Dialogue with the Divine During Korach's Rebellion
Moshe's brief dialogue with Hashem presents us with the challenge of how to contend with a debate between two sides, both of whom are often viewed as infallible or close to it.1 How does one "choose sides" in such a case, or can a way be found to understand and justify both? R. Chananel adopts the approach that Hashem never had any intention of wiping out the entire people, but Moshe made a mistake and, due to the ambiguity of the word "הָעֵדָה", simply misunderstood what Hashem had said. Ralbag, in contrast, develops the notion that Hashem, indeed, sometimes applies collective punishment to completely innocent people, but Moshe prevailed upon Hashem to afford the nation the opportunity to distance themselves from Korach and thereby avoid punishment.
Other commentators try to present the exchange as Moshe pleading for Hashem to have mercy even upon sinners. Ramban proposes that the entire conversation revolved around the nation at large which had in fact sinned, but were nonetheless spared because Moshe succeeded in persuading Hashem to have mercy. The Melekhet Machshevet, though, explains that the discussion focused on the fate of Korach's followers, and that Moshe failed in his attempt to invoke Divine mercy upon them.
Hashem Corrected Moshe's Error
Hashem planned to punish only Korach's followers, but Moshe misunderstood and thought that Hashem intended to destroy the entire nation. In response, Hashem clarified his intent and corrected Moshe's mistake.
"וַיַּקְהֵל עֲלֵיהֶם קֹרַח אֶת כָּל הָעֵדָה" in verse 19
250 men – This approach would work well with the option3 that verse 19 describes Korach assembling only his 250 men ("הָעֵדָה" = עדת קרח).4 The term "הָעֵדָה" throughout verses 19-21 would then consistently refer to the same group.5
Entire people – R"Y Bekhor Shor, R. Bachya, and the Keli Yekar, however, all assert that the word "הָעֵדָה" refers to the whole nation of Israel,6 and that Korach gathered the various tribes in an attempt to convince them to join his camp.
Did the nation sin? If verse 19 refers only to Korach's group, there is no indication whatsoever that the nation at large committed an offense. Such a possibility exists only according to those commentators who think that verse 19 refers to the entire nation. These are split, with R"Y Bekhor Shor positing that the nation gathered merely to observe but did not participate in the sin, and R. Bachya opining that the nation was persuaded by Korach to support his rebellion.7
Hashem's initial plan ("הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם") – This approach maintains that Hashem never contemplated destroying the whole nation. When Hashem said, "הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה", He was referring to the congregation of Korach only,8 and not the nation of Israel.9
Moshe's plea ("וְעַל כׇּל הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף?") – Moshe misunderstood and thought that Hashem wanted to destroy all of Israel and, thus, he requested that they be spared.10
If one assumes, like R"Y Bekhor Shor, that the rest of the nation was innocent, Moshe was arguing that only Korach and his followers sinned so it would be unjust if the others were punished.11
If one asserts, like R. Bachya, that much of the nation did join the rebellion, then one must suggest that Moshe was pleading that only the inciter to rebellion should be punished, not those foolish enough to follow him.12
Hashem's response – Hashem corrects Moshe's mistake, clarifying that when He said "הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה", He meant only "הֵעָלוּ מִסָּבִיב לְמִשְׁכַּן קֹרַח דָּתָן וַאֲבִירָם".
Can Hashem change His mind? According to this approach, Hashem is consistent and does not regret his initial decisions. Discomfort with the possibility that Hashem might have initially "erred" or desired to do something that He would later regret, may be one of the motivations for this whole approach.
Can a prophet err? This approach must explain how it is possible for a prophet, especially one of the stature of Moshe, to err in his understanding of the Divine word?14 None of these commentators address this question explicitly,15 but they apparently maintain that even a prophet like Moshe is human and might occasionally misunderstand Hashem.16 For elaboration and other examples, see Moshe – Overview.
Hashem Changed His Mind
Hashem's original plan would have led to the entire nation being punished, but Moshe persuaded Hashem to shift course. This position subdivides regarding the motivation for Hashem's change of heart and the substance of Moshe's argument:
Rescinded Decree of Collective Punishment
Moshe argued with Hashem on moral and philosophical grounds, convincing Him not to collectively punish the innocent with the guilty.
"וַיַּקְהֵל עֲלֵיהֶם קֹרַח אֶת כָּל הָעֵדָה" in verse 19
Entire nation – According to most of these commentators, the term "עֵדָה" in this verse refers to the Children of Israel and not the 250 men.17 Korach had gathered all of the various tribes to persuade them to side with him against Moshe.
