Part II Moses in Context: Parashat Korach (פרשת קורח) (Numbers 16:1 – 17:15)

We ended Part I of the discussion of the rebellion of Korach with a common depiction of Korach as a leader of rebellious Levite priests and Moses as the epitome of humility who is both a strong and wealthy political leader satisfied with his own portion and in need of no material support from the community. In addition, Moses has an exclusive conduit to God’s voice and orders. He is humble, in this interpretation of both humility and Moses. Why?

Because Moses is reluctant, a person neither seeking the limelight nor anxious to serve as a prophet. Neither does Moses measure himself against others but only against exacting divine standards. This is the main reason God chose Moses to be the political leader of the Israelites as well as being imbued with the responsibility or prophecy. Moses is humble because he is sought after rather than seeks to be God’s instrument. That is why he is chosen as the vehicle for God’s messages to the people of Israel ha-mashpili lir’ot – and why the Israelites follow and trust Moses. This is why Moses can face God and God can reveal Himself through the mediation of Moses.

I want to question this apologetic for the punishment of Korach, not initially by a close analysis of Korach, but by examining Moses in the overall context of the Book of Numbers to provide context and then, in tomorrow’s blog, with a close reading of one phrase to depict Moses in Parashat Korach.

Numbers, set during the forty years of wandering in the desert before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, begins with God’s command to Moses to conduct a census. By verse 47 of chapter 1 we learn that the Levite priests were not included in the census of the Israelites. One immediately wonders, why not count the Levites? Perhaps it was because they would not be a source of military personnel. Perhaps because they did not have to pay taxes as the royalty of the ancient Israelites. The Levites had higher and holier duties – attending to the care of the Tabernacle and the rituals of worship. In Chapter 3 we get another explanation. The Levites are akin to the first-born who are to be surrendered to the service of God.

More importantly, we encounter an apparent contradiction. I:47 commanded Moses not to count the Levites “by their ancestral tribe.” Chapter 3:5 records God’s instruction to, “Record the Levites by ancestral house and by clan, every male among them from the age of one month. The issue is not whether they are counted but how they are counted. While each adult male in every other tribe is recorded as an individual, the Levites are recorded hierarchically “by ancestral house and clan.” The Levites, unlike the other tribes, were given a hierarchical rather than an egalitarian structure beneath a singular elder.

In Numbers 5:12, Moses gets a very different set of commandments concerning how a woman was to be treated by a jealous husband whether justified or unjustified by that jealousy. The Levite priest administers the test to tell whether the woman “defiled” herself with someone other than her husband or did not by seeing whether she suffers from “the curse of adjuration,” a ceremony almost as magical as the duel of the frying pans. The test is designed to ferret out the truth in a somewhat angular version of how the problem was dealt with in Deuteronomy 22:13-21 in Parashat Ki Tetze which begins with a husband who grew tired of his wife and slandered her with a charge of sexual betrayal or that she fooled him and was not a virgin when he married her.

The issue in Deuteronomy was finding out if the husband was guilty of slander. In Numbers, the test is to find whether the woman betrayed her husband. We are thus introduced to a second major theme in Korach, not simply of hierarchical organization within a tribe, but a test of whether a woman defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband. The Israelites are the wife of the Lord.  The magical practice and test is different, but the issue is not; both narratives are about honouring one’s spouse, in Korach, by the Levites on the divine level.

The priests are organized differently than the other tribes. They are subject to a test as if they were females, a test of betrayal rather than of a test for males of slander. That is so they can fulfill their primary function – invoking the name of the Lord to bless the Israelites on behalf of God who is the only agent who, in the end, can bestow a sacred blessing, a blessing that will reveal the true face of God, or, if withheld, God’s turning his back on the Israelites and hiding his face. In each case, when the person fails the test, if a female, she will be subject to sagging thighs, breasts and belly, and, if a male, a frown or a droopy mouth rather than having a face “that is lifted up.”

Then comes the divine priestly benediction repeated in virtually every Jewish synagogue and recited by a Cohen, Birkat Kohanim.

6:24 May the Lord bless you and guard you. יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ

6:25 May the Lord’s face light upon you and be gracious to you.

יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ

6:26 May the Lord lift up his face unto you and give you peace.

יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

Thus, when the people brought their offerings to the Temple, they were given to the Levites in accordance with the various types of service they had been assigned in the hierarchy. Given their functions, the Levites had to be cleansed by Moses. In Numbers 8:6-7.

 קַח, אֶת-הַלְוִיִּם, מִתּוֹךְ, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְטִהַרְתָּ, אֹתָם. 6 ‘Take the Levites from among the children of Israel, and cleanse them.
ז  וְכֹה-תַעֲשֶׂה לָהֶם לְטַהֲרָם, הַזֵּה עֲלֵיהֶם מֵי חַטָּאת; וְהֶעֱבִירוּ תַעַר עַל-כָּל-בְּשָׂרָם, וְכִבְּסוּ בִגְדֵיהֶם וְהִטֶּהָרוּ. 7 And thus shalt thou do unto them, to cleanse them: sprinkle the water of purification upon them, and let them cause a razor to pass over all their flesh, and let them wash their clothes, and cleanse themselves.

As a result, Aaron was assigned the responsibility of making expiation for them to cleanse them (Numbers 8:21) This was their graduation ceremony at which they received their degrees.

The attention then shifts to the average Israelite and the sacrifices he must make, particularly on Passover. (Numbers 9-10) Only when all these elements were in place could the Israelites set out on their journey from the wilderness. Then Moses is challenged, first by his own brother Aaron and his sister Miriam for marrying a Cushite woman. (Numbers 12:1) They also made a claim that the Lord also spoke to them. God intervenes and chastises the two siblings, extolling Moses for his humility and insisting that it is only with Moses that God speaks face-to-face.

א  וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה, עַל-אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח:  כִּי-אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית, לָקָח. 1 And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.
ב  וַיֹּאמְרוּ, הֲרַק אַךְ-בְּמֹשֶׁה דִּבֶּר יְהוָה–הֲלֹא, גַּם-בָּנוּ דִבֵּר; וַיִּשְׁמַע, יְהוָה. 2 And they said: ‘Hath the LORD indeed spoken only with Moses? Hath He not spoken also with us?’ And the LORD heard it.–
ג  וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה, עָנָו מְאֹד–מִכֹּל, הָאָדָם, אֲשֶׁר, עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.  {ס} 3 Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.– {S}
ד  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה פִּתְאֹם, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל-מִרְיָם, צְאוּ שְׁלָשְׁתְּכֶם, אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; וַיֵּצְאוּ, שְׁלָשְׁתָּם. 4 And the LORD spoke suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam: ‘Come out ye three unto the tent of meeting.’ And they three came out.
ה  וַיֵּרֶד יְהוָה בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן, וַיַּעֲמֹד פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל; וַיִּקְרָא אַהֲרֹן וּמִרְיָם, וַיֵּצְאוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם. 5 And the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the door of the Tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forth.
ו  וַיֹּאמֶר, שִׁמְעוּ-נָא דְבָרָי; אִם-יִהְיֶה, נְבִיאֲכֶם–יְהוָה בַּמַּרְאָה אֵלָיו אֶתְוַדָּע, בַּחֲלוֹם אֲדַבֶּר-בּוֹ. 6 And He said: ‘Hear now My words: if there be a prophet among you, I the LORD do make Myself known unto him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream.
ז  לֹא-כֵן, עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה:  בְּכָל-בֵּיתִי, נֶאֱמָן הוּא. 7 My servant Moses is not so; he is trusted in all My house;
ח  פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר-בּוֹ, וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת, וּתְמֻנַת יְהוָה, יַבִּיט; וּמַדּוּעַ לֹא יְרֵאתֶם, לְדַבֵּר בְּעַבְדִּי בְמֹשֶׁה. 8 with him do I speak mouth to mouth, even manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the LORD doth he behold; wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?’

It is only then that we hear the story of the twelve scouts, leaders from the different tribes, sent out to spy on the Promised Land and to report back to Moses. Ten are pessimistic. Two are not. Moses is upset at the report of the pessimists who also affirmed that the land indeed flowed with milk and honey, but warned that the people were powerful and the cities fortified. For their intelligence, they are accused of “false news,” of spreading calumnies among the Israelites, exaggerating the size of the inhabitants and their ruthlessness.

The news demoralized the Israelites. As Moses and Aaron humbled themselves by letting their faces fall to the ground as is the custom among Muslims until this day, the two optimists, Joshua and Caleb, asked that they trust the Lord to deliver this land flowing with milk and honey to them. In Numbers 14:9 they are told that conquest will only be possible if they do not rebel against the Lord and set aside their fears of the inhabitants. When the Israelites rose up to pelt them, the Lord intervened, appeared in the mist of the people and accused the Israelites directly of spurning Him. The morale and determination of the Israelites would be a test of the power of the Lord and of His ability to deliver what He promised. Moses intervenes with God and defends the people from God’s wrath for their lack of faith.

Thus, the rebellion of Aaron and Miriam against Moses is deflected. The rebellion of the people against Moses’ plan to conquer the land in accord with God’s promise is deflected. And God tells Moses how the people are to offer sacrifices to Him once they enter the land. It is in the context of the narrative that the so-called rebellion of Korach takes place. It is against this background that the protest of Korach has to be explicated.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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