Elder and Sister Renlund's new book, The Melchizedek Priesthood, set me on an interesting research project. They note the story of Korah's rebellion, and that JST Num. 16:10 inserts the word "high" in addition to "priesthood." I have researched whether the notion that Korah, a Levite, sought the Melchizedek Priesthood is supported by the text. As set forth below, I believe that this is the only way to interpret this verse.
I have included my personal notes on the subject (albeit a bit lengthy). I am interested in a criticism of my conclusion -- that Korah sought the Melchizedek Priesthood. If possible, please provide citations supporting those criticisms.
In Numbers 16, Korah, a Levite, along with others (including Reubenites) and 250 well-renown princes [Ex. 18:25 (leaders of 1000s, 100s, and 10s)] rose up against Moses and Aaron asking why they lifted themselves above the others, asserting that the whole of the congregation “are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them . . .” Num. 16:1-3. After Moses prayed, he challenged Korah, asking why he thought it was a small thing that God had separated him, a Levite, to “do the service of the tabernacle of the Lord” and to minister to the congregation. Num. 16:8-9. Noting that God had already thus brought the Levites closer to Him, Moses asked, “and seek ye the priesthood also?” Num. 16:10. The word “priesthood” is the Hebrew noun kehunnah, as it is used in Joshua 18:7.
Jewish commentary notes three divisions among the Levites, each with separate duties. The Kohathites [Num. 3:31 (to care for the vessels and objects within the sanctuary, namely the Ark of the Covenant, Menorah, and Table of Shewbread)], the Gershonites [Num. 3:25-26 (to care for the curtains, hangings, and ropes of the sanctuary)], and Merarites [Num. 3:36-37 (to care for the framework – posts, crossbars, courtyard, tent pegs, etc., of the sanctuary)]. Kohath was the second son of Levi and grandfather to Moses and Aaron. The Aaronides are distinguished from among the Kohathites. Jewish commentary explains that Korah – a non-Aaronic Kohathite – sought what was given to Aaron and his sons, namely the office of “priest” (noun kohen) [Lev. 1:5] and their duty to “act as priests” (verb kahan) [Ex. 28:1]. This explanation has several problems.
First, the priest’s office was not exclusively given to the Aaronides. The Kohathites as a whole were permitted to carry the Ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the sacred utensils, and the screen, all on their shoulders. Joshua 3:17 specifically refers to these Levites as kohen, or “priests.” See also, Deut 17:9; 18:1; 24:8; 27:9; Exodus 32:25-29; Malachi 2:4-9. This is all the more evident given that “Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, he and his sons were priests to the tribe of Dan . . . .” Judges 18:30. Hebrew tradition (and modern scholars) believe this Manasseh to be Moses. Jonathan, then, was not a son of Aaron (true or not, these traditions do not disqualify a non-Aaronide from being a priest). Most likely, is that Aaron and his sons were granted the special priestly office of high priests, to offer the sacrifices, and burn incense; yet, all Levites were priests.
Second, setting aside the “priest’s office,” it also does not appear that God exclusively gave the Aaronides the “priesthood.” “[T]he Levites have no part among you; for the priesthood [kehunnah] of the Lord is their inheritance . . . .” Joshua 18:7; see also, Deut. 10:8-9. Thus, the Levites all had part in the Levitical Priesthood, albeit with differing duties. Thus, Korah (a likely priest) independently held the Levitical Priesthood yet sought the “priesthood.” A secondary priesthood, therefore, must exist; namely, in the Priesthood of Melchizedek.
Third, this interpretation is further supported by Moses’ rebuke: “[W]hat is Aaron, that ye murmur against him?” Num. 16:11. In other words, Moses is observing that Aaron is just like Korah—a priest of the Levitical Priesthood. It made no sense for Korah to confront Aaron when he was no better than Korah. This is made obvious in the next two versus. Moses calls for Dathan and Abiram, who refuse but sent their own message: “Is it a small thing that thou [Moses] hast brought us up out of a land that floweth with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, except thou [Moses] make thyself altogether a prince over us?” Num. 16:13. This verse makes clear that the rebels were really upset with Moses and wanted his authority. Necessarily, that authority was the Melchizedek Priesthood.
Fourth, even if the “priesthood” (kehunnah) and the “priest’s office” (kohen) were reserved exclusively for Aaron and his sons (Ex. 28:1), it would make no sense for Korah (along with Dathan and Abiram) to affront Moses’ authority and seek the “priesthood” unless this priesthood was one other than the Levitical Priesthood. This is because Moses was not a son of Aaron and not such a priest. The reference to “priesthood” must have meant something other than the Levitical Priesthood. They wanted Moses’ Priesthood—the priesthood they did not have. This is the Melchizedek Priesthood.