by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Then Moses got up and went to Datan and Aviram, and the elders of Israel went after him. And he spoke to the assembly, saying: “Please move away from the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything that is theirs, lest you are swept away with their offense!” (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:25-26)
Datan and Aviram, two men from the tribe of Reuben, have been arguing that Moses should no longer lead the Israelites. They pointed out that under Moses’ leadership, the people did not get into a land flowing with milk and honey, but instead are stuck dying in the wilderness.
They did not mention that God decreed they must spend 40 years in the wilderness because all the men of Israel except Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and Joshua refused to cross the border into Canaan. (See last week’s post, Shelach-Lekha: Mutual Distrust.)
So they went up away from around the dwelling-place of Korach, Datan, and Aviram. But Datan and Aviram went out and were standing at the entrance of their tents, and their wives and their children and their little ones. (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:27)
Datan and Aviram can hear Moses’ warning, so they have an opportunity to send their own families out of harm’s way, but they do not. And in the patriarchal society of the ancient Israelites, it is rare for women or children to act on their own.
Do the two rebels believe that God will not “sweep them away” for their offense? After more than two years of miracles demonstrating cooperation between God and Moses, do they think God will let them—and their families—live?
If so, Moses is determined to prove once and for all that he is only serving God, not grabbing power on his own initiative.
And Moses said: Through this you will know that God sent me to do all these deeds, that they did not [come] from my own mind. If these die like every human dies, and if the fate of every human is their fate, God did not send me. But if Hashem creates a [new] creation, and the ground opens up her mouth and swallows them and all that is theirs, and they go down alive to Sheol, then you will know that these men did not respect God. (Numbers 16:28-30)
Sheol (שְׁאוֹל) = the underworld of the dead; a lightless, silent place where the spirits of the dead lie in graves—as their bodies lie in graves closer to the surface of the earth. (The etymology of Sheol is uncertain, but the word may come from the root verb sha-al, שׁאל = inquired, asked for, asked about.)
In the Hebrew Bible, all the dead “go down” to Sheol—after they die. The “new creation” Moses promises is that Datan, Aviram, and “all that is theirs” will go down to Sheol while they are still alive.
And it happened, as he finished speaking all these words: the ground that was underneath them split. And the earth opened her mouth, and she swallowed them and their households … And they went down, they and all that was theirs, alive to Sheol, and the earth covered over them, and they were carried off from the midst of the congregation. And all Israel that was around them fled at their noise, for they said: Lest the earth swallow us! (Numbers 16:31-34)
It sounds as if the families of Datan and Aviram go down screaming.
What happens to them after the earth swallows them? The Torah is silent. But the other 61 references to Sheol in the Bible make it clear that no one lives there. It is the abode of all the dead, and only the dead. When the two families in this week’s Torah portion are buried alive, they suffocate and die. Their corpses remain deep underground, and the spirits that had animated their bodies “sleep” forever in Sheol.
The Bible has no concept of an immortal soul that reunites with God after death. Later Jewish writings use the Hebrew word neshamah for such a soul, but in the Bible neshamah means only “breath” or “breathing person”. What goes to Sheol in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms, is the nefesh.
What man alive will never see death,
will save his nefesh from the grip of Sheol? (Psalm 89:49)
nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = the “soul” that animates the body; throat, appetite, personality, individual, an individual’s life.
A nefesh in Sheol retains the identity of the formerly living person, but it does not speak, experience feelings, or do anything except perhaps sleep. Unlike the Egyptian ka, which can eat, drink, and be waited on in the tomb after death, the Israelite nefesh simply lies or sleeps in Sheol. The best a man can hope for in Biblical eschatology is to die peacefully, so he can lie among his ancestors.
Jews did not develop any theory of an afterlife until the second century B.C.E. The book of Daniel, written around 165 B.C.E., never mentions Sheol, but it does predict the bodily resurrection of the dead at the end of the world as we know it. The idea that an individual’s soul survives the death of the body and has its own experiences crept into Jewish writings in the first century C.E. In the Talmud this independent, conscious soul might be punished for misdeeds after death in a hellish place called Gehenna.
But neither hell nor conscious souls exist in the book of Numbers. Datan and Aviram know they are risking immediate death without a conscious afterlife. And they know they are risking the same oblivion for their wives, children, and infants, who will receive no heavenly reward after death.
The last thing that they experience is the terror of being swallowed by the earth. They go down alive to Sheol, and then their corpses, as well as their personalities, lie there inert, forever.
Datan and Aviram are stupid to dispute Moses’ leadership and his status as God’s favorite servant. But I think their real crime is ignoring the next generation, including their own children. By modern standards, these two men are so self-absorbed they view their wives and children as mere possessions, part of “all that is theirs”—as if these human beings who depend on them are already inanimate, silent, dead.
How many of us today are so caught up in the drama of our own lives that we ignore everyone else? That we find no comfort in the thought that our children, our students, the next generation, might lead good lives after we have died?
May we all learn to live as if there is no afterlife, as if our deeds in this world really matter, and as if the life of every other human being really matters.