250 men – Ralbag suggests, in contrast, that the word refers to Korach's congregation,18 and not the larger nation. Korach had to actively reassemble his 250 followers, since many were afraid and hesitant to participate in the incense test and had thus dispersed.
Did the nation sin?
Yes – According to Tanchuma and Rashi, Korach managed to persuade the nation to join his rebellion. They maintain, though, that some portion of the nation still refused to participate in the sin.19
No – Ralbag and the Akeidat Yitzchak assert that the nation did not sin.20
Hashem's initial plan ("הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם")
Collective punishment – Hashem is referring to the Congregation of Israel.21 Even though the nation (or, according to Tanchuma and Rashi, a portion of the nation) was innocent and did not play any role in the rebellion, Hashem planned on punishing them collectively along with the rebels.
Collateral damage – According to the Akeidat Yitzchak, in contrast, Hashem was planning on actively punishing only Korach and his men ("הָעֵדָה" = עדת קרח). Nonetheless, Hashem was not planning on preventing the nation from suffering any collateral damage the punishment might cause.22 Thus, Hashem originally told only Moshe and Aharon to separate from the rebels (and thereby be protected from sharing their fate), but did not instruct the nation as a whole to do the same.
Moshe's plea ("וְעַל כׇּל הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף?") – Moshe is arguing against collective punishment. According to the Tanchuma, Rashi, and Ralbag, he is challenging the fundamental principle, contending that it is unfair to punish the innocent along with the guilty.23 For the Akeidat Yitzchak, in contrast, even Moshe is not objecting to the concept per se, but rather only claiming that it should not be applied in this particular instance, since Korach had defied Moshe's authority and separated himself from the collective.24
Hashem's response and the principle of collective punishment – All of these commentators maintain that, in the end, Hashem acquiesced to Moshe's request and changed His original plan. Tanchuma and Rashi present Moshe as convincing Hashem that collective punishment is not just. According to both Ralbag and the Akeidat Yitzchak, though, Hashem does not retract the principle of collective punishment,25 but simply does not apply it in this case.26
"הֵעָלוּ מִסָּבִיב לְמִשְׁכַּן קֹרַח דָּתָן וַאֲבִירָם" – Ralbag and Akeidat Yitzchak differ in their understandings of the purpose of this directive:
Preventative – According to Ralbag, since collective punishment is by nature what happens to a united group when one part sins and causes Hashem's providence to depart, Hashem needed to break up the collective. He, thus, commands Moshe to tell the nation, "הֵעָלוּ מִסָּבִיב לְמִשְׁכַּן קֹרַח דָּתָן וַאֲבִירָם", to separate themselves, and thus not be caught in the punishment of Korach's followers.
Corrective – The Akeidat Yitzchak views these latter words of Hashem as modifying His original statement, "הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה". Hashem had originally told only Moshe and Aharon to separate from Korach's congregation, but He now extends this warning to the rest of the nation ("דַּבֵּר אֶל הָעֵדָה") so that they can all distance themselves and be saved.27
Can Hashem change His mind? According to the Tanchuma and Rashi, Hashem simply accepted Moshe's argument and changed His course of action.28 Ralbag and the Akeidat Yitzchak, though, present more rationalist understandings. Ralbag explains that due to the closeness of the prophet to Hashem, his intercession can impact Divine providence, while according to the Akeidat Yitzchak the nation's action in distancing themselves from Korach is what brought about the change result.29
Can a prophet err? The Akeidat Yitzchak argues against the possibility that Moshe could possibly have erred in understanding Hashem's words.30 Discomfort with this notion may be one of the main motivating factors for this position.
Pardoned Even the Undeserving
Moshe made an emotional argument before Hashem, appealing on humanitarian grounds to God's mercy and asking that He forgo punishing the nation even though they had sinned.31
"וַיַּקְהֵל עֲלֵיהֶם קֹרַח אֶת כָּל הָעֵדָה" in verse 19 – This position asserts that the term "עֵדָה" in this verse refers to the Children of Israel,33 and not the 250 men with Korach. Korach assembled the entire nation to convince them to join his rebellion.
Did the nation sin? These commentators attribute varying degrees of guilt to the nation, suggesting either that they, too, had begun to question Moshe's authority, or that they were guilty of not protesting against Korach.34
Hashem's initial plan ("הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם") – According to all of these exegetes, Hashem is instructing Moshe and Aharon to distance themselves from the entire nation.35 Since the people had all participated in the sin, Hashem desired to punish them as well.
