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Ely Levine





The Historical Circumstances that Inspired the Korah Narrative





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Ely Levine





The Historical Circumstances that Inspired the Korah Narrative








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The Historical Circumstances that Inspired the Korah Narrative

Korah’s rebellion ultimately results in the placement of the Levites in a permanent subordinate position to the Aaronide priests. Set in the wilderness period, the story appears to be a narrative retelling of a historical process that occurred hundreds of years later, the demotion of the Levites reflected in Ezek 44, as demonstrated by a number of literary parallels.


The Historical Circumstances that Inspired the Korah Narrative

The Temple Entrance. Aert de Gelder (1645–1727) Wikimedia

The story of the rebellion in Numbers 16 is composite, comprised of at least two rebellions. One story (typically assigned to the J document) describes the complaint of the Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram, against Moses’ leadership. The second, (often identified as belonging to the Priestly author,) involves the claim of Korah and other Levites against Aaron’s priesthood. The separation of these texts from one another allows us to appreciate the individual issues of each rebellion, and separate out the lessons from each.[1]

We may also take a text a step beyond source criticism and try to understand each text on its own terms, in particular, what motivated each author, in his historical context, to write a particular story. This is what I will attempt below.

Dathan and Abiram: The Reubenites’ Loss of Leadership

As already noted by ibn Ezra, the Dathan and Abiram rebellion reflects the Reubenites desire to claim supreme power by dint of their birthright.[2] The historical motivation for this story may be the loss of power—and ultimate disappearance—of the tribe of Reuben among the Israelite tribes.[3] Thus, the text here is similar to, connected to, and serves the same function as Genesis 35:22, where Reuben sleeps with his father’s concubine Bilhah, in a clear attempt to usurp the father’s authority and power.[4] This is echoed in Jacob’s “blessing” of his son (Genesis 49:3-4), where Reuben is demoted for his actions, [5] and in I Chronicles 5:1, which states explicitly: “He was the first-born; but when he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph.”[6]).

Traditional commentators would view such stories about ancestor figures that resemble later historical processes as the acts of the father being replayed through the acts of the children (מעשה אבות סימן לבנים), though I do not know of any commentators who make this observation on Parashat Korah. Modern scholars see things the other way, however, that the stories of the descendants are retrojected back into the lives of their eponymous ancestors: that the stories are written to “prefigure” what would happen later.[7]

Thus, we may understand these stories of Reuben and his descendants as typologies explaining how the tribe lost its power. The rebellion of Dathan and Abiram cements this loss and shows that it is justified and divinely authored. The gradual disappearance of the tribe of Reuben that we see through the Primary History is represented here as sudden and as the result of an illegitimate Reubenite power grab.[8]

The Korah Rebellion: A Change in Status for Aaronide Priests

The rebellion of Korah is different from that of Dathan and Abiram—it is an attack on the exclusive priesthood of Aaron and his sons. Korah’s opening salvo is the claim that all of Israel is holy, and at least that all Levites ought to have the status of priests.[9] The primary rebellion of Korah ends with fire consuming his band of 250 (Numbers 16:35; contrast the deaths of Dathan and Abiram by being swallowed by the earth in Numbers 16:31-34).

While we as readers know who Moses and Aaron are, and we know that the rebellion will fail, the story is told without that a priori certainty. For example, unlike in the Dathan and Abiram story (16:12-14), Korah engages with Moses, employing democratic-sounding logic (16:3, 6). Moses could not call upon the public (as in 16:15 in response to Dathan and Abiram) to stop the rebellion, but needed divine intervention. Would the average Israelite standing there in the story have known that Korah was the bad guy? It takes the events of chapters 17 and ultimately 18 to firmly establish Aaron at the top of the hierarchy, demonstrating retroactively that Korah was wrong.

Korah vs. the Aaronide Priesthood: An Argument that was yet to be Determined

My understanding of the historical context behind the Korah narrative is underscored with a single word in 18:22: עוד (‘ôd), translated in the NJPS as “henceforth.”

וְלֹא יִקְרְב֥וּ ע֛וֹד בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶל אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד לָשֵׂ֥את חֵ֖טְא לָמֽוּת:
Henceforth, Israelites shall not trespass on the Tent of Meeting, and thus incur guilt and die.[10]

As ibn Ezra notes, the placement of this chapter and the implication of this verse is that this law is being enacted as a consequence of Korah’s rebellion.[11] This is problematic, since the holy places had already been declared off limits to rank and file Israelites before the Korah rebellion. Numbers 3:10, for example, notes that the stranger, namely the person not connected to the tribe of Levi, who approaches the Tabernacle will be put to death (וְהַזָּ֥ר הַקָּרֵ֖ב יוּמָֽת).

