Korach: Quelling Rebellion, Part 1

And They Are Fierce, by Francisco de Goya, 1814 (women attacking soldiers in the 1808 Dos de Mayo uprising)

For thousands of years people have rebelled against their rulers and leaders. Some uprisings are justified, some are not.

For thousands of years rulers have used various strategies to suppress revolts. Several different strategies appear in this week’s portion, Korach.

In this post we will consider two heavy-handed responses to revolt. In Part 2 next week we will look at two benign responses by the “rulers” in Korach (Moses, Aaron, and God). Which strategies are the most effective at snuffing out rebellions?

Two rebellions

The first half of the portion Korach conflates the stories of two uprisings, one against Moses and one against Aaron.1 Both men are divinely appointed; in the book of Exodus, God recruits Moses to serve as the prophet and leader of the Israelites, and his brother Aaron to serve as the high priest of the new religion. In Korach, some of the Israelites object to the privileged status of the two brothers.

Datan and Aviram, chieftains in the tribe of Reuben, dispute Moses’ right to lead the Israelites through the wilderness.2 In the book of Genesis, Reuben was the firstborn son of Jacob, a.k.a. Israel. These Reubenites may think that since a firstborn son traditionally rules his clan, the tribe of Reuben should rule all the  Israelites.

Moses and Korah, 1466 manuscript, National Library of Poland

Korach, a leader in the tribe of Levi, disputes the right of his cousin3 Aaron and Aaron’s sons to serve as the people’s only priests. He thinks that the Levites should have equal status with Aaron and perform the same holy tasks.

All the Levites are ordained in the portion Naso to assist the priests and guard the sanctuary. The Levite clan of Kehat, to which Korach belongs, is also responsible for carrying the most holy items from the tent-sanctuary when the Israelites travel.4 But this is not enough for Korach. He probably wants to officiate at sacrifices, be allowed to enter the tent-sanctuary, and, perhaps, wear the same gorgeous vestments as the priests. (He is probably less interested in the priestly duty of diagnosing skin disease.)

The rebel leaders are backed by 250 men. Since this week’s Torah portion conflates two stories, the 250 men are tribal chieftains in the section about Datan and Aviram’s rebellion, but Levites in the sections about Korach’s rebellion.5

We do not know which rebels deliver the opening salvo, which accuses Moses and Aaron of seizing power and claims that all the Israelites are equally close to God.

And they assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and they said: “You have too much! For all the congregation, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst. So then why do you raise yourselves up over the assembly of God?” (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:3)

Moses addresses Korach and the rebel Levites first, saying:

“In the morning God will make known who belongs to him and who is holy and who may approach him … Is it too little for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel to bring you close to him? … you and all your congregation are [actually] congregated against God! Because what is Aaron, that talinu against him?” (Numbers 16:5, 16:9, 16:10-11)

talinu (תַלִּינוּ) = you mutter, you grumble. (In some manuscripts, talonu, תָּלּוֹנוּ. Both variants are second person plural forms of the verb lon, לון.)

Moses is reminding the Levites that God, not Aaron, is responsible for the organization chart. God appointed Aaron and his sons as the priests, and assigned the subsidiary jobs to the Levites. But this reminder leaves the rebel Levites unmoved.

Then Moses sent and summoned Datan and Aviram, sons of Elyav. But they said: “We will not come up! Is it too little that you brought us up from Egypt, [a land] flowing with milk and honey, to have us die in the wilderness? Because you [also] definitely lord it over us!” (Numbers 16:13)

Moses responds by asking God to ignore the grain-offering of the Reubenites, and adds indignantly that he never oppresses anyone:

“Not one donkey of theirs have I carried off, nor have I wronged [even] one of them!” (Numbers 16:15)

Moses is protesting that Datan and Aviram have no legitimate complaints against him. The Reubenites are really rebelling against God, who appointed Moses.

Then Moses refers both rebellions to God for judgment. First he tells Aaron, Korach, and the 250 Levites to bring fire pans with incense to the entrance of God’s Tent of Meeting, where they will learn who God chooses: Aaron, or the Levites. Next comes a short passage in which the two rebellion stories are patched together without distinguishing between the congregation of Levites and the congregation of Israelites.6 After that Moses tells the Israelites to stand back from the tents of Korach, Datan, and Aviram.

The first deadly miracle

Moses still believes that the rebellions will dissolve if everyone realizes that the real ruler is God, and he and Aaron are merely God’s delegates. He tells the Israelites:

from Bible de Saint Jean d’Acre, 13th cent.

