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SBL e-journal

Jason Gaines

(

2017

)

.

Korah's Poetic Rebellion and God's Flowery Response

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TheTorah.com

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https://thetorah.com/article/korahs-poetic-rebellion-and-gods-flowery-response

APA e-journal

Jason Gaines

,

,

,

"

Korah's Poetic Rebellion and God's Flowery Response

"

TheTorah.com

(

2017

)

.

https://thetorah.com/article/korahs-poetic-rebellion-and-gods-flowery-response

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Korah's Poetic Rebellion and God's Flowery Response

A new analysis of compositional layers suggests that God responds to Korah’s rebellion with patience and beauty—until someone changed the ending.

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Korah's Poetic Rebellion and God's Flowery Response

Moses shows Aaron’s blossoming staff to the Israelites. Cornelis Huyberts, after Gerard Hoet 1720 – 1728. Rijksmuseum

The famous story of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram’s rebellion is confusing to read; the editors of TheTorah.com list twenty-one questions that studying the texts elicits. The Classical Documentary Hypothesis resolves many of these issues, suggesting that the Torah text is “unreadable” because it combines two stories (usually attributed to two documents called the Yahwist [J] source and the Priestly [P] source).[1]

The Priestly Version: A Summary

As opposed to the redacted (combined J and P) version of the rebellion and punishment found in Numbers 16–17, the isolated Priestly version (included in the appendix) of the story is coherent and readable.[2] In this narrative, Korah leads a group of Levites and two hundred and fifty elders to challenge Moses’s appointment of Aaron as high priest. After rebuking Korah, Moses tells the chieftains and Korah to show up with firepans filled with incense and light them; Aaron will do the same and God will choose. Korah’s band does this, and God burns them up. Aaron’s son Eleazar is then told to gather the pans, smelt them down, and use them as plating for the altar.

The people then come to complain about the death of the elders, and God brings a plague against them. Aaron stands in the midst of the plague with an incense pan to protect the Israelites, and the plague stops. God then has a representative from each tribe bring his staff and write his name on it, and God will show which tribe he chooses by making the staff flower. Aaron’s staff flowers. The people panic, saying they are all going to die, and God calms them by saying that the Levites will be in charge of the Tabernacle; the people will be safe from God’s wrath.

Confusing Details

Even within the Priestly narrative, several plot points remain inconsistent:

  • Why are the assembled men angry at Moses? Is it because Moses exalts himself over them in 16:3 or because Moses denies them the priesthood in 16:10?
  • How many days does this story span, and what does the text mean by “tomorrow”? Moses tells Korah and his rebels to be present before YHWH “tomorrow” (16:16), but the first narrative note that tomorrow has arrived comes only after Korah and the rebels have died, just before the other Israelites complain (17:6).[3]
  • How many people die in God’s various punishments? Verse 16:35 puts the total dead at two hundred and fifty, but if Korah dies along with the chosen men of the assembly, the number of dead should be two hundred and fifty-one.

Repetitive Writing Style

Furthermore, why is the writing style so repetitive in places?

  • Our narrator tells us that Korah recruits (16:2aβ):
נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה
קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד
אַנְשֵׁי שֵׁם
“Leaders of the community,”
“Chosen men of the assembly,”
“Men of repute” [4]
  • Moses says in 16:5,
 וְאֶת הַקָּדוֹשׁ וְהִקְרִיב אֵלָיו
וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר בּוֹ יַקְרִיב אֵלָיו.
“The one who is holy may approach him;
The one whom he chooses, he may approach him.”
  • Concerning the Levites (16:9), God
הִבְדִּיל… אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל
לְהַקְרִיב אֶתְכֶם אֵלָיו
וְלַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה.
“has separated you from the community of Israel,”
“allowed you to approach him,”
“stood you before the community.”

Why does the text convey similar information so many different ways?

Plot Inconsistencies

Most importantly, why does the story contain two scenes where God indicates whom he chooses? Moses tells Korah, “By morning, YHWH will make known who is his; the one who is holy may approach him; the one whom he chooses, he may approach him” (16:5). Then, God incinerates the insurgents, showing God’s choice of Moses and Aaron. Why then is there a need for the trial of the twelve staffs, where God shows his choice of Aaron’s tribe by causing Aaron’s staff to sprout flowers?

Similarly, in the episode of the staffs, God says that “the man whom I choose, his staff shall sprout; thus I will rid myself of the grumblings of the Israelites” (17:20). But God has already dispatched the grumblers by sending a plague!

Thus, separating the Priestly (P) verses from the non-P (or J) verses answers many of the questions raised by reading the text as it appears in the Torah. However, it does not solve all of the problems. (The appendix, “Priestly Korah Story Annotated with Questions,” lists many other questions and inconsistencies that arise when reading P in isolation.)

Priestly Strata

If separating between J and P makes the story of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram more readable by separating between the Korah story and the Datan and Abiram story, might identifying multiple authors in P itself produce answers to any of our questions? Indeed, scholars have identified strata inside the Priestly source by noting changes in vocabulary and ideology; positing multiple layers of Priestly composition can explain internal contradictions inside the Priestly source.[5] For example, Israel Knohl breaks down Numbers 16 into an original Priestly text and a supplementary layer written by authors called the Holiness School (see “Korah, Datan and Abiram: Documentary and Redactional Approach,” TheTorah.com).

The most widely accepted stratum inside P is called the Holiness Legislation, found in Leviticus 17–26. These chapters are priestly, but they have a different vocabulary and theology from the most other Priestly passages. Knohl argues that in Numbers 16–17, the original Priestly source, which he calls the Priestly Torah (PT), told the story of a rebellion against Moses by two hundred and fifty men, led by an unknown leader. A later group of author/editors, members of the Holiness School (HS), combined PT with a similar non-Priestly rebellion story and recast the story as a Levite rebellion.[6]

However, I propose a different method for separating between layers in P based on stylistic criteria.

Writing Style

When distinguishing between compositional strata in P (and the Torah in general), I consider compositional style to be a significant criterion. As already noted above, parts of P are highly repetitive. The author seems to say the same thing multiple times. However, other parts of P show little or no repetition or restatement. The repetitive writing is, in my view, a form of poetic writing—parallelism—and I propose that different authors wrote the poetic and prosaic parts of P.

