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Datan and Abiram: A Rebellion of the Shepherds in the Land of Israel

The biblical text is unclear about why Datan and Abiram are rebelling. A careful look at their words shows that they are complaining about the land they are already living in.

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Datan and Abiram: A Rebellion of the Shepherds in the Land of Israel

Looking west while tour at Zora winery’s vineyards near Jerusalem, Israel. Photo credit אילן שחורי cc 2.5

Datan and Abiram’s Complaint against Moses

Moses calls Datan and Abiram to come before him, and they refuse, and offer the following reason:

במדבר טז:יב וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח מֹשֶׁ֔ה לִקְרֹ֛א לְדָתָ֥ן וְלַאֲבִירָ֖ם בְּנֵ֣י אֱלִיאָ֑ב וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ לֹ֥א נַעֲלֶֽה: טו:יג הַמְעַ֗ט כִּ֤י הֶֽעֱלִיתָ֙נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֨רֶץ זָבַ֤ת חָלָב֙ וּדְבַ֔שׁ לַהֲמִיתֵ֖נוּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר כִּֽי־תִשְׂתָּרֵ֥ר עָלֵי֖נוּ גַּם־ הִשְׂתָּרֵֽר:
Num 16:12 And Moses sent to call Datan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, but they said, “We will not come up! 16:13 Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you should keep acting like a prince over us? 

Verse 13 sounds like the end of a complaint, but the text continues:

במדבר טז:יד אַ֡ף לֹ֣א אֶל־אֶרֶץ֩ זָבַ֨ת חָלָ֤ב וּדְבַשׁ֙ הֲבִ֣יאֹתָ֔נוּ וַתִּ֨תֶּן־לָ֔נוּ נַחֲלַ֖ת שָׂדֶ֣ה וָכָ֑רֶם הַעֵינֵ֞י הָאֲנָשִׁ֥ים הָהֵ֛ם תְּנַקֵּ֖ר לֹ֥א נַעֲלֶֽה:
Num 16:14 Moreover you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up!” (RSV)

There are two difficulties with this text. First, it seems strange to first accuse Moses of taking the Israelites from a fertile land to die in the wilderness (v. 13) and then to add in the following verse, “Moreover, you didn’t bring us to land of milk and honey!” What is the significance of the word אף – “Moreover”/“What is more”? Isn’t the complaint that Moses failed to bring the Israelites to a land of milk and honey (verse 14) just a weaker version of the complaint that he has brought them into the wilderness to die (verse 13)?

Ehrlich: From לא to לוּ

Arnold B. Ehrlich (1848-1919) addressed this difficulty and suggested that the second word in v. 14, לא, should be understood as (or emended to) לוּ in the sense of אלו (if)[1] The word אף, then, can be taken as “even.” This produces a logical progression from verse 13 to verse 14. His suggestion was adopted by the NJPS which renders:

Even if you had brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, and given us possession of fields and vineyards – should you gouge out those men’s eyes?

According to Ehrlich, in verse 13, Datan and Abiram accuse Moses of bringing the Israelites out of a fertile land to die in the wilderness. Then in verse 14 they state that even had Moses succeeded in bringing the Israelites into the land of milk and honey as promised, this still would not justify his tyrannical style of leadership (“gouging out the eyes”).[2]

A Questionable Emendation

While this interpretation initially appears attractive it is unlikely. Though we find the phrases אף אמנם, אף גם, אף כי and אף אשר in the Bible, we never find אף לו. Nor does a לוּ clause ever introduce an apodosis (i.e., the consequence clause in a conditional sentence) that is a rhetorical question.

“Given us Inheritance of fields and vineyards” The Lack of an Explicit Negative

A second difficulty in verse 14 concerns the formulation, ותתן לנו נחלת שדה וכרם. The translation offered above, ‘nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards,’ is obviously demanded by the context. It is nonetheless strange that the Hebrew does not express the negative explicitly, stating, ולא נתת לנו נחלת שדה וכרם.

Rashi – Counting the לא Twice

Rashi suggests that the word לא of the beginning of verse 14 (אף לא אל ארץ זבת חלב ודבש הביאתנו) does double duty and carries over to the second clause, “nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards.”

Although he does not cite evidence illustrating that this is an acceptable linguistic phenomenon in biblical Hebrew, such evidence can be found in R. Jonah ibn Janaḥ’s earlier grammatical work, Sefer HaRiqmah,[3] which offers several examples where the לא (or אל of negation) of the first clause carries over to the second clause.[4] The traditional commentators on Num 16:14 follow this approach, whether explicitly or implicitly.

