Mutiny in the Bible

What happens when the people rebel against the leadership of Moses and Aaron?

From Punishment of the Rebels, 1482, by Botticelli.

From Punishment of the Rebels, 1482, by Botticelli.

June 19 2015
About the author

Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik (Syracuse University Press) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Poems of Hanoch Levin earned a PEN Translates award and was released in 2019 by Arc Publications. He was ordained by Rabbi Daniel Landes and is completing a PhD on William Tyndale’s translation of Deuteronomy.

For this week’s reading about the mutiny of Koraḥ (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32), we take you first not to Judea or the Sinai desert but to medieval England and the opening of Shakespeare’s Richard II. There the divinely anointed ruler of the land is accosted by two quarrelling noblemen, one of whom is his cousin Bolingbroke. Richard reassuringly addresses the other, Mowbray, who is threatening the kingdom through this dispute:

Mowbray, impartial are our eyes and ears:
Were he my brother, nay, my kingdom’s heir,
As he is but my father’s brother’s son,
Now, by my sceptre’s awe, I make a vow,
Such neighbor nearness to our sacred blood
Should nothing privilege him, nor partialize
The unstooping firmness of my upright soul.

That phrase “my father’s brother’s son” came back to me when viewing an illustration that accompanies this week’s reading in the Daat Mikra edition of Yeḥiel Moskovitz. It is a family tree. On it, you can see that the patriarch Jacob’s son Levi had three sons and eight grandsons; one of the grandsons begat Aaron and Moses, another begat Koraḥ. And that leads us to the questions that stand at the crux of this reading: does greatness depend on blood line, or is it innate to the individual person and his particular qualities? How should the Jews be ruled, and what on earth does the Lord want?

Back in medieval England, when Richard’s naïveté and greed have allowed Bolingbroke to grow more powerful and demonstrate a just grievance against him, Richard comforts himself with the backing of heaven:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord:
For every man that Bolingbroke hath press’d
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for His Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,
Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.

Yet this reliance on heaven does not quite obscure from even Richard’s eyes the fact that his right is entirely dependent on his might. When his arrival on the field of battle is delayed by a day and he loses vital support, there is less talk of angels:

But now the blood of twenty thousand men
Did triumph in my face, and they are fled;
And, till so much blood thither come again,
Have I not reason to look pale and dead?
All souls that will be safe fly from my side,
For time hath set a blot upon my pride.

It doesn’t go quite like that for Moses and for the successive waves of rebels he and the Lord face in this week’s reading:

But Koraḥ son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi, took himself
With Datan and Aviram the sons of Eliav and On son of Pelet the sons of Reuben
And they rose before Moses
With men from among the children of Israel
Two hundred fifty leaders of the community
Who’d be consulted as the need arose, reputable men
And they assembled against Moses and Aaron
And said to them, You’ve more than enough.
The whole community is sacred, and the Lord is within them.
So why do you raise yourselves over the Lord’s assembly?
But Moses heard and fell on his face
And spoke to Koraḥ and all his community saying,
Come morning and God will know who’s His and who’s sanctified and who’ll sacrifice to Him
And whoever He chooses shall sacrifice to him.

Just as Richard II’s story revolves around inheritance and what piece of earth, what ceremonial duties, and what filial duties belong inalienably to a particular cousin, this story, too, revolves around what rightfully belongs to whom, what is given and what is taken, and what, finally, the Lord wants. The story starts with Koraḥ taking himself and all the people he leads away from the general community. It continues with Moses directing them to the censers or fire pans—tools of the priestly office they are coveting—and pointing out that in addition to taking you have to give, and you start by setting the censers alight. Nor will that be the end of what burns in this story.

 Do this: take yourselves censers, Koraḥ and all his community,
And give them to the flame and put incense on them before the Lord tomorrow
And let the man whom the Lord chooses for Himself be the sacred one.
You’ve more than enough, sons of Levi.

