Difficulties with the Text of the Korah Story
The story of the rebellion of Korah, Datan and Abiram and the 250 elders is a classic example of an “unreadable” narrative. This may seem like a surprising claim to people who have been reading it for years but a careful look at the narrative uncovers many glitches that are difficult to explain.
Before looking at the story in detail, we would like to enumerate several questions that a first reading of the text elicits. Although it is possible to suggest creative answers for any one of these questions, the power of the models suggested by academic biblical scholarship is that they provide a single over-arching hypothesis about the composition of this unit that resolves many, if not all, of the questions. We will explore three main models that develop different understandings of the history of the composition of this passage in their attempt to address many of these questions:
- The opening of the passage (v. 1) “Korah took,” seems truncated—what or who did he take?
- How does the opening phrase (v. 1) “and Korah took” fit with the second verb in the phrase (v. 2) “they rose up against”?
- What was bothering Korah and the chieftains? One verse (v. 3) says that they complained that all of Israel is holy, so why should Moses and Aaron be the leaders. Other verses (vv. 7-10) imply that this was about Korah and his fellow Levites objecting to the status of Aaron as a kohen (priest), a status they wanted themselves.
- Were the chieftains Levites or Israelites?
- Did they gather against Moses (v. 2) or Moses and Aaron (v. 3)?
- If Datan and Abiram came with Korah, where did they disappear to such that Moses needs to call them (v. 12)?
- Why is the complaint of Datan and Abiram (vv. 13-14) so different than the original complaint of the rebel group (v. 3)? Are they bothered by the failure to enter Israel or the arrogance of Moses and Aaron in making themselves leaders?
- What made these Reubenites join the Levites and Chieftains in this rebellion (vv. 1-2)?
- Why does the phrase “Korah and his group” appear in the 3rd person (v. 6) if Moses is talking to Korah and his group at that moment?
- Does the test with the fire-pans transpire immediately or the next day? Moses says tomorrow (vv. 5, 16) but the description of the event makes it sound as if it happens at the same time as the death of Datan and Abiram (vv. 18-22, 35).
- Why does Moses finish his speech (vv. 5-7) only to begin another one (vv. 8-11)?
- Why does Moses repeat the fire-pan test instructions (vv. 16-17)?
- Why does Moses want Datan and Abiram to come to him (v. 12)? Are they supposed to have fire-pans as well but they refuse? Does he just want to talk to them? If so, why?
- When Moses gets offended at Datan and Abiram’s speech, what does he mean by asking God not to take heed of their offering (v. 15)? They don’t make an offering!
- Why does Moses mention that he didn’t take their donkeys (v. 15)? Datan and Abiram never said that he did take their donkeys.
- Where is Moses during the fire-pan test (v. 35)? It seems that he was supposed to be there (v. 18) but he already went to Datan and Abiram’s camp (v. 25) and the text doesn’t indicate that he returned before the incense offerings began. Do the chieftains just show up and do the test? Was Aaron left in charge (v. 16)?
- How is it the verse says there are only 250 fire-pans (v. 17)? Doesn’t Aaron have one (vv. 16-17)? What about Korah (ibid)? Shouldn’t the number be 251 or 252? Shouldn’t 251 people have been killed, assuming Korah also lit a fire-pan (v. 35)?
- Where are the Israelites during all this? Are they watching the Datan and Abiram test (vv. 25-27, 34) or the fire-pan test (vv. 19-24) or both?
- What happened to On (vv. 1, 27)?
- When referring to Datan and Abiram’s abode, why does Moses use the singular “mishkan” (v. 24) and the plural “tents” (v. 26)?
- Where was Korah in all this and how did he die? Some verses locate him with Datan and Abiram when the earth opened its mouth (vv. 24, 27, 32). Others seem to imply that he was to be one of the incense offerers (v. 16-17). Which is it?