Parallelism: In synonymous parallelism, an author repeats a single idea in multiple cola using different terminology. In Psalm 126:2, the poet says that when God restores the fortunes of Zion,
אָז יִמָּלֵא שְׂחוֹק פִּינוּ
וּלְשׁוֹנֵנוּ רִנָּה
Our mouths will be filled with laughter
And our tongues, with joy.
The psalmist tells us the single idea—we will be happy—using two complementary images (laughing and joyfully singing or shouting). These two images parallel each other.[7]

Poetic-P

The author uses synonymous parallelism to describe Korah taking “leaders of the community, those chosen from the assembly, men of repute” (v. 2):

נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה
קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד
אַנְשֵׁי שֵׁם.
Leaders of the community,
Those chosen from the assembly,
Men of repute.

This is not technically a line of poetry, but it contains parallelism and is poetic. Since the text is Priestly and poetic, I attribute it to a source document I call “Poetic-P.”

Prosaic-P

In 16:6-7, Moses tells Korah and his men:

זֹאת עֲשׂוּ קְחוּ לָכֶם מַחְתּוֹת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ וּתְנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וְשִׂימוּ עֲלֵיהֶן קְטֹרֶת לִפְנֵי יְהוָה מָחָר.
Do this: take for yourselves firepans, Korah and all his company, and tomorrow put fire in them, and lay incense on them before YHWH.

The action is progressive, a list of things to do in a certain order. The clauses are not repetitive, therefore, but rather each clause advances the action. These verses are prose with no parallelism. Such verses belong to what I call “Prosaic-P.” What is the relationship between these two versions of P?

The Relationship between Poetic-P and Prosaic-P

In my book The Poetic Priestly Source, I propose that P underwent several stages of development. In its first stage, priestly authors composed a poetic version of Israelite history, covering creation to Moses’s death. These authors likely lived in Babylon, and they utilized the poetic and parallelistic compositional style of Mesopotamian myths like the Epic of Gilgamesh.

In a second stage of textual development, later priestly authors found the poetic version to be incomplete, imprecise, and sometimes ideologically unsound. This second group of authors altered Poetic-P, inserting new plot points, clarifying confusing details, enhancing vague language, and “fixing” theological problems in the text. This process explains the inconsistencies in the Priestly text of the Korah story well.[8]

The Storyline in Poetic-P

In the original poetic version of the story, Korah and gathered leaders of the community protest against Moses and Aaron. They complain that the prophet and priest have elevated themselves inappropriately above the rest of the community; “all Israelites are holy,” the rebels claim. Moses says that by the following morning, God will make known whom he chooses to be holiest.

YHWH commands Moses to bring a staff representing each of the twelve tribes into the Tabernacle, where they remain overnight. In the morning, Moses retrieves the staffs and finds that Aaron’s has sprouted blossoms; God has made his choice known. The people who witness the miracle react with fear, and they continue to complain. However, no one has died or even been injured.

Prosaic-P Supplementations

Ancient authors apparently had two categories of objections to the original storyline in Poetic-P. First, parts of the story are imprecise. Who is Korah? Are the rebels Israelites or specifically Levites? Why do the Israelites recoil in fear at the flowering staff? Why does God wish to rid himself of the Israelites “grumbling” when the text does not label the insurrectionists’ protests as “grumbling” to begin with?

Second, the ideology is objectionable. Can the hoi polloi really accuse God’s chosen prophet of high crimes and escape unscathed? Is there truly no penalty for questioning the authority of the high priest?

In the first case, the authors of Prosaic-P add clarifying details that fill gaps left in Poetic-P’s plot. In the second, the later prosaic authors add a series of dire consequences for the Israelites’ impudence and impertinence. Both types of supplementation likely occurred in multiple stages, perhaps spanning multiple generations.

The Gentle Theology of the Poetic Original

According to this reconstruction, God’s response to Korah and the rebels in the older text was gentle and even beautiful. They complained that Moses and Aaron were acting as if they were chosen specially by God, and God responds by manifesting that choice visually with flower blossoms. The original story was not one of death—by fire, plague, or anything else. Rather, the Israelites needed a sign, and God gave them an elegant one.

Later Torah authors and editors found this story to be ideologically dangerous; a person should not be able to insult God’s chosen prophet and high priest and suffer no consequences. The prosaic authors therefore add incineration and, later, infection as ramifications for questioning authority. A conciliatory God becomes a fire-and-brimstone God.

Intentionally Gentle

We see a similar trend in the creation story. The Garden of Eden story (Gen. 2:4b—3:24)—a J text—ends with YHWH cursing humanity with hard work and pain. In contrast, the Six Days of Creation story (Gen. 1:1—2:4a)—mostly Poetic-P—ends with God blessing humanity (1:28). I believe that the authors of the Six Days story are familiar with the Garden of Eden story, and they disapprove of seeing humanity as cursed. They therefore present an alternative story where humans rule the earth and receive God’s blessing.

In the Korah story, Poetic-P’s authors were familiar with the non-P (J) version of the story, where God punishes rebellion by opening a hole in the earth into which insurgents fall and perish. Poetic-P presents an alternate version that shows God treating insurrection as a teachable moment, not as a time to kill.

Dividing the Text: A Detailed Analysis

In the following breakdown, the original poetic version of the Priestly Korah story appears in black. The prosaic additions appear in blue. I indent Poetic-P to highlight its parallelism.[9]

The prosaic authors make two types of insertions: small glosses slipped into poetic sentences, and large self-contained passages. Imagine editing a work document forwarded to you by a colleague. You might sometimes clarify a single phrase, other times add entire new paragraphs.

1a וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן יִצְהָר בֶּן קְהָת בֶּן לֵוִי וַאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
16:1a And now did take Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, and the Israelite men,
2aβ חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם
2aβ two hundred and fifty of them—
נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה
leaders of the community,
קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד
those chosen from the assembly,
אַנְשֵׁי שֵׁם
men of repute—
3 וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן
3 and they assembled against Moses and Aaron,
וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם
and they said to them,
רַב לָכֶם
“You have gone too far!
כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים
All of the community—all of them—are holy,
וּבְתוֹכָם יְהוָה
and YHWH is in their midst.
וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל יְהוָה
Why then do you exalt yourself above YHWH’s assembly?”