Moses signs off his instructions with a tart echo of Koraḥ’s opening sally: whoever is High Priest is not in office for just one sect, he is in office for the whole house of Levi and the whole community. And as the story keeps reiterating that Koraḥ is not alone, that he is indeed leading a community, it also keeps emphasizing that with every question he asks, Koraḥ is actually breaking down the greater community into a smaller interest group. He is doing the opposite of what a leader is meant to do.

But Moses said to Koraḥ, Pray listen, sons of Levi,
Is it too little for you that the God of Israel separated you from the community of Israel
To draw you to Him to worship the worship of the Lord’s abode
And stand before the community to serve them?
And He drew you near and your brethren sons of Levi with you
But you ask the priesthood, too?
That’s why you and all your community are set against the Lord.
But Aaron—what’s he that you should rail against him?
And Moses sent to call Datan and Aviram the sons of Eliav
But they said, “We won’t come up.
Is it too little for you that you took us up from a land running with milk and honey
To put us to death in the desert
But you must also lord it and lord it over us?
You didn’t even bring us to a land running with milk and honey
Or give us an estate of field and vineyard.
Do you want to put out the eyes of all those men? We will not go up.”
And it stung Moses greatly and he said to God,
“Do not attend to their offering,
I’ve borne with more than one of those jackasses
And never done wrong to one of them.”
But Moses said to Koraḥ, “You and all your community
Be sure you are before the Lord,
You and they and Aaron tomorrow
And take each man his censer and put incense on them
And sacrifice before the Lord each man his censer,
Two hundred fifty censers,
And you and Aaron, each man his censer.
And each man took his censer and gave them to flame and put incense on them
And stood at the meeting tent door with Moses and Aaron
And Koraḥ assembled all the community against them at the tent door
And the Lord’s glory appeared before the whole community

Here we have the key element that’s missing in Richard II’s story. There, the concept of divine anointment is a relic of biblical social organization; here, you still have the source of that organization: the essentially mysterious, essentially unpredictable force that will appear as and when He pleases and speak through exactly whom He pleases. But when He speaks, the text notes pointedly, He speaks to the whole community. He’s not interested in splinter groups:

But the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying,
“Separate from within this community
And I’ll finish them this instant.”
But they fell on their faces and said,
“God, God of the spirits in all flesh,
Shall one man sin and you erupt at the whole community?”
But the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the community to say:
Be risen from around the abode of Koraḥ, Datan, and Aviram.”

Somewhere in his letters Raymond Chandler cites an example of gangster argot, “Be missing,” whose threat impresses him because of its restraint. The same sense of imminent violence is in the Lord’s terse suggestion to the Israelites that, since Moses and Aaron have persuaded Him not to wipe out the lot of them, they should be what Koraḥ & Co. have accused Moses and Aaron of being, namely, raised above their particular element of the community.

And Moses got up and went to Datan and Aviram
And the elders of Israel followed him
And he spoke to the community, saying:
“Please turn from the tents of these wicked men
And don’t touch anything of theirs
Lest you perish in all their sins.”
And they rose up from the abode of Koraḥ, Datan, and Aviram all around.
And Datan and Aviram came out petrified to the openings of their tents
With their wives, sons, and babies
And Moses said, “By this you’ll know
I was sent by the Lord to do these deeds
And not by my own heart.
If these should die as any man dies
And the appointed lot of any man be their lot,
Then it was not the Lord Who sent me.
But if the Lord create a creation
And the earth gape its mouth
And swallow them and all that’s theirs
And they go down alive into the underworld,
Then you’ll know these men provoked the Lord.”

