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Korach | The Rebellion in the Wilderness

Rav Michael Hattin




As Parashat Korach begins, we find the leadership of Moshe and Aharon under the most serious and sustained attack since the Exodus from Egypt.  Mustering a broad coalition of disgruntled constituents, Korach presents himself as a genuine reformer who has the people's interests in mind:  "Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi, joined forces with Datan and Aviram the sons of Eliav, and On son of Pelet from the tribe of Reuven.  They arose before Moshe, along with two hundred and fifty men of Israel, all of whom were princes of the congregation and men of renown.  They gathered against Moshe and Aharon and said to them, 'You have enough!  Is not the whole congregation holy, is not God in their midst?  Why then do you raise yourselves above the congregation of God?'"


Although the exact nature of the reformers' grievance is not indicated in the text, it clearly seems to revolve around the leadership positions of Moshe and Aharon.  The two brothers are accused of craving power, of exploiting their office to advance personal goals, and of nepotism.  As later events unfold and the challenge of the firepans comes to a head, it becomes apparent that Aharon's exalted position as High Priest is a particularly aggravating bone of contention.  Why then, have these two brothers secured all of the prestigious positions for themselves and not distributed the power more equitably among the entire congregation?  Is not the entire congregation holy, by virtue of God's presence that resides among them?



The View of the Ibn Ezra


Significantly, the commentaries offer different interpretations concerning the chronology of Korach's rebellion, and these differences tend to impact on the understanding of Korach's motives, his allies' grievances, and the reaction of Bnei Yisrael at large to the events.  We shall begin our analysis by considering the explanation of Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain), who places Korach's rebellion at a much earlier time than its presentation in this week's Parasha.  "This episode took place in the wilderness of Sinai, when the first born males were substituted by the Levites who took on their role.  The people of Israel thought that Moshe our master had acted of his own accord to elevate his brother Aharon to the priesthood, to appoint his clan of Kehat to the unique role of transporting the holy vessels of the Mishkan, and to designate his tribe of Levi to minister before God.  Those same Levites, however, opposed Moshe because he had made them subservient to Aharon and his descendants, the Cohanim.  Datan and Aviram, who hailed from the tribe of Reuven, were angered by the fact that their tribe's preeminence had been eclipsed by that of Yosef (composed of the two tribes of Ephraim and Menashe).  Perhaps, they reasoned, Moshe had so acted because he favored his apprentice Yehoshua, who descended from the tribe of Ephraim.  Korach himself was a firstborn, as the text clearly indicates (see Shemot 6:21).  His clan of Kehat was thus arranged on the southern boundary of the Mishkan, and its members were therefore in close contact with the tribe of Reuven who were also arrayed on the south.  As for the rebellious princes of the congregation, they too were firstborn who in the past had been used to offering the sacrifices, and they therefore took their firepans…"



Chronology in the Torah


Ibn Ezra's remarks are important on a number of counts.  First of all, adopting a stance that he employs at other places in the Torah, Ibn Ezra suggests that the section describing Korach's rebellion is recorded out of strict chronological sequence.  It properly belongs to the narratives at the opening of Sefer BeMidbar that describe the organization of the tribes around the Mishkan and the election of the tribe of Levi to minister before God.  After all, that is when the Torah formalizes the rejection of the first born Israelites from serving in the Mishkan, in favor of the tribe of Levi: "God spoke to Moshe saying: Bring forth the tribe of Levi and present them to Aharon the priest, so that they may serve him.  They shall safeguard his trust and the trust of the entire congregation before the Tent of Meeting, to perform the service of the Mishkan.  They shall safeguard all of the vessels of the Tent of Meeting and keep the trust of Bnei Yisrael, to perform the service of the Mishkan.  You shall put the Levites at the disposal of Aharon and his sons - they are given over to him from Bnei Yisrael.  Appoint Aharon and his sons, and they shall guard their priesthood; a non-priest who serves shall die."


"God spoke to Moshe saying: "Behold I have separated the Levites from among the people of Israel in place of all of their first born; the Levites shall be mine.  For the first born had been Mine; from the day that I smote all of the first born in the land of Egypt I sanctified every first born in Israel to Me; they shall be Mine, I am God" (BeMidbar 3:5-13).



Understanding the Motives – the Grievance of the First Born


In other words, Korach's rebellion takes shape in the aftermath of the rejection of the first born from serving in the Mishkan.  Traditionally, the first born from among all of the Israelites had ministered before God, but after the transgression of the Golden Calf, in which they played a prominent role, they were rebuffed.  It will be recalled that as Moshe descended from the mountain and saw the revelers worshipping the Golden Calf, the tribe of Levi rallied at his call to arms, and executed God's vengeance (see Shemot 32:25-29).  In was in consequence of this act of loyalty, in contrast to the insufferable conduct of the first born, that the tribe of Levi secured for itself the special task of performing the service in the Mishkan. 


As Ibn Ezra reminds us, however, this substitution did not go unchallenged, for "it was a very enraging act and an affront to the non-believers to remove the first born from their position of service and to install Moshe's tribe in their place…" (commentary to BeMidbar 16:28).  This was so because the earlier structure ensured that many households in ancient Israel had direct involvement in the ongoing service.  The election of the Levites effectively recast the service as less 'democratic,' for now a particular group would have exclusive rights to ministering in the Mishkan.  Thus, Ibn Ezra explains, the most prominent participants in the rebellion were, one way or another, attempting to revoke the disqualification of the first born.  The people of Israel, themselves now distanced from direct access to the precincts of the Mishkan, therefore supported the rebellion enthusiastically.  Most curious of all, however, was the behavior of Korach himself.  Although he was a Levite and therefore a recipient of the latest privileges, he was apparently acting as a first born in his rejection of the new order.