The prosaic authors add a patronymic for Korah, introducing him more fully. Poetic-P identifies Korah as a Levite in 16:8, and this gloss clarifies his lineage. Such supplementation happens frequently, where Poetic-P identifies a character simply (Noah is just “Noah” in Gen. 6:9), and Prosaic-P adds ancestry (Gen. 5:28-32).

The exact complaint is unclear in the poetic text; what does it mean to “exalt” oneself above YHWH’s assembly? Later prosaic authors address this ambiguity.

4 וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה וַיִּפֹּל עַל פָּנָיו
4 Moses heard and fell on his face [his face fell],
5 וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל קֹרַח
5 and he spoke to Korah
וְאֶל כָּל עֲדָתוֹ לֵאמֹר
and to his community, saying,
בֹּקֶר וְיֹדַע יְהוָה אֶת אֲשֶׁר לוֹ
“By morning, YHWH will make known who is his;
וְאֶת הַקָּדוֹשׁ וְהִקְרִיב אֵלָיו
the one who is holy may approach him;
וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר בּוֹ יַקְרִיב אֵלָיו
the one whom he chooses, he may approach him.

The small addition of Moses becoming crestfallen clarifies the seriousness of Moses’s reaction.

6 זֹאת עֲשׂוּ קְחוּ לָכֶם מַחְתּוֹת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ 7 וּתְנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וְשִׂימוּ עֲלֵיהֶן קְטֹרֶת לִפְנֵי יְהוָה מָחָר וְהָיָה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה הוּא הַקָּדוֹשׁ רַב לָכֶם בְּנֵי לֵוִי
6 “Do this: take for yourselves firepans, Korah and all his company, 7 and tomorrow put fire in them, and lay incense on them before YHWH; and the man whom YHWH chooses shall be the one who is holy. You Levites have gone too far!”

In this addition, Prosaic-P adds a new ritual that will demonstrate whom God chooses. As opposed to the ritual of the flowering staff, the firepan ordeal will be dangerous. This addition raises the stakes of the story significantly.

8 וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל קֹרַח
8 Then Moses said to Korah,
שִׁמְעוּ נָא בְּנֵי לֵוִי
“Hear now, Levites!
9 הַמְעַט מִכֶּם כִּי הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
9 Is it not enough for you that has separated, the God of Israel,
אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל
you from the community of Israel,
לְהַקְרִיב אֶתְכֶם אֵלָיו
[to allow you] to approach him,
לַעֲבֹד אֶת עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן יְהוָה
to perform the service of YHWH’s tabernacle,
וְלַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה לְשָׁרְתָם
and to stand before the community and serve them?
10 וַיַּקְרֵב אֹתְךָ וְאֶת כָּל אַחֶיךָ בְנֵי לֵוִי אִתָּךְ וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם גַּם כְּהֻנָּה
10 Even though he allows you to approach him, and all your fellow Levites with you, you seek also the priesthood?!
11 לָכֵן אַתָּה וְכָל עֲדָתְךָ הַנֹּעָדִים עַל יְהוָה
11 Indeed, you and all your company have banded together against YHWH.
וְאַהֲרֹן מַה הוּא כִּי תִלּוֹנוּ עָלָיו
And Aaron—what is he that you rail against him?”

The prosaic insertion clarifies the insurrections’ objection: they are not satisfied to be Levites, but rather they also desire to become priests.

15 וַיִּחַר לְמֹשֶׁה מְאֹד
15 Moses was very angry,
וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל יְהוָה אַל תֵּפֶן אֶל מִנְחָתָם
and he said to YHWH, “Pay no attention to their offering.
לֹא חֲמוֹר אֶחָד מֵהֶם נָשָׂאתִי
Not one donkey have I taken from them,
וְלֹא הֲרֵעֹתִי אֶת אַחַד מֵהֶם
and I have not harmed any one of them.”

Moses simply protests his general innocence in Poetic-P; this does not, however, address the charge of Moses “exalting” himself. When Prosaic-P adds the firepan ritual, it also updates Moses’s dialogue.

16 וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל קֹרַח
16 Moses said to Korah,
אַתָּה וְכָל עֲדָתְךָ הֱיוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה
“You and all your company, be present before YHWH
אַתָּה וָהֵם וְאַהֲרֹן מָחָר
—you and they and Aaron—tomorrow.
17 ‏וּקְחוּ אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וּנְתַתֶּם עֲלֵיהֶם קְטֹרֶת וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם מַחְתֹּת וְאַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ ‎18‏ וַיִּקְחוּ אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ עֲלֵיהֶם אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עֲלֵיהֶם קְטֹרֶת וַיַּעַמְדוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּמֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן ‎19‏ וַיַּקְהֵל עֲלֵיהֶם קֹרַח אֶת כָּל הָעֵדָה אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד יְהוָה אֶל כָּל הָעֵדָה
17 Each one of you take his firepan and put incense on it, and each one of you bring his censer before YHWH, two hundred fifty firepans; you and Aaron also, each his firepan.” 18 Each man took his firepan, and put fire on them and laid incense on them, and stood at the entrance of the tent of meeting, as did Moses and Aaron. 19 Then Korah assembled the whole community against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And YHWH’s Presence appeared to the whole community.
20 וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר 21 הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת וַאַכַלֶּה אֹתָם כְּרָגַע 22 וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל פְּנֵיהֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵל אֱלֹהֵי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל בָּשָׂר הָאִישׁ אֶחָד יֶחֱטָא וְעַל כָּל הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף
20 Then YHWH spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 21 “Separate yourselves from this community, so that I may consume them in an instant. 22 They fell on their faces and said, “O God, the God of the breath of all flesh, when one person sins, do you become angry with the whole community?”
23 וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר 24aγ  דַּבֵּר אֶל הָעֵדָה לֵאמֹר הֵעָלוּ מִסָּבִיב לְמִשְׁכַּן קֹרַח 27a וַיֵּעָלוּ מֵעַל מִשְׁכַּן קֹרֶח מִסָּבִיב 35 וְאֵשׁ יָצְאָה מֵאֵת יְהוָה וַתֹּאכַל אֵת הַחֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם אִישׁ מַקְרִיבֵי הַקְּטֹרֶת
23 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, 24aγ “Say to the congregation: Withdraw from Korah’s dwelling.” 27a So they withdrew from Korah’s dwelling. 35 A fire went forth from YHWH and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense.

