How Did Korach Die?
Korach is the main character in the story. As such, one would think that it would be clear and straightforward how he dies. It turns out it is far from clear, there are four options for how Korach dies.
- Swallowed in the Ground (see Ibn Ezra 16:35)
- Died by the fire that consumed the 250 men who offered illegitimate incense
- Options 1 and 2 combined (burned and swallowed)
- Some other way (perhaps by the plague of 14,700)
The Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 110a) records a dispute between Rabbi Yohanan and a baraita about how Korah died.
א”ר יוחנן: “קרח לא מן הבלועים ולא מן השרופין, לא מן הבלועין דכתיב: ‘ואת כל האדם אשר לקרח’ – ולא קרח. ולא מן השרופים, דכתיב: ‘באכול האש את חמשים ומאתים איש’ – ולא קרח.”
R. Johanan also said: “Korah was neither of those who were swallowed up nor of those who were burnt. ‘Neither of those who were swallowed up’ — as it is written, [And the earth . . . swallowed them up. . .] and all the men that appertained unto Korah, [implying], but not Korah himself. ‘Nor of those who were burnt’ — for it is written, What time the fire devoured two hundred and fifty men, — but not Korah.”
במתניתא תנא: ‘קרח מן השרופין ומן הבלועין, מן הבלועים דכתיב ‘ותבלע אותם ואת קרח’, מן השרופיןדכתיב: ותצא אש מלפני ה’ [ואש יצאה מאת ה’] ותאכל את חמשים ומאתים איש’ – וקרח בהדייהו.
A Tanna taught in a baraita: “Korah was one of those who were swallowed up and burnt. ‘Of those who were swallowed up’ —as it is written, . . . and swallowed them up together with Korah. ‘Of those who were burnt’ — since it is written, ‘And there came out a fire from the Lord, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men [that offered incense],’ which includes Korah.”
Each of the above authorities takes an extreme position, with R. Yohanan arguing that Korah was neither swallowed nor burnt and the baraita claiming that both happened to him.
Surveying the verses in the Torah, there is serious ambiguity surrounding Korach’s death. When God tells Moshe to warn everyone to stand back from the abode of the rebellious group lest they suffer the same fate, the Torah includes Korach with Dathan and Aviram (16:24, 27).
כד דַּבֵּר אֶל הָעֵדָה, לֵאמֹר: הֵעָלוּ, מִסָּבִיב, לְמִשְׁכַּן קֹרַח, דָּתָן וַאֲבִירָם.
24 “Speak to the community and say: Withdraw from about the abodes of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.”
כז וַיֵּעָלוּ, מֵעַל מִשְׁכַּן קֹרַח דָּתָן וַאֲבִירָם מִסָּבִיב.
27 So they withdrew from about the abodes of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.
Furthermore when describing the moment of the earth swallowing the group Korach is included.
לב וַתִּפְתַּח הָאָרֶץ אֶת פִּיהָ, וַתִּבְלַע אֹתָם וְאֶת בָּתֵּיהֶם, וְאֵת כָּל הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר לְקֹרַח, וְאֵת כָּל הָרְכוּשׁ.
32 And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions.
The same basic outline appears in the summary of this account found in Numbers 26.
ט וּבְנֵי אֱלִיאָב נְמוּאֵל וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם הוּא דָתָן וַאֲבִירָם קרואי [קְרִיאֵי] הָעֵדָה אֲשֶׁר הִצּוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן בַּעֲדַת קֹרַח בְּהַצֹּתָם עַל יְהוָה. י וַתִּפְתַּח הָאָרֶץ אֶת פִּיהָ וַתִּבְלַע אֹתָם וְאֶת קֹרַח בְּמוֹת הָעֵדָה בַּאֲכֹל הָאֵשׁ אֵת חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם אִישׁ וַיִּהְיוּ לְנֵס. יא וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ.
9 The sons of Eliab were Nemuel, and Dathan and Abiram. These are the same Dathan and Abiram, chosen in the assembly, who agitated against Moses and Aaron as part of Korah’s band when they agitated against the Lord. 10 Whereupon the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with Korah—when that band died, when the fire consumed the two hundred and fifty men—and they became an example. 11 The sons of Korach, however, did not die.
And yet in Deuteronomy 11:6, there is no mention of Korach at all as having been part of this rebellion and subsequent punishment of the earth swallowing the rebels.
ו וַאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְדָתָן וְלַאֲבִירָם, בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב בֶּן רְאוּבֵן, אֲשֶׁר פָּצְתָה הָאָרֶץ אֶת פִּיהָ, וַתִּבְלָעֵם וְאֶת בָּתֵּיהֶם וְאֶת אָהֳלֵיהֶם וְאֵת כָּל הַיְקוּם אֲשֶׁר בְּרַגְלֵיהֶם, בְּקֶרֶב כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל.
6 and what He did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab son of Reuben, when the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them, along with their households, their tents, and every living thing in their train, from amidst all Israel.
Nor is there any mention of Korach in Psalms 106, where again the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram and the swallowing of the rebels is referenced.
טז וַיְקַנְאוּ לְמֹשֶׁה בַּמַּחֲנֶה לְאַהֲרֹן קְדוֹשׁ יְהוָה. יז תִּפְתַּח אֶרֶץ וַתִּבְלַע דָּתָן וַתְּכַס עַל עֲדַת אֲבִירָם. יחוַתִּבְעַר אֵשׁ בַּעֲדָתָם לֶהָבָה תְּלַהֵט רְשָׁעִים.
16 They were jealous of Moses in the camp, and of Aaron, the holy one of the Lord, 17 The earth opened and swallowed up Dathan, and covered the faction of Abiram. 18 Fire also broke out in their company, the flame burned up the wicked.
On the other hand, Numbers 17:5, when describing that the hammered fire pans were to be a reminder that no outsider may offer incense, considers Korach to have been part of the group of 250 men destroyed by heavenly fire in the incense challenge.
ה זִכָּרוֹן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִקְרַב אִישׁ זָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִזֶּרַע אַהֲרֹן הוּא, לְהַקְטִיר קְטֹרֶת, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה; וְלֹא יִהְיֶה כְקֹרַח וְכַעֲדָתוֹ
5 It was to be a reminder to the Israelites, so that no outsider—one not of Aaron’s offspring—should presume to offer incense before the Lord and suffer the fate of Korah and his band…
Numbers 27 describes Korach’s faction and their deaths, but gives no indication of how they died. Nevertheless, in the context of the book of Numbers in general, the most reasonable understanding of the reference is to the destruction of the 250 offerers of incense, perhaps together with Korach as in Numbers 17.
3 אָבִינוּ֮ מֵ֣ת בַּמִּדְבָּר֒ וְה֙וּא לֹא הָיָ֜ה בְּת֣וֹךְ הָעֵדָ֗ה הַנּוֹעָדִ֛ים עַל יְהוָ֖ה בַּעֲדַת קֹ֑רַח כִּֽי בְחֶטְא֣וֹ מֵ֔ת וּבָנִ֖ים לֹא הָ֥יוּ לֽוֹ׃
3 Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the Lord, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons.
So, according to the Torah, how did Korach die?
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