Poetic Parallelism vs. Prose

This solution, however, is unsatisfactory, since this type of double-duty only functions in biblical poetry with its famed structure of parallelism.[5] The speech of Datan and Abiram, however, is narrative, not poetry. The word נתן (of ותתן לנו נחלת שדה וכרם) never appears in parallelism with הביא (of אף לא אל ארץ זבת חלב ודבש הביאתנו). Unsurprisingly, ibn Janaḥ does not include our passage among his examples.

In theory, prose can have parallelism, and this passage could have been written that way:

אף לא אל ארץ זבת חלב ודבש הביאתנו,
You did not even bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey,
ונחלת שדה וכרם נתתנו.
Nor did you give us inheritance of field and vineyard.

Had the text been written in the above style, an argument could have been made that, despite it being prose, the Datan and Abiram speech is presented in poetic-like structure. The opposite is the case, however. The formulation of ותתן לנו נחלת שדה וכרם both changes the word order (subject-verb to verb-subject) and the verb tense (perfect to imperfect), thus making the second clause distinct from the first and even in contrast to it. This makes the suggestion that the לא carries over naturally to the second clause even more difficult.

Vulgate: The Opposite Solution

Another attempt to deal with this second difficulty is reflected in the version of the Vulgate, which takes an approach opposite of Rashi.:

Thou hast brought us indeed into a land that floweth with rivers of milk and honey, and hast given us possessions of fields and vineyards; wilt thou also pull out our eyes? We will not come.[6]

The Vulgate interprets both clauses as positive statements, ostensibly meant ironically. To do this, however, the Vulgate must ignore the presence of the word לא, which cannot be justified.

The Independent Datan and Abiram Story: A Source Critical Background

The biblical text presents the Datan and Abiram story as part of a larger rebellion against Moses, led by a Levite named Korah, and which involved 250 chieftains, and an untold number of Levites. The scholarly consensus, however, is that the Datan and Abiram story was once independent of this narrative complex, and involved just these two Reubenites.[7]

The Partial Datan and Abiram Account

The version of the Datan and Abiram in Numbers begins with Numbers 16:12-14, quoted above, and ends in vv. 31-34 with the land opening its mouth and swallowing up Datan and Abiram and their tents/families.

Numbers 16:12, however, cannot have been the original opening of the story; an introduction, evidently deleted by the redactor, must have preceded Moses’ act of sending for Datan and Abiram in verse 12. He may have deleted this opening because it contradicted the overall storyline of the Torah.

The Israelites Were Already in the Land

The two problems discussed above, are resolved if we assume that the words להמתינו במדבר of verse 13 are secondary and that the original setting of the Datan and Abiram story was not the wilderness, but the land of Israel. Verse 13 originally read,

הַמְעַט כִּי הֶֽעֱלִיתָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ [להמיתנו במדבר] כִּי תִשְׂתָּרֵר עָלֵינוּ גַּם הִשְׂתָּרֵר.
Is it a small thing that you took us up from a land flowing with milk and honey [to kill us in the wilderness] that you should lord it over us?

The term used by Datan and Abiram for Moses’ act is העליתנו rather than the much more common הוצאתנו. The word העלה usually implies both the exodus from Egypt and the arrival in the land. The redactor added the words, “to kill us in the wilderness” להמיתנו במדבר, in order to convert the complaint of Datan and Abiram into another “wilderness complaint” (cf. Exod. 14:11; 16:3; 17:3; Num. 20:4; 21:5).

Milk and Honey vs. Fields and Vineyards

This allows for a resolution of the two difficulties. Most commentators incorrectly equate “a land flowing with milk and honey” and “an inheritance of field and vineyard,” assuming that Datan and Abiram complain that Moses has neither provided them with the promised land of milk and honey nor given them the promised inheritance of field and vineyard.

Yet, while Israel is promised “a land flowing with milk and honey” a number of times, they are never promised a land of field and vineyard. This is with good reason: Fields and vineyards require strenuous work and are completely dependent on rainfall. The strenuousness of horticulture is reflected in many biblical texts,[8] whereas the basic imagery of the hyperbolic “flowing with milk and honey” evokes a sense of Eden-like fertility. One hardly needs to work hard to drink sweetened milk out of flowing streams.

