The Double Rebellion and the Defense of God's Chosen
Parashat Korah is complex and at times difficult to follow. From a source-critical perspective, much of the confusion in the narrative, especially in chapter 16, may be explained by seeing it as a composite of two stories of rebellion. This composite narrative underscores, more emphatically than either story could do alone, the principle that divinely-appointed leaders are to be accepted by the nation of Israel.
The Two Rebellions
Modern scholars see in our parashah two originally separate stories that have been intertwined. One 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 Datan 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 second story, which dominates chapter 16, is assigned to the later P source (the Priestly source, which is primarily concerned with the sanctuary, its rituals and its personnel) and features a rebellion by Korah, a non-priest Levite, against the priestly status of Aaron and his line (vv. 3-7). In this case, the ire of the rebels is directed towards Moses and Aaron; they object to the choice of Aaron—or anybody—as a priestly class that would outrank the Levites. The concern over the status of the priestly class fits the ideology of P, which is interested in highlighting the prestige of Aaron and his descendants. 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 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 civic rebels are swallowed by the earth whereas the religious rebels are consumed by a heavenly fire.
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 the recognition of 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 2, 2013
July 24, 2020
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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