Commentary Magazine


Korah's Revolt

The Exodus from Egypt and its aftermath—the theophany at Sinai and the giving of the Torah—have always occupied a central place in Jewish thought and lore, for through these events, so tradition tells us, God chose the Israelites to be His people. Tradition also tells us, however, that the Israelites were not very likely human material for the distinction, except perhaps in the genetic sense. Restive and unruly almost from the moment of leaving Egypt, and displaying an astounding indifference to miracles and divine benefactions, they repeatedly turned against the Deity Who had singled them out, channeling their discontent into hostility for the human leader He had appointed.

The revolt against Moses led by Korah, his first cousin, is the most dramatic of several such episodes in the Bible. As ramified and embellished in the midrashic literature of the talmudic period, the tale of Korah’s revolt has much to say about the kind of commitment God demanded of the Israelites and, indeed, that Judaism, or perhaps any monotheistic religion, expects of its adherents even today.

A thorough approach to the story of Korah’s revolt, or to any other biblical narrative for that matter, has several possible dimensions. First of all, there is the basic biblical record—in this case, the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Numbers plus a few scattered references elsewhere, all of which, from the standpoint of traditional Jews, and of many Christians as well, is revealed sacred history. Next there is the midrashic elaboration of the biblical account, piously held to embody traditions dating back to the time of Moses but really an interpretative retelling of the story by later generations. Finally, there is the story behind the story—the actual historical events, in one or another modern reconstruction, that provided the raw material for the biblical author.

Our main focus here will not be on the “real” Korah of history, assuming he could be recovered from the sources, but on the Korah who emerges from the midrashic understanding of the biblical text. Much as Malory’s Arthur and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and not the historical personages on whom they are patterned, are full-blown, living figures in the Western cultural imagination, so this Korah, the one who lives in the Jewish mythic and literary consciousness, has for two thousand years been the only “real” Korah for Judaism.

Korah plays a role in just one biblical episode—the revolt in which he lost his life but gained a perverse kind of immortality. The revolt occurred several months after the Israelites departed from Egypt, but it took place against a background of opposition to Moses which began even before the Exodus and became more intense with every day spent in the wilderness and every new hardship. From the incident of the quail, right after the crossing of the Red Sea; to the making of the golden calf at the very foot of Sinai, where God had just appeared to them; to the debacle in Kadesh, the gateway of Canaan, where they threatened to appoint a new leader and return to Egypt—the Israelites resisted Moses at every turn, seemingly doing all they could to dash his hopes of molding them into a new people. In due course, their recalcitrance culminated in a final great effort to rid themselves of the man sent to remake them.

To the extent that a chronological sequence can be adduced from the narratives in the Five Books of Moses—and the classic commentators, it should be noted, insisted that textual propinquity does not necessarily have a bearing on relationship in time—the Torah probably saw the great revolt as following close upon the return of the twelve spies to the Israelite encampment at the oasis of Kadesh-Barnea (modern Ayn Qudays in the southwestern part of the Negev). Here, a panic broke out when ten of the twelve reported that Canaan, the promised land, could not be conquered. The succeeding events can be read in various ways. The Torah itself maintains that the Israelites, because they lacked the faith to press on to their ultimate destination, were condemned to wander in the desert until the entire generation of the Exodus had died out—an obvious case of doctoring the evidence, since whatever else it may say or suggest (and, among other things, it indicates that an invasion of Canaan mounted from Kadesh ended in defeat), the text clearly shows that Moses tried to make the people go along with an unpopular plan, failed, and then backed down rather than risk losing his hold on them.

Quite naturally, the setback at Kadesh, in which Moses could be seen as following rather than leading, encouraged some of his many opponents to believe that their moment had arrived. Two chapters on, in Numbers 16, which some modern scholars regard as a composite account incorporating memories of more than one incident, a powerful coalition of dissident factions is said to have joined forces against Moses, among them the whole tribe of Reuben, several clans of Levi, and 250 distinguished chieftains who are described as “men of renown” and members of the assembly.