And yet, the adverb עוד, implies the existence of an alternative timeline. Whereas ibn Ezra makes use of the Korah story as the background for this strange verse, I believe that the there is a larger historical process that undergirds it, something more more than just the actions of Korah.

Aaron’s Dominant Role in the Korah Story and its Aftermath

In my view, the story so well known by the name of Korah is not really about Korah but about Aaron. In the follow up to the rebellion story in chapter 17, several aftershocks assert Aaron’s predominance:

  • The incense pans that symbolized the profanity of Korah’s rebellion are appropriated for a holy cover for the altar by Aaron’s son Elazar (Numbers 17:1-5).
  • A panic resulting from the mass death of Korah’s band leads to a plague, which is stopped by Aaron, who stands between the living and the dead (Numbers 17:6-15).
  • In a test to see whose staff would sprout, Aaron’s not only sprouts, but flowers, and bears fruit (Numbers 17:16-26).
  • As the panic continues over the danger of approaching the Tabernacle (Numbers 17:27-28), God speaks directly to Aaron (18:1, 8, 20), laying out laws designed to protect the sanctity of the Tabernacle.[12]

The Relationship between Aaronides and the Levite Brothers in Chapter 18

The laws spoken to Aaron in ch. 18 include an enumeration of ways that the Priests’ role in the cult is exclusive, especially in comparison to the roles of Levites:

יח:א וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן אַתָּ֗ה וּבָנֶ֤יךָ וּבֵית אָבִ֙יךָ֙ אִתָּ֔ךְ תִּשְׂא֖וּ אֶת־עֲוֹ֣ן הַמִּקְדָּ֑שׁ וְאַתָּה֙ וּבָנֶי֣ךָ אִתָּ֔ךְ תִּשְׂא֖וּ אֶת עֲוֹ֥ן כְּהֻנַּתְכֶֽם: יח:ב וְגַ֣ם אֶת אַחֶיךָ֩ מַטֵּ֨ה לֵוִ֜י שֵׁ֤בֶט אָבִ֙יךָ֙ הַקְרֵ֣ב אִתָּ֔ךְ וְיִלָּו֥וּ עָלֶ֖יךָ וִֽישָׁרְת֑וּךָ וְאַתָּה֙ וּבָנֶ֣יךָ אִתָּ֔ךְ לִפְנֵ֖י אֹ֥הֶל הָעֵדֻֽת: יח:ג וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ מִֽשְׁמַרְתְּךָ֔ וּמִשְׁמֶ֖רֶת כָּל הָאֹ֑הֶל אַךְ֩ אֶל כְּלֵ֨י הַקֹּ֤דֶשׁ וְאֶל הַמִּזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ לֹ֣א יִקְרָ֔בוּ וְלֹֽא־יָמֻ֥תוּ גַם הֵ֖ם גַּם אַתֶּֽם: יח:ד וְנִלְו֣וּ עָלֶ֔יךָ וְשָֽׁמְר֗וּ אֶת מִשְׁמֶ֙רֶת֙ אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד לְכֹ֖ל עֲבֹדַ֣ת הָאֹ֑הֶל וְזָ֖ר לֹא יִקְרַ֥ב אֲלֵיכֶֽם: יח:ה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֗ם אֵ֚ת מִשְׁמֶ֣רֶת הַקֹּ֔דֶשׁ וְאֵ֖ת מִשְׁמֶ֣רֶת הַמִּזְבֵּ֑חַ וְלֹֽא יִהְיֶ֥ה ע֛וֹד קֶ֖צֶף עַל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: יח:ו וַאֲנִ֗י הִנֵּ֤ה לָקַ֙חְתִּי֙ אֶת אֲחֵיכֶ֣ם הַלְוִיִּ֔ם מִתּ֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֶ֞ם מַתָּנָ֤ה נְתֻנִים֙ לַֽי-הֹוָ֔ה לַעֲבֹ֕ד אֶת עֲבֹדַ֖ת אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד: יח:זוְאַתָּ֣ה וּבָנֶ֣יךָ אִ֠תְּךָ תִּשְׁמְר֨וּ אֶת כְּהֻנַּתְכֶ֜ם לְכָל דְּבַ֧ר הַמִּזְבֵּ֛חַ וּלְמִבֵּ֥ית לַפָּרֹ֖כֶת וַעֲבַדְתֶּ֑ם עֲבֹדַ֣ת מַתָּנָ֗ה אֶתֵּן֙ אֶת כְּהֻנַּתְכֶ֔ם וְהַזָּ֥ר הַקָּרֵ֖ב יוּמָֽת:
18:1 Yhwh said to Aaron: You and your sons and the ancestral house under your charge shall bear any guilt connected with the sanctuary; you and your sons alone shall bear any guilt connected with your priesthood. 18:2 You shall also associate with yourself your kinsmen the tribe of Levi, your ancestral tribe, to be attached to you and to minister to you, while you and your sons under your charge are before the Tent of the Pact. 18:3 They shall discharge their duties to you and to the Tent as a whole, but they must not have any contact with the furnishings of the Shrine or with the altar, lest both they and you die. 18:4 They shall be attached to you and discharge the duties of the Tent of Meeting, all the service of the Tent; but no outsider shall intrude upon you 18:5 as you discharge the duties connected with the Shrine and the altar, that wrath may not again strike the Israelites. 18:6 I hereby take your brothers the Levites from among the Israelites; they are assigned to you in dedication to Yhwh, to do the work of the Tent of Meeting; 18:7 while you and your sons shall be careful to perform your priestly duties in everything pertaining to the altar and to what is behind the curtain. I make your priesthood a service of dedication; any outsider who encroaches shall be put to death.