Poetic-P tells us that we will know whom God chooses tomorrow, but without any narrative note that a day passes; the firepan ritual of Prosaic-P makes clear God’s choice. The rebels die, and it seems as though the situation should be resolved.

17:1‏ וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר 2‏ אֱמֹר אֶל אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן וְיָרֵם אֶת הַמַּחְתֹּת מִבֵּין הַשְּׂרֵפָה וְאֶת הָאֵשׁ זְרֵה הָלְאָה כִּי קָדֵשׁוּ 3‏ אֵת מַחְתּוֹת הַחַטָּאִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּנַפְשֹׁתָם וְעָשׂוּ אֹתָם רִקֻּעֵי פַחִים צִפּוּי לַמִּזְבֵּחַ כִּי הִקְרִיבֻם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה וַיִּקְדָּשׁוּ וְיִהְיוּ לְאוֹת לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל 4‏ וַיִּקַּח אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן אֵת מַחְתּוֹת הַנְּחֹשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיבוּ הַשְּׂרֻפִים וַיְרַקְּעוּם צִפּוּי לַמִּזְבֵּחַ5‏ זִכָּרוֹן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִקְרַב אִישׁ זָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִזֶּרַע אַהֲרֹן הוּא לְהַקְטִיר קְטֹרֶת לִפְנֵי יְהוָה וְלֹא יִהְיֶה כְקֹרַח וְכַעֲדָתוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה לוֹ
17:1 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to Eleazar son of Aaron the priest that he may remove the firepans from out of the blaze and scatter the fire [ashes] far away, for they are holy. 3 The firepans of those who sinned at the cost of their lives, make them into hammered plates as a covering for the altar, for they have been offered before YHWH; they have become sacred. They shall be a sign to the Israelites. 4 Eleazar the priest took the copper firepans that the burned men had offered, and he hammered them as a covering for the altar 5 as a reminder for the Israelites that no outsider—one not of Aaron’s seed—shall approach to offer incense before YHWH, so as not to be like Korah and his company, just as YHWH had told him by Moses’s hand.

This passage, which has long been considered an addition to the original Priestly document,[11] answers the question of what becomes of the firepans made holy through their contact with the divine.

6 וַיִּלֹּנוּ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמָּחֳרָת עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר אַתֶּם הֲמִתֶּם אֶת עַם יְהוָה 7 וַיְהִי בְּהִקָּהֵל הָעֵדָה עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן וַיִּפְנוּ אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְהִנֵּה כִסָּהוּ הֶעָנָן וַיֵּרָא כְּבוֹד יְהוָה
6 On the next day, the whole congregation of the Israelites grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed YHWH’s people.” 7 When the company assembled against Moses and Aaron, they turned toward the tent of meeting; the cloud covered it, and YHWH’s Presence appeared.
8‏ וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶל פְּנֵי אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד9‏ וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר 10‏ הֵרֹמּוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם כְּרָגַע וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל פְּנֵיהֶם 11‏ וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל אַהֲרֹן קַח אֶת הַמַּחְתָּה וְתֶן עָלֶיהָ אֵשׁ מֵעַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְשִׂים קְטֹרֶת וְהוֹלֵךְ מְהֵרָה אֶל הָעֵדָה וְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיהֶם כִּי יָצָא הַקֶּצֶף מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה הֵחֵל הַנָּגֶף 12‏ וַיִּקַּח אַהֲרֹן כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה וַיָּרָץ אֶל תּוֹך הַקָּהָל וְהִנֵּה הֵחֵל הַנֶּגֶף בָּעָם וַיִּתֵּן אֶת הַקְּטֹרֶת וַיְכַפֵּר עַל הָעָם 13‏ וַיַּעֲמֹד בֵּין הַמֵּתִים וּבֵין הַחַיִּים וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה 14‏ וַיִּהְיוּ הַמֵּתִים בַּמַּגֵּפָה אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר אֶלֶף וּשְׁבַע מֵאוֹת מִלְּבַד הַמֵּתִים עַל דְּבַר קֹרַח 15‏ וַיָּשָׁב אַהֲרֹן אֶל מֹשֶׁה אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְהַמַּגֵּפָה נֶעֱצָרָה
8 Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting.9 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Withdraw from this congregation, so that I may consume them in an instant.” They fell on their faces. 11 Moses said to Aaron, “Take your firepan, put on it fire from the altar, lay [on it] incense, and take it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them. For wrath has gone out from YHWH: the plague has begun.” 12 So Aaron took it as Moses had said, and he ran into the middle of the assembly, for indeed, the plague had begun among the people. He put on the incense and made atonement for the people. 13 He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was contained. 14 Those who died by the plague were fourteen thousand seven hundred, apart from those who died in the Korah matter. 15 Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance of the tent of meeting; the plague was contained.

This long insertion fills a major gap in Poetic-P, namely that God wishes to “rid from myself the grumblings (תְּלֻנּוֹת) of the Israelites” (17:20), even though Korah and his men do not specifically “grumble”; instead, they only “rise up” (וַיָּקֻמוּ). The plague both adds the required grumbling to the narrative and reinforces the consequences of complaining against God and God’s representatives.

‏ 16וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר 
16 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, 
17‏ דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
17 “Say to the Israelites:
וְקַח מֵאִתָּם מַטֶּה
Take from them a staff,
מַטֶּה לְבֵית אָב מֵאֵת כָּל נְשִׂיאֵהֶם
a staff from the ancestral house of all of their leaders,
לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר
from their ancestral houses, twelve staffs.
מַטּוֹת אִישׁ אֶת שְׁמוֹ תִּכְתֹּב עַל מַטֵּהוּ
Write each man’s name on his staff,
18‏ וְאֵת שֵׁם אַהֲרֹן תִּכְתֹּב עַל מַטֵּה לֵוִי
18 and write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi,
כִּי מַטֶּה אֶחָד לְרֹאשׁ בֵּית אֲבוֹתָם 
indeed, one staff for each head of their ancestral houses.
19‏ וְהִנַּחְתָּם בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדוּת
19 Place them in the tent of meeting before the covenant,
אֲשֶׁר אִוָּעֵד לָכֶם שָׁמָּה
the place where I meet with you.
20‏ וְהָיָה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר אֶבְחַר בּוֹ מַטֵּהוּ יִפְרָח
20 The man whom I choose, his staff shall sprout;
 וַהֲשִׁכֹּתִי מֵעָלַי אֶת תְּלֻנּוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
thus I will rid from myself the grumblings of the Israelites,
אֲשֶׁר הֵם מַלִּינִם עֲלֵיכֶם
which they continually grumble against you.

