Korach: Quelling Rebellion, Part 2

The essay below continues my examination of rebellions in last week’s portion, Korach. If you would like to read about one of the rebellions this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, you might enjoy my 2017 post: Chukat: The Price of Silence.


Painting by Jean Fouquet, 15th c. (Leaders swallowed below, Levites burned above)

Miraculous mass killings fail to stamp out the first two rebellions in the portion Korach (one by the Reubenites Datan and Aviram, and one led by the Levite Korach). The three ringleaders and their families die when God splits the earth and the ground swallows them. The 250 Levites who supported Korach’s demand for equal privileges with the priests die when God sends forth a fire that incinerates them. (See my post Korach: Quelling Rebellion, Part 1.)

Moses expects these divine demonstrations will prove to all the surviving Israelites that he and his brother Aaron did not seize power, but were only appointed by God. Yet the Israelites do not learn the intended lesson. It does not occur to them that if they do not rebel against God and God’s appointees, they will not be swallowed by an earthquake.1 And they blame Moses and Aaron, not God, for the death of the 250 Levites who supported Korach’s cause.

Vayilonu on the following day, all the community 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. (A form of the verb lon, לוֹן = mutter, grumble, complain.)

Halting a plague

So the God-character reacts with a third deadly miracle, and starts a plague to wipe out everyone except Moses and Aaron.

I can hardly blame this anthropomorphic version of God for being fed up with the Israelites again. I get fed up myself when I try to work with people who refuse to accept reality, and  persist in doing things that only make the situation worse. Sometimes I throw up my hands and abandon the whole enterprise. In other words, I get these people out of my life by walking away from them.

But Moses and Aaron do not give up, walk away, and let God wipe out the Israelites.

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Get up away from the midst of this community, and I will devour them in an instant !” But they [Moses and Aaron] fell on their faces. Then Moses said to Aaron: “Take the fire-pan and put fire from the altar on the incense, and go quickly into the community and make atonement over them! Because the rage has gone forth from God; the plague has begun!” (Numbers/Bemidbar 17:9-10)

Aaron Staying the Plague, by Isaac Taylor, Boydell’s Illustrations of Holy Writ, 1820

This is not an action that God authorized. But it is enough to make the God-character stop short.

He [Aaron] stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was brought to a standstill. (Numbers 17:13)

Perhaps when the Israelites who are sick, but not yet dead, see Aaron standing between the dead and the living with a pan of smoking incense, they realize that Moses and Aaron want them to live, and they drop their notion that these two leaders are the problem rather than the solution. Once they have this change of heart, God stops the plague, and the people stop their plague of false accusations.


As soon as Aaron returns to Moses at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, a calmer God-character tells Moses to take a staff from the chieftain of each tribe.

… twelve staffs. You will write each man’s name on his staff. And the name of Aaron you will write on the staff of Levi, because [there will be] one staff for the head of each of their ancestral houses. Then leave them in the Tent of Meeting, in front of the Reminder [the ark] where I meet with you. And it will happen: the man whom I choose, his staff will sprout. And [thus] I will damp down from opposing me the telunot of the Israelites who are malinim against you.” (Numbers 17:17-20)

telunot (תְּלֻנּוֹת) = complaining, grumblings. (Also from the root lon.)

malinim (מַלִּנִם) = muttering, grumbling. (Another form of the verb lon.)

The Blossoming of Aaron’s Rod, by Augustin Hirschvogel, ca. 1553

The next day, Moses brings all the staffs out of the sanctuary tent. Aaron’s staff has sprouted, flowered, and borne ripe almonds.

Nobody is killed or punished in this divine demonstration. But everyone sees that God has chosen the Levites to handle holy matters, and has chosen Aaron as the head of the Levites.

Then God said to Moses: “Put Aaron’s staff back in front of the Reminder, to be preserved as a sign for the obstinate, and it will end their telunot from opposing me, and they will not die.” (Numbers 17:25)

Does this benign approach to ending rebellion work?

Response to Despair

Then the Israelites spoke to Moses, saying: “Hey! We perish! We are lost, all of us are lost. Anyone who comes close to God’s sanctuary will die. Will we ever be done with perishing?” (17:27-28)

Perishing: The Plague of Florence in 1348 (detail), by Luigi Sabatelli, 19th c.

This time the Israelites begin with an statement of despair. This might be another complaint, or it might be merely an expression of their anxiety. Then they ask Moses a question. They are no longer rebelling against his leadership, but asking him, as their leader, for information.

