Two rebellions against the status quo coincide in this week’s Torah portion, Korach. Korach leads 250 fellow Levites in a rebellion against the authority of the high priest, Aaron—Korach’s first cousin. Apparently simultaneously, two Reubenite chieftains, Datan and Aviram, revolt against the leadership of Moses.1
They assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and they said: “[You take] too much upon yourselves! For the whole community is holy and God is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves over the community of God?” (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:3)
It sounds like an argument for equal rights, but it turns out that Korach and his 250 men only want the Levites to have equal rights with Aaron, the high priest. Datan and Aviram want to replace Moses as the political leader of the Israelites, not join him in a government by consensus or democracy.
Moses addresses Korach and the Levites first, telling them to test their argument by bringing incense to the tent-sanctuary in the morning. Aaron will do the same, and God will reveal who is holy enough to serve as a priest. Moses adds:
“Is it too little for you that the God of Israel distinguishes you from the community of Israel to let you come close to [God], to serve the service of the mishkan of God, and to stand before the community as [its] attendants? [God] brought you close, and all your Levite brothers with you. And now you seek the priesthood as well?” (Numbers 16:9-10)
mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = dwelling-place; current abode or residence. (From the root verb shakhan, שָׁכַן = dwell, inhabit, settle in, stay.)
Next the story switches briefly to the rebellion of Datan and Aviram against Moses. Moses sends for the two Reuvenite chieftains, but they refuse to come at his summons.
We return to the Levite rebellion the next morning, when everyone comes to God’s mishkan, the Tent of Meeting, to watch the contest between the high priest Aaron and the 250 Levites. No sooner have they gathered than the Torah portion puts the Levites on hold and returns to the revolt of Datan and Aviram. And where is Korach, the spokesman and leader for the Levites? This time the redactor who assembled the story lumps Korach together with the two chieftains from the tribe of Reuven.
And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the community, saying: Go up away from around the mishkan of Korach, Datan, and Aviram!” (Numbers 16:23-24)
Until this point the Torah has only used the word mishkan for the tent-sanctuary that the Israelites construct as a dwelling-place for God. But now God is referring to a mishkan of three human beings.
The three men and their families do not live together; they camp in separate spots to the south of God’s mishkan, which is always erected in the center of the Israelite camp. So why does God speak of “the mishkan of Korach, Datan, and Aviram” instead of using the word mishkanot (מִשְׁכָּנוֹת), the plural for mishkan?
Perhaps the implication is that even though the rebels have two different goals (Korach argues that all Levites should be priests, while Datan and Aviram argue that someone from the tribe of Reuven should lead the Israelites instead of Moses), they are metaphorically under the same tent. They are all rebelling against the leadership structure that God decreed at Mount Sinai.2
The three rebel leaders refuse to accept that structure any longer. God refuses to change it. So Moses warns the Israelites to stand back and keep their distance, because God is about to take action.
And they went up from around the mishkan of Korach, Data, and Aviram, from all around it. And Datan and Aviram went out and stationed themselves at the entrance of their tents, along with their wives and the children and the little ones. And Moses said: “By this you will know that God sent me to do all these deeds, that it was not in my mind.” (Numbers 16:27)
In other words, it was all God’s idea to make Aaron the high priest and Moses the prophet and chief administrator of the Israelites. The rebels are actually revolting against God, and they will be destroyed by a divine miracle.
Then the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households and all the humans who belonged to Korach [and Datan and Aviram] and all their possessions. And they and all who were theirs went down alive to Sheol, and the earth closed over them and they were lost from the assembly. Then all the Israelites surrounding them fled at the sound of them, for they thought: “Lest the earth swallow us!” And fire went out from God and consumed the 250 men who had approached with the incense. (Numbers 16:32-35)
The Israelites survive because they obey the order to stand back from the physical area south of God’s tent-sanctuary. But they do not grasp the idea that standing back from the homes of the three rebel leaders might also mean standing back from their beliefs—especially their belief that their own desires for more power were more important than preserving the government God had set up.
The people do not understand that if they follow God’s rules, they have nothing to fear. So they foolishly side with the rebels that God has just wiped out.
And the whole community of Israel grumbled the next day against Moses and against Aaron, saying: “You yourselves brought death on God’s people!” (Numbers 17:6)
The whole community still believes what the three rebel leaders claimed before the earth swallowed them: that Moses and Aaron are hogging all the power and running the show—even instigating God’s miracles. This is an insult God will not tolerate. God tells Moses and Aaron to go stand at a distance from all the other Israelites so God can annihilate everyone except his two favorites.
They disobey God instead.
Then Moses said to Aaron: “Take the censer and place fire from the altar on it, and put on incense, and walk over in a hurry to the community and atone for them! Because fury has gone forth from God’s presence; the plague has begun!” Aaron took it, as Moses had spoken, and he ran into the midst of the assembly … and he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was checked. (Numbers 17:11-13)
By that time it should be obvious to the surviving Israelites that God has the ultimate power, that Moses and Aaron are bravely defending the Israelites, and that the only reasonable course of action is to unite behind them.
But the Israelites said to Moses, saying: “We perish, we are lost, all of us are lost! Everyone who comes close, who comes close to the sanctuary of God dies! Will we ever be done with perishing?” (Numbers 17:27-28)
They are panicking, too terrified by God’s power to learn the lesson.
In this first year of the Covid pandemic, we have seen both sheer panic and calls for a paradigm shift in how we operate as a community, both globally and in each country. We cannot stop all the deaths from the virus, but we could check the “plague” if we all abandon the tents of rebel leaders who are more interested in personal power than in saving lives. We could recognize that we humans are, indeed, all vulnerable—and decide that all lives matter, whether the danger comes from disease, pollution, or prejudice. Just as Moses and Aaron work to save lives, we could choose the good side in every conflict: the side that cares about the health and well-being of every human being, rather than the side that only considers their own power or wealth.
Today we cannot stand aside from other people’s disasters and hope to survive intact. Because today the whole planet is one mishkan, our only one.
- The opening of the Torah portion is confusing, with all three rebel leaders appearing at once before Moses and Aaron (along with a third Reuvenite, On, who is never mentioned again), along with 250 men who are described for the only time in the story as tribal chieftains rather than Levites. Modern biblical scholars explain that one or more redactors of the Torah stitched two different rebellion stories into one another, and the seams show.
- When the Israelites leave Mount Sinai, they are well-organized for their next task, occupying the land of Canaan. They march and camp in formation, like an army (Numbers 10:11-28). They conduct formal religious rituals at a tent-sanctuary guarded and transported by Levites under the supervision the priests, Aaron and his sons (Numbers 8:5-22). And they have an administrative system consisting of 70 elders under the supervision of one head of government, Moses (Numbers 11:13-25).
But in last week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha, the men refuse to cross the border, and God decrees that nobody of them will enter Canaan until 40 years have passed (Numbers 14:20-35). The people spend most of those years living in safety at the oasis of Kadesh-Barnea in the wilderness south of Canaan. Yet they camp in the same military formation, practice the same religion, and are governed by the same administration as when they set out to conquer Canaan.