After a long insertion (or series of insertions), we return to the original Poetic-P story of God making known whom he chooses. The only prosaic addition is a point of clarification, that the staff sprouting will signify the choice. While this point might seem obvious, Prosaic-P makes a habit of clarifying any point that might cause confusion.

21 וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּתְּנוּ אֵלָיו כָּל נְשִׂיאֵיהֶם מַטֶּה לְנָשִׂיא אֶחָד מַטֶּה לְנָשִׂיא אֶחָד לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר מַטּוֹת וּמַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן בְּתוֹךְ מַטּוֹתָם 22 וַיַּנַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַמַּטֹּת לִפְנֵי יְהוָה בְּאֹהֶל הָעֵדֻת
21 Moses spoke to the Israelites, and all their leaders gave him a staff, one staff for each leader, from their ancestral houses, twelve staffs; Aaron’s staff was among their staffs. 22 Moses laid down the staffs before YHWH in the tent of the covenant.

Here, Prosaic-P narrates Moses following through on God’s commandments, another common type of addition in the prosaic stratum. The poetic layer assumes that the audience will understand that Moses followed God’s instructions, while the prosaic layer clarifies that this is indeed so.

23 וַיְהִי מִמָּחֳרָת
23 On the morrow,
וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה אֶל אֹהֶל הָעֵדוּת
Moses went into the tent of the covenant.
וְהִנֵּה פָּרַח מַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן לְבֵית לֵוִי
Indeed, Aaron’s staff for the house of Levi had sprouted;
וַיֹּצֵא פֶרַח וַיָּצֵץ צִיץ
it had sprouted a flower, produced blossoms,
וַיִּגְמֹל שְׁקֵדִים
and borne ripe almonds!
24 וַיֹּצֵא מֹשֶׁה אֶת כָּל הַמַּטֹּת מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה אֶל כָּל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּרְאוּ וַיִּקְחוּ אִישׁ מַטֵּהוּ
24 Then Moses brought out all the staffs from before YHWH to all the Israelites. They looked, and each man took his staff.
25 וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה
25 And YHWH said to Moses,
הָשֵׁב אֶת מַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן לִפְנֵי הָעֵדוּת
“Return Aaron’s staff before the covenant,
לְמִשְׁמֶרֶת לְאוֹת לִבְנֵי מֶרִי
to be guarded as a sign to rebels,
וּתְכַל תְּלוּנֹּתָם מֵעָלַי וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ
to put an end to their grumbling against me,that they will not die.”
26 וַיַּעַשׂ מֹשֶׁה כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֹתוֹ כֵּן עָשָׂה
26 Moses did so; just as YHWH commanded him, so he did.
27 וַיֹּאמְרוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵאמֹר
27 The Israelites spoke to Moses, saying,
הֵן גָּוַעְנוּ אָבַדְנוּ
“We are perishing, we are lost;
כֻּלָּנוּ אָבָדְנוּ
all of us are lost!
28 כֹּל הַקָּרֵב הַקָּרֵב אֶל מִשְׁכַּן יְהוָה יָמוּת
28 Everyone who approaches YHWH’s tabernacle will die.
הַאִם תַּמְנוּ לִגְוֹע
Will our perishing ever end?”

The ending of Poetic-P is confusing, as nothing God has done in the poetic text should cause the Israelites to fear approaching the Tabernacle. In Poetic-P, this confusion is part of the point of the story. The Israelites are like tired, irritable children who grumble and groan even when their complaints make little sense. (Similarly, no amount of food or water that God provides stops the Israelites from whining about their hunger and thirst.) The authors of Prosaic-P found this incongruous ending intolerable, and so they changed it.

The earlier prosaic insertions add death as a consequence for grumbling, reinforced by a gloss at the end of v. 25. Verses 24 and 26 add explicit narration to the poetic base.

Answering Questions

The proposed stratification addresses our earlier questions (listed briefly above and in detail in the appendix, “Priestly Korah Story Annotated with Questions“) in three main ways. First, it explains contradictory elements by showing that they originate in different textual layers. For example, Moses and Aaron are both at the tent of meeting in Prosaic-P’s inserted text (17:15), but only Moses is there in Poetic-P (17:16). Or, it provides a reason for the switch from second person (Poetic-P, 16:4-5) to third person (Prosaic-P, 16:6). The problem of the confusing “tomorrow”s disappears, as the poetic stratum contains only one (as the staff sprouts overnight). The story only became a multi-day event with the insertion of the prose additions.

Second, understanding some lines as parallel explains apparent contradictions. In the poetic original, the phrase “Korah and the Israelite men” is parallel to the number “two hundred and fifty” in 16:1-2:

וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח וַאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
And now did take Korah and the Israelite men,
חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם
two hundred and fifty of them—
נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה
leaders of the community,
קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד
those chosen from the assembly,
אַנְשֵׁי שֵׁם
men of repute—

The total number is therefore still only two hundred and fifty, not two hundred and fifty-one. When Prosaic-P authors add the patronymic information for Korah (son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi), they break the parallel structure and introduce confusion over the number of people present.

Similarly, Moses’s odd protestation that he has never stolen a donkey becomes clearer:

לֹא חֲמוֹר אֶחָד מֵהֶם
“Not one donkey have I taken from them,
נָשָׂאתִי וְלֹא הֲרֵעֹתִי אֶת אַחַד מֵהֶם
and I have not harmed any one of them.”

If the sentence is read as parallel, it creates a merism, a rhetorical device in which two contrasting images imply totality. (If a zoo claims to have animals “from aardvarks to zebras,” the A-animal and Z-animal imply that the zoo has animals for every letter in between.) Moses suggests, “I have transgressed neither property nor personal rights,” meaning “I have done nothing wrong.”

Third, this stratification shows how almost any text is ambiguous, and that early authors tried to redress these ambiguities. (Later rabbinic interpreters embark on a similar process, but instead of inserting clarifying text into the Torah itself, they create parallel commentaries to be read in conjunction with the ambiguous text.) The poetic stratum tells us that the Israelites “grumble” (17:20) but does not show them doing so explicitly. The prosaic authors therefore introduce a story where the Israelites grumble explicitly (and die in a plague for doing so). Moses calls Korah and his band “Levites” in 16:8, yet Poetic-P had not previously identified them as such. The prosaic additions clarify this detail. The Israelites fear for their lives after seeing the staff, but God has given them no cause for alarm. The Israelites’ histrionics seem more logical when the story involves death and destruction.

Appendix

Priestly Korah Story Annotated with Questions

Here is the entirety of the Priestly story of Korah’s rebellion and its aftermath. The English translation is sometimes awkward in order to highlight parallelism.

16:1a וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן יִצְהָר בֶּן קְהָת בֶּן לֵוִי 2aβ וַאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד אַנְשֵׁי שֵׁם 3וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב לָכֶם כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם יְהוָה וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל יְהוָה
16:1a And now did take Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, and the Israelite men, 2aβ two hundred and fifty of them—leaders of the community, chosen ones from the assembly, men of repute—3 and they assembled against Moses and Aaron, and they said to them, “You have gone too far! All of the community—all of them—are holy, and YHWH is in their midst. Why then do you exalt yourself above YHWH’s assembly?”
  • Korah recruits “leaders of the community,” “chosen men of the assembly,” and “men of repute.” Why does our narrator use such repetitive language?
  • Keep in mind that the assembled men (called “Israelites”) are angry at Moses because, they claim, “you exalt yourself above” other Israelites (v. 3).
  • What does Korah “take” in 16:1?
4 וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה וַיִּפֹּל עַל פָּנָיו 5 וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל קֹרַח וְאֶל כָּל עֲדָתוֹ לֵאמֹר בֹּקֶר וְיֹדַע יְהוָה אֶת אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וְאֶת הַקָּדוֹשׁ וְהִקְרִיב אֵלָיו וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר בּוֹ יַקְרִיב אֵלָיו
4 Moses heard and fell on his face, 5 and he spoke to Korah and to his community, saying, “By morning, YHWH will make known who is his; the one who is holy, he will draw near to him; the one whom he chooses, he will draw near to him
  • Once again, the language in v. 5 is repetitive.
6 זֹאת עֲשׂוּ קְחוּ לָכֶם מַחְתּוֹת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ 7 וּתְנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וְשִׂימוּ עֲלֵיהֶן קְטֹרֶת לִפְנֵי יְהוָה מָחָר וְהָיָה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה הוּא הַקָּדוֹשׁ רַב לָכֶם בְּנֵי לֵוִי
6 “Do this: take for yourselves firepans, Korah and all his company, 7 and tomorrow put fire in them, and lay incense on them before YHWH; and the man whom YHWH chooses shall be the one who is holy. You Levites have gone too far!”
  • If Moses is already speaking to Korah in vv. 6-7, why does v. 8 below again say, “Then Moses said to Korah”?
8 וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל קֹרַח שִׁמְעוּ נָא בְּנֵי לֵוִי 9 הַמְעַט מִכֶּם כִּי הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַקְרִיב אֶתְכֶם אֵלָיו לַעֲבֹד אֶת עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן יְהוָה וְלַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה לְשָׁרְתָם 10וַיַּקְרֵב אֹתְךָ וְאֶת כָּל אַחֶיךָ בְנֵי לֵוִי אִתָּךְ וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם גַּם כְּהֻנָּה 11 לָכֵן אַתָּה וְכָל עֲדָתְךָ הַנֹּעָדִים עַל יְהוָה וְאַהֲרֹן מַה הוּא כִּי תִלּוֹנוּ עָלָיו
8 Then Moses said to Korah, “Hear now, Levites! 9 Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the community of Israel, [to allow you] to approach him, to perform the service of YHWH’s tabernacle, and to stand before the community and serve them? 10 Even though he allows you to approach him, and all your fellow Levites with you, you seek also the priesthood?! 11 Indeed, you and all your company have banded together against YHWH. And Aaron—what is he that you rail against him?”
  • Verse 9 is, once again, repetitive in its description of what God has apportioned for the Levites.
  • The reason for the people’s anger has changed from Moses exalting himself above other Israelites (v. 3) to Moses denying the priesthood to some Levites (v. 10).
  • The insurrectionists have changed from Israelites (v. 2aβ) to specifically Levites (vv. 8, 10).
  • The rebels drop out of the story somewhat awkwardly; Moses speaks to “Korah and all his community” in v. 6, but only to Korah in v. 8.
  • What has Aaron done to anger the rebels?
15 וַיִּחַר לְמֹשֶׁה מְאֹד וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל יְהוָה אַל תֵּפֶן אֶל מִנְחָתָם לֹא חֲמוֹר אֶחָד מֵהֶם נָשָׂאתִי וְלֹא הֲרֵעֹתִי אֶת אַחַד מֵהֶם
15 Moses was very angry and said to YHWH, “Pay no attention to their offering. Not one donkey have I taken from them, and I have not harmed any one of them.”
  • Why does Moses bring up donkeys? Why does he defend himself against a crime no one has accused him of committing?
16 וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל קֹרַח אַתָּה וְכָל עֲדָתְךָ הֱיוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אַתָּה וָהֵם וְאַהֲרֹן מָחָר 17 ‏וּקְחוּ אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וּנְתַתֶּם עֲלֵיהֶם קְטֹרֶת וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם מַחְתֹּת וְאַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ ‎18‏ וַיִּקְחוּ אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ עֲלֵיהֶם אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עֲלֵיהֶם קְטֹרֶת וַיַּעַמְדוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּמֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן ‎19‏ וַיַּקְהֵל עֲלֵיהֶם קֹרַח אֶת כָּל הָעֵדָה אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד יְהוָה אֶל כָּל הָעֵדָה
16 Moses said to Korah, “You and all your company, be present before YHWH—you and they and Aaron—tomorrow. 17 Each one of you take his firepan and put incense on it, and each one of you bring his censer before YHWH, two hundred fifty firepans; you and Aaron also, each his firepan.” 18 Each man took his firepan, and put fire on them and laid incense on them, and stood at the entrance of the tent of meeting, as did Moses and Aaron. 19Then Korah assembled the whole community against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And YHWH’s Presence appeared to the whole community.
  • Moses tells Korah and his rebels to be present before YHWH “tomorrow” (v. 16), but the narrator does not tell us that tomorrow comes before the rebels bring their firepans and God’s fire consumes them (beginning in v. 18). Did a night pass?
20 וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר 21 הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת וַאַכַלֶּה אֹתָם כְּרָגַע 22 וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל פְּנֵיהֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵל אֱלֹהֵי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל בָּשָׂר הָאִישׁ אֶחָד יֶחֱטָא וְעַל כָּל הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף
20 Then YHWH spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 21“Separate yourselves from this community, so that I may consume them in an instant. 22 They fell on their faces and said, “O God, the God of the breath of all flesh, when one person sins, do you become angry with the whole community?”
23 וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר 24aγ  דַּבֵּר אֶל הָעֵדָה לֵאמֹר הֵעָלוּ מִסָּבִיב לְמִשְׁכַּן קֹרַח 27a וַיֵּעָלוּ מֵעַל מִשְׁכַּן קֹרֶח מִסָּבִיב 35 וְאֵשׁ יָצְאָה מֵאֵת יְהוָה וַתֹּאכַל אֵת הַחֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם אִישׁ מַקְרִיבֵי הַקְּטֹרֶת
23 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, 24aγ “Say to the congregation: Withdraw from Korah’s dwelling.” 27a So they withdrew from Korah’s dwelling.[12] 35 A fire went forth from YHWH and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense.
  • Why does YHWH speak to Moses and Aaron in v. 20, but only to Moses in v. 23?
  • Is the number accurate in v. 35? If Korah and two hundred and fifty men approach God, should not two hundred and fifty-one people die?
  • Which “congregation” does Moses address in v. 24aγ? It cannot be the two hundred and fifty men, as they have died.
17:1‏ וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר 2‏ אֱמֹר אֶל אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן וְיָרֵם אֶת הַמַּחְתֹּת מִבֵּין הַשְּׂרֵפָה וְאֶת הָאֵשׁ זְרֵה הָלְאָה כִּי קָדֵשׁוּ 3‏ אֵת מַחְתּוֹת הַחַטָּאִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּנַפְשֹׁתָם וְעָשׂוּ אֹתָם רִקֻּעֵי פַחִים צִפּוּי לַמִּזְבֵּחַ כִּי הִקְרִיבֻם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה וַיִּקְדָּשׁוּ וְיִהְיוּ לְאוֹת לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל 4‏ וַיִּקַּח אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן אֵת מַחְתּוֹת הַנְּחֹשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיבוּ הַשְּׂרֻפִים וַיְרַקְּעוּם צִפּוּי לַמִּזְבֵּחַ 5‏ זִכָּרוֹן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִקְרַב אִישׁ זָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִזֶּרַע אַהֲרֹן הוּא לְהַקְטִיר קְטֹרֶת לִפְנֵי יְהוָה וְלֹא יִהְיֶה כְקֹרַח וְכַעֲדָתוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה לוֹ 
17:1 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to Eleazar son of Aaron the priest that he may remove the firepans from out of the blaze and scatter the fire [ashes] far away, for they are holy. 3 The firepans of those who sinned at the cost of their lives, make them into hammered plates as a covering for the altar, for they have been offered before YHWH; they have become sacred. They shall be a sign to the Israelites. 4 Eleazar the priest took the copper firepans that the burned men had offered, and he hammered them as a covering for the altar 5 as a reminder for the Israelites that no outsider—one not of Aaron’s seed—shall approach to offer incense before YHWH, so as not to be like Korah and his company, just as YHWH had told him by Moses’s hand.
6 וַיִּלֹּנוּ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמָּחֳרָת עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר אַתֶּם הֲמִתֶּם אֶת עַם יְהוָה 7 וַיְהִי בְּהִקָּהֵל הָעֵדָה עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן וַיִּפְנוּ אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְהִנֵּה כִסָּהוּ הֶעָנָן וַיֵּרָא כְּבוֹד יְהוָה
6 On the next day, the whole congregation of the Israelites grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed YHWH’s people.” 7 When the company assembled against Moses and Aaron, they turned toward the tent of meeting; the cloud covered it, and YHWH’s Presence appeared.
  • Verse 6 tells us that a new day begins. Is this the “tomorrow” for which the rebels were supposed to wait in 16:16? If so, then Korah and the rebels have already died before “tomorrow” comes. Notice that the text will have another “tomorrow” in 17:23, after the overnight staff ritual.
8‏ וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶל פְּנֵי אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד 9‏ וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר10‏ הֵרֹמּוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם כְּרָגַע וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל פְּנֵיהֶם 11‏ וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל אַהֲרֹן קַח אֶת הַמַּחְתָּה וְתֶן עָלֶיהָ אֵשׁ מֵעַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְשִׂים קְטֹרֶת וְהוֹלֵךְ מְהֵרָה אֶל הָעֵדָה וְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיהֶם כִּי יָצָא הַקֶּצֶף מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה הֵחֵל הַנָּגֶף 12‏ וַיִּקַּח אַהֲרֹן כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה וַיָּרָץ אֶל תּוֹך הַקָּהָל וְהִנֵּה הֵחֵל הַנֶּגֶף בָּעָם וַיִּתֵּן אֶת הַקְּטֹרֶת וַיְכַפֵּר עַל הָעָם 13‏ וַיַּעֲמֹד בֵּין הַמֵּתִים וּבֵין הַחַיִּים וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה 14‏ וַיִּהְיוּ הַמֵּתִים בַּמַּגֵּפָה אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר אֶלֶף וּשְׁבַע מֵאוֹת מִלְּבַד הַמֵּתִים עַל דְּבַר קֹרַח 15‏ וַיָּשָׁב אַהֲרֹן אֶל מֹשֶׁה אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְהַמַּגֵּפָה נֶעֱצָרָה