The uprising involved two separate but closely related issues, one political, the other religious. The insurgent Levites, led by Korah, were trying to regain the traditional sacerdotal prerogatives that Moses had taken from them when he appointed his brother Aaron high priest of the recently completed Tabernacle and made the sacred cultus the exclusive province of Aaron’s sons and descendants, who now became Israel’s hereditary priestly caste. The Reubenites had more far-reaching goals. Having enjoyed a certain preeminence among the Hebrew clans in the patriarchal era, reflected by the fact that their eponym was said to have been the first-born son of Jacob, they apparently saw the tribal confederation Moses was welding as a threat to their status. Led at first by Dathan, Abiram, and On, and then by Dathan and Abiram after On dropped out (according to the Midrash because his wife saw that he would end up second-best no matter which side won), they seem to have declared their independence, probably assuming that some of the other tribes would follow suit and join them in a new confederation. Korah and his group may have contemplated a settlement in which the Aaronites would agree to restore at least some of their privileges, but for Dathan and Abiram, who totally repudiated the authority of Moses, there was no possibility of reconciliation.

Once the rebels had committed themselves, Moses proposed a parley. Dathan and Abiram refused. Korah accepted, and in the ensuing confrontation, he angrily asserted that all members of the tribe of Levi were equally holy; none, therefore, should be elevated above the others, and all were entitled to participate in the sacred service. (The text, amalgamating Korah’s story with that of Dathan and Abiram, has Korah refer to all Israelites, but his argument only makes sense if the original term is restored.) The denouement was swift and unambiguous. When Korah and his Levite associates appeared at the Tabernacle bearing incense offerings, in response to a challenge by Moses to see whether God would permit them to perform a cultic act, the earth opened. Korah was swallowed alive, as were Dathan and Abiram sulking back in the camp, and a fire from heaven consumed the 250 chieftains. The next day, when an angry mob demonstrated against Moses in protest, another 14,700 people were killed in a plague sent by God as a punishment.

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For the historian, the story in Numbers 16 is rich in veiled hints about the early development of the Israelite confederacy, some of them projected backward from a later time: a new aristocratic establishment supplanting the old one; the dominant tribe of an earlier era trying to hold its place during a period of reorganization and realignment; rival priestly guilds contending for control of the national cult. More important for our purposes, however, is the attributed religious meaning which the revolt took on in subsequent Jewish lore and thought.

Our starting point might well be the fact that the uprising is usually referred to as Korah’s revolt even though Dathan and Abiram helped to foment it and met the same fate as Korah. According to the Midrash, which, of course, postdates the account in Numbers by many centuries, all three were active in Israelite (and Egyptian) affairs before the Exodus, but during the period from the Exodus to the uprising the two Reubenites were far more prominent than Korah, and it is they, and not Korah, who are mentioned in the Bible’s other references to the revolt, Deuteronomy 11:6 and Psalms 106:17. Notwithstanding, the tradition gave pride of place to Korah. Presumably this was because Dathan and Abiram, unlike Korah, were pursuing a primarily political goal, although in a certain sense, it must be admitted, the distinction is artificial, since no aspect of the life of a covenant community like ancient Israel was wholly scular or completely devoid of what we today would call religious elements.

If the narrative in Numbers 16 could be read in isolation from the whole process of Israelite sacred history, it might appear that Korah’s goals were also primarily secular, for entitlement to the lucrative franchise of officiating in the Tabernacle had obvious economic and social benefits, and Moses was being charged with misusing his position to advance his family’s private interests. The chapter, however, is but a small part of the Torah, a work permeated by the well-nigh axiomatic conviction that Moses was a true prophet and that the rules he imposed on Israel all emanated from the Deity.

When the story of the revolt is taken in context with this, it becomes evident that Korah’s acts were unequivocally in the religious sphere, for they involved a direct repudiation of explicit instructions that God was said to have given for the conduct of the service in His sanctuary, both then and forevermore. Consequently, Korah’s actions constituted sinfulness of an entirely different order from that of the two Reubenite princes, who were not so much rebels against God as self-seeking agents of discord, partly for its own sake and partly to aggrandize themselves. Surely this is why the Jerusalem Talmud, in one of the earlier discussions of the Hebrew term apikoros (defined in Jastrow’s talmudic dictionary as “one irreverent of authority and religion . . . a heretic” and in Tractate Sanhedrin of the Mishnah as one who has forfeited his place in the world to come), applied the designation to Korah but not to his Reubenite coconspirators.

