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.
The intent of this biblical tradition is clear–to underline in the strongest terms the political and spiritual supremacy of the priests, and their successors, who were shown to have unequivocal divine sanction. A rebellion against them and Moses as their leader was in fact a rebellion against God. Those who demurred were therefore exposed to divine wrath, which was demonstrably severe in behalf of His servant.
God could take care of His own status, so to speak, and therefore needed only the usual forms of retribution; but, when His authority was challenged indirectly and more subtly by undermining His human representatives, the punishment took on unusual and memorable form. “The earth opened its mouth” is a vivid image reminiscent of Gen. 4: 11, which also depicts the earth as an active participant in the drama, speeding the condemned to their abode in the netherworld. (Characteristically of Numbers, this story is followed in chapters 17 and 18 by legislation that sets forth once and for all what the priestly and levitical duties are to be.)
The Rabbis’ View of Korah’s Punishment
Over the years the Korah story assumed great importance. Rabbis of mishnaic and talmudic times viewed themselves as direct spiritual descendants of Moses, and they interpreted the punishment of Korah as a warning to their own contemporaries who challenged the divine sanctity of rabbinic teaching.
However, since a repetition of biblical miracles could not be counted on, the Rabbis threatened their challengers with eternal damnation–for instance, when they declared that those who did not believe in resurrection would have no share in the world‑to‑come. It is in this light that we must see the assertion of Rabbi Akiba that Korah not only was punished in the desert but excluded from divine grace for all time to come (Sanhedrin 109b).
This is also the meaning of the rabbinic tradition that Korah argued with Moses about ritual fringes and other halakhic matters and attacked the sense and logic of the Torah, which is to say he battled not merely Moses but the God of Moses (see Numbers Rabbah 18:3). God stood behind His chosen leader then, and in the centuries to come He would stand behind the leaders who followed Moses and taught in His name.
Korah’s rebellion (taking the intertwined stories as a literary whole) was directed against the leadership of Moses. Superficially, his act may appear to be the usual attempt by someone out of power to displace the incumbent rulers. But the Bible’s very silence about his motives directs our attention away from Korah’s true intention to his stated argument.
Korah said: “All the community are holy… Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” The question implies the challenge: If God is in our midst, then whoever is leading us will have His support. Or, going further (though this is not expressed): If we are all holy, what need is there for someone like Moses to instruct us, or why is there need for laws to make us holy? Since the people are holy, commandments from without are not necessary (Buber, Moses).
Note that Moses and Aaron make no answer to the first part of Korah’s statement, that is, the reference to communal holiness. They refer only to the latter (“Why do you raise yourselves…?”), leaving it to God to reaffirm their embattled leadership. He raised them to high position and He will answer the rebels, as indeed He does.
But the question still seeks its answer. Ultimately, as Buber emphasizes, the question Korah asked poses an insoluble contradiction: for holiness can never be fully realized within history, yet the people are to act as if it can be or even as if it has been realized. This is the biblical way of dealing with a divine impasse and it became the normative way of Jewish tradition. Korah’s argument turns on the eternal tension between authority and freedom. Like many demagogues after him, Korah offered himself as a fitting guardian of the spirit of freedom. But while the people might have accepted the offer of substitute leadership, God did not.
The argument Korah presented was not blotted out with the drastic divine response, and neither was Korah’s name. His family continued to serve with high distinction; no less a person than the prophet Samuel was his descendant (I Chronicles 6: 16-18); ten psalms were composed by the sons of Korah; and his offspring functioned in the Temple courts. Like Korah’s argument, they refused to disappear.