If only the Torah had recorded Moses’s response! I can imagine him either reassuring his people or telling them what hard truths they must face—and perhaps even adding how he, Aaron, and/or God will help them. But instead, the Torah records what God says.

Then God said to Aaron: “You and your sons and your ancestral house along with you, you [all] shall bear [any] punishment for wrongdoing [regarding] the holy place, and you and your sons along with you shall bear [any] punishment for wrongdoing [regarding] your priesthood.” (Numbers 18:1)

Next God reaffirms the role of the rest of the tribe of Levi: they must assist the priests and do their duties regarding the Tent of Meeting, but they may not touch the altar or any of the holy items inside the sanctuary-tent.3

And an unauthorized person must not come near you as you observe your custody of the holy place and custody of the altar; then there will not be rage again against the Israelites. (18:5)

The information God gives to Aaron answers the Israelites’ question. The Levites are “done with perishing” as long as they do not dispute God’s appointment of Aaron and his descendants as priests, and the Levites as the priests’ assistants. The rest of the Israelites are “done with perishing” as long as they let God’s appointees do their jobs, and do not try to touch the altar or the tent-sanctuary.


The Levites do not rebel again. The rest of the Israelites respect God, Moses, Aaron, and the holy sanctuary for a while.

But after Miriam dies and they run out of water in this week’s portion, Chukat, they assemble against Moses and Aaron, and Moses loses his temper.4 Later in Chukat they speak against God and Moses because they are tired of eating manna, and the God-character starts killing people.5

It is human nature to resent and blame whoever is in charge—even when the leaders (or administrators or parents or heads of state) are reasonable, and even when the rules are benign and easy to follow, and even when the current misfortune is the fault of a previous administration.

May we be blessed with reasonable leaders. But may we also learn how to become reasonable followers.


My thanks to Lawrence Feinberg, who found many of the illustrations for these two posts on Korach.

  1. Numbers 16:34. See my post Korach: Quelling Rebellion, Part 1.
  2. Numbers 17:6. Also see my post Korach: Quelling Rebellion, Part 1.
  3. See my post Bemidbar & Naso: Dangerous Duty.
  4. Numbers 20:2-5.
  5. Numbers 21:4-6.

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.


Haftarat Korach: 1 Samuel—Ultimate Power

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.


Man with Crossed Arms, by Paul Cezanne

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:

The Death of Korach, Datan, and Abiram, by Gustave Dore

“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.

Haftarat Korach

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Numbers 14:11-24.
  3. Numbers 16:1-3.
  4. 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.
  5. 1 Samuel 12:9-10.
  6. 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).
  7. 1 Samuel 12:16-18.
  8. 1 Samuel 12:20-22.
  9. Numbers 16:21, 17:9.
  10. 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.

Korach: Dwelling Places

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.

The Death of Korach, Datan, and Aviram, by Gustave Dore

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Korach: Bald Demands

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, KorachThe Torah introduces him as:

Korach, son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi …  (Numbers/ Bemidbar 16:1)

Is it Moses (naturally bald) or Korach (shaven bald)?
(from Charles Foster Bible Pictures, 1873)

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.

  1. See my post Korach: Buried Alive.
  2. Exodus 18:13-26 and Numbers 11:14.
  3. Leviticus 8:1-9:24.
  4. Numbers 3:5-36, 4:1-49.
  5. See my post Korach: Face Down.
  6. 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.
  7. The father of Moses and Aaron is Amram, who is listed as a son of Kehat in Exodus 6:18-20.
  8. See my post Bemidbar: Don’t Look.
  9. See Isaiah 3:24, 15:2, and 22:12; Jeremiah 16:6, 47:5, and 48:37; and Ezekiel 7:18 and 27:31.
  10. 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.
  11. Leviticus 14:8-9.
  12. Talmud Bavli, Arachin 16a.
  13. Numbers 6:18.
  14. Numbers 8:7.

Pinchas: Aromatherapy

The God-character in the Torah often lashes out in fits of rage.  Sometimes this anthropomorphic “God” kills offensive individuals, and sometimes “He” wipes out hundreds or thousands of people, the innocent with the guilty.

from Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

Moses succeeds in talking God down into relative calmness after the Israelites worship the golden calf in the book of Exodus/Shemot,1 and twice more in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.2  But the smell of aromatic smoke is an even more effective way to soothe the God-character.

