Two rebellions against Moses and Aaron are featured in this week’s Torah portion, Korach: one by leaders from the tribe of Reuven,1 and one by 250 Levites and their leader, Korach. The Torah introduces him as:
Korach, son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi … (Numbers/ Bemidbar 16:1)
Korach (קֺרַח) = shaven bald; icy. (Korach may be derived from the verb karach, קָרַח = shave oneself bald, or from the noun kerach, קֶרַח = ice, frost.)
After introducing both factions that are jealous of Moses’ authority, the Torah turns first to the Levites.
They gathered against Moses and against Aaron, and they said to them: “You have too much for yourselves! Because all the assembly, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst; so why do you elevate yourselves over the congregation of God?” (Numbers 16:3)
Korach is arguing that all the Israelites are holy, i.e. set aside for God. So why should they take orders from Moses and Aaron? He sees holiness as a legal right which God conferred on the children of Israel back at Mount Sinai. But here is what God actually said:
“You will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation …” (Exodus 19:6)
“You will be holy because I am holy …” (Leviticus 19:2)
God did not say that the people were already holy; God predicted that they would someday become holy. And both predictions were accompanied by rules for behavior to achieve holiness. Holiness is a calling and a goal in the bible, not an entitlement.
Furthermore, Moses has already delegated many of his leadership roles. He turned over administration and justice to 70 elders.2 He turned over religious rituals and offerings to the priests (Aaron and his sons).3 And he delegated most of the disassembly and reassembly of the portable sanctuary to the tribe of Levi.4 Moses’ only remaining job is to serve as God’s mouthpiece, passing on all the rules for behavior that will bring the people closer to holiness. This is a duty he cannot delegate, since God continues to choose Moses as the only spokesperson.
But Korach and the Levites he represents want to be priests like Aaron and his sons. They may also want to be prophets like Moses.
And Moses listened, and he fell on his face. (Numbers 16:4)
God speaks to him while he is prostrate.5 Then Moses says to Korach:
“In the morning God will make known who is his, and who is the holy one, and who he will draw near to him. And [God] will choose for himself the one he will draw near to him. Do this: Take fire-pans for yourselves, Korach and all his assembly, and place fire in them and put incense on them in front of God tomorrow. And the man whom God chooses will be the holy one. [You want] too much for yourselves, sons of Levi! … [Already God] has drawn you close, and all your brother sons of Levi with you; so do you also seek the priesthood?” (Numbers 16:5-7, 16:10)6
Moses discerns that Korach and the 250 Levites are really asking for priesthood for themselves, not power-sharing for everyone. He also points out that he cannot make a decision for or against Korach and his men. The decision is up to God.
Korach’s name reveals several motivations for demanding “too much”.
Instead of last names, biblical characters identify themselves by their lineage. Korach is “son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi”. Yitzhar (יִצְהָר) might mean “he is overhead”, which happens to be the position Korach desires. His grandfather is Kehat, who is also the grandfather of Moses and Aaron.7
Korach may well envy his first cousin Aaron. The descendants of Kehat are responsible for transporting the holiest objects in the sanctuary, even the ark itself—but only after the priests, Aaron and his sons, have covered them with multiple wrappings. Only Aaron and his sons are allowed to see them uncovered.8
An ordinary Israelite might prefer not to risk death by looking at the most dangerous objects in the sanctuary. But Korach is already carrying them, and he believes he is as holy as Aaron. Why should he be denied a glimpse of the ark?
We can find more clues in Korach’s first name. Korach means either the one who has shaven himself bald, or the icy one.
Shaving part of the head was a mourning ritual in Canaan,9 although the Torah forbids it.10 Israelites are supposed to shave their heads in the Torah only as part of a purification ritual, done for one of three reasons:
1) To re-enter the community and its religious life after recovery from a skin disease called tzara-at.11 According to the Talmud, the first reason why God struck people with tzara-at was to punish them for evil speech.12 Perhaps Korach had whispered against Moses and Aaron earlier, and only recently recovered and shaved his head.
2) To officially end a man or woman’s term as a nazir.13 A nazir vows to let their hair grow wild and abstain from all wine and grapes for a certain period. Korach might have taken the vow of a nazir to prove his own holiness, then found that being a nazir was not enough for him.
3) As part of the ritual of consecration for both priests and Levites, when they commence their service in the sanctuary. All the adult Levite men were shaven and consecrated in the wilderness of Sinai so their service could begin.14 At the time of Korach’s revolt, the people have moved to the wilderness of Paran, and the Levites’ hair has had time to grow out. Maybe Korach shaved a second time to demonstrate that he expects to be consecrated as a priest!
Korach’s delusions of equality with Moses and Aaron are expressed by his name. He shares their lineage, and his given name implies that he shaves his head to achieve extra holiness.
If the Israelites had a different mission, if all they needed to do was settle down and accumulate material wealth, Korach’s demands would be more reasonable. Why not give every Levite—or even every Israelite—an equal role in the rituals that bind the community together?
But the Israelites have a higher calling; they are supposed to dedicate their whole selves to doing what God expects. This mission requires leaders who are willing to fall on their faces to hear God’s voice; leaders who become more holy by following God’s rules; leaders who know that only God has real power. Leaders with humility.
I believe the whole world needs humble leaders, now more than ever.
- See my post Korach: Buried Alive.
- Exodus 18:13-26 and Numbers 11:14.
- Leviticus 8:1-9:24.
- Numbers 3:5-36, 4:1-49.
- See my post Korach: Face Down.
- My translation of Numbers 16:5-7 and 16:10 uses third person masculine pronouns for God, following the original Hebrew, because a gender-neutral translation would be complicated.
- The father of Moses and Aaron is Amram, who is listed as a son of Kehat in Exodus 6:18-20.
- See my post Bemidbar: Don’t Look.
- See Isaiah 3:24, 15:2, and 22:12; Jeremiah 16:6, 47:5, and 48:37; and Ezekiel 7:18 and 27:31.
- Shaving for mourning is forbidden in Leviticus 21:5 and Deuteronomy 14:1, but God seems to encourage it in Amos 8:10 and Micah 1:16.
- Leviticus 14:8-9.
- Talmud Bavli, Arachin 16a.
- Numbers 6:18.
- Numbers 8:7.