The Levite Rebellion Against the Priesthood: Why Were We Demoted?
The Torah as we have it combines the Levitical rebellion of Korah with the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram; nevertheless, there is what to learn from looking at each rebellion on its own terms. In this piece, we will look at the meaning of the latter rebellion. The theme of the Levitical rebellion is the distinction between Aaronide priests and the rest of the tribe of Levi.
Korah, a Levite who shares the same grandfather (Kahat) and great-grandfather (Levi) with Moses and Aaron, is displeased that Aaron and his descendants have been singled out as priests while he (Korah), being from a different branch of the same family, has no priestly status. Understanding the story as a narrative reflection of a tension between two social institutions in ancient Israel—the Levites and the Priests (Kohanim), the question arises: How did this hierarchy of Priests over Levites come into being?
It seems that in earlier times, the entire tribe of Levi was distinguished from the other tribes of Israel; they were given no land allotment and were instead dedicated to serving the Lord, that is, attending to the cultic needs of the community (Deut. 10:8-9).
בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֗וא הִבְדִּ֤יל יְהוָה֙ אֶת שֵׁ֣בֶט הַלֵּוִ֔י לָשֵׂ֖את אֶת אֲר֣וֹן בְּרִית יְהוָ֑ה לַעֲמֹד֩ לִפְנֵ֙י יְהוָ֤ה לְשָֽׁרְתוֹ֙ וּלְבָרֵ֣ךְ בִּשְׁמ֔וֹ עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה: עַל כֵּ֞ן לֹֽא־הָיָ֧ה לְלֵוִ֛י חֵ֥לֶק וְנַחֲלָ֖ה עִם אֶחָ֑יו יְהוָה֙ ה֣וּא נַחֲלָת֔וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֶּ֛ר יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לֽוֹ:
At that time the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant, to stand in attendance upon the Lord and to bless in His name, as is still the case. That is why the Levites have received no hereditary portion along with their kinsmen: the Lord is their portion, as the Lord your God spoke concerning them (JPS).
It is not clear when this situation changed. According to Deuteronomy (18:1-8) all Levites—called the “levitical priests” (a term distinctive to Deuteronomy)—serve at the altar and preside over sacrifices. The P source, however, establishes a hierarchy of religious officials, with Aaron and his descendants, the Priests, at the apex and the other Levites below them (see Num. 18:1-7). Only the Aaronides may enter the holiest parts of the sanctuary and only they may officiate at sacrifices. The other Levites served in subordinate positions in the sanctuary.
With this as background, it is easier to understand the Korah episode. The Korah story reflects part of the history of the growth of the priesthood. Korah’s complaint harks back to a recollection that the elevated role of Aaron and his sons was once the role of all Levites. The establishment of this new hierarchy offends the Levites and this is voiced by Korah.
By painting Korah and the Levites as rebels against God, the story teaches its readers that the position of the Aaronide Priests is a fundamental religious institution and that any implication to the contrary, even by Levites, can only be met with the fiercest resistance.
The strong defense of the elevation of Aaron and his sons as priests above the Levites points towards the supreme importance of recognizing the divinely appointed hierarchy. This, in turn, relates to the larger concern in Leviticus and Numbers to protect the sanctity of the sanctuary, limiting access to its most sacred areas to officiants with the highest level of holiness: the holiest place maybe approached only by the people with the highest degree of holiness, who serve as intermediaries between the non-priestly Israelites and God.
Korah’s argument, that “all the community is holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst” (Num. 16:3)—that is, that Israel has been set apart from the other nations as God’s special people and that God dwells among them—is true, but it does not negate the need for the levels of holiness within the ranks of Israel.
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June 2, 2013
November 23, 2022
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Prof. Adele Berlin is the Robert H. Smith Professor (Emerita) of Biblical Studies at the University of Maryland. She taught at Maryland since 1979 in the Jewish Studies Program, the Hebrew Program, and the English Department.
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