The hierarchy here is not new; it also appears in Numbers chapters 3 and 8.[13] In the verses here (ch. 18) however, it is difficult to miss the tension concerning the relationship between Aaron’s priestly family and Levites more generally. On one hand, Aaron–along with his brother Moses–is a Levite genealogically. Both by his relationship to Moses in particular and by being a Levite, Aaron exceeds non-Levite Israelites in status. On the other hand, the Aaronide priesthood outranks, or is in charge of the Levites, who are “attached” (root: ל-ו-י) to the priesthood as assistants.

While the general outline of this “attachment” is described in Numbers 3 and 8 and repeated here (Numbers 18:2-6), this chapter provides a more detailed comparison of the tasks of each group, such that the limitations of the Levites are made clear.[14] These laws may sound like a reminder of everyone’s place in response to Korah and the aftermath, but the use of “henceforth” suggests that this is a momentous change in policy regarding the status of Aaronide priests.

Searching for the Historical Circumstances Behind the Narrative

The description of the change in policy as a reaction to Korah is, as discussed above, an attempt to describe historical processes in the framework of a narrative about Israel’s distant past. To identify the historical process by which the Aaronides became a separate class among the Levites and superior to them, we must step outside of Numbers and P more generally.

Arguing with certainty about the dates of particular texts is fraught, but we may derive clues about what ideas were circulating in ancient Israel. Deuteronomy, for example, does not seem to differentiate priests from Levites. Deuteronomy’s references to Levites fall into two categories: Levitical priests [15] (כהנים לוים or כהנים בני לוי), and, along with the stranger, orphan, and widow, a disenfranchised group. (This second category does not seem to exclude priests; however, it is not concerned with the priestly role.) Levite refers to a landless group within Israel, who may serve the function of priest. No separate group of kohanim seems to exist, nor is the priesthood associated with Aaron or his descendants in the Deuteronomic corpus.[16] Deuteronomy, therefore, seems to represent an earlier phase in the development of the priesthood.[17]

The Differentiation between Zadokites and Levites: Ezekiel 44

Ezekiel 44 helps us to put the issue of the differentiation between Priests and Levites into historical perspective. The prophet, writing during the exile, envisions the restoration of Israel to its land, which comes with a restored Temple and a restored priesthood, but his view of Levites is quite negative.