Datan and Abiram Complaint; The Land is Only Good Enough for Vineyards

Thus, I suggest that Datan and Abiram’s complaint of ותתן לנו נחלת שדה וכרם was that Moses brought them to a land of fields and vineyards—i.e., a land of back-breaking labor—instead of the promised land of milk and honey! Egypt, in contrast to the land they were given, according to Datan and Abiram, was a land flowing with milk and honey, that is, an idyllically fertile land that does not require overly strenuous work.

In verse 13, Datan and Abiram complain that Moses took them up from a land of milk honey and in verse 14 they add that, what is more, he replaced that with a land of fields and vineyards. Thus, they are claiming that Moses actually downgraded the Israelites by moving them to Canaan from Egypt, a land watered by the Nile.[9]

Two further points support the idea that the original complaint made no mention of dying in the wilderness:

1. Idealizing Egypt — The protesters have little need to paint life in Egypt in extravagant terms, as a “land flowing with milk and honey,” if they are complaining about being put to death in the wilderness. If, however, the protest is made in the land, where life is sustainable but difficult, the over-idealization of life in Egypt makes sense. The Israelites are then saying: Here (in Israel) we can survive, but there (in Egypt) things were wonderful!

2. Moses’ Leadership — The focus of the complaint on Moses’ leadership (כי תשתרר עלינו גם השתרר) is odd assuming that they are dying in the wilderness. Why are they not demanding food or water as in the other wilderness complaints? Who cares if Moses is bossing them around if they are about to die?!

Other Evidence that the Datan and Abiram Account was Originally Set in Canaan

Several observations strengthen the idea that the story of Datan and Abiram depicts a complaint against the land.

Donkeys – Moses insists that he did not steal a single donkey. The donkey was commonly domesticated and used for agricultural work, such as plowing fields (Deut. 22:10). According to 1 Sam. 8:16, it was the way of kings to expropriate oxen and donkeys from the people for their own purposes, and Samuel, like Moses, proclaimed that he did confiscate any from the people (1 Sam. 12:3). Moses’ defense against this claim fits settled life much better than the wilderness wanderings.[10]

Comparison to Achsa’s Pools of Water Request – The complaint of Datan and Abiram of ותתן לנו נחלת שדה וכרם is similar to the complaint/request of Caleb’s daughter Achsa (Judges 1:12-15), who told her father,

הבה לי ברכה כי ארץ הנגב נתנני ונתת לי גלת מים.
“Give me a blessing, for you have given me the land of the Negev, so give me pools of water”!

Both use the phrase נתן ל to show their displeasure with the portion of land they were allotted in Canaan.

Spies Complaint in the Non-Priestly Account – The complaint of Datan and Abiram is quite similar to the complaint of the Israelites in the non-Priestly story of the spies, which took place in the land of southern Judea.[11] The complaint is found in Numbers 20:5,

למה העליתנו ממצרים להביא אתנו אל המקום הרע הזה לא מקום זרע ותאנה וגפן ורמון.
Why did you take us up from Egypt to bring us to this bad place, not a place of seed, figs, grapes or pomegranates?

Both complaints employ the העלה formula rather than הוציא, and they both presume arrival in the land and express disaffection with the quality of the land.

Punished by the Mouth of the Promised Land – There is a wonderful ironic justice in the fact that those who speak against the Promised Land are ultimately devoured by it.[12]

Moses in the Land?

One obvious problem with this reconstructed background of the Datan and Abriam story is that it assumes that Moses led the people into the land, while the Torah assumes that he dies in the Transjordan. However, Num. 32 and Deut. 2-3 suggest that Moses led the settlement of the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh (Num. 32; Deut. 2-3). Since Datan and Abiram are Reubenites,[13] it is possible that the story takes place against that background.

It is also possible that some in ancient Israel did believe that Moses brought the Israelites into the Cisjordan. This tradition is most clearly reflected in 1 Sam. 12:8:

כאשר בא יעקב מצרים, ויזעקו אבותיכם אל י-הוה, וישלח י-הוה את משה ואת אהרן ויוציאו את אבתיכם ממצרים ויושיבום במקום הזה.
When Jacob came to Egypt, your ancestors cried to YHWH and YHWH sent Moses and Aaron and they took your ancestors out of Egypt and they settled them in this place.

Noticing the problematic implications of this verse, Radak states:

והנה משה ואהרן מתו במדבר מעבר הירדן, ואיך הושיבו אותם במקום הזה? אלא שהוכיחו אותם ולמדום ללכת בדרך ה’, ולפיכך נכנסו לארץ, והרי הם כאלו הם הושיבום במקום הזה.
Moses and Aaron died in the wilderness in the Transjordan, so how could they have settled them in this place? [The explanation is] that the [=Moses and Aaron] rebuked them and taught them to follow the ways of the Lord. That is why the people entered the land. It is thus as if they themselves [=Moses and Aaron] settled them in this place.