Apikoros is probably most familiar nowadays, if at all, as epikoyres, an old-fashioned Yiddish appellation for the kind of freethinker who is non-observant on principle rather than from ignorance of his religious obligations, but in rabbinic usage, in the era of the Talmud and Midrash, an apikoros was someone who actively challenged the authority, validity, or sanctity of the comprehensive body of Jewish law that the sages were constructing through dialectical elaboration and expansion of the written Torah. The sages, though they did not formulate their ideas in abstract terms, clearly understood at least some of the theological implications of Korah’s condemnation of Moses, and because of this depicted him, in the literature they were compiling, as the apikoros par excellence.

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According to the sages, Korah prepared the ground for his revolt by continually finding or creating opportunities to persuade the people that the Torah was irrational and unjust. Since the literature indicates that Korah did not deny the Sinaitic revelation or the divine origin of the Decalogue, it would seem that his main target was not so much Moses himself as the body of law he was promulgating, though the two, as will be seen, were closely intertwined. The sages did not put it so explicitly, and probably intended something quite different, but the Korah they depicted can be viewed as one of the first Jewish thinkers to regard the halakhic system as man-made and to realize that it often does not manage to bridge the gap between the letter of the law and its presumed intent, seemingly considering the former more important than the latter if the two are treated separately. Since the imperatives of his position as divinely-inspired lawgiver obliged Moses to reject attempts to define and directly achieve the law’s purposes, and to insist instead on literal observance, the midrashic stories repeatedly show Korah as a humanistic exponent of “common sense,” and have him backing Moses, the defender of the Torah, into a logical corner, in the process making him look small-minded and hypocritical.

A case in point, found in Tractate Sanhedrin of the Jerusalem Talmud and in other sources as well: the law requires that a mezuzah be affixed to the doorpost of every Jewish house (Deuteronomy 6:9, 11:20). There is no explanation of this mitzvah in the Torah, which requires only that certain scriptural passages be inscribed on the doorpost (the mezuzah itself, a cylinder containing a parchment bearing the passages, came sometime later), but traditionally the mezuzah has been understood as a reminder of God’s presence and of the Jew’s commitment to his faith. Apparently with this interpretation in mind, Korah once asked Moses whether a house filled with Torah scrolls needed a mezuzah, the point being that a reminder and a few brief lines hardly seem necessary when the whole Torah is present. The Torah, though, speaks only of the few lines and not of reminders; predictably, therefore, Moses answered yes, to which Korah contemptuously replied, and one may imagine him at this point turning to the onlookers with an I-told-you-so expression, “The 270 sections of the Torah aren’t enough, but the two sections in the mezuzah are!” Several incidents of this kind are recorded. Korah’s approach was always the same, and so was that of Moses the requirement of a blue-threaded fringe (Numbers 15:38; inoperative since ancient times) applies even to garments made entirely of blue cloth; a small shiny spot on the skin denotes impurity (Leviticus 13:24) but not a spot covering a person’s whole body; and so on—in short, the Torah is the law, and the law must be obeyed.

Social questions also came within Korah’s purview. The Bible, as is well known, displays an extraordinary concern for the plight of the poor and helpless, but all legal systems, Torah included, deal of necessity with groups and generalities, and since it is not possible to provide in advance for every possible situation, it sometimes happens that individuals become victims rather than beneficiaries of the law. Thus in the penultimate demonstration, immediately preceding the outbreak of the uprising, Korah regaled a public meeting with an account of the tribulations of an impoverished widow trying to eke out a living in a society governed by Torah law—how it really was, he might have said, when you ignored the moralizing and the casuistry and went out into the street.

