Botticelli’s The Punishment of Korah and the Stoning of Moses and Aaron, 1482. Wikipedia.
Several weeks ago in Mosaic, David Wolpe aptly dubbed the book of Numbers “the great book of grievance.” He had in mind the repeated episodes of anxious Israelite muttering and murmuring that mar—and delay by a generation—what should have been an exultant march from slavery to freedom following the miraculous exodus from Egypt. Now, in this week’s Torah reading of Koraḥ (Numbers 16-18), the litany of complaint reaches a dramatic crescendo as the title character leads several factions of disgruntled Israelites in an attempt to overthrow the leadership of Moses and his brother Aaron. The rebellion is crushed in the most spectacular and devastating manner when the earth splits open and swallows Koraḥ and his followers.
Of all the grumblings voiced in the wilderness, Koraḥ’s appears, at least on the surface, to display the greatest integrity: Moses, he claims, has engaged in an act of blatant nepotism by appointing his brother Aaron and his descendants to serve as priests in the Tabernacle. “You have gone too far!” his party cries (16:3), “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?”
Koraḥ’s accusation has been the subject of endless Jewish commentary and speculation. If earlier Israelite complaints seemed primarily self-serving and, in context, petty—the food was no good, the inhabitants of the promised land were too mighty to vanquish, and so forth—the revolt of Koraḥ and his followers appears to be well-founded on a matter of principle, and a noble principle at that: namely, equality. The giving of the Torah at Sinai had been a marvelously democratic experience, with every member of the Jewish people witnessing the divine revelation. But the long trek thereafter, chronicled in the first fifteen chapters of Numbers, has instead been a story of top-down structure and hierarchy.
Thus, as the people travel and when they encamp, each tribe has its own designated leader and its own designated position. These formations give unambiguous primacy to some tribes over others. The Levites are always at the center, to perform their special role as guardians of the Tabernacle, and at that tribe’s center in turn are Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons. We have also been given a lesson on Moses’ uniqueness, been instructed about a designated group of elders who share in his gift of prophecy, and been informed of a special ceremony just for tribal chieftains.
No wonder, then, that many traditional commentaries express sympathy with Koraḥ’s demand for equality. After all, didn’t God Himself tell the Israelites that they were to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6)? There is even a strand of ḥasidic thought that sees in Koraḥ’s egalitarianism an admirable ideal that is inappropriate only because it is ahead of its time but will be realized in the messianic era.
A closer look, however, reveals that in Koraḥ and his accomplices we are seeing not only radical egalitarianism but something else: a sort of family feud. Koraḥ himself is a Levite—in fact, he is Moses’ first cousin—and his tribe of Kehat is tasked with maintaining the most sacred parts of the Tabernacle. As such, he and it have a highly personal stake in the argument. Moses cuts through to Koraḥ’s possible ulterior motive when he says:
“It’s too much for you, O sons of Levi! Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him? . . . Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood, too?” (16:7-10)
In emphasizing Koraḥ’s Levitic ancestry, Moses suggests that behind the slogan, “everyone is holy,” lies the sentiment, “I should have been high priest, not Aaron.”
Next, Koraḥ’s partners in rebellion are Datan, Aviram, and On: all members of the tribe of Reuben. Here, too, we find something that looks less like the French Revolution and more like the sort of rivalries within and among clans that one would expect from a group of desert nomads. Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn, and according to ancient Near Eastern protocol should also have been in line for leadership. Yet, in keeping with Genesis’ theme of choosing younger sons over the firstborn, Reuben’s rights were redistributed among various descendants of his brothers: a double portion of the inheritance goes to Joseph (the forefather of two tribes rather than one), the priesthood goes to the Levites, and, later on, the monarchy will be given in perpetuity to the House of David, members of the tribe of Judah. In light of the fact that Reuben was denied his birthright, it surely seems significant that his descendants should be among those agitating for toppling the hierarchy.
Finally, the arguments advanced by Koraḥ and his co-conspirators are not fully consistent. While Koraḥ’s own claims revolve around the unequal distribution of holiness, Datan and Aviram raise another issue entirely, mockingly asking Moses, “Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?” (16:13) In a striking inversion of the Bible’s repeated characterization of the land of Israel as the “land flowing with milk and honey,” Datan and Aviram invoke the phrase to refer to Egypt. Here they echo earlier complainers in order to challenge the punishment meted out to the Israelites in the previous Torah reading, where they are sentenced to 40 years of wandering for their lack of faith in God.
Calls for greater equality, resentment over personal status, panic and anxiety over broader covenantal goals: all mesh together in an unholy alliance that is ultimately crushed through the most extreme measures.
And the story does not end when “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Koraḥ’s people and all their possessions.” A heavenly fire then consumes everyone else involved. And even this dramatic punishment is not enough to stave off the entropy that has been set into motion by the rebellion. Shortly after the deaths of Koraḥ and his party, Israelite dissatisfaction only increases and a plague kills another 14,700 souls, setting off still another round of discontent.
In this perspective, the underlying problem does not seem to be any one complaint but the way that each complaint yields to the next as time and again the people fail to learn the lesson God intends to teach them. The very fact that Koraḥ unites with the Reubenites despite their divergent claims and goals suggests that theirs is an alliance based not on shared principles or even on shared goals but on a shared desire to rebel. The grumblings take on a life of their own—grievance for grievance’s sake—roping more and more Israelites into their destructive orbit.
Koraḥ’s conglomeration is thus a distorted mirror-image of the Israelite encampment itself: less a collection of distinct subgroups united in service of a common goal than representatives of different tribes united only in insurrection. One is reminded of John Milton’s confederation of devils and pagan deities who inhabit Satan’s underworld in Paradise Lost: a “promiscuous crowd” with disparate grievances and ideologies who find common cause in the rebellion against God. The debates among these parties, described by Milton as “words clothed in reason’s garb,” vividly recall the grievances of Koraḥ and his mob.
In Numbers, the potent image of this coalition of complainers suggests the very inverse of what the people of Israel are meant to establish in the wilderness and ultimately in the promised land. The question of the few and the many—of the way in which distinct tribes and clans can unite constructively into a larger and enduring whole—is a major preoccupation that resurfaces in the books of Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Ezra. What Koraḥ and his community demonstrate is instead the negative power of grievance to unite and mobilize, and what is clear from this episode is that a culture based on grievance cannot last and will ultimately fail to lead the Israelites—or anyone—out of the wilderness.