“If these die like all humans die, and the destiny of all humans is destined for them, God did not send me.  But if God creates a [new] creation and opens up a mouth in the ground, and it swallows them and everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you will know that these men scorned God.” (Numbers 16:29-30)

And it happened as he finished all these words: the ground that was under them split, and the earth opened its mouth, and it swallowed them and their households, and all the humans who belonged to Korach, and all the property. (Numbers 16:31-32)

Even the innocent children in the three ringleaders’ families are swallowed alive.7 The Torah does not address this moral issue. Instead, the point of the story is that Korach, Datan, Aviram, and all their possessions (human or not) are killed through obvious divine intervention.

But the miracle does not have the desired effect. The people watching it are too terrified to understand what happened.

Then all the Israelites that were around them raised their voices [in panic], for they said: “What if [the ground] swallows us!” (Numbers 16:34)

After witnessing that horror, the Israelites are incapable of figuring out that as long as they do not rebel against God and God’s appointed representatives, they will not be swallowed.

The second deadly miracle

God burns the Levites, detail from painting by Jean Fouquet, 16th cent.

Next the Torah jumps back to the story about the Levite rebellion.

And a fire went forth from God and devoured the 250 men who were offering the incense. (Numbers 16:35)

The remaining Levites might learn from this that if you revolt against one of God’s appointees, the heavy hand of God will fall on you. So might the Israelites in other tribes. But they do not.

Vayilonu on the following day, all the congregation of the Israelites, against Moses and against Aaron, saying: “You had the people of God put to death!” (Numbers 17:6)

vayilonu (וַיִּלֺּנוּ) = and they muttered, and they grumbled. (Another form of the verb lon.)

All the Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for the death of the 250 Levites. They see the two brothers as their rulers, and believe that God does whatever Moses says. Thus neither of God’s dramatic killings quashes the spirit of rebellion in the portion Korach.

Nevertheless, the people’s resentment fades for a while instead of flaring into a full-fledged revolt, thanks to a more generous approach on the part of all three rulers—Moses, Aaron, and God. I will discuss this approach next week in my post Korach: Quelling Rebellion, Part 2.

When does a rebellion succeed? When is it justified?

When God is on the side of the human rulers, a rebellion will not succeed. Datan, Aviram, Korach, and the 250 Levites are easily killed by God’s heavy hand.

The Third of May, by Francisco de Goya, 1814 (on the 1808 Dos de Mayo uprising)

The same truth applies when people rebel against a human tyrant who controls an effective military force, and is not subject to interference from other nations. The best that rebels can hope for in this case is to shift public opinion so that someday, when the despot loses his grip or the military wavers, the masses can rise up together and change the government.

The anthropomorphic God-character depicted in the Torah occasionally seems like a human tyrant. But today we assume that God is neither despotic nor a supporter of despots.

The portion Korach, while depicting a heavy-handed God, supports the assumption that God is not on the side of tyrants. After all, God appointed Moses and Aaron. Far from being tyrants, these two leaders do not even lord it over anyone. They honestly do their best for the people, and even plead with God in order to prevent more deaths.8

Despite the egalitarian language of the rebels’ opening statement, the first two rebellions in Korach are not justified. Datan and Aviram want to take over as the leaders of the Israelites, but they have no particular agenda; they just want more status. Korach and his Levite supporters want to be priests, but only because of envy.

I pray for all tyrants to fall. But I also pray for all people to gain insight about what is worth fighting for, and who is the real enemy.

  1. According to the Documentary Hypothesis (that the text of the Torah was assembled from multiple sources), this inconsistency is due to bad editing.
  2. The portion Korach begins with a third rebel leader from the tribe of Reuben, On son of Pelet, but he never appears again in the story. (Numbers 16:1)
  3. Korach is introduced as “son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi” in Numbers 16:1. Moses and Aaron are sons of Amram son of Kehat son of Levi in Exodus 6:18-20. Korach is therefore closely related to them. He may or may not be their first cousin; the Hebrew word “son of” (ben, בֶּן) sometimes means a grandson or descendant—as in Numbers 16:1, when Datan, Aviram, and On are all called “sons of Reuben”.
  4. See my post Bemidbar & Naso: Dangerous Duty.
  5. The 250 men are chieftains supporting Datan and Aviram in Numbers 16:2-3. They are Levites supporting Korach in Numbers 16:6-11, 16:16-18, 16:35-17:5.
  6. Numbers 16:19-24.
  7. See Numbers 16:27.
  8. Numbers 16:20-26, 17:7-11, 21:7-9.


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