Moses falls on his face three times in this week’s Torah portion, Korach—and each time, he does it on purpose.
The Torah portion begins with a Levite named Korach challenging his cousins Moses and Aaron. Standing with him are three rebels from the tribe of Reuben and 250 prestigious men (described first as chieftains, then as Levites for the rest of the story).
And they assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and they said to them: “You have too much! Because all the congregation, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves over the assembly of God?” Moses listened. Vayipol on his face. (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:3-4)
Vayipol (ו־יּפֺּל) = Then he fell (by accident or on purpose), then he threw himself down.
Why does Moses suddenly drop to the ground, face down?
The Hebrew Bible refers to prostration in two ways: nofeil al panav (נֺפֵל עַל פָּנָיו, falling on one’s face) and mishtachaveh (מִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה, bowing low). Mishtachaveh could be to anything from a deep standing bow, to kneeling and putting one’s forehead to the floor, to stretching out full length. It is a formal and deliberate act in the Torah, signifying deference, obeisance, or worship. Extrabiblical sources confirm that mishtachaveh was required before kings and other persons of authority in ancient Egyptian and Persian courts. In the Bible, Joseph’s brothers bow down to Joseph when he is an Egyptian viceroy,1 and when Hamaan is the Persian viceroy all the king’s employees except Mordecai bow down to him.2
Falling on one’s face, or throwing oneself down onto one’s face, is a more dramatic prostration. People fall on their faces 27 times in Hebrew Bible3:
—7 times before another person, as an expression of submission4,
—11 times before a manifestation of God, from being overcome with awe5, and
—9 times in order to initiate communication with God.6
Only Abraham, Joshua, Ezekiel (twice), and Moses (once by himself and four times with Aaron) are brave enough to initiate communication with God. They want God to speak to them directly and answer their question and/or tell them what to do next. To grab God’s attention, they have to do something more dramatic than a formal prostration.
Moses first falls on his face in last week’s portion, Shelach-Lekha. The Israelites have been weeping all night in despair of taking over Canaan, and they decide to choose a new leader and go back to Egypt. In the morning,
Vayipol, Moses and Aaron, on their faces in front of the whole assembly of the community of Israelites. (Numbers 14:5)
Some commentators7 propose that Moses and Aaron are prostrating themselves to the Israelites as a silent gesture pleading for them to change their minds. I cannot agree. Moses may be humble, but nowhere else in the bible does someone in authority bow down or fall on his face to someone under his own supervision. It is Joshua and Caleb who use a silent gesture to plead with the Israelites, tearing their clothes as mourners do. Then Joshua and Caleb try verbal persuasion, while Moses and Aaron remain silent. I believe Moses and Aaron fling themselves down and wait for God to respond. God finally manifests just in time to stop the Israelites from stoning Joshua and Caleb.
Moses gets a faster response when he throws himself on his face at the opening of this week’s Torah portion. Although God’s words are not recorded, God apparently tells Moses what to do about Korach’s challenge, because Moses then tells Korach and his men there will be a divine test.
“Do this: Take for yourselves fire-pans, Korach and all his company. And you shall place embers in them, and put incense on them, in front of God tomorrow. And the man who, God chooses, he is the holy one.” (Numbers 16:6-7)
The next morning, when Korach and his 250 Levites arrive at the Tent of Meeting with their fire-pans and incense, God tells Moses and Aaron to stand at a safe distance while God annihilates the challengers. This time Moses and Aaron fall on their faces in order to get God to listen to them.
Vayiplu (וַיִּפְּלוּ) = and they fell, and they threw themselves down. (Another form of the verb nafal, נָפַל.)
The action suddenly shifts to where three ringleaders—the Ruevenites Datan and Aviram, and the Levite Korach—are standing defiantly at the entrances of their own tents. God instructs Moses to tell everyone to stand back from the three tents. Then God makes the earth swallow the tents, the three ringleaders, and their families.
In a thoroughly edited story8, the reader might now expect God to respond to Moses and Aaron’s plea by pardoning the 250 Levites who had stood with Korach. Instead, the action hops back to the story of the Levite rebellion:
And fire went out from God and it consumed the 250 men offering the incense. (Numbers 16:35)
The next day all the Israelites protest against Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the death of 253 people.
And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Get up away from the midst of this community, and I will consume them in an instant.” Vayiplu on their faces. Then Moses said to Aaron: “Take the incense pan and place fire on it from the altar, and put in incense, and go quickly to the community and atone for them, because the rage has gone out from before God. The affliction has begun.” (Numbers 17:9-11)
Instead of following God’s order and running away, Moses and Aaron throw themselves down on their faces. This time they catch God in the middle of slaughtering the Israelites with a fast-acting disease. But Moses finds out how to stop the epidemic, and Aaron’s incense does the trick. If they had not fallen on their faces, perhaps God would have wiped out everyone.
And Moses and Aaron moved from facing the assembly to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, vayiplu on their faces, and the glory of God appeared. (Numbers 20:6)
They get God’s attention, and God gives Moses instructions for getting water from a rock.
Thus Moses throws himself down on his face both to ask God for instructions, and to persuade God to do something different. Falling on his face gets God’s attention and indicates humility before God. But it also means dropping his own pride and external identity—losing face, in a way. This helps Moses to reopen communication with God.
Today worshipers in many religions use gestures of humility in prayer such as bowing or kneeling, and some even perform prostrations. But these gestures fall short of the passionate abandon of flinging oneself face-down.
Would falling on our faces help us to get answers from God?
(An earlier version of this essay was published in June 2010.)
1 Genesis 42:6, 43:26, 43:28.
2 Esther 3:2.
3 There are also two occasions when an idol of the Philistine god Dagon falls on its face. The Philisties of Ashdod capture the ark of the God of Israel and put it in their temple of Dagon. For two mornings in a row, when they enter the temple, they discover: Hey! Dagon nofeil (נֺפֵל = is fallen) to his face to the ground before the ark of God! (1 Samuel 5:3, 5:4).
4 People fall on their faces to express submission to David in 1 Samuel 17:49 and 25:23; and 2 Samuel 9:6, 14:22, and 14:33. The lesser prophet Ovadiah falls on his face before Elijah in surprise and obeisance in 1 Kings 18:7. Ruth falls on her face before her benefactor Boaz in Ruth 2:10.
5 People fall on their faces before a manifestation of God as a vision (Ezekiel 1:28, 3:23, 43:3, and 44:4; Daniel 8:17; and 1 Chronicles 21:16), a supernatural fire (Leviticus 9:24, I Kings 18:39), or a man who turns out to be an angel (Joshua 5:14, Judges 13:20). In 2 Chronicles 20:18, the people throw themselves on their faces before God after someone utters an unexpected prophecy.
6 Abraham only falls on his face before God once; the result is that God speaks again and gives him further information (Genesis 17:3). Joshua and the elders of Israel fall face down in front of the ark in order to get God to speak to them (Joshua 7:10). Twice, in his visions, Ezekiel throws himself on his face before speaking to God (Ezekiel 9:8, 11:13).
7 E.g. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 750, and Ramban (the acronym for 13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a.k.a. Nachmanides).
8 The text provides two different responses from God because this Torah portion combines two original stories: one about a rebellion by two or three leaders in the tribe of Reuben, and one about a challenge from Korach on behalf of all Levites, who take care of the Tent of Meeting but are excluded from serving as priests.