Bemidbar chapters 16-17 tell of the rebellion of Korach and his followers, with one of the most memorable parts of the narrative being the description of the earth swallowing up the rebels. The three images shown here, J. Fouquet's miniature,1 the illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible, and the miniature from the Bible abrégée,2 envision both the miraculous swallowing and the participating rebels in unique ways, reflecting different understandings of the original story.
Fouquet is the only one of the three artists to portray both the rebels in Datan and Aviram's camp as well as the 250 men who bring the incense. The latter are depicted in the background, with spirals of fire descending upon them from the heavens. Amidst the mostly amorphous mass, one more clearly defined figure, apparently Aharon, stands unharmed. In the foreground, a hole in the earth encloses a group of men who stretch their arms upward, unable to save themselves. Between the two groups, several bystanders calmly watch the event. Behind them, a lone character, presumably Moshe, stands on a mound of earth and lifts his hands in a gesture of prayer.
This dark image contrasts sharply with the soft colors of Fouqet's miniature. A sinister feeling pervades the picture. Moshe lifts his staff,3 lightning strikes, and a full-fledged earthquake breaks apart the land. What was a small hole in Fouquet's image, here becomes a massive canyon in which many meet their death. The nation looks on, but several of the figures appear to turn back, perhaps frightened that they, too, will get caught in the catastrophe.4
As opposed to the other renditions, this illustration depicts just two figures, presumably Datan and Aviram. A hole, much like a pit or well, fills the image. The two men stand inside with their arms outstretched and their faces turned upward. On top of their heads is a disk with red flames or rays, representing a fire burning at the gates of hell.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
Nature of the Miracle
While the artist of the Holman Bible suggests that an earthquake broke open the ground and created a large canyon, the two illuminated manuscripts depict a relatively small and localized opening which swallowed up the rebels. Which depiction is closer to the Biblical record? How massive was the opening? Was it the result of a natural disaster, like an earthquake or a sinkhole, or was it a totally miraculous and unheard of phenomenon?
The text simply says that the earth "opened its mouth and swallowed" the men, allowing for each of the artistic renderings. Moshe, though, describes the miracle as a "בְּרִיאָה" (a "new creation"), suggesting that this was an event which had never before occurred. This, perhaps, points to a completely supernatural event.5 See The Punishments of Korach, Datan, and Aviram for elaboration.
Who Was Swallowed?
Both Fouquet and the Holman Bible portray many people being swallowed by the earth. The Bible abrégée, in contrast, depicts just two, presumably Datan and Aviram. According to the Torah, who was included in this punishment? Were Korach and his household killed together with Datan and Aviram and their families?
The verses are ambiguous. Bemidbar 16:19 suggests that Korach was gathered with the 250 men in front of the Tent of Meeting for the incense test, while Bemidbar 16:24, 16:32 and 26:9-106 seem to include him within the camp of Datan and Aviram.7 Some commentators, thus, conclude that he was burnt8 while others propose the opposite.9 Bavli Sanhedrin offers a "compromise", suggesting that Korach suffered either both punishments10 or neither.11
The question relates to a larger issue as well: Was Korach the leader of both the 250 men and Datan and Aviram? To what extent were the two sets of complaints intertwined? Was this one united rebellion or two distinct ones? See Korach's Rebellion – How Many Factions?
The Role of the Nation
From the Holman Bible, it appears that the the entire nation gathered to witness the punishment of Datan and Aviram, while in Fouquet's image there are merely a few bystanders. What was the role of the larger nation in the rebellion? Bemidbar is unclear. Though the word "הָעֵדָה" occurs multiple times in the narrative, it is not always clear to whom it refers. When Korach gathers the "עֵדָה" to the Tent of Meeting in 16:19, is he assembling the whole nation12 or only his followers? When Hashem tells Moshe, "הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם", is He suggesting to kill all of the Children of Israel or merely the rebelling congregation?13 What does this suggest about the level of the nation's guilt, or on the other hand, about Hashem's willingness to punish collectively? For elaboration, see Dialogue with the Divine During Korach's Rebellion
The Fate of the 250 Men
While the Holman Bible illustration and the Bible abrégée ignore the fate of the 250 men, Fouquet paints them being devoured by fire in the back of his painting, suggesting that the two punishments occurred simultaneously. Is this corroborated by the Biblical account? Bemidbar mentions the assembly of the 250 men immediately before describing the deaths of Datan and Aviram, but only relays their being burnt in the last verse of the chapter. Thus, the moment of their death is unclear. On one hand, the late mention supports a later death, but on the other hand, the literary framing might suggest simultaneity. Alternatively, the past perfect form of the phrase "וְאֵשׁ יָצְאָה" might mean that their deaths actually occurred even before the opening of the earth.14