The unfortunate woman, Korah claimed, wanted only to keep herself and her two daughters above water. When she set about plowing her field, however, she was condemned for yoking an ox and an ass together (in violation of Deuteronomy 22:10); she was condemned again for illegally mixing seeds of different kinds (in violation of Leviticus 19:19); and then, in quick succession, was forced to give the first fruits to the priests (Deuteronomy 26:2), to leave the gleanings and the corners of her tiny field untouched at harvest time (Leviticus 23:22), and to pay a tithe when her small store of grain was threshed (Numbers 18:8, 21). Barely able to make ends meet, she gave up farming altogether, sold the field, and bought a few lambs with the proceeds. Now the priests took the firstlings and a tithe of the wool (Numbers 18:15, Deuteronomy 18:4); when the lambs were slaughtered they took the meat as well (Deuteronomy 18:3, Numbers 18:14), leaving the woman totally destitute.

None of this is historical, of course, since the settled agrarian way of life, not to mention the laws and observances under fire, most certainly did not exist in the era when the Israelite tribes were sojourning in the wilderness. Clearly, then, the sages themselves were the source of the objections to the Torah voiced by Korah. His complaints, as Richard Rubenstein suggests in The Religious Imagination: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Jewish Theology (1968), can be taken as projections by the sages of suppressed feelings of ambivalence toward the stringent halakhic code they were creating. Korah’s position is also reminiscent of the views of such early exponents of Reform in the 19th century as Rabbi Aaron Chorin of Hungary; it strikes a familiar note as well to anyone who has followed the problematic course of Jewish law in the modern state of Israel in regard to marriage, divorce, bastardy, the sabbatical year, and similar matters, all areas in which punctilious observance, occasionally bolstered by egregious legal fictions or other artful dodges, seems at times to be the primary goal of rabbinic legists.

The issue involved, however, goes far beyond the question of letter versus spirit, ultimately coalescing as a problem pertaining to religious law that has never been resolved satisfactorily and perhaps cannot be. In American Jewish life today it is reflected in the Orthodox synagogue’s refusal to countenance women and men sitting together at worship services. Orthodoxy commonly presents separate seating as a pentateuchal mandate, but though it is a practice of long standing, endorsed by many Torah luminaries both past and present, it is not mentioned in the Bible and is not included in any of the traditional enumerations of the 613 commandments binding on observant Jews. Despite this, as Alan J. Yuter elaborates in some detail in a recent essay in Judaism (Spring 1979), the question has been removed from the arena of interpretation and free discussion by loyalist deference to a small group of rabbinic authorities who are the doyens of Orthodox thought in this country.

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Coming back to Korah, it can be seen that the question of authority was also the real issue throughout his midrashic debate with Moses, though not stated in so many words. By impugning even a few selected details of the law, Korah was challenging the very basis on which Moses presented the Torah to the people. Either it was from God, as Moses maintained, or it was not, in which case Moses was a false prophet. The claim that a body of law is of divine origin may be challenged from the outside, by atheists or Gentiles who do not accept the existence of the Deity said to have mandated the code. It may also be challenged from the inside, by one who shares the belief in the divinity but questions the received view of the divinity’s actions. Korah’s challenge was that of an insider, for he had been present at Sinai, and his acceptance of the Ten Commandments shows him willing, in principle, to believe that laws could be divinely inspired. He was motivated, then, either by animosity to Moses, as the sages insisted, or by a feeling that religion could or should be something other than unthinking obedience to an oft-times obscure or disagreeable code.

Since it was not possible to consult the putative Source of the Torah, Who according to Moses spoke to no one but Himself, Korah reasoned backward from the laws, contending that they could not be divine because they were so obviously ungodly. To those who believed Moses a prophet, however, the ungodliness existed only in the eye of the beholder. An anecdote recounted by Simon Greenberg in his essay, “Ethics, Religion, and Judaism” (Conservative Judaism, Fall 1972), puts the problem quite succinctly, though with a somewhat different emphasis. In 1926 Greenberg met a rabbi who had recently left the Soviet Union. The rabbi claimed to have questioned Leon Trotsky about some mass executions that had taken place under his authority. Trotsky, said the rabbi, held that what he had done was only what Joshua and the Israelites did when they conquered the land of Canaan. “And what did you say to that?” Greenberg asked. “What do you mean?” the rabbi replied. “Joshua was commanded by God to do what he did, but who commanded Trotsky?”