Ezekiel is concerned with regulating who may enter the Temple, because of some rebellious act that took place in the past involving a violation of the Temple’s sanctity.[18]

מד:ה וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֵלַ֜י יְ-הֹוָ֗ה בֶּן אָדָ֡ם שִׂ֣ים לִבְּךָ֩ וּרְאֵ֨ה בְעֵינֶ֜יךָ וּבְאָזְנֶ֣יךָ שְׁמָ֗ע אֵ֣ת כָּל אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֲנִי֙ מְדַבֵּ֣ר אֹתָ֔ךְ לְכָל חֻקּ֥וֹת בֵּית יְ-הֹוָ֖ה וּלְכָל (תורתו) תּֽוֹרֹתָ֑יו וְשַׂמְתָּ֤ לִבְּךָ֙ לִמְב֣וֹא הַבַּ֔יִת בְּכֹ֖ל מוֹצָאֵ֥י הַמִּקְדָּֽשׁ:
44:5 Then Yhwh said to me: O mortal, mark well, look closely and listen carefully to everything that I tell you regarding all the laws of the Temple of Yhwh and all the instructions regarding it. Note well who may enter the Temple and all who must be excluded from the Sanctuary.

Complaint about abominations committed in the Temple

מד:ו וְאָמַרְתָּ֤ אֶל מֶ֙רִי֙ אֶל בֵּ֣ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל כֹּ֥ה אָמַ֖ר אֲדֹנָ֣י יְ-הֹוִ֑ה רַב לָכֶ֛ם מִֽכָּל תּוֹעֲבֽוֹתֵיכֶ֖ם בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: מד:זבַּהֲבִיאֲכֶ֣ם בְּנֵֽי נֵכָ֗ר עַרְלֵי לֵב֙ וְעַרְלֵ֣י בָשָׂ֔ר לִהְי֥וֹת בְּמִקְדָּשִׁ֖י לְחַלְּל֣וֹ אֶת בֵּיתִ֑י בְּהַקְרִֽיבְכֶ֤ם אֶת לַחְמִי֙ חֵ֣לֶב וָדָ֔ם וַיָּפֵ֙רוּ֙ אֶת בְּרִיתִ֔י אֶ֖ל כָּל תּוֹעֲבוֹתֵיכֶֽם: מד:חוְלֹ֥א שְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם מִשְׁמֶ֣רֶת קָדָשָׁ֑י וַתְּשִׂימ֗וּן לְשֹׁמְרֵ֧י מִשְׁמַרְתִּ֛י בְּמִקְדָּשִׁ֖י לָכֶֽם:
44:6 And say to the rebellious House of Israel: Thus said the Lord Yhwh: Too long, O House of Israel, have you committed all your abominations, 44:7 admitting aliens, uncircumcised of spirit and uncircumcised of flesh, to be in My Sanctuary and profane My very Temple, when you offer up My food—the fat and the blood. You have broken My covenant with all your abominations. 44:8 You have not discharged the duties concerning My sacred offerings, but have appointed them to discharge the duties of My Sanctuary for you.

Prohibition against aliens (בני נכר) entering the Temple

מד:ט כֹּה אָמַר֘ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְ-הֹוִה֒ כָּל בֶּן־נֵכָ֗ר עֶ֤רֶל לֵב֙ וְעֶ֣רֶל בָּשָׂ֔ר לֹ֥א יָב֖וֹא אֶל מִקְדָּשִׁ֑י לְכָל־בֶּן־נֵכָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֕ר בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
44:9 Thus said the Lord Yhwh: Let no alien, uncircumcised in spirit and flesh, enter My Sanctuary—no alien whatsoever among the people of Israel.

This passage forbids the average Israelite access to the Temple precincts, due to some terrible violation of its sanctity in the past. In the Ezekiel’s next words, we learn that the Levites are held responsible for this violation and are punished – presumably, because they had been in charge of the sanctuary when this violation had occurred. The Levites will henceforth be “servitors” in the Temple, responsible for all sorts of duties, including minding the gates, and performing other chores. They are explicitly prohibited from serving as priests.[19]