This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, ends with a schedule of offerings to be burned on the altar.  God begins the list by telling Moses:

“Command the Israelites, and you shall say to them: You must pay attention to my offerings, my food—to my fire-offering of my reyach nichoach—to offer [it] to me at its appointed time.”  (Numbers 28:1-2)

reyach (רֵיחַ) = scent, odor, fragrance, aroma.  (From the same root as ruach,  רוּחַ= wind, spirit, mood.)

nichoach (נִחֺחַ) = soothing, calming.  (From the root verb nuach, נוּחַ = rest, settle down in peace and quiet.)

reyach nichoach (רֵיחַ נִחֺחַ) = soothing scent.

The phrase reyach nichoach appears ten more times in the schedule of animal and grain offerings that follows.3  Although the God-character no doubt appreciates the sacrifice of potential human food and the pouring of libations, the scent of the smoke is a key element.

The First Soothing Smoke

The smoke from burned offerings first reaches God as a reyach nichoach in Genesis/Bereishit, after the God-character has become so upset by the violence and corruption of humans (and perhaps other carnivores) that He decides to destroy all life on earth.4  God makes an exception only for the obedient Noah and the other occupants of his ark.

After the flood recedes, God tells Noah to empty out the ark.  Then Noah finally does something on his own initiative, building an altar and burning up some extra animals he brought along as an offering to God—perhaps in imitation of Abel, whose animal offering God turned toward.5  (See my post Noach: The Soother.)

And God smelled the reyach nichoach, and God said in His heart:  I will never again draw back to doom the earth on account of the human, for the impulse of the human heart is bad in its youth … (Genesis/Bereishit, 8:21)

The clouds of smoke probably remind God of Abel’s grateful sacrifice of sheep, before humankind turned bad.  Reassured, God concludes that at least some adults want to serve Him.

The phrase reyach nichoach appears again three times in the book of Exodus,6 seventeen times in Leviticus, and eighteen times in Numbers, always in descriptions of animal and grain offerings to God.


The God-character’s temper flares again in the next Torah portion, Korach, which begins with two simultaneous coups against Moses and Aaron.  God deals with the Reuvenite leaders by making the earth swallow them and their families, and with Korach’s 250 Levites by burning them up in a conflagration.  The next day the remaining Israelites complain about all the deaths, and God tells Moses:

“Take yourselves out from the midst of this community, and I will consume them in an instant!”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 17:10)

Once again, God wants to annihilate the entire Israelite people—and presumably start over again with only Moses and Aaron and their families.  This time Moses tells Aaron to stop the plague by taking his incense pan out into the community.

Aaron took it, as Moses had spoken, and he ran into the middle of the congregation, and hey!—the pestilence had already started among the people!  He put on the incense and he made atonement over the people.  And he stood between the dead and the living, and the pestilence was stopped.  (Numbers 17:12-13)

The God-character has already killed 14,700 people when Aaron’s incense checks His rage.

At the end of the portion Korach, God instructs the Israelites to offer the firstborn of every cow, ewe, and nanny goat at the altar, “… and you shall burn-into-smoke their fat as a fire-offering for reyach nichoach for God.”  (Numbers 18:17)


At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Balak, the Israelites join the local Moabite Midianites in worshiping their god Baal-Peor.  When a Reuvenite man brings a Midianite princess (possibly a priestess of Baal-Peor) right into God’s tent-sanctuary to copulate, the God-character’s fury boils over.  Aaron’s grandson Pinchas dashes into the tent chamber and stabs a spear through the copulating couple.7

And the pestilence was stopped from over the Israelites.  And the deaths in the pestilence were 24,000.  (Numbers 25:8-9)

The God-character rewards Pinchas, but remains angry in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas. God orders Moses to attack and kill all the Midianites who worship Baal-Peor—an order carried out in next week’s portion, Mattot.8  After addressing several other matters, God remembers the soothing scent of smoke in Numbers 28:1-2 (above).

Maybe the God-character finally realizes He has a quick temper and an anger management problem.  If the Israelites soothed Him with a reyach nichoach at regular intervals, He might stay calmer.

God requests two daily offerings, plus additional offerings every seventh day (Shabbat), every new moon, and on six special occasions during the year (now called PesachShavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret).  The daily offerings and the additional offerings on the new moon, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Shemini Atzeret are all labeled as either “a reyach nichoach, a fire-offering for God” or “a fire-offering of reyach nichoach for God”.

Smoke and the gods

Why does the God-character in the Torah calm down when He smells the smoke of an animal, grain, or incense offering?