A Jewish question, it is said, is one in which the question is better than the answer. The quip certainly seems apt here. The Torah itself acknowledged the issue Korah raised but could not offer adequate guidelines. The problem is treated twice in the Book of Deuteronomy. One passage (18:22) states that the things a true prophet says in God’s name will eventually come to pass, which may seem clear enough but makes it impossible to know whether he was a true prophet until after the fact, when it may be too late. The other passage (13:2) warns that false prophecies may also come to pass, so the criterion must be whether the prophet’s teachings accord with what has already been given in the Torah, leaving a rather large area of uncertainty since the Torah is often not easily understood and, in addition, does not touch upon every contingency.

Several centuries after Deuteronomy the problem was still clouded, for we read in the book bearing his name that Jeremiah, himself a prophet and therefore presumably knowing something about the prophetic experience, went through an interval of doubt about his own mission when he met up with Hananiah ben Azzur, who also claimed to be a prophet but expounded completely different ideas (Jeremiah 28:1-17). The issue was more alive in Jeremiah’s day than in our own, but it still has relevance, not simply because authority remains a problem in religious life, but because certain types of prophetic illumination are still considered possible in Judaism even though the kind of prophecy on which Scripture can be based is said in the Talmud (Yoma 9b) to have ceased with the deaths of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi in the 5th century B.C.E. Moreover, at least some Jews are still confronted with the awesome prospect that someday they may have to evaluate the credentials of a claimant to messianic status.

The problem delineated in Korah’s debate with Moses is one that will always gnaw at Jewish religionists who are committed in some manner to a system in which a legalistic approach to conduct is intertwined with the other elements of belief in God. As noted, the sages, animated by the psychic process described by Rubenstein, were the ones who actually originated the debate and formulated Korah’s stance in it, and they at least found an acceptable solution. The Bible, it will be recalled, said that the earth opened and swallowed Korah and his followers alive. In Tractate Baba Batra of the Talmud (fol. 74a), a Babylonian scholar named Rabbah b. Bar Huna, who died early in the 3rd century, tells how an Arab merchant, who guided him through Sinai, led him to the place where Korah was entombed. There, putting his ear to a crack in the surface of the ground, Rabbah b. Bar Huna heard voices crying, “Moses and his Torah are truth, and we are liars.”

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The great upheaval known in the tradition as Korah’s revolt was directed against Moses, but in the Torah’s view, opposition to Moses and opposition to God were the same thing. In both the biblical and the midrashic versions, the Israelites led by Korah were trying to free themselves from the burdensome discipline that came with liberation and the giving of the law. A Bible-reading fisherman might well be reminded of his catch thrashing about in the net in a last desperate effort to elude his grasp, for this, in fact, is what the Israelites were doing. They had allowed themselves to be delivered from Egypt, one may imagine, less from love of God than from hatred of bondage, and once they realized that the Deity Who had adopted them had a yoke of His own to impose, they wanted in only on their own terms, not on His. Korah was the first in a long line of spokesmen for this attitude and his revolt, especially when conceived in the terms delineated in the Midrash, became the paradigmatic passage for a theme that crops up again and again in the Bible and recurs as a leitmotif throughout the long course of Jewish history.

A larger-than-life figure whose name has become a byword not for simple rebelliousness, but for outright rejection of the element that makes religion, in its Jewish variant, different from any of humankind’s other enterprises and activities, the Korah of the tradition embodies doubts and reservations that inevitably surfaced in thoughtful minds but could not be expressed more positively without endangering the whole structure of Judaism. Animated by concerns that can be seen as humane and humanistic rather than malicious, he is depicted in the sources as a figure of unvarnished evil. Condemned because he tried to judge God by human standards and to evaluate God’s demand by the same criteria he would have applied in other spheres, the midrashic Korah is 20th-century man in conflict with a primeval yet inescapable aspect of the religious sensibility—acceptance of the ineluctable gap between humankind and God, and obedience to those who claim that for them it has been narrowed somewhat.

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