מד:י כִּ֣י אִם הַלְוִיִּ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֤ר רָֽחֲקוּ֙ מֵֽעָלַ֔י בִּתְע֤וֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תָּע֣וּ מֵֽעָלַ֔י אַחֲרֵ֖י גִּלּֽוּלֵיהֶ֑ם וְנָשְׂא֖וּ עֲוֹנָֽם: מד:יא וְהָי֤וּ בְמִקְדָּשִׁי֙ מְשָׁ֣רְתִ֔ים פְּקֻדּוֹת֙ אֶל שַׁעֲרֵ֣י הַבַּ֔יִת וּֽמְשָׁרְתִ֖ים אֶת הַבָּ֑יִת הֵ֠מָּה יִשְׁחֲט֨וּ אֶת הָעֹלָ֤ה וְאֶת הַזֶּ֙בַח֙ לָעָ֔ם וְהֵ֛מָּה יַעַמְד֥וּ לִפְנֵיהֶ֖ם לְשָֽׁרְתָֽם: מד:יביַ֗עַן אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְשָׁרְת֤וּ אוֹתָם֙ לִפְנֵ֣י גִלּֽוּלֵיהֶ֔ם וְהָי֥וּ לְבֵֽית יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְמִכְשׁ֣וֹל עָוֹ֑ן עַל כֵּן֩ נָשָׂ֨אתִי יָדִ֜י עֲלֵיהֶ֗ם נְאֻם֙ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְ-הֹוִ֔ה וְנָשְׂא֖וּ עֲוֹנָֽם: מד:יג וְלֹֽא יִגְּשׁ֤וּ אֵלַי֙ לְכַהֵ֣ן לִ֔י וְלָגֶ֙שֶׁת֙ עַל כָּל קָ֣דָשַׁ֔י אֶל קָדְשֵׁ֖י הַקְּדָשִׁ֑ים וְנָֽשְׂאוּ֙ כְּלִמָּתָ֔ם וְתוֹעֲבוֹתָ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשֽׂוּ: מד:יד וְנָתַתִּ֣י אוֹתָ֔ם שֹׁמְרֵ֖י מִשְׁמֶ֣רֶת הַבָּ֑יִת לְכֹל֙ עֲבֹ֣דָת֔וֹ וּלְכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֵעָשֶׂ֖ה בּֽוֹ:
44:10 But the Levites who forsook Me when Israel went astray—straying from Me to follow their fetishes—shall suffer their punishment: 44:11 They shall be servitors in My Sanctuary, appointed over the Temple gates, and performing the chores of My Temple; they shall slaughter the burnt offerings and the sacrifices for the people. They shall attend on them and serve them. 44:12 Because they served the House of Israel in the presence of their fetishes and made them stumble into guilt, therefore—declares the Lord Yhwh —I have sworn concerning them that they shall suffer their punishment: 44:13 They shall not approach Me to serve Me as priests, to come near any of My sacred offerings, the most holy things. They shall bear their shame for the abominations that they committed. 44:14 I will make them watchmen of the Temple, to perform all its chores, everything that needs to be done in it.

Among the Levites, however, the Zadokites are given exemption from this punishment and special priority of entering the sanctuary and making sacrifices to the LORD:

מד:טו וְהַכֹּהֲנִ֨ים הַלְוִיִּ֜ם בְּנֵ֣י צָד֗וֹק אֲשֶׁ֨ר שָׁמְר֜וּ אֶת מִשְׁמֶ֤רֶת מִקְדָּשִׁי֙ בִּתְע֤וֹת בְּנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ מֵֽעָלַ֔י הֵ֛מָּה יִקְרְב֥וּ אֵלַ֖י לְשָֽׁרְתֵ֑נִי וְעָמְד֣וּ לְפָנַ֗י לְהַקְרִ֥יב לִי֙ חֵ֣לֶב וָדָ֔ם נְאֻ֖ם אֲדֹנָ֥י יְ-הֹוִֽה: מד:טז הֵ֜מָּה יָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל מִקְדָּשִׁ֗י וְהֵ֛מָּה יִקְרְב֥וּ אֶל שֻׁלְחָנִ֖י לְשָׁרְתֵ֑נִי וְשָׁמְר֖וּ אֶת מִשְׁמַרְתִּֽי:
44:15 But the levitical priests descended from Zadok, who maintained the service of My Sanctuary when the people of Israel went astray from Me — they shall approach Me to minister to Me; they shall stand before Me to offer Me fat and blood — declares the Lord Yhwh. 44:16 They alone may enter My Sanctuary and they alone shall approach My table to minister to Me; and they shall keep My charge”

The change in status among the Levites—who are demoted, and the Zadokites[20]—who are elevated, is connected to an episode of encroachment into the Temple that constituted a violation of the Levites’ duties or “charge” (mishmeret). Indeed, this accusation is leveled at both the Levites (v. 14) and the Israelites more generally (v. 8), who are accused of delegating the charge to others.[21]

