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Who May Lead the People of God?

  • Who May Lead the People of God?

    Korach, Numbers 16:1−18:32
D'var Torah By: 

In this week's parashah, we learn about the uprising of 250 Israelites, led by Korah, Abiram, On, and Dathan, who are dissatisfied with the structure of the fledgling nation of Israel. Citing an argument worthy of the Priestly Code (Leviticus 17-27), the rebels state: "For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst" (Numbers 16:3). In other words: What makes you, Moses and Aaron, any better than us? At first, this appears to be a single rebellion, however, on further inspection it can be seen as two (or more) rebellions woven together.1 We have one conflict within the Levites, led by Korah against Moses and Aaron, and another between the Reubenites and Moses. We know this from Moses's bifurcated response to the rebels. He first addresses Korah and the Levites regarding Aaron's position as priest (Numbers 16:4-11). Next Moses addresses Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16:12-14), after which he again talks to Korah and his cohort, and then again to Dathan and company.2 Why weave two narratives together? It may be a simple redactional choice to keep rebellion narratives together. A more interesting issue is what motivated the rebellions.

We can answer this query with a review of the ancestral trees of the Levites and the Reubenites. Levi had three sons: Merari, Gershon, and Kohath. Kohath in turn had four sons, Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. The line of Levi as a whole was tasked with attending the Tabernacle. However, God picked Amram's sons, Moses and Aaron, to lead Israel. Furthermore, God designated Aaron's family to be priests. To the rest of the Levites (those who come from the lines of Aaron's uncles and great uncles) God gave task of serving the Aaronide priesthood and maintaining the Tabernacle. Family history makes it clear enough why Korah is rebelling: he wants to know why he cannot have some of the prestige belonging to the priesthood. After all, he is from the same bloodline as Aaron.

Dathan, Abiram, and On, on the other hand, belong to the Reubenite clan. Reuben was Jacob's first-born son and thus is the natural-born leader. Taking this into account, we see that the Reubenites are upset because they think they, as descendants of the first-born, should be leading Israel.

Rebellions against Moses and Aaron are not anything new for the course of the wilderness wanderings. We see, time and time again, the congregation of Israel rising up with a three-part complaint: life in the wilderness is horrible, you have brought us here to die, and finally, we were better off in Egypt (see Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 20:1-13; 21:4-9). Notably, in these rebellions, the entire congregation is bemoaning the state of life in the wilderness. The rebellion of Korah and company is set apart by the fact they are rebelling not against their situation, but against the people in charge of the situation. They are not asking to get out of the wilderness; rather they are demanding a change in leadership. Moreover, the rebellion of Korah and others is set apart by the length allotted to the rebellion and its aftermath-two whole chapters.

Why has the rebellion in this portion come to be so important and merit so much textual space? The most obvious answer is that it upholds the position of Moses and Aaron, and reinforces their chosen status. By causing the rebellious families to be consumed either by fire or earth, God sets a precedent. We may ask ourselves then, what group of people would be interested in preserving such a narrative? I would suggest that the Zadokites are a plausible answer.

Under Davidic dynasty, the Zadokite family, who claim to be descendants of Aaron, became the royal priesthood (II Samuel 8:15-18). The Zadokites, however, seem to appear out of nowhere. Scholars attest that they are not Aaronides or Levites, but outsiders serving in the Temple.3 Later, in I Chronicles 5:27-36 and Ezra 7:1-4, we find an attempt to link the Zadokites to Aaron's lineage. Of course, this is not surprising, for the Chronicler focuses his energies on retelling a "clean" version David's history. After the split of the monarchy, Zadokites remained priests in Judah. At the same time, the Levites were priests in the north, in Israel. Needing a way to legitimize their place in the priesthood, scholars have suggested that at times the Zadokites dipped their redactional finger in the text to smear the Levite's name.4 I would suggest this could be one such instance.

