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Resurrection in the Psalms of the Sons Korah

In their exodus from Egypt the children of Israel were led by Moses, his brother Aaron, and their sister Miriam from the tribe of Levi (Mic 6:4). Later, during Israel’s years in the wilderness, some other prominent Levites came to resent God's choice of human leaders. Moses’s cousin Korah, in particular, desired greater influence. He may have felt slighted when he was passed over for chief of the clans of Kohath. That honor went instead to Elizaphan, another cousin (Num 3:30).


Along with a group of Levites, Korah joined some disgruntled Reubenites in a revolt against Moses and Aaron. God quickly ended the revolt, incinerating the Levites and causing the ground to swallow up the rebellion leaders, including Korah (Num 16). The entire Reubenite families of Dathan and Abiram were buried (Dt 11:6). Scripture notes, however, that “the sons of Korah did not die” (Num 26:11).


The sons of Korah never forgot how God had graciously spared their lives. According to one tradition, when the earth opened to engulf the rebels, the sons of Korah were lifted into the air, safely out of harm’s way. Afterward, they encouraged the righteous by relating the story of their deliverance from death (Midrash Psalms 46.3).


Eleven canonical psalms (Ps 42, 44-49; 84, 85, 87, 88) are associated with “the "sons of Korah.” These psalms feature motifs associated with Korahite history, such as the grave, deliverance from death, and the opening of the earth in judgment.


Later Korahites included the prophet Samuel (1 Ch 6:33-38), whose father Elkanah was named after one of Korah’s sons (Exo 6:24). Perhaps Samuel’s mother Hannah had in mind the experience of her husband's ancestors when she declared, “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Sa 2:6).


King David made Samuel’s grandson Heman one of those in charge of the service of song at the tabernacle (1 Ch 6:31-38). His sons continued in this capacity after him (1 Ch 25), composing and singing songs.


Eleven canonical psalms (Ps 42, 44-49; 84, 85, 87, 88) are associated with the “sons of Korah.” These psalms feature motifs associated with Korahite history, such as the grave, deliverance from death, and the opening of the earth in judgment.(1)


For example, the inevitability of death is a significant theme in Psalm 49. This wisdom psalm, directed to “all inhabitants of the world” (v 1), three times mentions Sheol, the grave and abode of the dead. The Korahite psalmist observes that it is folly to trust in wealth. No one can buy his way out of the grave (vv 5-10) or take any riches with him (vv 16-17).(2)


Despite all the talk of death, the major message of Psalm 49 is one of hope for the upright, who will ultimately triumph (v 14). The psalmist proclaims in v 15, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” The Hebrew word for “receive” has the sense of “take up,” as the sons of Korah were said to have been taken up into the air when their father fell into the pit. In context, this verse is talking about resurrection, anticipating New Testament passages like 1 Th 4:16-17.


The miracle that preserved the sons of Korah seems to have been imprinted upon the family’s collective consciousness, giving them an acute and lasting awareness of God’s power and love.


Korahite family history is also reflected in Psalm 46. In light of that history, the psalmist knows that God will be there to help his people in times of trouble. “Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,” he proclaims in verse 2. As the sons of Korah were spared from the judgment on their father, so God will protect the righteous from future judgments.


Psalm 46 pictures God enthroned at Zion. When enemies attack, they are stopped in their tracks as the earth melts before them. Jerusalem, meanwhile, stands unmoved (vv 4-7), safely above the furor as the sons of Korah had been hundreds of years before.


There are similar images in Psalm 48, a psalm that concludes with another hint of resurrection. The Korahite psalmist encourages the congregation to “tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever. He will guide us forever” (vv 13-14). An ESV footnote explains that another traditional translation of the final sentence of verse 14 is, “He will guide us beyond death.” The midrash on Psalm 48 renders it, “He will guide us through two worlds”—this world and the world to come. As in Psalms 46 and 49, the message is that God will not abandon his people, even after they die.


The miracle that preserved the sons of Korah seems to have been imprinted upon the family’s collective consciousness, giving them an acute and lasting awareness of God’s power and love. That awareness shines through in the Korahite psalms, communicating confidence in God’s continual presence and protection.


When we reflect upon how God has rescued us through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, we can join the Korahites in praising God with that same awareness and confidence. “For our citizenship is in heaven,” we declare with the apostle Paul, “and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phl 3:20-21).


Footnotes:

(1) For a fascinating discussion of these psalms, see David C. Mitchell, “‘God Will Redeem My Soul from Sheol’: The Psalms of the Sons of Korah,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Vol 30.3 (2006):365-384.

(2) Here, it is interesting to note Korah himself is said to have been wealthy. See Mitchell, p. 368, for references.

 

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