The forced interpretation of Radak highlights the likelihood that this verse preserves a variant tradition about Moses and Aaron as settling the Israelites in the land.

Original Context: Shepherds vs. Farmers

Until now we have suggested that Datan and Abiram complained about being given an inheritance of fields and vineyards because it requires hard work. The promise of a land of milk and honey, accordingly, represents a land of minimal toil. However, there is another way of understanding the contrast between these two types of land.

Grazing vs. Farming 

A land flowing with milk and honey may represent a land that is suitable for grazing milk producing cows and sheep. A land of fields and vineyards, on the other hand, is farmland that is of no use to such people and actually gets in their way. Thus, something of the conflict between the “cowboy and the farmer” may lie at the base of this story. Perhaps it is not coincidental that the Reubenites are said to be owners of a lot of cattle (Num. 32:4). Datan and Abiram, themselves Reubenites, complain that they were given farmland when they were promised a land for cattle herders.

The contrast and tension between a land of abundant milk and a land of farming fields and vineyards is nicely highlighted in Isaiah 7:21-25. The prophet paints a picture of what will be in the aftermath of God’s destruction of the land.

ישעיה ז:כא וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יְחַיֶּה אִישׁ עֶגְלַת בָּקָר וּשְׁתֵּי-צֹאן, ז:כב וְהָיָה מֵרֹב עֲשׂוֹת חָלָב יֹאכַל חֶמְאָה: כִּי חֶמְאָה וּדְבַשׁ יֹאכֵל כָּל הַנּוֹתָר בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ. ז:כג וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִהְיֶה כָל מָקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה שָּׁם אֶלֶף גֶּפֶן בְּאֶלֶף כָּסֶף: לַשָּׁמִיר וְלַשַּׁיִת יִהְיֶה.ז:כד בַּחִצִּים וּבַקֶּשֶׁת יָבוֹא שָׁמָּה כִּי שָׁמִיר וָשַׁיִת תִּהְיֶה כָל הָאָרֶץ. ז:כהוְכֹל הֶהָרִים אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּעְדֵּר יֵעָדֵרוּן לֹא תָבוֹא שָׁמָּה יִרְאַת שָׁמִיר וָשָׁיִת וְהָיָה לְמִשְׁלַח שׁוֹר וּלְמִרְמַס שֶׂה
Isa 7:21 In that day a man will keep alive a young cow and two sheep, 7:22 and because of the abundance of milk that they give, he will eat curds, for everyone who is left in the land will eat curds and honey. 7:23 In that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns.7:24 With bow and arrows a man will come there, for all the land will be briers and thorns. 7:25 And as for all the hills that used to be hoed with a hoe, you will not come there for fear of briers and thorns, but they will become a place where cattle are let loose and where sheep tread.

This text presents God’s punishment of Judah through the decimation of the agricultural system. Those who survive will drink milk and honey from their cows and sheep (cf. a land flowing with milk and honey), who will graze freely where a thousand vineyards (cf. and inheritance of fields and vineyards) used to exist.

Parallels to the Cain and Abel Story: The Primordial Cowboy vs. Farmer Account

A similar conflict to the one between Moses and Datan and Abiram is presented is the story of Cain and Abel in Gen. 4:1-16—Cain is the worker of the land and Abel is the shepherd. The two clash because God prefers the offering (מנחה) of Abel, the shepherd, over that of Cain, the farmer.

The formulation ואל קין ואל מנחתו לא שעה, God did not turn to Cain and his offering (Gen. 4:5), is highly reminiscent of Moses’ plea to God in the Datan and Abiram story, אל תפן אל מנחתם, do not turn to their offering (verse 15). Eventually, Cain kills his brother, the shepherd, and the earth “opens its mouth to take the blood of his brother from his hand” (v. 11), the same expression used for Datan and Abiram (Num 16:32).[14] In the Datan and Abiram story, however, the roles are reversed; God wants Israel to be farmers and the shepherds are the bad guys.

