The Mysterious Literary Life and Death of Korah
Numbers chapter 16 is riddled with knots as the stories of three rebellions are woven into one narrative. In this episode, Korah, the eponymous hero of this week’s parasha, leads an insurgence against the leaders of the Exodus, Moses and Aaron. His role in the rebellion, however, is fraught with problems. In fact, some biblical scholars, such as Israel Knohl, suggest that Korah did not feature in the original accounts at all!
Don Isaac Abrabanel (b. 1437 Portugal – d. 1508 Italy) anticipates the insights of later source criticism by identifying three factions to the mutiny:
- The 250 chieftains challenge Aaron as representative of the Levites.
- The Levites challenge Aaron as dynastic head of the priestly class (kohanim) (vv. 5-11, 15-22, 35).
- Dathan and Abiram challenge Moses, calling into question the entire Exodus initiative (vv. 12-14, 23-34).
According to modern biblical critics, the rebellion of the first two factions (about Levitical leadership) is attributed it to the Priestly source (P), concerned with the prestige of Aaron and his descendants, whereas Dathan and Abiram’s rebellion resonates with the complaint narratives of the Wilderness sojourn (attributed to J). The redactional glue that holds the strands together is Korah, the purported leader of the pack.
In this Devar Torah, I explore the two tests – the fire pans (for faction 1 and 2) and the Mouth of the Earth (for faction 3) – which Moses deploys as diagnostic tools to uncover the true agenda underlying the rebellions. The crux of the problem revolves around the fate of Korah. He is strangely ubiquitous in all three rebellions and ambiguity surrounds his ignominious demise. Was he swallowed up by the Mouth of Earth, along with Dathan and Abiram, or burned alive along with the chieftains? In taking Korah out of the two stories, as Israel Knohl does, we expose the hidden agenda underlying the rebels’ claims, as well as the authors’ intentions in each of the sources.
The Test of the Fire Pans
Officially, Korah and the Levite rebels object to the three-fold hierarchy established by Moses, where kohanim (priests, made up of Aaron and his offspring) outrank Levites who in turn outrank regular Israelites. The egalitarian claim of Korah and his band of rebels seems initially justified: “For all the community, all of them, are holy [qedoshim], and the LORD is in their midst…” (Num. 16:3). Before the Revelation at Sinai, God proclaimed: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation [‘am qadosh]” (Exod. 19:6); they were commanded to make a sanctuary [mishkan], that God “may dwell in their midst [ve-shakhanti be-tokham]” (Exod. 25:8); were given a code of Law that they “should be holy [qedoshim tihiyu]” (Lev. 19:2). Surely, holiness is not intrinsic to a particular group of people, they claim, but contingent on adherence to the covenant. Yet Moses immediately assumes that the Levites (along with the chieftains) were hankering for the priesthood (Num. 16:10). That is, their claim that “we are all holy” is deemed to be a political ploy.
How does Moses plot to expose their hidden intentions? “By morning, the LORD will make known who is His and [who is] the holy one [ha-qadosh], and will grant him access to Himself; He will grant access to the one He has chosen” (v. 5). Korah and his entourage, as well as Aaron, are to take fire pans [mahtot],and the one whom God has chosen will be singled out from the rest (vv. 5-7a). The fire pans with their incense offering will be used as a diagnostic tool to distinguish between holy and profane status, between divine sanction and human will.
The rebels take on the challenge, but in so doing they risk the same fate as Nadab and Abihu, who offered “strange fire [’esh zarah] in the Presence of the LORD, which [God] had not commanded” (Lev. 10:1). Why do they dare? To paraphrase Groucho Marx: “Who would want to belong to a club that would accept me as a member?!?” They covet entry into the very place, “the qodesh club,” from which they have been excluded, and assume they are immune to the consequences. As Moses reframes it, the rebels covet the elite status of the kohen, symbolized by his exclusive access to the Tabernacle’s holy precinct. They claim that they, along with all Israelites are holy, and therefore deserve access to holy space! Yet double-speak underlies their words; “some are holier than others” is written in small print on their placards. Through the incense offering, Moses will expose their egalitarian claims as a hankering for the investiture of power associated with the priesthood.