Moshe's plea ("הָאִישׁ אֶחָד יֶחֱטָא וְעַל כׇּל הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף?") – Moshe's argument is not a philosophical one, as above, but an emotional one. He pleas that Hashem should have mercy on the undeserving nation.36 He attempts to mitigate the people's fault by pointing out that it was a sin of thought and not action. Moreover, he stresses that only Korach was really culpable, since without him the nation would not have been persuaded to sin.
Hashem's response – Hashem agrees to Moshe's request, and changes His original plan. The commentators disagree regarding the intent of Hashem's words, "הֵעָלוּ מִסָּבִיב לְמִשְׁכַּן קֹרַח דָּתָן וַאֲבִירָם" in verse 24:
Correction – Ramban reads Hashem's words as correcting His original statement, "הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה". Hashem was no longer planning on punishing the enitre "עֵדָה", but rather only Korach, Datan, and Aviram.
Demand for a show of loyalty – Malbim and R. Hirsch,37 in contrast, assert that in verse 24, Hashem is demanding that the nation actively show that they no longer support Korach by distancing themselves from him. Only with such an atoning act will they no longer deserve to share Korach's fate.
Can Hashem change His mind? This approach asserts that at times Hashem might initially plan to act according to strict justice, but after the intercession of a prophet, decides instead to act according to the attributes of mercy.38 Compare also to the impact which Moshe's prayers after the sins of the Golden Calf and the Spies had on Hashem's initial decrees.
Is collective punishment just? These commentators maintain this was never a case of potential collective punishment since the nation was also guilty of rebellion.39
Can a prophet err? Ramban and Abarbanel utterly reject the possibility that Moshe could possibly have erred in understanding Hashem's words.40
Hashem Rejected Moshe's Plea for Mercy
Hashem denied Moshe's request to have mercy even upon the 250 followers of Korach, but the entire dialogue did not relate at all to the fate of the rest of the nation as they were never in danger.
"וַיַּקְהֵל עֲלֵיהֶם קֹרַח אֶת כָּל הָעֵדָה" in verse 19 – This verse is referring to Korach's gathering of the 250 men.42 One of the advantages of this approach is its consistency in reading the word "הָעֵדָה" throughout this episode as referring exclusively to עדת קרח.43
Did the nation sin? The Melekhet Machshevet suggests that the larger nation was innocent. Ibn Ezra does not address the issue.44
Hashem's initial plan ("הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם") – Hashem meant to destroy the congregation of Korach ("הָעֵדָה" = עדת קרח) aמd not the rest of the nation.
Moshe's plea ("הָאִישׁ אֶחָד יֶחֱטָא וְעַל כׇּל הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף?") – Moshe requests that Hashem display His attribute of mercy, and that only Korach, the ringleader, be punished, but that his 250 followers be spared. According to R. Moshe Hefetz in his Melekhet Machshevet, Moshe thought that it was possible that the 250 followers were not truly backing Korach in their hearts, and that there was still room for them to repent.
Understanding the incense test – This position must maintain that Moshe had not intended the incense test to end in the deaths of the participants. Otherwise, his plea to spare the 250 men is totally illogical.45 Moshe had simply set up a test whereby Hashem's true choice would become evident when Aharon's offering was accepted and that of the others rejected.46
Hashem's response – Despite the request for mercy, Hashem decides to punish all those in Korach's rebel camp.
According to R. Moshe Hefetz, when Hashem tells Moshe, "דַּבֵּר אֶל הָעֵדָה לֵאמֹר הֵעָלוּ מִסָּבִיב לְמִשְׁכַּן קֹרַח דָּתָן וַאֲבִירָם", he is directing him to speak to Korach's congregation (and not the nation), to test them if they are really willing to separate themselves from the leaders of the rebellion.47 But while the nation of Israel distanced themselves, the 250 men remained in place, and as a result, rightfully, get punished.
Alternatively, there words are simply a reiteration of Hashem's original words (הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה); Hashem is telling Moshe that his plea was rejected and that He is continuing with His original plan.
Can Hashem change His mind? The Melekhet Machshevet rules out the possibility of Hashem making a mistake or needing to change His mind.
Is collective punishment just? R. Moshe Hefetz maintains that Hashem would never punish anyone who had not sinned.
Can a prophet err? R. Moshe Hefetz rejects the possibility that Moshe could have misunderstood Hashem's words.
Crux of the position – This position manages to resolve many of the philosophical issues raised by the others - neither Hashem nor Moshe err,48 and there is no potential issue of collective punishment. It has the additional advantage of maintaining a consistent understanding of the word "עֵדָה" throughout the narrative, referring always to עדת קרח. It does encounter difficulty with the tone of the rest of the chapter, though, which does not sound as if Moshe was necessarily looking out for the welfare of the rebels.