This is the first in a series of miracles in this saga. In marked contrast to the ten plagues that smote the Egyptians, we’re not presented with a mounting sequence of severity. On the contrary, the Lord seems to toss off His biggest miracle first. Moreover, in a story that revolves around gifts given and taken, not only are these people not the Lord’s, but He also has no desire for anything belonging to them, nor does He want people touching anything belonging to them. So superfluous are they to His requirements that the earth opens up to swallow any trace that they ever existed. Except, of course, for the censers:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
“Tell Elazar son of Aaron the Priest to pick the censers from among the burnings
And scatter the fire away.
But since they sanctified these sinful censers with their lives,
Make them into a plating for the altar
For they sacrificed them before the Lord
And they were sanctified and shall be a sign to the children of Israel
That no strange man who is not a descendant of Aaron
Draw near to offer incense before the Lord
And be like Koraḥ and his community”—
As the Lord said by the hand of Moses.

You’d think that would be the end of it, with the Lord having gone ballistic, so to speak, at first strike. But the true consequences of Koraḥ’s rebellion are only beginning; the cracks he was exploiting in the social order are only just starting to come apart, and the same can be said for that little earthquake that swallowed him and 250 of the best and brightest. Amazingly enough, it turns out they had opened the door for thousands of others to keep arguing.

But the whole community of Israel railed the next day at Moses and Aaron, saying:
“You have put to death the people of the Lord.”
And it was as the community assembled against Moses and against Aaron
And turned to the meeting tent
And here it was engulfed in the cloud.
That the glory of the Lord appeared.
And Moses and Aaron came before the meeting tent
and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
“Rise from within this community
and I’ll finish them this instant.”
And they fell on their faces
But Moses told Aaron, “Take the censer and give it light from the altar
And put incense on it and go quickly to the community
And atone for them
For the eruption has gone out from before the Lord, the plague has started.”
And Aaron took what Moses said and ran into the assembly
And here the plague had started among the people
And he gave the incense and atoned for the people
And he stood between the living and the dead
And the plague halted.
And there were fourteen thousand seven hundred dead
From the plague, aside from those dead over Koraḥ’s words.

There’s another miracle still to come, but for me this is the dramatic climax of the story. You could not have a more marked contrast between the calculated self-seeking of Koraḥ’s party, signaled in the censers they brought to lobby selfishly for office, and the spectacle of Aaron simply “taking what Moses said” and leaping into the multitude who were dropping like flies, waving the incense around and stopping the plague bodily: surely a first case of the Torah not being in heaven but on earth and of the tools the Lord had given being used, despite Him, as a bulwark against social disruption.

Yet, astonishingly, even this plague is not enough. The Jews are still complaining!

But the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
“Speak to the children of Israel and take from them
Staff by staff one for each father’s house, from all the leaders of their fathers’ houses,
Twelve staffs. Write each man’s name on his staff,
and Aaron’s name you’ll write on Levi’s staff
for there’s one staff for their father’s house.”

If you’re still wondering whom the Lord wants to be offering His sacrifices, you have a little hint here of how the next act is going to play out. Aaron’s is the name to be written on the staff that represents the entire house of Levi, including Koraḥ’s party had they still been alive, and including all of his various cousins. At the end of the next miracle sequence, the question of whom the spoils and duties of office belong to will finally be settled.

And lay them in the meeting tent
Before the testimony that I will testify to you there
And it shall be that the man I choose, his staff shall bloom
And I will calm away from me the children of Israel’s complaints that they rail against you.

When—surprise!—Aaron’s staff proceeds to flower and brings forth fruit, the reinforced social order that results from all this rebellion is spelled out in meticulous detail:

And the Lord said to Moses, Return Aaron’s staff
To before the testimony as a preserved sign
To sons of strife so their complaints at Me shall end and they won’t die.
But the children of Israel spoke to Moses, saying:
“Look we’re expiring, we’re lost, all of us lost,
Everyone who creeps close to the Lord’s abode dies. Are we done expiring?”
And the Lord said to Aaron: “You and your sons and your father’s house with you
Shall bear the sin of your priesthood
And your brothers too in Levi’s staff, you father’s tribe you’ll bring close with you
And they’ll attend you and serve you, and you and your sons with you
Before the meeting tent
And they’ll keep your watch and the watch of all the tent.
But to the holy vessels and the altar they won’t come close
And they won’t die, neither they, nor you.
And I here take your brothers the Levites from among the children of Israel
To you as a gift they’re given
To the Lord
To worship the worship of the meeting tent.
But you and your sons with you
Shall keep your priesthood
Over every aspect of the altar
And from the temple to the holy of holies
And you’ll worship the worship as a gift I’ll give your priesthood
And the stranger who comes close will be put to death.”

Here then is the resolution of the story’s complex weave of giving, taking, filial inheritance, and personal worth. The priesthood is a gift the Lord gives to Aaron and to Himself. The service of the Levites is a gift the Levites must give and the Lord likewise gives to Himself—they hold the office to serve, not to gain. And in each case the office is equally deadly. Not only is Aaron’s cousin as much a stranger who can’t touch the altar as the member of any other tribe, but even Aaron’s sons themselves can die if they don’t offer the offerings appropriately. Fighting plagues is not glamorous work.

Still, as late as the Middle Ages, you can hear among Jewish commentators an echo of Koraḥ’s anguished, jealous cry. Here is Moses Naḥmanides (also known as Ramban):

This is the point of the flowering of Aaron’s staff for the house of Levi, for it flowered for the whole house of Levi and in their due. And it’s possible that since it was known by [means of] the staff that the Lord does not desire firstborns but desires the tribe of Levi, so the priesthood shall belong to Aaron without rancor, for he was the most honored of the tribe and the leader among them with the staff and the dignity of that tribe was fitting to him. But it’s not right in my view, because Gershon [and not Aaron’s grandfather Kehat] was the first-born son of Levi.

Isn’t what Naḥmanides insists on seeing as an injustice exactly the claim of all the brothers, from Cain to Ishmael to Esau and Joseph’s eleven siblings, who demand to know why the eldest did not get his due? But that’s precisely the point: it isn’t about being the eldest, and it isn’t finally even about being born to the right father.

Going back to Shakespeare, after defeating Richard II in battle and becoming Henry IV, Bolingbroke gets his own play (two plays, in fact) and in due course has to explain to his own wayward son Harry why he made a better office-holder than the man he deposed:

The skipping king, he ambled up and down
With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,
Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded his state,
Mingled his royalty with capering fools,
Had his great name profaned with their scorns
And gave his countenance, against his name,
To laugh at gibing boys and stand the push
Of every beardless vain comparative,
Grew a companion to the common streets. . . .

So when he had occasion to be seen,
He was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, not regarded; seen, but with such eyes
As, sick and blunted with community,
Afford no extraordinary gaze,
Such as is bent on sun-like majesty
When it shines seldom in admiring eyes. . . .

And in that very line, Harry, standest thou;
For thou has lost thy princely privilege
With vile participation: not an eye
But is a-weary of thy common sight,
Save mine, which hath desired to see thee more.

The figure conjured up by this picture of Richard II is Koraḥ, the cajoler and inviter of idle discontent, not Aaron the silent instrument of Moses’ bidding, the man who does not utter a word when the Lord strikes down his sons for bringing strange fire. It is restraint, finally, that this story is all about. Restraint by Moses of his own anger and the Lord’s anger, restraint of competitive urges within the community because the entire community is threatened by them. At the end of the story, instead of gaining high office, the Levites are cemented into their subsidiary role, and what Koraḥ’s rebellion has elicited is a chapter-and-verse detailing of exactly how that subordinate status is going to be preserved in perpetuity. It’s not about the glory of office, it’s about the glory that’s revealed quite unpredictably. And the person fit for office is not the one who wants a priestly robe; it’s the one who’s ready to dive into the dying mob.

More about: Hebrew Bible, Moses, Religion & Holidays, The Monthly Portion