scourge had been checked, Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance of the tent of meeting.
Aaron’s Staff. 16The LORD now said to Moses: 17Speak to the Israelites and get from them a staff* for each ancestral house, twelve staffs in all, from all the leaders of their ancestral houses. Write each man’s name on his staff; 18and write Aaron’s name on Levi’s staff.* For each head of an ancestral house shall have a staff. 19Then deposit them in the tent of meeting, in front of the covenant, where I meet you. 20The staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout. Thus I will rid myself of the Israelites’ grumbling against you.
21So Moses spoke to the Israelites, and all their leaders gave him staffs, twelve in all, one from each leader of their ancestral houses; and Aaron’s staff was among them. 22Then Moses deposited the staffs before the LORD in the tent of the covenant. 23The next day, when Moses entered the tent of the covenant, Aaron’s staff, representing the house of Levi, had sprouted. It had put forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne ripe almonds! 24So Moses brought out all the staffs from the LORD’s presence to all the Israelites, and each one identified his own staff and took it. 25Then the LORD said to Moses: Put back Aaron’s staff in front of the covenant, for safe keeping as a sign to the rebellious, so that their grumbling against me may cease and they might not die. 26Moses did this. Just as the LORD had commanded him, so he did.
Charge of the Sacred Things. 27* Then the Israelites exclaimed to Moses, “We will perish; we are lost, we are all lost! 28Anyone who approaches the tabernacle of the LORD will die! Will there be no end to our perishing?”
* [17:3] Whatever was brought into intimate contact with something holy shared in its holiness. See note on 19:20.
* [17:17] The staff was not merely an article of practical use, but also a symbol of authority; cf. Gn 49:10; Nm 24:17; Jer 48:17. Therefore, the staff of a leader of a tribe was considered the emblem of the tribe; in fact, certain Hebrew words such as matteh, the word for “staff” here, also mean “tribe.” Perhaps for this reason, to avoid confusion, the author here uses the term bet’ab, “ancestral house,” for “tribe” instead of one of the ordinary words for “tribe.”
* [17:18] Levi’s staff: it is not clear whether this is considered as one of the twelve mentioned in the preceding verse, or as a thirteenth staff. Sometimes Levi is reckoned as one of the twelve tribes (e.g., Dt 27:12–13), but more often the number twelve is arrived at by counting the two sub-tribes of Joseph, i.e., Ephraim and Manasseh, as distinct tribes. In this passage also it seems probable that the tribe of Levi is considered apart from the other twelve tribes.
* [17:27–28] The people’s distress here echoes their panic in 16:34, and may be heightened further by the death of the two hundred and fifty leaders offering incense in 16:35.