After accusing Moshe and Aharon of raising themselves above the nation of Israel ("עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל"), Korach and his 250 men ("קֹרַח וְכׇל עֲדָתוֹ") assemble at the Mishkan to participate in the incense test, designed to establish who has been chosen by Hashem. The Torah then records a series of verses which include a somewhat enigmatic conversation between Hashem and Moshe:
(יט) וַיַּקְהֵל עֲלֵיהֶם קֹרַח אֶת כׇּל הָעֵדָה אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד ה' אֶל כׇּל הָעֵדָה.
(כ-כא) וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר. הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם כְּרָגַע.
(כב) וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל פְּנֵיהֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵל אֱלֹהֵי הָרוּחֹת לְכׇל בָּשָׂר הָאִישׁ אֶחָד יֶחֱטָא וְעַל כׇּל הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף.
(כג-כד) וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. דַּבֵּר אֶל הָעֵדָה לֵאמֹר הֵעָלוּ מִסָּבִיב לְמִשְׁכַּן קֹרַח דָּתָן וַאֲבִירָם.
(19) And Korach gathered the entire congregation (edah) against them to the opening of the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of Hashem appeared to the entire congregation (edah).
(20-21) And Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying: "Separate yourselves from among this congregation (edah) and I will consume them in a moment."
(22) And they fell on their face and said: "God, God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin and you will be angry with the whole congregation (edah)?"
(23-24) And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: "Speak to the congregation (edah), saying, 'Ascend from around the tent of Korach, Datan and Aviram.'"
Each of these verses1 employs the term "הָעֵדָה",2 but in all of them it is unclear whether the word refers to the congregation of Korach or the people of Israel at large.3 This results in a series of open questions:
- Verse 19 – Did Korach gather the entire people of Israel to the Tent of Meeting, or merely his band of 250 followers?4 To which of these groups did Hashem reveal his glory?
- Verse 21 – Did Hashem initially intend to wipe out the entire nation or just Korach's group of rebels?5
- Verse 22 – Is Moshe requesting that God spare even Korach's adherents or only the rest of the nation?
- Verse 24 – In response, does Hashem command specifically Korach's assembly to distance themselves from Korach, or are His words directed to the rest of the nation? What is the relationship between Hashem's instructions in verses 21 and 24?
As a result of the above textual ambiguities, there are multiple possible scenarios which can be reconstructed regarding each of the characters involved.
- Korach – Did Korach succeed in attaining broadly based popular support, or was he the leader of only a fringe group?
- Children of Israel – Did the nation at large commit an active or passive sin, or were they completely innocent bystanders?
- Hashem – Was Hashem threatening to impose collective punishment on the entire nation for the crimes of a minority, or was He always planning on punishing only the sinners (or was the entire nation truly guilty)? Did Hashem shift course as a result of Moshe's intercession?
- Moshe – Was Moshe challenging God's mode of justice on philosophical grounds or merely begging for mercy? Or did Moshe simply misunderstand Hashem's intentions?
These uncertainties, in turn, leave the reader with some profound theological questions:
- Collective punishment – Is collective punishment legitimate, and (if yes) does Hashem ever impose it?6
- Prophetic fallibility – Do prophets ever err or misunderstand Divine communication? Would this not pose a danger to the success of their mission, particularly if the prophet is Moshe Rabbeinu?7
- Divine immutability – Does Hashem ever change His mind and, if so, what would that mean and how is it possible?
In Approaches, we will examine the widely diverging readings of this story, and how their various proponents struggle with the implications for religious dogma.