In the confluence of the human being, as a vessel of holiness, and the Tabernacle, as a locus for the divine presence, lies a necessary hierarchy. Drawing close to the focal point of God’s Presence is dangerous. The right to enter depends on a fine alignment between intention, timing, preordained role, and divine election; the band of rebels sorely disqualify. The abrogation of these boundaries, delineating whom God chooses, when and where, is fatal. Only after the test, are we retroactively informed that “no strange man [’ish zar, “a foreign person,” here denoting a man not of priestly descent] should presume to offer incense before the LORD and suffer the fate of Korah and his band” (Num. 17:5). The fallout of bringing the incense offering at the wrong time [’esh zarah] or being the wrong person to bear it [’ish zar] is death by divine fire.
Yet there is no hint of these fatal consequences in the way Moses sets up the test:
“You have gone too far [rav lakhem], sons of Levi!…Hear me, sons of Levi. Is it not enough for you [ha-me‘at mikem] that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him, to perform the duties of the LORD’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too? Truly, it is against the LORD that you and all your company have banded together. For who is Aaron that you should rail against him?” (Num. 16:7b-11).
In his address, he echoes their own accusation of him and Aaron: “You have gone too far [rav lakhem]….Why do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation” (v. 3). With ironic flourish, Moses identifies the perpetrators and their intentions. Moses will thus undermine their implied accusation of nepotism – that he chose Aaron as kohen to establish the dynastic line of priests. The choice is, rather, divinely determined!
This selection will be dramatized when fire comes out from the presence of the LORD and incinerates the contentious ones, while Aaron with his fire pan is spared (v. 35). Furthermore, Aaron will make expiation with his fire pan on behalf of the madding crowd, standing “between the dead and the living” as he stays the plague in the next chapter (17:12-13). Initially, Moses seems to restrict his address to Korah and the Levites, but when he reiterates his plan (vv. 16-17) and carries it out (vv. 18-19, 35), the “company [‘edah]” comes to include the 250 chieftains.
They gather at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting [’ohel mo‘ed] with their fire pans, and the glory of God appears to the whole community…
Korah now drops his fire pan and joins Dathan and Abiram in front of their tents.
The Mouth of the Earth
The claims of Dathan and Abiram are also rife with irony. The diagnostic test of the opening of the earth’s mouth, like the fire pans, modulates into a punishment meted out, measure-for-measure, as a consequence of their transgression. Moses initially summons them to “higher ground,” perhaps the Tent of Meeting outside the camp, but they respond:
“We will not come up [lo’ na‘aleh]! Is it too little [ha-me‘at] that you have brought us up out [he‘elitanu] of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also lord it over us? Not only have you not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards, but you would put out the eyes of these men!?! We will not come up [lo’ na‘aleh]!” (Num. 16:12b-14).
The rhetorical flourish in their refusal – “We will not come up [lo’ na‘aleh]” – may refer to an elevated place, perhaps the Tent of Meeting outside the camp where Moses situates himself, or the “higher moral ground” that he maintains. But the image of vertical ascent also resonates with the rejection of the project of ‘aliyah towards the Promised Land, which they accuse Moses of failing to fulfill (v. 14). According to divine decree, this generation is doomed to die (literally, “their corpses will fall”) in the desert as a consequence of their response to the spies report (Num. chs. 13-14). With their eyes figuratively gouged out, they will never see the “land flowing with milk and honey” – an epithet here they sarcastically attribute to Egypt. But as Rashi pithily notes, they damn themselves by their own words; in refusing to go up, they have nowhere else to go but down.
Moses then sets up an audacious test, a supernatural intervention. Addressing Dathan and Abiram (and supposedly Korah), as they stand at the entrance of their tents, he orders the congregation to distance themselves from the perpetrators:
“By this you shall know that it was the LORD who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising: if these men die as all men do, if their lot be the common fate of all mankind, it was not the LORD who sent me. But if the LORD creates something new [’im beri’ah yivra’], so that the ground burst opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, you shall know that these men have spurned [ni’atzu] the LORD.” Scarcely had he finished speaking all these words when the ground under them was split asunder, and the earth opened open its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. All Israel around them fled at their shrieks, for they said, “The earth might swallow us!” (Num. 16:29-34).
Moses calls for an Act of Creation [beri’ah], the opening of the maw of the earth to swallow Dathan and Abiram whole and prove the rebels wrong. Throughout the Tanakh, the ground is personified as having a mouth that cries out, or swallows, or vomits up the casualties of human tragedy. The earth opened her mouth to swallow the blood of Abel, bearing witness to the original fratricide; from that cursed ground Cain is exiled, condemned to wander the world as a fugitive (Gen. 4:10-11). In his poignant cris de coeur, Job calls for the earth not to cover his blood or silence his cries so that the injustice of his suffering might ascend to Heaven (Job 16:18, Rashi loc. cit.).
