Korah was punished for his rebellion, but his questioning of the need for human rulers has remained a living issue for later generations to contemplate.
Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, with the permission of URJ Press.
Numbers 16:1 - 17:15: Two Rebellions Intertwined
Bible critics ascribe the difficulties of this section to a joining of two traditions. While a clear division is no longer possible, there appears to be a Korah rebellion that is directed against Aaron and levitic privilege and an anti‑Moses uprising led by Dathan and Abiram. [Authorship of] the former is assigned to the P (priestly) source and the latter to the J/E (Yahwist/Elohist) source.
The first story tells of Korah and 250 men who complain about the special religious status of the Levites. There is a contest involving censers; Korah's people come to the Tent and are consumed by fire; their censers are taken away, destroyed, and symbolically refashioned; the 14,000 people who support the rebellion or who are unhappy with Korah's punishment are killed by a plague. The story appears to reflect a struggle for priestly privilege. Once upon a time (as attested by Psalms) Korah's people were full priests and singers, but after a power struggle they were reduced to doorkeepers.
The second tradition tells of the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram, and members of the tribe of Reuben, against the civil authority of Moses. They refuse a confrontation with him. Moses appeals to the community, which backs him up and withdraws from the rebels, who in turn are swallowed by the earth. This story may represent the memory of an intertribal struggle. Originally the tribe of Reuben was very important, but in time it was dislodged from its original preeminence. This is also reflected in the Jacob tale, where the first‑born Reuben is passed over in favor of others.
The Rabbis attempted in ingenious fashion to harmonize the various difficulties and apparent discrepancies that arose from the interweaving of the two traditions. The talmudic discussion reveals the extent of their speculation in this matter. For instance, inasmuch as verses 31‑32 speak of the earth swallowing Korah's men but do not mention Korah himself, some say that the earth swallowed Korah's tent but that he was not in it; others that Korah was burned and that his ashes were swallowed; or that he died afterwards in the plague (see Sanhedrin 110a).
There were numerous rebellions in the desert, and they were directed against either God or His emissary. In each case the rebels were reported to have died of plague, or fire, or in battle. Only twice, when the position of Moses was severely attacked, was there unusual punishment: by cleaving the earth, as in this story, and by leprosy, when Miriam and Aaron challenged their brother (Numbers 12). In the people's uprisings against God the consequences do not lie outside the human realm, but in the challenges to Moses the punishments are supernatural.
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