In retrospect, of course, and with the hindsight of centuries, we may appreciate how the rejection of the first born from service had far-reaching positive consequences.  Had the service of the first born been sanctioned by tradition, the veneer of democratic participation by the people would have been maintained.  Most (but not all!) households in Israel would have had a representative serving in the Mishkan or Temple.  On the other hand, the much more primary (and overlooked) role of these ministers to God would have been undermined, for it was as impartial judges and teachers of the Torah that they were to excel (see Devarim 17:8-9, 33:8-11, etc).  Had the first born been appointed as teachers and judges, any possibility of their unbiased and unprejudiced involvement in the lives of the people would have been compromised, for family and clan ties would surely win the day over justice and truth.  The Levites, on the other hand, had no special attachment to any one segment of the people over another. 


In addition, their wholesale disqualification from having a tribal territory tended to discourage the rapacious land acquisitions that characterized the priesthood in other cultures.  It also had the effect of allowing the Levites to be uniformly distributed throughout the country, thus increasing their potential ability to raise the level of literacy of the people as a whole.  Such arrangements would have almost impossible to enforce with respect to the first born, who could not have been barred from owning land and instead compelled to wander far from tribal home and hearth.   


Unfortunately, Ibn Ezra does not explain why the rebellion of Korach is related out of chronological sequence.  When Ibn Ezra elsewhere invokes his exegetical principle of "the Torah not possessing a strict chronological arrangement," he nevertheless detects a didactic or pedagogic objective behind the Torah's narrating of events out of order.  Thus, for instance, although the Parasha describing Yitro's arrival at the Israelite encampment at Sinai is narrated before the events of the Revelation (see Shemot 18:1-27), Ibn Ezra maintains that Yitro in fact only joined the people of Israel after they heard God's voice (Shemot 20).  The section is therefore recorded out of order.  But, as Ibn Ezra there explains, the Torah does so with a clear aim: to emphatically contrast Yitro's act of compassion and kindness with the dastardly deed of Amalek that is recorded immediately prior to his visit (Shemot 17:8-16). 


We may speculate that here, perhaps, the Torah wanted us to evaluate Korach's act in light of the episode of the Spies that immediately precedes it.  It will be recalled that although those ten leaders had similarly represented the 'genuine interests of the people,' in the end they brought ruin upon them instead, by succumbing to their very personal sentiments of fear and inadequacy.  A true leader of the people is not driven by ambition or by the appetite for power, but only by the sincere desire to serve.   



The Commentary of the Ramban – the Incident of the Spies


The Ramban (13th century, Spain), in contrast, adopts a different approach.  Elsewhere in his commentary to the Torah, the Ramban is consistent in his rejection of the possibility of non-chronological sequencing.  The narratives of the Torah are in order, he maintains, unless we are specifically told otherwise by the Torah's employment of an introductory phrase indicating an event out of sequence (see for instance the passage in BeMidbar 9:1-5).  Therefore, the episode of Korach's rebellion must have taken place in the aftermath of last week's Parasha, namely the narrative of the Spies.  The Ramban explains: "This incident took place in the wilderness of Paran at Kadesh Barnea after the debacle of the Spies…While the people of Israel were in the wilderness of Sinai they experienced nothing negative, for even in consequence of the sin of the Golden Calf, relatively few Israelites perished, and Moshe succeeded in averting God's wrath by imploring His mercy for forty days and forty nights.  At that time, the people of Israel loved Moshe as themselves, and would not have tolerated any insurrection against his leadership.  Therefore Korach silently endured the election of Aharon to the priesthood and the appointment of Elizaphan, his (Korach's) junior cousin to the leadership of the clan of Kehat (see BeMidbar 3:30), and the first born tolerated the appointment of the tribe of Levi in their place." 


"However, after entering the wilderness of Paran, the people suffered a number of setbacks at Tav'era and Kivrot HaTa'ava. After the episode of the Spies, Moshe did not pray fervently on their behalf nor succeed in overturning the decree that the generation would perish in the wilderness and not enter the Land.  Then the people of Israel become embittered, and began to entertain thoughts that Moshe's leadership only brought trouble upon them.  It was then that Korach chose his moment to act, correctly surmising that his attempted coup would enjoy broad support among the masses."  The Ramban detects support for his commentary in the words of Datan and Aviram.  These two supporters of Korach sarcastically contrast the 'land (of Egypt) flowing with milk and honey' from which Moshe had led them out, to the barren wilderness in which the people now found themselves, despairing of ever entering the Land to secure 'a plot of field or vineyard.'  In other words, Datan and Aviram and their respective party were not so much angered by the election of the Levites, but rather by the dismal denouement that awaited them in the wilderness.


Thus, for the Ramban, Korach's rebellion might have been hatched from some of the same initial misgivings that Ibn Ezra detected, but those angry sentiments would have been sublimated and eventually overcome if not for the incident of the Spies.  The disappointment, anguish, and despair that the people experienced after God's decree of death in the wilderness is sealed, however, was the flash point that caused Korach's smoldering defiance to explode.


In either case, whether we adopt the view of the Ibn Ezra or that of the Ramban, the conduct of Korach the ringleader was singularly inexcusable. Gathering around himself an assorted collection of aggrieved parties, Korach launches his personal crusade of securing the leadership of the clan of Kehat and the priesthood, under the guise of representing the broader interests of the people.  In this, he resembles all polished demagogues, who are able to cleverly conceal their own personal ambitions and instead present themselves as sincere champions of the masses.


Shabbat Shalom

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