Support of this kind can be found in the composite nature of the rebellion(s) in our parashah, in Numbers 16-17. Not only Levites, but also Reubenites revolt, and both parties are punished. Part of the Zadokites' agenda was to legitimize their position. Yet, after the split of the united monarchy, another part of their agenda was to demonstrate that Solomon was the only legitimate king. We know this because God chose David's line, and David's line comes from Judah. In Genesis 49:10, the blessing given to Judah, not Reuben, says: "The staff shall not depart from Judah, nor the scepter from between his legs." It is the fourth-born of Jacob, not the first-born, who obtains the right to rule. Thus, the rebellion of the Reubenites in Numbers 16 need not be read not as a rebellion against Mosaic leadership, but as a veiled polemic against those questioning the rightful reign of Solomon as ruler of the people of Israel. By the same token, the rebellion of Korah can be understood as a challenge to the Levites ministering in the Northern Kingdom.

On a final note, we mentioned above that the two rebellions may have been combined into one to keep rebellion narratives together. However, in light of subsequent discussion, it appears that the rebellions may have been combined to strengthen the punch of the Zadokite polemic.

At the heart of these polemics is the question, "who may lead the people of God?" Even today, in considering various denominations, schools of thought, and modes of practice, choosing a community of worship and its leadership can be daunting. While the Bible offers many different kinds of leadership models, the key element in each one is a person "after [His] God's own heart" (I Samuel 13:14).5

  1. Jacob Milgrom, JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, [Philadelphia: JPS, 1990], p. 129
  2. See also, Baruch Levine, The Anchor Bible: Numbers (New York: Doubleday, 1993), pp.405-06
  3. H. H. Rowley, "Zadok and Nehushtan," Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 58, no. 2 (June 1939), pp. 113-141; Christian E. Hauer, Jr.,"Who Was Zadok?" Journal of Biblical Literature , vol. 82, no. 1 (March 1963), pp. 89-94; Saul Olyan, "Zadok's Origins and the Tribal Politics of David," Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 101, no. 2 (June, 1982), pp. 177-193
  4. Moses Aberbach, Leivy Smolar, "Aaron, Jeroboam, and the Golden Calves," Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 86, no. 2 (June, 1967), pp. 129-140
  5. S. Geller, "Who May Rule the People of God?" ed., J. Wertheimer, Jewish Religious Leadership: Image and Reality, vol. 1, JTS 2004 pp. 3-16

Kristine Garroway received her Ph.D. from HUC-Cincinnati in 2009 and recently joined the faculty of HUC-JIR Los Angeles as visiting assistant professor of Hebrew Bible. Her research concentrates on children in the ancient Near East and the Deuteronomistic Histories.

Learning from Korah
Davar Acher By: 
Leah Hochman

"When Moses heard this, he fell on his face" (Numbers 16:4). It is a surprising response to the charges levied by Korah and the others. Actually, there is a lot of falling on one's face these days: last week, Moses and Aaron reacted similarly when the Israelites assumed the worst after the spies' initial report of Canaan (Numbers 14:5).

This week, they do it twice more: when they appeal to God not to annihilate all the Israelites for Korah's hubris (Numbers 16:22) and when the Israelites blame them for the destruction of those who joined Korah (Numbers 17:10). (Here is the spoiler: they will do it again next week in Parashat Chukat [Numbers 20:6]). Every time the Israelites allow their anxiety about the future to cloud their belief and trust in God, every time the Israelites choose to forget that God is in charge, every time they accuse Moses and Aaron of misconduct, the brothers prostrate themselves and pray on Israel's behalf. Twice in this parashah, they succeed in talking God off the ledge. (The doubling is a sure echo of the two narratives woven together.) Faithless (read: scared) and feckless (read: disoriented), the Israelites seem rarely able to see the forest through the trees. Yet, despite how much each has sacrificed in the service of God neither Moses nor Aaron hesitates to humble himself for the People.

When Moses falls down after the first confrontation instigated by Korah, he does so not out of astonishment or aggravation but because he recognizes immediately the true nature of the challenge: Korah thinks he is disputing the leadership of the People but Moses knows he is defying God. Before responding, Moses prays for Korah's protection. It is a remarkably unselfish act. And it makes me wonder, how often am I that generous when challenged or confronted? On whose behalf should I advocate? For whom do I pray?

Leah Hochman, Ph. D., is the director of the Louchheim School for Judaic Studies and
Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

6/18/2012
Topics: 
Reference Materials: 

Korach, Numbers 16:1–18:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,127–1,140; Revised Edition, pp. 1,001 - 1,017
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 893–914