The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Moses, Korach, and his Cohorts
Dr. Amos Frisch
Department of Bible
Moses's reactions to the claims of Korach and his associates raise several questions. Here are four:
a. Moses makes two separate speeches to Korach (Nu.16:5-7; 8-11)--Why?
b. Why, after his confrontation with Dathan and Abiram (verses 12-14), does Moses turn a third time to Korach (verses 16-17), only to repeat what he had already said to him in his first address (verses 5-7)?
c. Moses suggests that incense should be offered as a test or ordeal, when he must have known that it would mean the death of Korach and his followers, who certainly were not aware of the danger involved. Was this behavior on the part of Moses ethical?
d. What view does the Torah take of Moses's reactions, particularly his proposal of such a test?
We shall try to find answers to these questions through careful examination of the text, its language, and certain recurrent expressions or leading-words.
Ibn Ezra (16:8) distinguishes between the targets of Moses's two speeches: "For the first address was to Korach and all his associates, and this other one to the Levites." While this distinction seems to explain away the duplication of the speeches, in fact it is a questionable approach because Moses concludes the first by saying, "You take too much upon yourselves, O sons of Levi" (v. 7), and uses the same form of address to open his second speech: "Hear now, O sons of Levi" (v. 8). Moreover, in the second speech he turns directly to Korach, saying outright, "You and all your company" (v. 11). According to this, those addressed both times were the same people.
Even a modified version of Ibn Ezra, phrased by one of his super-commentaries, does not really solve the difficulty: "The first time Moses spoke to Korach and to his associates (v. 5), and then he spoke to Korach and to the Levites who were among his associates."1
Possibly we should distinguish not between the addressees but between the content. Korach and his associates asserted two things: that (on the theoretical level) all men are equal before God ("For all the congregation, all of them, are holy"); and that (in practical terms) Moses and Aaron have arrogated too many functions to themselves ("And why do you raise yourselves up over the assembly of the Lord?"). Therefore the answer given by Moses is also double and each of his speeches is devoted to one of Korach's assertions.
The first is principally concerned to refute the claim that "all of them are holy." Both at the beginning and at the end of his address, Moses insists that certain people may be more holy than others, and such is the man whom God has chosen. He makes a practical suggestion as well: in order that this holy individual may be identified, let all come forward and offer incense.
His second speech grapples with the charge that he and Aaron have been dominant over everyone else. On the one hand, Moses lists the privileges enjoyed by Korach and the Levites in the Divine service, tending to the offerings in the Sanctuary (this situation itself proves that there is no equality in roles!),2 and on the other he stresses that their complaint should not be directed against Aaron but against God. This implies that just as they themselves, as Levites, have been chosen by God to perform certain functions, so has Aaron been chosen. He ends with a reproach: "Truly it is against the Lord3 that you and all your company have banded together. For who is Aaron, that you should rail against him?"(v. 11).
The two speeches share the same leading word, the root k-r-v (to draw near), and when used as a causative verb, means "to bring near." It appears twice in each speech: God will show "who is holy, and will bring him near to Him; him whom He will choose will He bring near to Him" (v. 5) in the first and "For the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel to bring you near to Him to serve ... and to stand ... and He has brought you near, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you"(verses 9-10) in the second.4
Moses describes Korach and his cohorts in complimentary terms, using the same term k-r-v several times over, obviously attempting to mollify Korach, but at the same time Moses is also careful to make the necessary terminological distinctions. Korach and the Levites have been "separated,"(hivdil) but only to the man specially selected by God are applied the roots k-d-sh (sanctify) and b-ch-r (choose): "And the man whom the Lord will choose, it is he who is holy" (v. 7).
After a secondary confrontation with Dathan and Abiram which deals with a different topic, their protest over the wandering in the wilderness, Moses returns to Korach and summarizes the conditions for the ordeal of the incense. Is this not (Question "b" above) simple repetition of what he has said before? In this context Ramban (Nachmanides) on verse 16 makes a useful point when he notes differences between this statement and the earlier speeches, summing up as follows: "He excluded Dathan and Abiram from the group, and this is why the "two hundred and fifty incense shovels" are mentioned, since otherwise there was no need to state the number here; and he included Aaron, who was to be with them."
Moses, in Ramban's understanding, offers a revised proposal in light of the events. In the wake of the confrontation with Dathan and Abiram (vs. 12-14) he wishes to exclude them from the main group so that they may receive a separate punishment, while on the other hand Aaron is now included in the test, in response to Korach's wish.
Question C--Did Moses lead the participants in the ordeal astray? Nadab and Abihu perished when they offered incense and used a "strange" fire (Lev. 10:1-3), an incident similar to our case, and Korach and his associates must have known about that tragedy.5 Secondly, Rashi regards Moses's speech as a clear warning: "Behold, I tell you this so that you should not endanger your lives: [only] he whom God chooses will emerge alive, and the rest of you will perish" (comment on v. 6). Taking this approach, Korach and his associates were responsible for their own deaths, for they engage in the test despite their awareness of the danger. Moses, moreover, does not arrange for the test to take place at once but fixes it for the following day (16:7), which gives the prospective participants time to think the matter over.
An additional point is that in his second speech, as we have noted, Moses attempts to placate Korach and his associates by mentioning their privileges as Levites, hoping that they may be satisfied with what they have and not seek more. In other words, Moses attempted to avoid the ordeal at all costs. Quite possibly, Moses himself did not know in advance that they would be burnt to death, and their fate came as a surprise to him as well. For all these reasons, it is difficult to conclude that Moses tried to "trap" them in the ordeal.
What is the Torah's view of the tragic incident? Does it join in the criticism of the people against Moses and Aaron, "You have killed the Lord's people" (17:6)? Quite the contrary: the text indicates that this accusation constitutes a further sin for which God is prepared to destroy the people until Moses instructs Aaron to take his incense shovel, lay fire upon it, and hasten to make atonement for them.6 This episode makes the people understand that the incense is not a "potion of death" ( a phrase of the Sages quoted by Rashi on 17:13), but on the contrary, Moses and Aaron are their defending counsels and use the incense to shield them against death.
The Torah's attitude can also be discerned from a variety of references to the Korach incident in other parts of the Bible. When the daughters of Zelophehad present their case before Moses, they explain, "Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korach's faction, which banded together against the Lord, but died for his own sin" (Numbers 27:3). This lengthy citation about the Korach incident which uses the phraseology of Moses, hanoadim al hashem, suggests a later endorsement of Moses's stance: in the Torah's view, Korach and his associates did indeed "convene together against the Lord," and were rebels against God rather than simple protesters against Moses and Aaron. Their sin, as the Sages saw it,7 seems to have included a denial of God (kofer ba-ikar), for someone who does not believe that Moses was sent by God must also deny his faith in the Torah, which was transmitted through Moses.8
The Torah's position becomes yet more explicit in a remark in connection with the census taken on the Plains of Moab: "These are the same Dathan and Abiram, chosen in the assembly, who agitated against Moses and against Aaron, as part of Korach's band, when they strove against the Lord" (26:9). Here the Torah itself defines their activity as directed against the Almighty himself.
Two actions were taken after the punishment of Korach and his cohorts and are described in the text as signs. The first consists in surrounding the altar with the incense pans used in the trial ("And they shall be for a sign for the children of Israel" [17:3]), and the second is the presentation of Aaron's flowering staff "as a token, a sign for the children of rebellion" (v. 25). Again the leading words we have noted come into play: the purpose of the first sign is that "no stranger should draw near [yikrav] to offer incense before the Lord," while the second sign is intended to make it clear to the people that "the man whom I choose [evchar], his staff will flower" (17:5, 20). Hence the first sign relates to Korach's first assertion about the equality of all men-- in fact all are not equal in the Divine service of offerings and there are indeed some who may draw near (karav) and others who may not. The second sign relates to the second assertion, and the leading-word confirms that Aaron did not choose himself for the High Priesthood but was chosen (root bachar) by God.
At the same time, the flowering of Aaron's staff is not merely Heavenly proof of his election. It also contains an evaluation of the claims that have been made--the evaluation of God Himself: "And I will rid Myself of the incessant mutterings of the Israelites against you" (17:20). Similarly, when the staffs have been shown to the people, God declares that they are to be kept as a testimony, "so that their mutterings against Me may cease, lest they die" (v. 25). These declarations may be seen as endorsements of Moses's description of Korach and his associates as those who "convened against the Lord."
Thre is a certain irony in the command to plate the altar with the metal from the burnt incense shovels and in the use it makes of the recurrent terms we have noted: "For they brought them near(hikrivum) before the Lord, therefore they have been made holy(vayyikdashu)" (17:3). Who was brought near to the Lord and made holy? Even after their tragic death, Korach and his cohorts cannot be designated as "holy"--on the contrary, verse 17:3 calls them "those who have sinned." The only things that rank as "brought near" to God and "holy" are the inanimate incense shovels.
A deduction is to be drawn from this act for the benefit of all future generations: "So that no outsider--one who is not of the seed of Aaron--should presume to offer incense before the Lord" (17:5). Without ambiguity, we are told that anyone who is not descended from Aaron ranks as a "outsider" with regard to the incense offering. The solemn conclusion to this charge, "as the Lord had ordered him through Moses" (v. 5), while strictly referring only to the instruction about plating the altar, contains an echo of the entire confrontation and may be seen as a final rejection of the complaints. It asserts that Moses is indeed a true prophet, for what he says comes from God.
1. Perushei Ha-Torah Le-Rabbenu Avraham ibn Esra, ed. Asher Weiser (Jerusalem, 1976), 3:159, n. 29.
2. Note how the Torah anticipates this in verse 2 by describing the people who assemble against Moses as "nesi'ei (princes) of the congregation," since this calls into question the double assertion "For all the congregation ... are holy ... and why do you raise yourselves up [titnas'u--the same root as nesi'ei]?"
3. There are two main explanations for the difficult phrase ha-noadim al, here translated as "convened together against." (a) It forms the predicate, as Ibn Ezra suggests; or (b) it is a subordinate clause, the principal clause containing no predicate (Ramban). The phrase also provides a link with the preceding sin of the spies, where we find God condemns "all this evil company, who are convened together against Me" (Num. 14:35).
4. On the root k-r-v as a leading term in the narrative of Korach's rebellion and in its textual environment, see M. Buber, Darko shel Mikra (Jerusalem, 1964 ), pp. 288-290.
5. For the resemblances see the detailed discussion in Y. Moriale, Iyunim Ba-Mikra, 2nd ed. (Tel Aviv, 1990), pp. 93-94.
6. While those uttering the complaint describe the dead as "the Lord's people," God Himself, in calling to Moses and Aaron, uses a different term: "Get yourselves up from out of this congregation, and I will destroy them in a moment" (17:10). The term also appears in God's proclamation when Korach assembles his associates: "Separate yourselves from out of this congregation, and I will destroy them in a moment" (16:21), and this establishes the parallel between the new complainants and Korach's movement.
7. "At that time Korach said, `The Torah does not come from Heaven, Moses is not a prophet and Aaron is not a High Priest'" (Jer. T. Sanhedrin 10:1).
8. On the scope of this denial see Ramban on verse 29: "... and they denied all the deeds performed by God in Egypt and in the wilderness, and also at the Giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, during which was said, `And in you too shall they believe for ever' (Exod. 19:9) ... and the phrase `all the deeds' does not make sense ... unless it is applied to the totality of deeds carried out by Moses in the sight of all Israel, as I have explained." U. Paz points to another serious transgression possibly committed by Korach and his associates, arising from the phrase "mishkan Korach, Dathan and Abiram" (Num. 16:24). Since mishkan, as a singular form, is always used in the Bible solely in ceremonial contexts, this may suggest the erection of a private sanctuary by Korach and the rest (U. Paz, "The Complaints of the Children of Israel in the Book of Numbers: A Literary Analysis "[diss., Heb.], Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, 1983, p. 87).
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