An Ambiguous Complaint
The first half of Sefer Bemidbar recounts a litany of protests including the nation's complaints about the manna in Chapter 11, Aharon and Miryam's critique of Moshe in Chapter 12, and the nations' murmurings upon hearing the Spies' report in Chapters 13-14. These culminate in Chapters 16-17, with the infamous uprising of Korach and his congregation. Perhaps surprisingly, however, there is no consensus regarding the central grievance that led to Korach's rebellion. The initial complaint is recounted in but one verse:
וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב לָכֶם כִּי כׇל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם י״י וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל י״י.
and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much on yourself, since all the congregation are holy, everyone of them, and Hashem is among them: why then lift yourselves up above the assembly of Hashem?”
Though these words explicitly express dissatisfaction with the nation's leadership and a desire for a more equitable distribution of power, it is unclear if they are aimed mainly at Moshe, Aharon, or both. Mention of the nation's "holy" status might suggest that the issue is a cultic one, perhaps directed at Aharon's priesthood, and Moshe's retort, "וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם גַּם כְּהֻנָּה... וְאַהֲרֹן מַה הוּא כִּי [תַלִּינוּ] (תלונו) עָלָיו" would seem to support this. Later, though, when Datan and Aviram express their grievances, this issue plays no role. They instead focus solely on Moshe's political leadership, railing against his failure to bring them to the Promised Land:
(יג) הַמְעַט כִּי הֶעֱלִיתָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ לַהֲמִיתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר כִּי תִשְׂתָּרֵר עָלֵינוּ גַּם הִשְׂתָּרֵר. (יד) אַף לֹא אֶל אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ הֲבִיאֹתָנוּ וַתִּתֶּן לָנוּ נַחֲלַת שָׂדֶה וָכָרֶם הַעֵינֵי הָאֲנָשִׁים הָהֵם תְּנַקֵּר לֹא נַעֲלֶה.
(13) is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but you must also make yourself a prince over us? (14) Moreover you haven’t brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards: will you put out the eyes of these men? We won’t come up.”
What is the relationship between the various complaints? What were all of the rebels hoping to accomplish?
Historical BackdropOur chapter provides no background as to what prompted Korach's rebellion, and why it was specifically now that the nation voiced their concerns. The story, like many others, is undated, making it hard to set in a specific context. Since the previously dated event, the Sin of the Spies, takes place in the second year, and the next dated event, Aharon's death, occurs in the fortieth, the rebellion could have erupted at any point during the thirty-eight intervening years in the Wilderness!1 If the episode closely followed the sending of the Spies, might the aftermath of that event have spurred the rebellion? If, on the other hand, the revolt broke out only years later, why would the nation first challenge the priesthood only after Aharon's position had long been established?
The rebels who participated in the uprising are introduced in 16:1-2:
(א) וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן יִצְהָר בֶּן קְהָת בֶּן לֵוִי וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב וְאוֹן בֶּן פֶּלֶת בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן. (ב) וַיָּקֻמוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה וַאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד אַנְשֵׁי שֵׁם.
(1) Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men: (2) and they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred fifty princes of the congregation, called to the assembly, men of renown;
These verses raise several questions:
- "וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח" – Verse 1 opens with the statement "And Korach took", yet there is no object connected to the verb. Did Korach "take" the other people mentioned in the verse, which would imply that he was the ringleader,2 or did all four protagonists (Korach, Datan, Aviram, and On) do the taking, which might suggest that they were equal in status? Alternatively, might the word "וַיִּקַּח" have a secondary connotation which means something else entirely? Either way, did these instigators work together and share a common grievance, or might each have had his own individual concerns?
- "חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד אַנְשֵׁי שֵׁם" – Verse 2 speaks of 250 princes. Who were these men? Were they mostly from one tribe, or from all of the tribes? Is their princely status mentioned because it sheds some light on the reason why they joined the rebellion, or only to highlight that the revolt stemmed from those in the highest echelons of the nation?
- No Levites? When Moshe responds to the rebels, he addresses the Levites specifically (see 16:7-8). Yet, besides Korach, no Levites are mentioned in these opening verses. If they were not a significant part of the coalition, why are they singled out?
In response to the rebel's initial complaint, Moshe suggests an "incense contest" which will prove whom Hashem has chosen ("בֹּקֶר וְיֹדַע י״י אֶת אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וְאֶת הַקָּדוֹשׁ וְהִקְרִיב אֵלָיו"). Later, though, he announces a second, distinct demonstration, meant to prove that Moshe's actions are done via Divine fiat ("בְּזֹאת תֵּדְעוּן כִּי י״י שְׁלָחַנִי לַעֲשׂוֹת אֵת כׇּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים הָאֵלֶּה"). The earth then proceeds to swallow up Datan, Aviram, and perhaps Korach,3 and immediately afterwards (or perhaps simultaneously) fire strikes the 250 princes. What is the relationship between these two tests? Why were both necessary, and why did the various rebels not all meet the same fate? Perhaps, most troubling, though, is the fact that despite these two demonstrations, the nation appears unconvinced, complaining again to Moshe, leading to a third test, the "test of the staffs" in 17:17-24. Why, though, did the first two tests not suffice? What did the blossoming of Aharon's staff prove that had not previously been proven?
The story raises many more questions, both textual and conceptual:
- "וְיֹדַע י״י אֶת אֲשֶׁר לוֹ, וְאֶת הַקָּדוֹשׁ וְהִקְרִיב אֵלָיו, וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר בּוֹ יַקְרִיב אֵלָיו" – This verse appears to repeat itself, mentioning all of "אֶת אֲשֶׁר לוֹ", "וְאֶת הַקָּדוֹשׁ", and "וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר בּוֹ". Is there any significance to the triple formulation? Is the incense test meant to select three separate groups or just one?
- "וַיִּשְׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לִקְרֹא לְדָתָן וְלַאֲבִירָם" – Why must Moshe "send" for Datan and Aviram? Were they not with the rest of the rebellious congregation? If so, why not?
- "אַל תֵּפֶן אֶל מִנְחָתָם" – To what does the word "מִנְחָתָם" here refer? Is Moshe speaking of the incense offering4 or of a different sacrifice? Why does he make a special supplication regarding only the offering of Datan and Aviram, and not those of the other dissidents? Moreover, why would Moshe have had any concerns that Hashem would accept their offering?
- Back and forth – The story goes back and forth between various characters and settings, moving from the Ohel Moed and Korach's assembly, to the "Mishkan" of Datan and Aviram, and then back again, sometimes interrupting the flow of the narrative.5 How should all of these transitions be understood?
- "כִּי י״י שְׁלָחַנִי לַעֲשׂוֹת אֵת כׇּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים הָאֵלֶּה" – What deeds are included in the words "כׇּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים הָאֵלֶּה"? Is Moshe speaking of his actions in this episode specifically, the selection of Aharon, or perhaps his entire career?
- The laws of Chapter 18 – Chapter 18's discussion of Levite and priestly functions and gifts raises two further questions:
- At the end of Chapter 17, the people once again complain about dying, this time expressing a fear that coming close to the Mishkan will bring death in its wake, "כֹּל הַקָּרֵב הַקָּרֵב אֶל מִשְׁכַּן י״י יָמוּת". Apparently, in response, in Chapter 18, Hashem mandates that the Levites are to guard the Mishkan. However, as this task had already been assigned (Bemidbar 1:53, 3:7-8, and 8:26),6 why is it necessary to repeat it now?
- The rest of the chapter speaks of gifts to be given to priests and Levites, and the fact that they will not receive an inheritance in the land. Why are these points discussed specifically here? Might these laws have been introduced only in reaction to the rebellion? If so, how do they address the people's concerns?