Other References to the Story
Elements of this story are mentioned in other biblical texts, none of which agrees with the complete story found in Numbers 16:
- In Deuteronomy 11:6 only Datan and Abiram are mentioned as being swallowed by the earth. Korah is not mentioned at all.
- Psalm 106:16-18 refers to Datan and Abiram being swallowed by the earth and to rebels burning in flames, but not to Korah.
- In Num. 26:9-11, only Korah “and his band” are listed as one of those swallowed by the earth.
- In Num. 17. 5, Korah is said to have burned up in the flames along with the 250 chieftains.
- The daughters of Zelophchad refer to Korah only in Num. 27:3 as having died in a rebellion; no details are added.
The Broad Outline
The biblical text narrates a rebellion led by Korah, Datan, Abiram (and On), and 250 chieftains, against Moses and Aaron and the punishments they receive.
Many of the internal contradictions and inconsistencies and problems of narrative flow, as well as the contradictions between Numbers 16 and other tellings of the story were noted by classical rabbinic and medieval interpreters. In general, these sources offer ad hoc explanations to each difficulty. Modern academic biblical scholars have instead tried to address these issues by showing how the text that we now have was woven together from more than one source. But the devil is in the details. In the following sections, we will explore a few models, starting with the simplest and most famous, the Documentary Hypothesis.
Note: This case study is a work in progress. Over time, we hope to include other possibilities as appendices, including traditional and literary approaches, and analyze the pros and cons of each.
Numbers Chapter 16
1 Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Datan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben—2 to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. 3 They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and Yhwh is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Yhwh’s congregation?” 4 When Moses heard this, he fell on his face.5 Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, “Come morning, Yhwh will make known who is His and who is holy, and will grant him access to Himself; He will grant access to the one He has chosen. 6 Do this: You, Korah and all your band, take fire pans, 7 and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before Yhwh. Then the man whom Yhwh chooses, he shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!”
8 Moses said further to Korah, “Hear me, sons of Levi. 9 Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him, to perform the duties of Yhwh’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? 10 Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too? 11 Truly, it is against Yhwh that you and all your company have banded together. For who is Aaron that you should rail against him?”
12 Moses sent for Datan and Abiram, sons of Eliab; but they said, “We will not come! 13Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us? 14 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?We will not come!” 15 Moses was much aggrieved and he said to Yhwh, “Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.” 16 And Moses said to Korah, “Tomorrow, you and all your company appear before Yhwh, you and they and Aaron. 17 Each of you take his fire pan and lay incense on it, and each of you bring his fire pan before Yhwh, two hundred and fifty fire pans; you and Aaron also [bring] your fire pans.” 18 Each of them took his fire pan, put fire in it, laid incense on it, and took his place at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, as did Moses and Aaron. 19 Korah gathered the whole community against them at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Then the Presence of Yhwh appeared to the whole community.
20 And Yhwh spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 21 “Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!” 22 But they fell on their faces and said, “O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” 23 Yhwh spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “Speak to the community and say: Withdraw from about the abode of Korah (Datan, and Abiram).” 25 Moses rose and went to Datan and Abiram, the elders of Israel following him. 26 He addressed the community, saying, “Move away from the tents of these wicked men and touch nothing that belongs to them, lest you be wiped out for all their sins.” 27 So they withdrew from about the abode of Korah (Datan, and Abiram). Now Datan and Abiram had come out and they stood at the entrance of their tents, with their wives, their children, and their little ones.
28 And Moses said, “By this you shall know that it was Yhwh who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising: 29 if these men die as all men do, if their lot be the common fate of all mankind, it was not Yhwh who sent me. 30 But if Yhwh brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, you shall know that these men have spurned Yhwh.” 31 Scarcely had he finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, 32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all the people which were Korah’s and all their possessions. 33 They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. 34 All Israel around them fled at their shrieks, for they said, “The earth might swallow us!” 35 And a fire went forth from Yhwh and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense.
במדבר פרק טז
א) וַיִּקַּ֣ח קֹ֔רַח בֶּן־יִצְהָ֥ר בֶּן־קְהָ֖ת בֶּן־לֵוִ֑י וְדָתָ֨ן וַאֲבִירָ֜ם בְּנֵ֧י אֱלִיאָ֛ב וְא֥וֹן בֶּן־פֶּ֖לֶת בְּנֵ֥י רְאוּבֵֽן: ב) וַיָּקֻ֙מוּ֙ לִפְנֵ֣י מֹשֶׁ֔ה וַאֲנָשִׁ֥ים מִבְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים וּמָאתָ֑יִם נְשִׂיאֵ֥י עֵדָ֛ה קְרִאֵ֥י מוֹעֵ֖ד אַנְשֵׁי־שֵֽׁם: ג) וַיִּֽקָּהֲל֞וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֲלֵהֶם֘ רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כָל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם יְ-הֹוָ֑ה וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל יְ-הֹוָֽה: ד) וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע מֹשֶׁ֔ה וַיִּפֹּ֖ל עַל־פָּנָֽיו: ה) וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר אֶל־קֹ֜רַח וְאֶֽל־כָּל־עֲדָתוֹ֘ לֵאמֹר֒ בֹּ֠קֶר וְיֹדַ֨ע יְ-הֹוָ֧ה אֶת־אֲשֶׁר־ל֛וֹ וְאֶת־הַקָּד֖וֹשׁ וְהִקְרִ֣יב אֵלָ֑יו וְאֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִבְחַר־בּ֖וֹ יַקְרִ֥יב אֵלָֽיו:ו) זֹ֖את עֲשׂ֑וּ קְחוּ־לָכֶ֣ם מַחְתּ֔וֹת קֹ֖רַח וְכָל־עֲדָתֽוֹ: ז) וּתְנ֣וּ בָהֵ֣ן׀ אֵ֡שׁ וְשִׂימוּ֩ עֲלֵיהֶ֨ן קְטֹ֜רֶת לִפְנֵ֤י יְ-הֹוָה֨ מָחָ֔ר וְהָיָ֗ה הָאִ֛ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה ה֣וּא הַקָּד֑וֹשׁ רַב־לָכֶ֖ם בְּנֵ֥י לֵוִֽי:
ח) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֶל־קֹ֑רַח שִׁמְעוּ־נָ֖א בְּנֵ֥י לֵוִֽי: ט) הַמְעַ֣ט מִכֶּ֗ם כִּֽי־הִבְדִּיל֩ אֱלֹהֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֤ל אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵעֲדַ֣ת יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְהַקְרִ֥יב אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָ֑יו לַעֲבֹ֗ד אֶת־ עֲבֹדַת֙ מִשְׁכַּ֣ן יְ-הֹוָ֔ה וְלַעֲמֹ֛ד לִפְנֵ֥י הָעֵדָ֖ה לְשָׁרְתָֽם: י) וַיַּקְרֵב֙ אֹֽתְךָ֔ וְאֶת־כָּל־אַחֶ֥יךָ בְנֵי־לֵוִ֖י אִתָּ֑ךְ וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּ֖ם גַּם־כְּהֻנָּֽה: יא) לָכֵ֗ן אַתָּה֙ וְכָל־עֲדָ֣תְךָ֔ הַנֹּעָדִ֖ים עַל־י יְ-הֹוָ֑ה וְאַהֲרֹ֣ן מַה־ה֔וּא כִּ֥י תַלִּ֖ינוּ עָלָֽיו:
יב) וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח מֹשֶׁ֔ה לִקְרֹ֛א לְדָתָ֥ן וְלַאֲבִירָ֖ם בְּנֵ֣י אֱלִיאָ֑ב וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ לֹ֥א נַעֲלֶֽה: יג) הַמְעַ֗ט כִּ֤י הֶֽעֱלִיתָ֙נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֨רֶץ זָבַ֤ת חָלָב֙ וּדְבַ֔שׁ לַהֲמִיתֵ֖נוּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר כִּֽי־תִשְׂתָּרֵ֥ר עָלֵי֖נוּ גַּם־ הִשְׂתָּרֵֽר: יד) אַ֡ף לֹ֣א אֶל־אֶרֶץ֩ זָבַ֨ת חָלָ֤ב וּדְבַשׁ֙ הֲבִ֣יאֹתָ֔נוּ וַתִּ֨תֶּן־לָ֔נוּ נַחֲלַ֖ת שָׂדֶ֣ה וָכָ֑רֶם הַעֵינֵ֞י הָאֲנָשִׁ֥ים הָהֵ֛ם תְּנַקֵּ֖ר לֹ֥א נַעֲלֶֽה: טו) וַיִּ֤חַר לְמֹשֶׁה֙ מְאֹ֔ד וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־י יְ-הֹוָ֔ה אַל־תֵּ֖פֶן אֶל־מִנְחָתָ֑ם לֹ֠א חֲמ֨וֹר אֶחָ֤ד מֵהֶם֙ נָשָׂ֔אתִי וְלֹ֥א הֲרֵעֹ֖תִי אֶת־אַחַ֥ד מֵהֶֽם: טז) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־קֹ֔רַח אַתָּה֙ וְכָל־עֲדָ֣תְךָ֔ הֱי֖וּ לִפְנֵ֣י יְ-הֹוָ֑ה אַתָּ֥ה וָהֵ֛ם וְאַהֲרֹ֖ן מָחָֽר: יז) וּקְח֣וּ׀ אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וּנְתַתֶּ֤ם עֲלֵיהֶם֙ קְטֹ֔רֶת וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֞ם לִפְנֵ֤י יְ-הֹוָה֨ אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֔וֹ חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים וּמָאתַ֖יִם מַחְתֹּ֑ת וְאַתָּ֥ה וְאַהֲרֹ֖ן אִ֥ישׁ מַחְתָּתֽוֹ: יח) וַיִּקְח֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וַיִּתְּנ֤וּ עֲלֵיהֶם֙ אֵ֔שׁ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עֲלֵיהֶ֖ם קְטֹ֑רֶת וַֽיַּעַמְד֗וּ פֶּ֛תַח אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד וּמֹשֶׁ֥ה וְאַהֲרֹֽן: יט) וַיַּקְהֵ֨ל עֲלֵיהֶ֥ם קֹ֙רַח֙ אֶת־כָּל־הָ֣עֵדָ֔ה אֶל־פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וַיֵּרָ֥א כְבוֹד־י יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶל־כָּל־הָעֵדָֽה: פ
כ) וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְ-הֹוָ֔ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר: כא) הִבָּ֣דְל֔וּ מִתּ֖וֹךְ הָעֵדָ֣ה הַזֹּ֑את וַאֲכַלֶּ֥ה אֹתָ֖ם כְּרָֽגַע: כב) וַיִּפְּל֤וּ עַל־פְּנֵיהֶם֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵ֕ל אֱלֹהֵ֥י הָרוּחֹ֖ת לְכָל־בָּשָׂ֑ר הָאִ֤ישׁ אֶחָד֙ יֶחֱטָ֔א וְעַ֥ל כָּל־הָעֵדָ֖ה תִּקְצֹֽף: פ כג) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: כד)דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל־הָעֵדָ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר הֵֽעָלוּ֙ מִסָּבִ֔יב לְמִשְׁכַּן־קֹ֖רַח (דָּתָ֥ן וַאֲבִירָֽם): כה) וַיָּ֣קָם מֹשֶׁ֔ה וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ אֶל־דָּתָ֣ן וַאֲבִירָ֑ם וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ אַחֲרָ֖יו זִקְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: כו) וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר אֶל־הָעֵדָ֜ה לֵאמֹ֗ר ס֣וּרוּ נָ֡א מֵעַל֩ אָהֳלֵ֨י הָאֲנָשִׁ֤ים הָֽרְשָׁעִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְאַֽל־תִּגְּע֖וּ בְּכָל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָהֶ֑ם פֶּן־תִּסָּפ֖וּ בְּכָל־חַטֹּאתָֽם: כז) וַיֵּעָל֗וּ מֵעַ֧ל מִשְׁכַּן־קֹ֛רַח (דָּתָ֥ן וַאֲבִירָ֖ם) מִסָּבִ֑יב וְדָתָ֨ן וַאֲבִירָ֜ם יָצְא֣וּ נִצָּבִ֗ים פֶּ֚תַח אָֽהֳלֵיהֶ֔ם וּנְשֵׁיהֶ֥ם וּבְנֵיהֶ֖ם וְטַפָּֽם:
כח) וַיֹּאמֶר֘ מֹשֶׁה֒ בְּזֹאת֙ תֵּֽדְע֔וּן כִּֽי־ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה שְׁלָחַ֔נִי לַעֲשׂ֕וֹת אֵ֥ת כָּל־הַֽמַּעֲשִׂ֖ים הָאֵ֑לֶּה כִּי־לֹ֖א מִלִּבִּֽי: כט) אִם־כְּמ֤וֹת כָּל־הָֽאָדָם֙ יְמֻת֣וּן אֵ֔לֶּה וּפְקֻדַּת֙ כָּל־הָ֣אָדָ֔ם יִפָּקֵ֖ד עֲלֵיהֶ֑ם לֹ֥א יְ-הֹוָ֖ה שְׁלָחָֽנִי: ל) וְאִם־בְּרִיאָ֞ה יִבְרָ֣א יְ-הֹוָ֗ה וּפָצְתָ֨ה הָאֲדָמָ֤ה אֶת־פִּ֙יהָ֙ וּבָלְעָ֤ה אֹתָם֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָהֶ֔ם וְיָרְד֥וּ חַיִּ֖ים שְׁאֹ֑לָה וִֽידַעְתֶּ֕ם כִּ֧י נִֽאֲצ֛וּ הָאֲנָשִׁ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה אֶת־יְ-הֹוָֽה: לא) וַיְהִי֙ כְּכַלֹּת֔וֹ לְדַבֵּ֕ר אֵ֥ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֖ים הָאֵ֑לֶּה וַתִּבָּקַ֥ע הָאֲדָמָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּחְתֵּיהֶֽם: לב) וַתִּפְתַּ֤ח הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ וַתִּבְלַ֥ע אֹתָ֖ם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּיהֶ֑ם וְאֵ֤ת כָּל־הָאָדָם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לְקֹ֔רַח וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־ הָרֲכֽוּשׁ: לג) וַיֵּ֨רְד֜וּ הֵ֣ם וְכָל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר לָהֶ֛ם חַיִּ֖ים שְׁאֹ֑לָה וַתְּכַ֤ס עֲלֵיהֶם֙ הָאָ֔רֶץ וַיֹּאבְד֖וּ מִתּ֥וֹךְ הַקָּהָֽל: לד) וְכָל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֛ר סְבִיבֹתֵיהֶ֖ם נָ֣סוּ לְקֹלָ֑ם כִּ֣י אָֽמְר֔וּ פֶּן־תִּבְלָעֵ֖נוּ הָאָֽרֶץ: לה) וְאֵ֥שׁ יָצְאָ֖ה מֵאֵ֣ת יְ-הֹוָ֑ה וַתֹּ֗אכַל אֵ֣ת הַחֲמִשִּׁ֤ים וּמָאתַ֙יִם֙ אִ֔ישׁ מַקְרִיבֵ֖י הַקְּטֹֽרֶת:
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
June 19, 2014
March 23, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Essays on Related Topics: