After the punishment of the wilderness generation for the sin of the scouts, Korah, a Levite, leads a group of people in an uprising against Moses. Their complaint seems straightforward and reasonable:
במדבר טז:ג וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב לָכֶם כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם יְ־הוָה וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל יְ־הוָה.
Num 16:3 They gathered 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?”
From our modern perspective, Korah and his followers embrace the principle of democracy and give it its clearest expression in the Bible. Already Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (1632–1677), who treated the Bible more as a historical document than holy writ, maintained that Moses made a grievous error in transferring power from the firstborn to his own tribe, and then bestowing the high priesthood upon his brother and his brother’s descendants in perpetuity. This move foments justified dissent:
The tribes would have been united by a far closer bond if all alike had possessed the right of the priesthood.
Spinoza is here suggesting that if the priesthood had remained in the hands of the first born of every family, Israel would have been a more unified people.
Korah’s group is claiming that Moses has suspiciously established his brother Aaron as the only legitimate progenitor of priests, cutting all other Israelites, including the Levites, out of the priesthood forever.
In response to Korah’s complaint, Moses sets up a divine test that will determine the legitimate representative of YHWH’s will: Aaron will light incense and the 250 leaders of Israel who came with Korah will light incense, and YHWH will choose the legitimate priest(s).
Moses then adds his own criticism of Korah’s group and their motives:
במדבר טז:ח וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל קֹרַח שִׁמְעוּ נָא בְּנֵי לֵוִי. טז:ט הַמְעַט מִכֶּם כִּי הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַקְרִיב אֶתְכֶם אֵלָיו לַעֲבֹד אֶת עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן יְ־הוָה וְלַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה לְשָׁרְתָם. טז:י וַיַּקְרֵב אֹתְךָ וְאֶת כָּל אַחֶיךָ בְנֵי לֵוִי אִתָּךְ וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם גַּם כְּהֻנָּה.
Num 16:8 Moses said further to Korah, “Hear me, sons of Levi. 16:9 Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you direct access, to perform the duties of YHWH’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? 16:10 Now that [YHWH] has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too?”
Moses never responds to the claim that “all Israel are holy,” but merely impugns the motivation of Korah and his followers, claiming that it is they who want power for themselves. They are obfuscating the truth by claiming that Moses is the one involved in a power grab.
As Moses understands things, Korah is not really interested in lofty ideals and the apparent injustice of Moses’ actions; he sees an opportunity to wrest power away from Moses’ family and take it himself.
Korah “Took”— Midrashic Approaches
Indeed, commentators grappling with what in Korah’s speech or manner implies that he is the villain of the story, and point to the awkward opening of the story, which has Korah ל.ק.ח “take,” grammatically unconnected to the rest of the sentence, as a possible hint:
במדבר טז:א וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן יִצְהָר בֶּן קְהָת בֶּן לֵוִי וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב וְאוֹן בֶּן פֶּלֶת בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן. טז:ב וַיָּקֻמוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה וַאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד אַנְשֵׁי שֵׁם.
Num 16:1 Korah son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi took, and Datan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Pelet, descendants of Reuben. 16:2 to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute.
As Don Isaac Abravanel notes (ad loc., question 1), הנה העיקר חסר מן הספר “the main element is missing from the text”: What did Korah take?
Rashi notes in his opening gloss on this passage, פרשה זו יפה נדרשת במדרש ר' תנחומא “this passage has been expounded homiletically nicely in Midrash Rabbi Tanchuma.” This midrash collection, among others, offers several homiletical interpretations, aimed at highlighting the character of Korah and his ambitions:
Tzitzit—The story of Korah follows immediately upon the passage explaining the mitzvah (commandment) of wearing bluish-purple tzitzit (ritual fringes), and the rabbis envision a lively religious debate between Moses and Korah:
מדרש תנחומה (ורשא) קרח ב קָפַץ קֹרַח וְאָמַר לְמֹשֶׁה, אַתָּה אוֹמֵר, וְנָתְנוּ עַל צִיצִת וְגוֹ' (שם). טַלִּית שֶׁכֻּלָּהּ תְּכֵלֶת, מַה הִיא שֶׁיְּהֵא פְּטוּרָה מִן הַצִּיצִית. אָמַר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה, חַיֶּבֶת בְּצִיצִית. אָמַר לוֹ קֹרַח, טַלִּית שֶׁכֻּלָּהּ תְּכֵלֶת אֵינָהּ פּוֹטֶרֶת עַצְמָהּ, וְאַרְבָּעָה חוּטִין פּוֹטֵר אוֹתָהּ.
Midrash Tanchuma (Warsaw) Korah 2 Korah jumped at the opportunity and said to Moses: “You say, ‘Place on your tzitzit [a fringe of bluish-purple].’ If a garment is entirely bluish-purple, is it exempt from tzitzit?” Moses said to him: “It is still required to place tzitzit upon it.” Korah said to him, “a garment that is entirely bluish-purple, does not exempt itself, but just four threads do exempt it?”
Korah then brings up another such paradoxical example, and ends with an accusation:
אָמַר לוֹ: דְּבָרִים אֵלּוּ לֹא נִצְטַוֵּיתָ עֲלֵיהֶם, וּמִלִּבְּךָ אַתָּה בּוֹדְאָם. הֲדָא הוּא דִּכְתִיב: וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח.
[Korah then] said to him: “You were not commanded about these things; you have made them up yourself.” That is why it says, “And Korah took.”
Here, the rabbis present Korah as a Talmudic thinker, but one who is using his acumen to prove that Moses is a fraud.
Rhetoric—Another homily envisions Korah canvassing the leadership for supporters:
מדרש תנחומה (ורשא) קרח א וַיִּקַּח, אֵין וַיִּקַּח אֶלָּא מְשִׁיכַת דְּבָרִים רַכִּים, שֶׁמָּשַׁךְ כָּל גְּדוֹלֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהַסַּנְהֶדְרָאוֹת אַחֲרָיו.
Midrash Tanchuma (Warsaw) Korah 1 “And he took”—the phrase “and he took” refers only to drawing people in with soft words, for he drew all of the nobles of Israel and the courts after him.
This presents Korah as a charismatic and perhaps manipulative figure, though not necessarily a wicked person.
The Wife of On son of Pelet Understands Korah’s Motives—Korah was not someone to be trusted as standing up for the little guy, argues Rav (3rd cent. C.E.), who imagines the wife of On son of Pelet—the man who was part of the rebellion at the beginning but then disappears from the narrative—explaining to her husband what Korah is really about:
בבלי סנהדרין קט: אמר רב: און בן פלת אשתו הצילתו ,אמרה ליה: "מאי נפקא לך מינה? אי מררבה – אנת תלמידא, ואי מר רבה – אנת תלמידא."
b. Sanhedrin 109b Rav said: On was saved by his wife. She said to him, “What does it matter to you whether Moses remains your master or Korah becomes your master? Either way, you remain a disciple.”
On’s wife saves her husband by her understanding that Korah was in it for himself, and it would not be advisable for On to support such a person. She, at least, is not fooled by Korah's proclaimed lofty ideals. This is why she insists that he remain home “sick” and avoid the confrontation altogether.
Made a Division—Targum Onkelos translates the initial verb as וְאִתְפְּלֵיג “made a division,” as does Targum Neofyti ופליג, “and he divided.” The Fragmentary Targum offers a double translation here, ונסיב עצה ופלג “he took counsel and divided.” Rashi’s interpretation is similar:
רש"י במדבר טז:א לקח עצמו לצד אחד להיות נחלק מתוך העדה לעורר על הכהונה.
Rashi Num 16:1 He took himself to one side, to be divided from the community, so he could challenge the priesthood.
Korah Was a Taker—Rabbi Josiah Derby (1913–2002), a pulpit rabbi and pioneer in the Solomon Schechter Day School movement, shared with me his own homiletical solution to the “Korah took” problem. Derby suggested that we read the verb not as referring to any particular object (like tzitzit) or person (like Datan and Abiram or the courts), but as an indication of Korah’s fundamental character trait: Korah was a taker. His ideological complaint is merely a cover for a power grab. In pursuing his goal, Korah utilizes popularist arguments that he knew would appeal to the nation at large.
Derby’s homiletic reading fits well with the midrashic claim that Korah was a wealthy man:
שמות רבה לא:ג בא וראה יש עושר שהוא עושה רע לבעליו ויש עושר שעושה טוב לבעליו, עושה רע לבעליו זה עשרו של קרח שהוא היה עשיר מכל ישראל וכתיב (במדבר טז:לג) וירדו הם וכל אשר להם חיים שאולה...
Exodus Rabbah 31:3 Come and see, there is wealth that harms its owners and wealth that benefits its owners. [An example of] wealth that harms its owners is the wealth of Korah, who was richer than all the other Israelites, as it says (Num 16:33): “And they and all that was theirs went down alive to Sheʾol…”
The Torah gives no indication that Korah was wealthy, but the rabbis here imagine a charismatic person who has amassed wealth and now wishes to amass power.
Korah Took—Peshat Approach
These various homiletical understandings build upon the unstated assumption that Korah is the villain and build on that. Medieval ancient and modern peshat approaches offer more mundane explanations for the grammatical problem in this verse, without reflecting on Korah’s character:
Took the People—R. Avraham ibn Ezra glosses the glosses the phrase ויקח קרח with the word אנשים, “people,” suggesting that the direct object of the verb is supplied from the context, namely that Korah gathered Datan and Abiram and the 250 leaders. This reading, however, requires ignoring the opening copulative in “and Datan,” reading as if it says “Korah took Datan and Abiram…”
“Hear” or “Learn”—Some contemporary peshat commentators suggest alternative ways of understanding the verb. Michael Heilprin (1823–1988) an early Reform rabbi and Hebraist, suggests following an alternative meaning of the verb, based on its meaning “a lesson,” most commonly used in Proverbs. He thus suggests that in several instances including here the verb could mean “to hear and take a lesson.” His view is quoted by the Bible commentator, Arnold Ehrlich (1848–1919), who adopts and expands upon it:
מקרא כפשוטו במדבר טז:א והחכם ההוא (=הלפרין) פירש גם ויקח קרח לשון שמיעה, והדברים שבים לדבר המקושש שנדון בסקילה על מה שהיה בעיני קרח עברה קלה, ולכן קם הוא ועדתו על משה.
Miqra Ki-Pheshuto Num 16:1 This scholar (=Helpern) also explained “Korah took” as meaning “heard” (took heed), and the verb refers to what happened with the wood gatherer, who was sentenced to death by stoning, which, in the eyes of Korah was only a small infraction. Therefore, he and his assembly stood up against Moses.
Baruch Levine, in his Anchor Bible commentary, offers a similar retranslation, “took counsel,” based on an Akkadian cognate leqû “to take.”
Other Academic Approaches— Robert Alter opts to keep the term “ambiguous,” rending it “And Korah took up.”  Others emend the text; for example, Naphtali Herz Tur-Sinai suggests that the verb was originally, ויקנאון “and they were jealous.”
Perhaps the most common critical solution is to suggest that the story is a combination of a Priestly text and a non-Priestly text with different protagonists (Korah and Datan and Abiram). In one, Korah “takes” 250 leaders, and in the other Datan and Abiram “get up” before Moses. The copulatives—“and Datan” “and 250”—were added to connect the accounts into one story, but end up making gibberish of the verb.
We Only Know Korah Is Wrong Because YHWH Said So
The peshat approaches highlight that nothing in the way Korah acted or spoke implies that he is rebelling against YHWH. Certainly, the story presents Korah as the villain: Earlier in the Torah we are told that YHWH has Moses appoint Aaron (Exod 28), and in this story (Num 16–17), YHWH goes so far as to perform miracles to show that Aaron is YHWH’s elected one and to punish Korah and his followers.
In the absence of miracles and a behind-the-scenes backstory, however, how could someone know in real time who is right? How can we discern when lofty ideals are really at the heart of an issue, and judge the arguments for each side accordingly, or when they are only being used to mask a grab for power? If we were only to look at the claims of the two sides, Korah seems more reasonable.
Doesn’t it look suspicious that Moses’ brother is appointed high priest and priestly progenitor while all the Levites, the firstborn sons, and even just regular Israelites are permanently cut off from this kind of office?! Isn’t Korah simply expressing the cornerstone idea of contemporary democracy, and calling out Moses’ nepotism in appointing his brother to the post?
Why should a bystander not think that Moses is abandoning the fundamental Jewish principle that the entire congregation is holy, by concentrating so much power in his own family? This move is especially troubling if we remember that Aaron who was personally involved in fashioning the golden calf?
Arguments for the Sake of Heaven
While Maimonides teaches us in the first chapter of his introduction to Tractate Abot (called Eight Chapters) that שמע האמת ממי שאמרה “accept the truth from whoever teaches it.” Nevertheless, in many situations we have to take under consideration the person's character and attempt to understand his or her motivations before being swayed. The same action or claim may be good or bad depending upon what is the intention underlying it.
It is often hard to tell from the rhetoric itself if a person is ingenuous or disengenuous. Korah’s naked power grab is clothed in the lofty and high-minded rhetoric of social justice or religious truth. But unlike Moses, we don’t have access to miraculous intervention or divine oracles to differentiate a sincere claim from a cynical one.
The rabbinic sages acknowledged the quandary but do not really offer a solution for how to determine a person’s motivation:
משנה אבות ה:יז כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ.
m. Abot 5:17 Any dispute joined for the sake of Heaven will in the end endure. But one not joined for the sake of Heaven will not in the end endure. What is an example of a dispute for the sake of Heaven? This is the dispute of Hillel and Shammai. And one not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korah and his people.
The rabbis note that the stakes are high, since a Korah dispute, i.e., one that is masked as ideological but is actually for personal gain, will not stand the test of time.
A clue to how to differentiate between these two types of disputes comes from a different mishnah, also reflecting on the controversies between Hillel and Shammai. After noting a dispute between the two schools of the two sages regarding what is permitted and forbidden in certain cases of levirate marriage (a childless widow marrying her deceased husband’s brother), we read:
משנה יבמות א:ד אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁאֵלּוּ אוֹסְרִין וְאֵלּוּ מַתִּירִין, אֵלּוּ פּוֹסְלִין וְאֵלּוּ מַכְשִׁירִין, לֹא נִמְנְעוּ בֵּית שַׁמַּאי מִלִּשָּׂא נָשִׁים מִבֵּית הִלֵּל, וְלֹא בֵית הִלֵּל מִבֵּית שַׁמַּאי.
m. Yebamot 1:4 Even though these forbid and those permit, these deem unfit and these deem fit— the House of Shammai did not refrain from taking wives from the House of Hillel, and the House of Hillel did not refrain from taking wives from the House of Shammai.
With regard to these two mishnayot, a colleague of mine told me a poignant story: On one of his travels, he met two chasidim who belonged to a dynasty which currently is suffering a severe schism in its midst. They saw him studying Talmud in the airport lounge, and they fell into conversation.
The chasidim related to him that the schism has become so severe that members of one faction will have nothing to do with members of the other, neither marrying them or doing business with them. My colleague was surprised by this and cited the Mishnah about the schools of Hillel and Shammai.
“I see you missed the main point,” the elder Chasid responded to my colleague's perplexity. “What else does the Mishnah tell us about the controversies between Hillel and Shammai? – They were for the sake of heaven. When a controversy is for the sake of heaven, then neither party has any difficulty in maintaining close ties with the other, both sides united in their quest for truth even if they do not see eye to eye. But when the controversy is not for the sake of heaven, as is the case here, but for the sake of wealth and power, then neither side wants to have anything to do with the other.”
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Prof. Haim (Howard) Kreisel is professor emeritus in the Department of Jewish Thought, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Among his books are Maimonides’ Political Thought and Prophecy: The History of an Idea in Medieval Jewish Philosophy.
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