Joining Rebellions: Dathan and Abiram Merge with Korah, Leader of the Levites
Modern scholars view the rebellions of Korah and of Dathan and Abiram as originally being two separate stories that have been intertwined.
The Dathan and Abiram Rebellion
The first story is a critique of Moses initiated by the brothers Dathan and Abiram, and On ben Pelet, all members of the tribe of Reuben, descendants of the first-born son of Jacob. The fact that only the Dathan and Abiram part of the story is referenced by Moses in Deuteronomy 11:6 is a sure sign that this rebellion was once an independent account.
Following upon the declaration that the Israelites would not enter the Promised Land in their generation (Num. 14:20-25), Dathan and Abiram complain (vv. 12-14) that Moses has taken them out of Egypt, which they ironically refer to as “a land flowing with milk and honey,” the epithet for the land of Israel (see Num. 13:27), in order to let them die in the wilderness.
The rebels direct their ire against Moses and his civic leadership. The rebels refuse to report to Moses and wait in their tents. The rebellion ends when Dathan and Abiram, together with their families, are swallowed by the earth (vv. 25, 27b-34) in their tents and their followers abandon them in a panic.
The Levite Rebellion Against the Priesthood
The second story features a rebellion by Korah, a non-priest Levite, against the priestly status of Aaron and his line (vv. 3-7). Moses suggests a contest between Aaron and the Levites. Incense will be offered and God will show which side God accepts (vv. 8-11, 15-22). The rebellion is quashed when fire comes from the sky and consumes the 250 men from Korah’s group offering incense (v. 24). The concern over the status of the priestly class fits the ideology of the Priestly Source (P), which is interested in highlighting the prestige of Aaron and his descendants.
The Background to Korah’s Complaint
Korah, a Levite who shares the same grandfather (Kahat) and great-grandfather (Levi) with Moses and Aaron, is displeased that Aaron and his descendants have been singled out as priests while he (Korah), being from a different branch of the same family, has no priestly status. Understanding the story as a narrative reflection of a tension between two social institutions in ancient Israel—the Levites and the Priests (Kohanim), the question arises: How did this hierarchy of Priests over Levites come into being?
It seems that in earlier times, the entire tribe of Levi was distinguished from the other tribes of Israel; they were given no land allotment and were instead dedicated to serving the Lord, that is, attending to the cultic needs of the community.
דברים י:ח בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֗וא הִבְדִּ֤יל יְ־הוָה֙ אֶת שֵׁ֣בֶט הַלֵּוִ֔י לָשֵׂ֖את אֶת אֲר֣וֹן בְּרִית יְ־הוָ֑ה לַעֲמֹד֩ לִפְנֵ֙י יְ־הוָ֤ה לְשָֽׁרְתוֹ֙ וּלְבָרֵ֣ךְ בִּשְׁמ֔וֹ עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה: י:ט עַל כֵּ֞ן לֹֽא־הָיָ֧ה לְלֵוִ֛י חֵ֥לֶק וְנַחֲלָ֖ה עִם אֶחָ֑יו יְ־הוָה֙ ה֣וּא נַחֲלָת֔וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֶּ֛ר יְ־הוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לֽוֹ:
Deut 10:8 At that time the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant, to stand in attendance upon the Lord and to bless in His name, as is still the case. 10:9 That is why the Levites have received no hereditary portion along with their kinsmen: the Lord is their portion, as the Lord your God spoke concerning them (JPS).
It is not clear when this situation changed. According to Deuteronomy (18:1-8) all Levites—called the “Levitical priests” (a term distinctive to Deuteronomy)—serve at the altar and preside over sacrifices. The P source, however, establishes a hierarchy of religious officials, with Aaron and his descendants, the Priests, at the apex and the other Levites below them (see Num. 18:1-7). Only the Aaronides may enter the holiest parts of the sanctuary and only they may officiate at sacrifices. The other Levites served in subordinate positions in the sanctuary.
The Levites Challenge the New Elevation of the Aaronides
With this as background, it is easier to understand the Korah episode. The Korah story reflects part of the history of the growth of the priesthood. Korah’s complaint harks back to a recollection that the elevated role of Aaron and his sons was once the role of all Levites. The establishment of this new hierarchy offends the Levites and this is voiced by Korah.
By painting Korah and the Levites as rebels against God, the story teaches its readers that the position of the Aaronide Priests is a fundamental religious institution and that any implication to the contrary, even by Levites, can only be met with the fiercest resistance.
The strong defense of the elevation of Aaron and his sons as priests above the Levites points towards the supreme importance of recognizing the divinely appointed hierarchy. This, in turn, relates to the larger concern in Leviticus and Numbers to protect the sanctity of the sanctuary, limiting access to its most sacred areas to officiants with the highest level of holiness: the holiest place may be approached only by the people with the highest degree of holiness, who serve as intermediaries between the non-priestly Israelites and God.
Korah’s argument, that “all the community is holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst” (Num. 16:3)—that is, that Israel has been set apart from the other nations as God’s special people and that God dwells among them—is true, but it does not negate the need for the levels of holiness within the ranks of Israel.
The Composite Narrative
In our composite narrative, the redactor has made the Reubenites and Korah join forces. In ancient times, as often happens even today, different factions of society that target the same central authorities may easily band together to form an alliance, even though their original criticisms differ—and the redactor took advantage of this understanding of human nature in combining the two, originally separate, stories.
In its final version of the stories, the rebellions against the civic authority of Moses and the religious authority of Aaron join together, and the instigators succeed in attracting a relatively large following from more than one tribe. Since civic life and religious life were not sharply divided in ancient Israel (the idea of “secular life” did not exist and there was no separation of “church and state”), a combined assault on both is not difficult to imagine. This double rebellion is dealt with severely, with two punishments, each carried out in a supernatural manner; the earth swallows the civic rebels whereas a heavenly fire consumes the religious rebels.
Divinely-appointed Human Leaders
The story as it appears in the Torah wishes to emphasize an important principle: since Moses and Aaron were appointed by God, to undermine these divinely chosen leaders is to challenge God’s authority. Anyone who does so endangers Israel’s continued well-being. Without recognizing God as Israel’s supreme authority, Israel’s very existence is called into question. Israel needs human leaders, and these leaders are to be divinely appointed.
This does not mean that divinely-ordained leaders are perfect; neither Aaron nor Moses are painted as perfect human beings; the same is true of other biblical heroes appointed by God, like David and Solomon. Nevertheless, the Torah here teaches that it is the job of the Israelites to work with those whom God has set to lead God’s people; those who work against them, promoting their own authority over God’s, are effectively challenging God.
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June 1, 2013
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Prof. Adele Berlin is the Robert H. Smith Professor (Emerita) of Biblical Studies at the University of Maryland. She taught at Maryland since 1979 in the Jewish Studies Program, the Hebrew Program, and the English Department.
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