Living in Tents: A Protest to Agriculture

If the Datan and Abiram story is set in the land, then their persistence in living in tents (v. 26), as typified shepherds (cf. יבל, whose name is like הבל, and who is אבי ישב אהל ומקנה, “the father of those who dwell in tents with flocks; Gen. 4:20) may indicate their refusal to adapt to settled agricultural life. The contrast between settled farmers of fields and vineyards and wandering tent-dwelling shepherds is evident in Jeremiah’s description of the Rechabites, who explain why they don’t drink wine with the following:

ירמיהו לה:ו כִּי יוֹנָדָב בֶּן רֵכָב אָבִינוּ צִוָּה עָלֵינוּ לֵאמֹר לֹא תִשְׁתּוּ יַיִן אַתֶּם וּבְנֵיכֶם עַד עוֹלָם לה:ז וּבַיִת לֹא תִבְנוּ וְזֶרַע לֹא תִזְרָעוּ וְכֶרֶם לֹא תִטָּעוּ וְלֹא יִהְיֶה לָכֶםכִּי בָּאֳהָלִים תֵּשְׁבוּ כָּל יְמֵיכֶם לְמַעַן תִּחְיוּ יָמִים רַבִּים עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם גָּרִים שָׁם לה:ח וַנִּשְׁמַע בְּקוֹל יְהוֹנָדָב בֶּן רֵכָב אָבִינוּ לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּנוּ לְבִלְתִּי שְׁתוֹת יַיִן כָּל יָמֵינוּ אֲנַחְנוּ נָשֵׁינוּ בָּנֵינוּ וּבְנֹתֵינוּ לה:ט וּלְבִלְתִּי בְּנוֹת בָּתִּים לְשִׁבְתֵּנוּ וְכֶרֶם וְשָׂדֶה וָזֶרַע לֹא יִהְיֶה לָּנוּ לה:י וַנֵּשֶׁב בָּאֳהָלִים
Jer 35:6 …for our ancestor, Jonadab son of Rechab, commanded us: ‘You shall never drink wine, either you or your children. 35:7 Nor shall you build houses or sow fields or plant vineyards, nor shall you own such things; but you shall live in tents all your days, so that you may live long upon the land where you sojourn.’35:8 And we have obeyed our ancestor Jonadab son of Rechab in all that he commanded us: we never drink wine, neither we nor our wives nor our sons and daughters. 35:9Nor do we build houses to live inand we do not own vineyards or fields for sowing35:10 but we live in tents

The Lost Opening of the Story?

As noted earlier, the opening of the Datan and Abiram story was apparently expunged by the redactor. Verse 15, in which Moses calls upon God not to accept the “offering” of Datan and Abiram, may provide a hint about what is missing:

טז:טו וַיִּ֤חַר לְמֹשֶׁה֙ מְאֹ֔ד וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־י יְ-הֹוָ֔ה אַל־תֵּ֖פֶן אֶל־מִנְחָתָ֑ם לֹ֠א חֲמ֨וֹר אֶחָ֤ד מֵהֶם֙ נָשָׂ֔אתִי וְלֹ֥א הֲרֵעֹ֖תִי אֶת־אַחַ֥ד מֵהֶֽם:
16:15 Moses was very angry and said to YHWH, “Pay no attention to their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them, and I have not harmed any one of them.” (NRSV)

To what offering does Moses refer?

The conflict between Cain and Abel erupts over God accepting Abel’s offering and rejecting Cain’s parallel one, and Moses seems to be nervous that God will accept Datan and Abiram’s offering. If we press the analogy, we could conclude that Moses was making an offering that was parallel to that of Datan and Abiram (cf. the competing altars of Elijah and the prophets of Baal).[15]

Perhaps a faint echo of a similar tradition can be found in Joshua 22. The Reubenites and Gadites set up a huge altar on the other side of the Jordan and this nearly leads to civil war. It is only after the Transjordanian tribes explain that they do not intend to use the altar for actual sacrifice that war is averted.

Calling People to an Offering

This could be the significance of Moses’ “calling” to Datan and Abiram (לקרוא לדתן ואבירם) and of their demurral with the words לא נעלה, “we will not go up.” Moses calls them to join his offering, but they refuse and offer their own. The verb קרא may refer to an invitation to participate in a sacrifice (cf., e.g., Num. 25:2, ותקראינה לעם לזבחי אלוהיהן) and to “go up” is used with reference to pilgrimage or ascending the altar (for the use of both together see 1 Sam. 9:13). Datan and Abiram’s independent offering, and their refusal to take part in Moses’ offering, probably indicated a complete break away from Moses and the elders of Israel. This is why the earth swallows them up (16:32).

Published

July 6, 2016

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Last Updated

November 12, 2019

Footnotes

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Dr. Rabbi David Frankel did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Professor Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp. 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns). He teaches Hebrew Bible to M.A. and Rabbinical students at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.