The book of Ezekiel provides a clue.  Three times in Ezekiel, God complains that Israelites at home and in exile are flocking to foreign altars and giving mere idols a reyach nichoach.9

Moabite altars in “Bilam” by James Tissot

Burning animals at altars for local gods was standard religious practice in ancient Canaan and Mesopotamia.  The epic of Gilgamesh includes a story in which Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian equivalent of Noah, emerges from his boat after the flood and offers a sacrifice to the gods.  When he lights a fire of myrtle, cane, and cedar wood, the odor reaches the nostrils of the gods and gives them pleasure.10

Since many humans enjoy aromatic smoke from incense or from a barbecue, it is natural to assume an anthropomorphic god enjoys it, too.  Just as an angry king about to punish someone might be appeased by a delightful gift, an angry anthropomorphic god might be appeased by a gift of fragrant smoke.  Since the God of Israel and the gods of Canaanites and Mesopotamians were envisioned as living in the sky, smoke was one of the few gifts that would be sure to reach them.


Have we discarded the idea of an anthropomorphic god today?  Not entirely.  Both atheists and theists often think of God as a super-human being living in a “heaven” coexistent with our world.  Atheists prove that this super-being cannot exist, while most religious people explain that an anthropomorphic god is either one manifestation of the real God, or a helpful image in our own minds, not to be confused with the real God.

There are still some fundamentalists who believe in the angry, punishing God portrayed so often in the Hebrew Bible and inherited by Christianity and Islam.  The rest of us tend to view God as either loving (a helpful anthropomorphic image), or without emotion (because God is not really a super-human).

Yet we sometimes find ourselves disturbed by our own irrational anger, and the impulsive actions we commit as a result.  We do not want to be made in the image of the angry, temperamental God-character.  What can we do to become calmer human beings?

Smoking is not the best answer.  But making regular offerings to God could be.  Jews no longer burn animals on an altar to soothe God’s temper, thank God!  But we are asked to pray at the appointed times listed in Pinchas: daily, weekly, monthly, and on annual holy days.  I have found that when I pray thoughtfully, searching out inner meanings of some words and adding my own heartfelt longings, my prayer soothes my own spirit and lifts my soul closer to God.

May everyone who needs the blessing of calmness find a good way to receive it.

  1. Moses talks God out of annihilating the Israelites and starting over again with only Moses’ descendants in Exodus 32:9-14 and 32:25-35. See my post Ki Tissa: Fighting or Singing?  God may be testing Moses to see whether he will argue for the Israelites; but on the other hand, God does kill an untold number of them with a plague, even after the Levites have slain 3,000 guilty people.
  2. In Numbers 14:11-35 (Shelach-Lekha) God threatens to wipe out all the Israelites because they do not trust God to help them conquer Canaan and refuse to cross the border. Moses talks God down, and God makes them wait 40 years instead.  God’s next threat to annihilate all the Israelites is in Korach, reviewed above.
  3. Numbers 28:2, 6, 8, 13, 24, 27 and 29:2, 6, 8, 13, 36.
  4. Genesis 6:11-13, 6:17.
  5. Genesis 4:3-5.
  6. Exodus 29:18, 29:25, and 29:41.
  7. See my posts Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1 and Balak: Carnal Appetites.
  8. See my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.
  9. Ezekiel 6:13, 16:19, 20:28. In Ezekiel 20:41, God says that when all Israelites restrict themselves to serving their own God on the holy mountain of Israel, then God will accept the people themselves as a reyach nichoach.
  10. Gilgamesh tablet 11, part 4.

Korach: Who Is Holy?

The Israelites set off from Mount Sinai in formation, ready to march into Canaan.1

Yet when their “promised land” is just over the next ridge, the men become so terrified by reports of giants that they refuse to cross the border.2  Fed up with Moses’ insistence on obeying God, they say: “Let’s pick a leader and go back to Egypt!”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 14:4)  They do not doubt that Moses is God’s chosen prophet and leader.  The problem is that they no longer believe God will help them take the land.3

The reverse is true in this week’s Torah portion, Korach.  Korach and his 250 rebels want to continue serving God, but they reject Moses and Aaron as leaders.4

They gathered against Moses and against Aaron, and they said to them: “You have plenty!  Because all the assembly, all of them, are kedoshim, and God is in their midst.  So why do you elevate yourselves above the congregation of God?”  (Numbers 16:3)

kedoshim (קְדֺשִׁים) = holy (plural), consecrated; segregated for religious use only; personally dedicated to obeying God’s moral and religious rules.  (Singular: kadosh, קָדוֹשׁ.  From the root verb kadash, קָדַשׁ = be holy, be reserved for sacred rather than common use.)

After checking with God by falling on his face,5 Moses tells Korach and the Levites:

1907 Bible card

“In the morning God will make known who is his and who is kadosh and who he brings close to himself; [God] will choose who he brings close to himself.  Do this:  Korach and all [your] assembly, take for yourselves fire-pans, and place embers in them and put incense on them in front of God tomorrow.  And it will be the man whom God will choose, he is the kadosh one.  You have plenty, sons of Levi!” (Numbers 16:5-7)

Is Korach’s speech true?  Are all the Israelites holy?  Did Moses and Aaron elevate themselves?

Are all the Israelites holy?

In the strict sense of the word kadosh, it is impossible for everyone in a community to be holy, just as it is impossible for every bowl or basin to be consecrated.  The copper basin a priest uses to catch and splash the blood from an animal sacrifice is kadosh because it is reserved for religious rituals.  A copper basin used to make dinner is not kadosh.

Similarly, not all members of a community can spend most of their time as religious functionaries.  The community cannot survive unless most of its people are shepherds, farmers, craftsmen, millers, bakers, weavers, etc.  Only a minority of the Israelites can be segregated and reserved for protecting and transporting the sanctuary (the job of the Levites) and conducting religious rituals (the job of the priests).

Yet elsewhere in the Torah, God says:

“And now, if you really listen to my voice and you keep my covenant, then you will be my treasured possession among all the peoples.  For all the earth is mine; but you, you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a kadosh nation …” (Exodus/Shemot 19:5-6)

“You shall be kedoshim because I am kadosh ”  (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:2)

While God may be distinguishing the possible holiness of the Israelites from the ordinariness of the other peoples of the world, it is more likely that God uses the word kadosh in these statements to mean “virtuous and obedient to God”.  The statement in Exodus is followed by the revelation and the “Ten Commandments”.  The statement in Leviticus is immediately followed by 17 principles for moral and religious behavior, from respecting your parents to loving your neighbor as yourself.

God did not say that the people were already holy in the sense of being good to other people and obedient to God.  God asked them to work on becoming holy in that way.

But Korach says everyone in the assembly of Israel is kadosh.  Even if he uses the word kadosh to mean “virtuous and obedient to God”, he is wrong.  Throughout the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness they rebel and complain about God and God’s arrangements, and periodically someone violates one of God’s rules.  They are still a long way from being a holy nation.

When Korach alludes to God’s phrase“a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, he is really more interested in the “kingdom of priests” part.  In fact, he and the 250 other rebellious Levites are more interested in priesthood for themselves than in universal priesthood.6

Moses hears this subtext.  After announcing the incense-pan test,

Moses said to Korach: “Listen, please, sons of Levi.  Is it too little for you that the God of Israel separated you, out of all the assembly of Israel, to bring close to him, to serve the service of the sanctuary of God and to stand before the assembly to minister to them?  [God] brought you close, and all your brother Levites with you; now do you seek the priesthood too?”  (Numbers 16:8-10)

Korach does not reply.  But he and his 250 Levites return the next morning with their fire-pans and incense, hoping to pass the test.  They are consumed by divine fire.


Did Moses and Aaron elevate themselves?

The rebel Levites resent their positions as assistants to the priests, doing less glamorous jobs.6  Korach argues that leadership should be shared, either by all Israelites or at least by all Levites.

Yet God chose Moses to transmit God’s commands and instructions—probably because Moses did not want to elevate himself.  When God was recruiting him at the burning bush, Moses kept finding excuses to get out of the job.7

Aaron did not elevate himself, either.  God picked him to assist his brother Moses in negotiations with the pharaoh of Egypt.8  Then when God gave instructions for the sanctuary and its rituals, God told Moses to consecrate Aaron and his sons as the priests.9

Who should lead?

Who are the proper leaders, civil and religious, for a large community?  The Torah answers that the top leaders should be chosen by God, or descended from those chosen by God.

God chooses Moses, and then Joshua, to govern the Israelites.  After a period with no central authority, God tells the prophet Samuel to anoint Saul as king, and then to replace him with David.  The descendants of King David rule Judah for centuries.

God chooses Aaron and his sons as the community’s priests.  Later God declares a covenant with Pinchas, one of Aaron’s grandsons, making him and all his descendants priests.10  Yet the first book of Samuel acknowledges that sometimes the sons of a good priest are worthless.11

Today, we had better not count on God to appoint our leaders.  Those who claim divine appointment probably suffer from inflated egos and skewed thinking.  There are no definitive miracles to prove God’s choices today, and those who deduce God’s will from omens and mysterious coincidences are like idol-worshippers in the Torah.12

So when we have a chance to vote for leaders in government, or to choose our own religious leaders, who should we pick?

One answer is to find out who is kadosh in the sense of being virtuous (acting for the benefit of others) and obedient to God (to the still, small inner voice of God, not to the rules of a particular religious sect).  We can judge potential leaders by their actions, not by genealogy or by claims of greatness.

And whatever jobs we end up with, we are all called upon to become kinder, more honest, more respectful, more insightful, and more aware of the divine in everything.  In other words, more holy.

  1. Numbers 10:11-28. See my post Bemidbar & Naso: Four Directions of Service.
  2. Numbers 13:25-33. See last week’s post, Shelach-Lekha: Caleb Waiting.
  3. See my post Shelach-Lekha: Mutual Distrust.
  4. The Torah portion interweaves two stories of rebellion: one featuring Korach and 250 fellow Levites, and one featuring chieftains from the tribe of Reuven. Modern critical scholarship assigns the two stories to different sources, combined awkwardly by a later redactor.  The Levite rebellion is usually identified as a P text, while the Reuvenite rebellion is attributed to the J source.  The story of their rebellion and punishment appears in Numbers 16:12-14 and 16:25-34.  See my post Korach: Buried Alive.
  5. See my post Korach: Face Down.
  6. Korach is a Levite in the Kehat clan (Numbers 16:1), which transports the most holy objects in the sanctuary (Numbers 4:15). Moses and Aaron are also descendants of Kehat (Exodus 6:18-21), and are Korach’s first cousins.  The Torah does not specify the clans of the other 250 Levite rebels, but all the Levites are relatives of the priests, Aaron and his sons, and all of them have duties regarding the sanctuary.
  7. Exodus 3:1-4:17.
  8. Exodus 4:14-16, 4:27.
  9. Exodus 28:1, Exodus 28:36-38, Leviticus 8:1-36.
  10. Numbers 25:11-13.
  11. Numbers 16:23-35.
  12. Deuteronomy 18:9-10.

Korach: Face Down

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?


Bowing to Hamaan

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)

Stoning, from a sketch by Piola Domenico, 17th century

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 [Moses and Aaron] on their faces, and they said: “God, God of the spirits of all flesh, one man is guilty, and you rage against the whole community? (Numbers 16:22)

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.

Moses and Aaron fall on their faces one more time, in next week’s Torah portion, Chukkat. The Israelites are complaining that there is no water to drink.

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.


Haftarat Korach—1 Samuel: The Man Who Would Not Be King

Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32) and the haftarah is 1 Samuel 11:14-12:22.

The prophet Samuel feels insulted when the independent tribes of Israel first ask him to appoint a king. God is the true ruler of the twelve tribes, he says. Samuel intereceds with God, and serves as a circuit judge, deciding case law for the people.  What more do they need?

prophet 3All the elders of Israel assembled themselves and came to Samuel at the Ramah. And they said to him: Hey! You have grown old and your sons have not walked in your ways. So now set up for us a king to judge us, like all the nations. (1 Samuel 8:4-5)

Samuel warns them that kings impoverish and enslave their subjects, and do not listen when their people cry out to them.

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said: No! Because with a king over us, we, even we, will be like all the nations.  And our king will judge our disputes, and he will go out before us and fight our wars. (1 Samuel 8:19-20)

In other words, what the tribes are really looking for is not a judge, but a permanent war leader. They are tired of being picked on by the neighboring Philistines, Amorites, and Ammonites; they want to do their own conquering and nation-building.

Samuel tells God, and God promises to send a king to Samuel.  In this week’s haftarah he tells the assembled Israelites:

And now, here is the king who you have chosen, who she-eltem, and here—God has placed over you a king. (1 Samuel 12:13)

she-eltem (שְׁאֶלְתֶּם) = you asked for.  From the root verb sha-al (שָׁאַל) = ask.

The name of the first king of Israel is Saul, or in Hebrew, Shaul (שָׁאוּל) = asked.

How does Saul, a Benjaminite whose only outstanding trait is his height, come to be king?  The first book of Samuel gives us three different stories.

DonkeyIn the first story, Saul is looking for his father’s lost donkeys.  He and his servant wander far from their home in Giveah.

They were just coming to the land of Tzuf when Saul said to his boy who was with him: Hey, let’s go turn back, or my father will stop worrying about the donkeys and worry about us. (1 Samuel 9:5)

tzuf (צוּף) = (noun) honeycomb dripping with honey; (verb) flooded, flowed over.

The servant talks Saul into entering the nearest town and paying the local seer to tell them where the donkeys are. The town is Ramah, and the seer is Samuel, who drags Saul to the hilltop shrine for a feast.

Samuel Anointing Saul
Samuel Anointing Saul

In the morning Samuel pours oil on Saul’s head and tells him God is anointing him king. On his way home Saul falls in with a band of ecstatic prophets and speaks in ecstasy.  But when he returns to his father’s house he tells nobody about his anointment.

In the land of Tzuf everything is overflowing: the food at the feast, the oil of anointment, and the ecstatic spirit of God.

In the second story,

Samuel summoned the people to God at the mitzpah. (1 Samuel 10:17)

mitzpah (מִצְפָּה) = watchtower, lookout post.

When all the important Israelite men have arrived, Samuel casts lots before God three times to find out who the king will be.  The lottery chooses first the tribe of Benjamin, then out of that tribe the clan of Matar, then out of that clan Saul. But nobody can find Saul.

Then God said: Hey!  He has hidden himself in the baggage!  So they ran and took him from there, and he stood himself up among the people, and he was head and shoulders taller than all the people.  And Samuel said to all the people: Do you see the one whom God chose?  For there is none like him among all the people! (1 Samuel 10:22-24)

Saul’s strategy of hiding does not work; even if the people cannot see him from the mitzpah, God can.  Saul is proclaimed king despite himself.

This week’s haftarah gives us a third and more serious installation of Saul as king.

And Samuel said to the people: Come and let us go to the gilgal, and we will renew the kingship there. So they all the people went to the gilgal and they made Saul king there before God, at the gilgal. And they slaughtered their wholeness-offering before God there, and Saul and all the men of Israel with him rejoiced there very much. (1 Samuel 11:14-15)

gilgal (גִּלְגָּל) = (probably) a stone circle. Related to the words gal (גַּל) = heap of stones, goleil (גֹּלֵל) = rolling, galgal (גַּלְגַּל) = wheel, and gulgolet (גֻּלְגֹּלֶת) = skull, head, headcount.

There is more than one gilgal mentioned in the Bible, but the most important one is probably the gilgal at the edge of the city-state of Jericho. It is already standing when Joshua leads the Israelites into Canaan, and its circle of stones was probably used by an earlier religion. Joshua uses it as a sacred site for circumcising all the Israelite men and celebrating the first Passover in Canaan.  Then it becomes his headquarters for most of the book of Joshua.

map Saul 1

The gilgal near the ruins of Jericho later becomes one of the four stops on Samuel’s circuit as a judge (along with the mitzpah, Beit-El, and Ramah in Tzuph).  Then it is the place where Saul is installed as king, and finally the site of King Saul’s main altar.

Why does it take two false starts, in the land of Tzuf and at the mitzpah, before Saul accepts his kingship at the gilgal?

When the redactor of the books of Samuel recorded three extant stories about Saul’s appointment, he put them in the most telling order.  First Saul is blessed with kingship as a gift of tzuf, an overflowing bounty of both oil and an ecstatic experience—but these are gifts he does not want, so he pretends he never received them. Next Saul is chosen by lot at a mitzpah, a lookout post—where he does not want to be seen.  He manages to hide even from everyone except God, even though he is a head taller than the other men.

Finally Samuel summons the reluctant king to the gilgal, the ancient circle of stones where Joshua made his headquarters. Here Saul succumbs to history and takes his place in the line of rulers of the Israelites, after Moses and Joshua.

Some people seize opportunities to become leaders, pushing forward eagerly in their conviction or ambition.  Others are like Saul, shy of fame and happy to lead ordinary lives.  But the first book of Samuel shows that when you are called, denial is useless.  Eventually you will have to answer God and take your place in the middle of the circle.

In your own life, do you step into a new responsibility even when it may not be your calling?  Or do you resist the call to take a necessary job that you don’t really want?



Korach: Buried Alive

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

tent pegThen Moses got up and went to Datan and Aviram, and the elders of Israel went after him. And he spoke to the assembly, saying: “Please move away from the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything that is theirs, lest you are swept away with their offense!” (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:25-26)

Datan and Aviram, two men from the tribe of Reuben, have been arguing that Moses should no longer lead the Israelites. They pointed out that under Moses’ leadership, the people did not get into a land flowing with milk and honey, but instead are stuck dying in the wilderness.

They did not mention that God decreed they must spend 40 years in the wilderness because all the men of Israel except Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and Joshua refused to cross the border into Canaan.  (See last week’s post, Shelach-Lekha: Mutual Distrust.)

So they went up away from around the dwelling-place of Korach, Datan, and Aviram. But Datan and Aviram went out and were standing at the entrance of their tents, and their wives and their children and their little ones. (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:27)

Datan and Aviram can hear Moses’ warning, so they have an opportunity to send their own families out of harm’s way, but they do not. And in the patriarchal society of the ancient Israelites, it is rare for women or children to act on their own.

Do the two rebels believe that God will not “sweep them away” for their offense? After more than two years of miracles demonstrating cooperation between God and Moses, do they think God will let them—and their families—live?

If so, Moses is determined to prove once and for all that he is only serving God, not grabbing power on his own initiative.

The Death of Korach, Datan, and Abiram, by Gustave Dore
The Death of Korach, Datan, and Abiram, by Gustave Dore

And Moses said: Through this you will know that God sent me to do all these deeds, that they did not [come] from my own mind. If these die like every human dies, and if the fate of every human is their fate, God did not send me. But if Hashem creates a [new] creation, and the ground opens up her mouth and swallows them and all that is theirs, and they go down alive to Sheol, then you will know that these men did not respect God. (Numbers 16:28-30)

Sheol (שְׁאוֹל) = the underworld of the dead; a lightless, silent place where the  spirits of the dead lie in graves—as their bodies lie in graves closer to the surface of the earth. (The etymology of Sheol is uncertain, but the word may come from the root verb sha-al, שׁאל = inquired, asked for, asked about.)

In the Hebrew Bible, all the dead “go down” to Sheolafter they die.  The “new creation” Moses promises is that Datan, Aviram, and “all that is theirs” will go down to Sheol while they are still alive.

And it happened, as he finished speaking all these words: the ground that was underneath them split. And the earth opened her mouth, and she swallowed them and their households … And they went down, they and all that was theirs, alive to Sheol, and the earth covered over them, and they were carried off from the midst of the congregation.  And all Israel that was around them fled at their noise, for they said: Lest the earth swallow us! (Numbers 16:31-34)

It sounds as if the families of Datan and Aviram go down screaming.

What happens to them after the earth swallows them? The Torah is silent. But the other 61 references to Sheol in the Bible make it clear that no one lives there.  It is the abode of all the dead, and only the dead. When the two families in this week’s Torah portion are buried alive, they suffocate and die.  Their corpses remain deep underground, and the spirits that had animated their bodies “sleep” forever in Sheol.

The Bible has no concept of an immortal soul that reunites with God after death.  Later Jewish writings use the Hebrew word neshamah  for such a soul, but in the Bible neshamah means only “breath” or “breathing person”. What goes to Sheol in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms, is the nefesh.

What man alive will never see death,

            will save his nefesh from the grip of Sheol? (Psalm 89:49)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = the “soul” that animates the body; throat, appetite, personality, individual, an individual’s life.

Ka-Egyptian hieroglyphA nefesh in Sheol retains the identity of the formerly living person, but it does not speak, experience feelings, or do anything except perhaps sleep. Unlike the Egyptian ka, which can eat, drink, and be waited on in the tomb after death, the Israelite nefesh simply lies or sleeps in Sheol. The best a man can hope for in Biblical eschatology is to die peacefully, so he can lie among his ancestors.

Jews did not develop any theory of an afterlife until the second century B.C.E.  The book of Daniel, written around 165 B.C.E., never mentions Sheol, but it does predict the bodily resurrection of the dead at the end of the world as we know it. The idea that an individual’s soul survives the death of the body and has its own experiences crept into Jewish writings in the first century C.E.  In the Talmud this independent, conscious soul might be punished for misdeeds after death in a hellish place called Gehenna.

But neither hell nor conscious souls exist in the book of Numbers. Datan and Aviram know they are risking immediate death without a conscious afterlife. And they know they are risking the same oblivion for their wives, children, and infants, who will receive no heavenly reward after death.

The last thing that they experience is the terror of being swallowed by the earth.  They go down alive to Sheol, and then their corpses, as well as their personalities, lie there inert, forever.

Datan and Aviram are stupid to dispute Moses’ leadership and his status as God’s favorite servant. But I think their real crime is ignoring the next generation, including their own children. By modern standards, these two men are so self-absorbed they view their wives and children as mere possessions, part of “all that is theirs”—as if these human beings who depend on them are already inanimate, silent, dead.

How many of us today are so caught up in the drama of our own lives that we ignore everyone else? That we find no comfort in the thought that our children, our students, the next generation, might lead good lives after we have died?

May we all learn to live as if there is no afterlife, as if our deeds in this world really matter, and as if the life of every other human being really matters.