It is precisely the violation of God’s Laws concerned with holiness that might contaminate the Land and force it to vomit the people out (Lev. 18:28, 20:22). But now those who rejected the whole Exodus project are swallowed alive. In refusing to test the ground (so to speak) of ‘aliyah to the Promised Land, they go down, down, down, to Sheol, to “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” No bodies to mourn. No testimonial to natural death. No grave to mark their passing. The face of the earth returns, seamlessly, to its mute state as if never rent asunder.
Meanwhile, back at the Tent of Meeting, Moses is in contest with the other rebels. Korah again takes up his fire pan along with the 250 Chieftains.
The Essential Mystery: What Happened to Korah?
The very next verse follows the appearance of God’s presence before the Tent of Meeting in the test of the fire pans (v. 19): “Fire went out from the LORD and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering incense” (v. 34).
Whatever happened to Korah? Was he swallowed alive, along with Dathan and Abiram? In two recountings the incident of Dathan and Abiram’s rebellion, Korah is never mentioned (Deut. 11:6, Ps. 106:16-18). Is he incinerated along with the chieftains? Following this episode, the fire pans are hammered into plating for the altar as a memorial, and in this passage, Korah is explicitly identified with the 250 men who sinned at the cost of their lives (Num. 17:3-5). In the passage concerned with the final census, the text is ambiguous as to whether he is associated with the opening of the earth’s mouth (26:10a) or with the band that died when fire consumed then (v. 10b) The Rabbis also debate Korah’s fate:
R. Yohanan also said: Korah was neither of those who were swallowed up nor of those who were burnt. “Neither of those who were swallowed up” — as it is written, “[And the earth opened open its mouth and swallowed them up with their households], all Korah’s people and all their possessions” (Num. 16:32), [implying], but not Korah himself. “Nor of those who were burnt” — for it is written, “Fire went out from the LORD and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering incense” (v. 35) — but not Korah.
A Tanna taught in a baraita: Korah was one of those who were swallowed up and burnt. “Of those who were swallowed up”—as it is written: “…and swallowed them up together with Korah…” (v. 32). “Of those who were burnt” — since it is written, “And there came out a fire from the Lord, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men [that offered incense],” (v. 35) which includes Korah” (b. Sanhedrin 110a).
The very same verses deployed by R. Yohanan to prove that Korah was neither burned nor swallowed (vv. 32 and 35), are used by the baraita to claim that he was condemned to both.
Israel Knohl (like Rabbi Yohanan), extracts Korah, deus ex machina, from the pyre and the bowels of the earth, removed from the original story-line. That is, Korah, in Knohl’s view, is a figure sewn into the narrative by a later editorial hand as a literary tool of cohesion to combine the narratives about the 250 chieftains and the Levites with that of Dathan and Abiram.
What have we gained by disentangling the narratives? And what happens when we reread them again as a whole, having teased out the Korah stitches? In other words, what perspective does the redactor gain by weaving these rebellions into one narrative in the canonical text? By realigning these stories as simultaneous, “split-screen” episodes, the redactor highlights the crisis of leadership for Moses as the intermediary between God and the people.
On one hand, that generation, as represented by Dathan and Abiram, are disheartened by Moses as the leader of the Exodus in the wake of the decree following the debacle of the spies. On the other hand, the Levites (and the 250 Chieftains) accuse Moses of nepotism in elevating Aaron as the dynastic head of the priestly caste over their cousins.
Korah, who is everywhere at once, represents the leader of both rebellions and both false claims. Yes “we are all holy…” but in the election to divine service, ultimately God decides. This is why a test by miraculous intervention is necessary. Only a divine fire or earthquake will make the distinction between leaders such as Moses and Aaron, averse to power politics, and leaders such as Korah, the lightening rod of dissension.
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June 16, 2014
November 15, 2020
Prof. Rachel Adelman is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston’s Hebrew College. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is the author of The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha (Brill 2009) and The Female Ruse: Women's Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix, 2015). Adelman is now working on a new book, Daughters in Danger from the Hebrew Bible to Modern Midrash (forthcoming, Sheffield Phoenix Press).
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