Parsha Korach by David Hartley Mark

Poor Korach! There, I said it—after years of dumping on the guy, I am trying to see some good in him. No, not for the obvious reasons; not for his confronting Moses—overworked, underappreciated Moses—and declaring, in apparently reasonable words, “You take too much upon yourselves, Moses and Aaron; for the entire community of Israel is holy, all of them, and the Presence of the Lord dwells among them. So, therefore, why do you raise yourselves above the congregation?” (Num. 16:3, my paraphrase). Nothing wrong, here; at least, not on the surface. Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet says “A man may smile, and smile, and be a villain” (Act I, Sc. 2), and we may suspect the same of Korach, but we have hundreds of years of negative Torah commentary about him to overcome.

What does modern scholarship have to say about Korach, apparent rebel and priestly wannabe, ringleader of the Datan-Aviram cabal against Moses and Aaron’s long-tested leadership? According to Harvard Bible scholar Prof. James Kugel, the current text represents a conflation of two oral traditions, with Korach and Datan-Aviram blended together by a not-terribly-neat editor, known as the Priestly Redactor, or P.

Who were Datan and Aviram? Do you recall the incident in Egypt where a very young Moses, as a raised-in-Pharaoh’s-palace princeling, goes out to view the plight of his fellow Israelites? Realizing his Jewishness—or, at least, Hebrewhood—he kills the Egyptian taskmaster who is beating a Hebrew slave. The following day, Moses, flush from yesterday’s blow for justice, tries to break up a fight between two quarrelling Israelites. Rather than thanking him, they respond rudely, “Who made you lord over us? Are you going to kill us, as you did the Egyptian?” (Ex. 2:14). This response frightens Moses—from Hebrew hero, he becomes lawbreaking fugitive—and he flees Egypt that night, to Midian, where he encounters God in the shape of a burning thorn bush, and begins to realize his destiny.

Datan and Aviram’s hatred of Moses actually begins earlier than the Exodus. Since they are descendants of Reuven, the eldest brother of Jacob’s sons, they have never gotten over their tribe’s being rejected for leadership of Israel, and it irks them that two mere Levites such as Moses and Aaron are in command. Their Reuvenite tribal struggle to overcome the Levite leadership is the earliest kernel of the story, but is overshadowed by a later internal Levite feud, between the Korachite and Aaronide dynasties of the Levites (Moses’s offspring do not figure here, since he is prophetic, not priestly, and prophets do not pass down their powers to their sons). The “P” editor of our text (“P” stands for Priestly, since this section deals with Priestly Laws) is less concerned with the archaic Reuvenite claim to overall Israelite leadership than with the newly-instituted office of king: David, of the mighty tribe of Judah, is poised to seize the crown, following the Benjaminite Saul’s disastrous monarchy.

As for the Aaron-Korach dustup, Korah’s Levite descendants might be fit to scrub the sanctuary, polish the silver, and clean up the altar, but only Aaron’s children were ordained priests, able to make offerings, now and forever. That is why, when it came to the showdown with Korach, “P” made sure that Aaron, not Moses, won. Politics and Personalities, say I: when it comes down to temple temper tantrums, some things never change.

James Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. NY: Free Press, 2007.

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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