8 Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting. 9 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Withdraw from this congregation, so that I may consume them in an instant.” They fell on their faces. 11 Moses said to Aaron, “Take your firepan, put on it fire from the altar, lay [on it] incense, and take it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them. For wrath has gone out from YHWH: the plague has begun.” 12 So Aaron took it as Moses had said, and he ran into the middle of the assembly, for indeed, the plague had begun among the people. He put on the incense and made atonement for the people. 13 He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was contained. 14 Those who died by the plague were fourteen thousand seven hundred, apart from those who died in the Korah matter. 15 Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance of the tent of meeting; the plague was contained.
  • YHWH twice orders Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from those about to die (16:21 and 17:10). The command is logical in ch. 16, as God’s fire might accidentally consume innocent bystanders. However, why does YHWH issue the same order in ch. 17? A plague has already begun, so did God intend to send both a plague and then a consuming fire? Does Aaron’s incense do more than contain the spread of the plague?
  • The narrator tells us that Aaron and Moses stand together at the entrance to the tent after the plague (v. 15), yet God speaks only to Moses about an issue concerning Aaron as if Aaron were not there in the verses below.
16‏ וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר 17‏ דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְקַח מֵאִתָּם מַטֶּה מַטֶּה לְבֵית אָב מֵאֵת כָּל נְשִׂיאֵהֶם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר מַטּוֹת אִישׁ אֶת שְׁמוֹ תִּכְתֹּב עַל מַטֵּהוּ 18‏ וְאֵת שֵׁם אַהֲרֹן תִּכְתֹּב עַל מַטֵּה לֵוִי כִּי מַטֶּה אֶחָד לְרֹאשׁ בֵּית אֲבוֹתָם 19‏ וְהִנַּחְתָּם בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדוּת אֲשֶׁר אִוָּעֵד לָכֶם שָׁמָּה 20‏ וְהָיָה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר אֶבְחַר בּוֹ מַטֵּהוּ יִפְרָח וַהֲשִׁכֹּתִי מֵעָלַי אֶת תְּלֻנּוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֵם מַלִּינִם עֲלֵיכֶם
16 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Say to the Israelites: Take from them a staff, a staff from the ancestral house of all of their leaders, from their ancestral houses, twelve staffs. Write each man’s name on his staff,18 and write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi, indeed, one staff for each head of their ancestral houses. 19 Place them in the tent of meeting before the covenant, the place where I meet with you. 20 The man whom I choose, his staff shall sprout; thus I will rid from myself the grumblings of the Israelites, which they continually grumble against you.
  • Concerning the twelve staffs, God says that “the man whom I choose, his staff shall sprout; thus I will rid myself of the grumblings of the Israelites” (17:20). However, these are two separate issues. The fire that consumed Korah and the rebels has already demonstrated whom God chooses; the plague already decimated the grumblers. However, the “grumbling” (17:6) is about the death of Korah and the rebels, not about who should exercise power. That objection is only found in 16:3.
21 וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּתְּנוּ אֵלָיו כָּל נְשִׂיאֵיהֶם מַטֶּה לְנָשִׂיא אֶחָד מַטֶּה לְנָשִׂיא אֶחָד לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר מַטּוֹת וּמַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן בְּתוֹךְ מַטּוֹתָם22 וַיַּנַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַמַּטֹּת לִפְנֵי יְהוָה בְּאֹהֶל הָעֵדֻת
21 Moses spoke to the Israelites, and all their leaders gave him a staff, one staff for each leader, from their ancestral houses, twelve staffs; Aaron’s staff was among their staffs.22 Moses laid down the staffs before YHWH in the tent of the covenant.
23 וַיְהִי מִמָּחֳרָת וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה אֶל אֹהֶל הָעֵדוּת וְהִנֵּה פָּרַח מַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן לְבֵית לֵוִי וַיֹּצֵא פֶרַח וַיָּצֵץ צִיץ וַיִּגְמֹל שְׁקֵדִים 24וַיֹּצֵא מֹשֶׁה אֶת כָּל הַמַּטֹּת מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה אֶל כָּל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּרְאוּ וַיִּקְחוּ אִישׁ מַטֵּהוּ
23 On the morrow, Moses went into the tent of the covenant. Indeed, Aaron’s staff for the house of Levi had sprouted; it had sprouted a flower, produced blossoms, and borne ripe almonds! 24 Then Moses brought out all the staffs from before YHWH to all the Israelites. They looked, and each man took his staff.
25 וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה הָשֵׁב אֶת מַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן לִפְנֵי הָעֵדוּת לְמִשְׁמֶרֶת לְאוֹת לִבְנֵי מֶרִי וּתְכַל תְּלוּנֹּתָם מֵעָלַי וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ 26וַיַּעַשׂ מֹשֶׁה כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֹתוֹ כֵּן עָשָׂה
25 And YHWH said to Moses, “Return Aaron’s staff before the covenant, to be guarded as a sign to rebels, to put an end to their grumbling against me, that they will not die.”26 Moses did so; just as YHWH commanded him, so he did.
27 וַיֹּאמְרוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵאמֹר הֵן גָּוַעְנוּ אָבַדְנוּ כֻּלָּנוּ אָבָדְנוּ 28 כֹּל הַקָּרֵב הַקָּרֵב אֶל מִשְׁכַּן יְהוָה יָמוּת הַאִם תַּמְנוּ לִגְוֹעַ
27 The Israelites spoke to Moses, saying, “We are perishing, we are lost; all of us are lost! 28 Everyone who approaches YHWH’s tabernacle will die. Will our perishing ever end?”
  • Why is the staff episode unsuccessful? God predicts that with Aaron’s flowering staff, he will “rid myself from the grumblings of the Israelites” (v. 20). However, immediately following the miracle, the Israelites grumble more (vv. 27-28).

Published

June 22, 2017

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Last Updated

September 23, 2019

Footnotes

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Dr. Jason Gaines teaches Hebrew Bible, Judaism, and religious studies at Fairfield University and Mt. Holyoke College. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University, and is the author of The Poetic Priestly Source (Fortress Press)