The Parallel between Ezekiel and Numbers

The particular duties assigned here to the Levites are the same as those assigned to them in Numbers 18. For example, in both passages,

  • The Levites are instructed to serve (לשרת) in the cult (Ezekiel 44:11-2; Numbers 18:2).
  • The Levites must discharge the duty of the Temple (Ezekiel 44:14) and of the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 18:3-4), corresponding entities in the respective settings.
  • The priests are specifically assigned to serve God in both texts (Ezekiel 44:15-16; Numbers 18:8).[22]

In addition, even the apostasy is discussed with similar language. Ezekiel accuses the Israelites in the same language with which Korah accuses Moses and Aaron, and with which Moses responds:

Ezekiel 44:6

רַב לָכֶ֛ם מִֽכָּל תּוֹעֲבֽוֹתֵיכֶ֖ם בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
You have gone too far with all your abominations, O House of Israel!

Numbers 16:3 (Korah)

You have gone too far!

Numbers 16:6 (Moses)

רַב־לָכֶ֖ם בְּנֵ֥י לֵוִֽי
You have gone too far, O sons of Levi![23]

The Contribution of Historical Criticism to Understanding the Torah’s Narratives

It seems probable that these two texts, Numbers 16-18 and Ezekiel 44, both reflect the same encroachment episode. Their use of the same language both in describing the episode and in the realignment of responsibilities in its aftermath is too compelling to ignore. Whatever the actual encroachment was, P couches it allegorically in the period of the Wandering. Ezekiel uses it as motivation for his ideal Restoration.[24] We cannot be sure which came first: Do we have these laws because of the offense–as Ezekiel and this parasha suggest, or are the stories, like just-so stories, written to justify an existing practice?[25]

Regardless, putting these two texts into conversation with one another is illuminating for several reasons. First, it allows us to understand both Ezekiel and the Priestly text (the same is true of other parts of the Pentateuch as well) as participating in a dynamic historical process rather than simply describing a static society. Life in ancient Israel, like any other culture, changed over time, and in some cases, the Bible preserves the impetus for such changes. Had this idea of a restricted priesthood been widely accepted in ancient Israel, our texts, which justify this development, would not have been written.

Second, different authors respond to the same situation in different ways.[26] The similarity of Ezekiel 44 and Numbers 18 should not be confused with total identity. Certain differences, such as Ezekiel’s use of בְּנֵֽי־נֵכָ֗ר , and perhaps the focus on Zadok, instead of Numbers’ focus on Levites and Aaron, indicate disagreement among these texts[27]

Third, the comparison of these two texts demonstrates the existence of a type of exegesis that integrates narrative and law. In the case of the Priestly text, the author felt a need to explicate the situation by retrojecting a relatively recent incident of encroachment into the distant past, making it a foundational part of Israelite religious practice. The urge to authenticate practice–in this case, limiting access to the Temple to priests–by connecting it with ancestors is strong and understandable and widely attested in many cultures. It is a direct consequence of looking to the ancestors as exemplars.

To illustrate this with an example, the rabbis’ identify the three Patriarchs as the originators of the three daily prayer services (b. Berachot 26b; Bereishit Rabba ch. 68) is a fundamentally similar process. To do this, the rabbis interpret certain actions of the individual characters that originally had nothing to do with prayer, as describing prayer.[28]

Historical Criticism

Each of our primary texts seeks to contextualize this limitation of the priesthood in its own way. What Ezekiel describes as inappropriate access to and inappropriate activity in the Temple, P describes as a grass-roots movement seeking to participate in the cult (Numbers 16) and a larger-scale attempt to access the Tabernacle (Numbers 17:27-28).

Historical Criticism seeks to situate biblical texts in the historical processes that inspired them. The Dathan and Abiram narrative can be read alongside J texts from Genesis to recognize the decline of Reuben as an important theme in the Torah. Similarly, the Korah narrative and its associated legislation (Numbers 16-18), and Ezekiel 44, refer to some event of import. Both of these texts are concerned that access to the sanctuary be limited because in the past it was not, and illustrate the consequences of this breach.


June 18, 2015


Last Updated

April 11, 2024


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Dr. Ely Levine holds a PhD in biblical studies and archaeology from Harvard University. He has taught at Villanova University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Luther College. He has participated in archaeological excavations in Italy and Israel, and is a member of the staff of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavation Project. Currently, Dr. Levine is Scholar-in-Residence and Ritual Coordinator at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania.