Friday, June 15, 2007

The Korach Crux

I have a few words to say about the famous crux that appears at the beginning of this week's sedra, but first let's look at the story inside [emphasis added]:

1 Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and certain Reubenites—Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—became insolent 2 and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, community leaders who had been appointed members of the council. 3 They assembled to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, "You have too much! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD's assembly?" 4 When Moses heard this, he fell facedown. 5 Then he said to Korah and all his followers: "In the morning the LORD will show who belongs to him and who is holy, and he will have that person come near him. The man he chooses he will cause to come near him. 6 You, Korah, and all your followers are to do this: Take censers 7 and tomorrow put fire and incense in them before the LORD. The man the LORD chooses will be the one who is holy. You Levites have gone too far!" 8 Moses also said to Korah, "Now listen, you Levites! 9 Isn't it enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the Israelite community and brought you near himself to do the work at the LORD's tabernacle and to stand before the community and minister to them? 10 He has brought you and all your fellow Levites near himself, but now you are trying to get the priesthood too. 11 It is against the LORD that you and all your followers have banded together. Who is Aaron that you should grumble against him?"

12 Then Moses summoned Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab and they said, "We will not come! 13 Isn't it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert? And now you also want to lord it over us? 14 Moreover, you haven't brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you gouge out the eyes of these men? No, we will not come!" 15 Then Moses became very angry and said to the LORD, "Do not accept their offering(1). I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, nor have I wronged any of them."

16 Moses said to Korah, "You and all your followers are to appear before the LORD tomorrow—you and they and Aaron. 17 Each man is to take his censer and put incense in it—250 censers in all—and present it before the LORD. You and Aaron are to present your censers also." 18 So each man took his censer, put fire and incense in it, and stood with Moses and Aaron at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 19 When Korah had gathered all his followers in opposition to them at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, the glory of the LORD appeared to the entire assembly.

20 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, 21 "Separate yourselves from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once." 22 But Moses and Aaron fell facedown and cried out, "O God, God of the spirits of all mankind, will you be angry with the entire assembly when only one man sins?" 23 Then the LORD said to Moses, 24 "Say to the assembly, 'Move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.' " 25 Moses got up and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. 26 He warned the assembly, "Move back from the tents of these wicked men! Do not touch anything belonging to them, or you will be swept away because of all their sins." 27 So they moved away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. Dathan and Abiram had come out and were standing with their wives, children and little ones at the entrances to their tents.

28 Then Moses said, "This is how you will know that the LORD has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea: 29 If these men die a natural death and experience only what usually happens to men, then the LORD has not sent me. 30 But if the LORD brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have treated the LORD with contempt." 31 As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart 32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, with their households and all Korah's men and all their possessions. 33 They went down alive into the grave, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community. 34 At their cries, all the Israelites around them fled, shouting, "The earth is going to swallow us too!"

35 And fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMERS: I am not about to make any statements about who wrote the Torah. I accept and believe that God wrote the Torah and dictated it to Moshe. In the discussion that follows I make observations only about HOW God wrote the Torah, and leave to the reader to draw his own conclusions.


Observations (none of these originated with me):
1 - From the way it has been written it seems that two rebellions have been combined. Korah and the Levites want additional priestly privileges (every one is holy, they said, not just Moshe) while the Rubenites, descendants of the first born, want political power ("We will not go up," is how they answered Moshe's summon, and fittingly Aaron is not mentioned in this section. The complaints of the Rubenites (above in blue) are directed against Moshe alone. The complaints of the Levites (above in green) are directed at both brothers.

2 - There are two different places of confrontation - for Korah and the Levites, there is a fire pan trial in front of the tent of assembly; and for Dathan and Aviram and their people it is the entrance of their tents.

3 - There are two different modes of destruction. The Levites are consumed by fire, while the Rubenites are swallowed up by the earth.

4 - Korah's name appears to have been spliced into the Rubenite episode (the green words mixed in with the blue sentences) His men are mentioned, though presumably they were at the Tent of Assembly with their fire pans, and he is mentioned though he has been told to stand at the tent of Assembly, and not in front of his own tent. Notably in verse 27 he is dropped from the scene in front of the tents. An additional attempt to harmonize the two stories appears above in the blue episode (note 1) when Moshe refers to an "offering," though Datan and Aviram have mentioned none.

I am fully prepared to say that what I perhaps indelicately call "harmonizing and splicing "was done by God. I am happy to agree that is was He and not some later redactor who wove the two stories together. The question though is why did He choose to tell the story this way?

[Note: As said, none of these observations are new, and Rashi spotted almost all of them. His first comment of the week tells us that all of this is "beautifully" resolved by the midrash, and this is true, only neither Rashi not the midrash indicate in any detail what it is exactly that they are addressing.]

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