The true king of the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible is the character of God, portrayed as an anthropomorphic being who delivers orders and decrees, metes out rewards and punishments, and determines the winning side in battles. God communicates through “his” prophets. But not everyone is happy with this arrangement.
When the prophet Moses summons two rebellious leaders from the tribe of Reuben in this week’s Torah portion, Korach, they refuse to come.
Moses sent and called for Datan and for Abiram, sons of Eliav, and they said: “We will not come up! Is it a small thing that you brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to make us die in the wilderness? That tistareir over us, actually histareir?” (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:12-13)
tistareir (תִשְׂתָּרֵר) = you play king, you lord it over, you make yourself a ruler. (A form of the verb שׂרר = rule, direct.)
histareir (הִשְׂתָּרֵר) = playing king, usurping authority. (The same verb as tistareir.)
Datan and Aviram express three grievances against Moses. First, Moses has said repeatedly that God will give the Israelites the land of Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey”.1 But now they are stuck in the desert for forty years. By comparison, Egypt was the land of milk and honey.
Second, they blame Moses for making the Israelites die in the wilderness. In last week’s portion, Shelach-Lekha, God decreed that the Israelites must stay in the wilderness for 40 years, during which all the adults except the two scouts who urged the people to enter Canaan would die.2 But this decree was not Moses’ fault. The Israelites refused to cross the border into Canaan, and God threatened to kill the whole community until Moses talked God into pardoning them and commuting their sentence. All Moses did was buy them more time to live, and the promise that their children would conquer Canaan.
Third, the Reubenite leaders complain that Moses is hogging all the power and acting like a king, a complaint also lodged by Korach, the leader of 250 rebellious Levites.3 God responds by threatening to annihilate everyone except Moses and Aaron. But Moses talks God into annihilating only the three rebels and their families.4
Moses tells the crowd to stand back from the tents of the rebels, and says:
“By this you will know that God sent me to do all these things, that they are not from my heart: if these die like all humankind and the fate of all humankind is decreed for them, God did not send me. But if God creates a new creation and the earth opens up its mouth and gulps them down, and all that is theirs, and they go alive down to Sheol, then you will know that these men scorned God.” (Numbers 16:28-30)
The earth does open and swallow the three families. This miracle proves that Moses tells them the law simply because God chooses him to do it. God is the real king, and Moses is God’s spokesman.
When Datan, Aviram, and Korach complain that Moses has too much power, he protests that he has not used his position for any personal gain.
“I have not taken a single donkey from them, and I have not wronged a single one of them.” (Numbers 16:15)
The haftarah reading that accompanies Korach is 1 Samuel 11:14-12:22. Probably the rabbis chose this passage because the prophet and judge Samuel also declares that he has not used his position for personal gain:
“Here I am! Testify against me … Whose ox have I taken, and whose donkey have I taken? And whom have I coerced? Whom have I crushed? And from the hand of whom have I taken a bribe and looked the other way?” (1 Samuel 12:3)
Nobody, the Israelites reply.
It is a moment of transition. Samuel has served his whole life as a circuit judge for the Israelites, but now, at the people’s request, he has just inaugurated Saul as their first king. A king in the Ancient Near East was in charge of law, justice, and foreign affairs. Although the Israelites have no complaints against Samuel as a judge, they want a king to lead them in war and foreign policy.
Samuel reminds them:
“And you saw that Nachash, king of the Ammonites, was coming against you, and you said to me: ‘No, because a king should rule over us!’ Yet God, your God, is your king.” (1 Samuel 12:12)
In the book of Numbers, the rebel leaders do not want a king. They complain that Moses is acting like their king, so Moses demonstrates that God is the king with the ultimate power, and he is only God’s emissary. In the first book of Samuel, the Israelites are afraid that it is not enough to have the prophet Samuel as their judge, and God as their only king. They want a human king.
Samuel says that it is their own fault that the kings of other countries make war on them, because they keep forgetting God and worshiping the Canaanite male and female gods (balim and ashtarot).5 So God lets their enemies attack them. They beg God to rescue them, and God obliges by sending an ad-hoc general.6
Like Moses in the Torah portion Korach, Samuel demonstrates the truth of his words by asking God for a miracle, and God obliges—in Samuel’s case, by sending thunder and rain at the time of the wheat harvest, when the weather is always dry.7
Then the frightened Israelites say they were wrong to ask for a human king, and beg Samuel to intercede for them. But Samuel assures them that as long as they (and their king) serve God instead of those worthless Canaanite gods, God will never abandon them.8
The Israelites do not trust God to be their king in either the time of Moses or the time of Samuel. The difference is that in the time of Moses they do not want a king at all. As long as they are stuck in the wilderness, they are isolated from other people and do not need anyone to deal with foreign powers.
In the time of Samuel, the Israelites inhabit part of Canaan, a land that is indeed flowing with milk and honey, not to mention wheat. It is a fertile country worth conquering, and the neighboring kings are tempted to attack. The Israelites do not trust God to send a war leader every time they need one, so they ask for their own human king.
Trusting God is hard for the Israelites, even though the stakes are high. The bible asserts that if the people follow all of God’s laws (especially the one about not serving other gods), God will reward them with prosperity, their own land, and victory in battle. If not, God will punish them with a plague or a military defeat.
But it is a rough justice. The Israelites receive these rewards and punishments collectively, the innocent with the guilty. And thanks to God’s hair-trigger temper, the punishments sometimes happen quickly. In the portion Korach alone, God threatens to wipe out all the Israelites twice.9 The second time, God’s instant plague kills 14,700 people before Moses and Aaron stop it. Only after that does God think of a non-lethal demonstration that convinces the surviving Israelites to accept Moses and Aaron as their divinely chosen leaders.10
What would it be like to have an invisible but easily inflamed king, one whom only Moses could mollify? I suspect that I, too, would rather take my chances with no king at all in the wilderness, or with a human king in a fertile land. If the human king turned out to be irrational, like King Saul, at least he would not live forever.
But the God-character in the Torah is eternal as well as irrational, often flying into a fury without thinking about the consequences. No wonder the Israelites rebel against God.
- Moses used this expression to describe Canaan in Exodus 3:8, 3:17, 13:5, and 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; and Numbers 13:27 and 14:8. See my post: Ki Tavo: Milk and Honey.
- Numbers 14:11-24.
- Numbers 16:1-3.
- Numbers 16:20-27. After that God’s fire burns up the 250 Levite rebels, and God sends a plague that kills thousands of Israelites who complained about it.
- 1 Samuel 12:9-10.
- In 1 Samuel 12:1, Samuel cites four ad-hoc generals sent by God: Yeruba-al (a.k.a. Gideon, Judges 6:11-17 and 7:1), Bedan (a.k.a. Samson according to the Talmud, Judges 13:24-16:31), Yiftach (Judges 11:1-33), and himself (though he never leads an army in the Torah).
- 1 Samuel 12:16-18.
- 1 Samuel 12:20-22.
- Numbers 16:21, 17:9.
- Numbers 17:13-26. God orders the head of each tribe to place his staff in front of the ark inside the Tent of Meeting. In the morning, Aaron’s staff has sprouted leaves, flowers, and almonds. The people are terrified, but at least they stop rebelling—until after Miriam dies and the water runs out in Numbers 20:2.