Even if you had brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, and given us possession of fields and vineyards, should you gouge out the eyes of those involved? We will not go up!”
The Torah is like a river with a strong undercurrent that unites its seemingly independent parts to produce a consistent, central theme. Each parashah leads into the next like a logical train of thought ensuring that juxtaposed details and narratives, as unrelated as they may seem, are actually more related than they appear. That is why Yeshua and the apostles were readily able to identify the Torah’s overarching theme:
In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets (Mat. 7:12)
Ideally speaking, the thread that weaves each Torah portion to the next also accompanies us as we go about our business during the week. Each parashah is divided into seven aliyahs, corresponding to the seven days of the week. Theoretically, it is possible to enter each Shabbat in sync with the rhythm and pulse of the Torah’s themes for a given week. As participants “in the world but not of it,” it is important to establish regular times of Torah study. A practical way to achieve this is to read one aliyah, or one section, of the Torah portion each day.
This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32) which is named after the individual responsible for instigating the most famous insurrection against Moses and Aaron. According to the narrative, Korach, a distinguished priest from the foremost Levitical family of the Koathites, accuses Moses of establishing himself as the supreme leader in Israel and practicing nepotism by appointing his brother, Aaron, as Israel’s high priest. Korach’s argument is simple: “All Israel is holy, and God is among them,” so Moses shouldn’t exalt himself above the LORD’s assembly (Numbers 16:3).
Not to be outdone, two Reubenites from an adjacent camp, Dathan and Abiram, capitalize on the crisis and level their own grievance against Moses, accusing the supposed self-appointed leader of bringing the Israelites out of Egypt only to exterminate them in the desert (Numbers 16:12-14). Their argument is consistent with the national disapproval we read about in last week’s portion of the ordeal of the Twelve Spies, who discouraged the people with an evil report and in turn, refused to ascend to the Promised Land. This week, Dathan and Abiram protest:
Even if you had brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, and given us possession of fields and vineyards, should you gouge out the eyes of those involved? We will not go up!” (Num. 16:14)
Together with Korach, Dathan, and Abiram insight 250 of Israel’s leaders to square off against Moses by approaching the Tabernacle with their own incense and censers (Numbers 16-19). In the end, Moses is vindicated by God’s appearance, the rebellion is squashed, and the ground opens to swallow Korach, as well as Dathan and Abiram and their families, and their entire possessions.
Lessons abound in Parshat Korach about communal strife and personal conduct when dealing with a dispute. And for that reason, it is easy to see why Parashat Korach has been read as an admonition for centuries. As a matter of fact, the New Testament provides a stark warning about the subversive division in the body of Messiah and offers Korach as an example to avoid:
Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion. (Jude 1:10-11)
It is apparent that Korach’s example is intended to serve as an everlasting reminder for all believers. Whatever Korah did was not good, and disciples of Yeshua still have to be on guard against such divisive behavior even today! That is why Jude writes in earlier verses:
Because certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you (v. 4)… these dreamers defile the flesh, reject authority, and speak evil of dignitaries (v. 8)… [they] speak evil of whatever they do not know; and whatever they know naturally, like brute beasts, in these things they corrupt themselves (v. 10).
These testimonies and more are among the many reasons Korach is remembered, and his insurrection studied as an admonition for the ages. However, as unholy as this individual may seem, we must remember that there is an overall theme that is woven into each verse of the Torah – a motif so strong that the thematic link between the first verse of a parashah (which often contains a word representing the title), and the last verse is stronger than the end of any one portion and the beginning of the next. That leads us to consider the legacy of Korach: How is it appropriate that an entire Torah portion is named after him? And if the central theme of the Torah portion is Korach, then what does that teach us about the bulk of our parashah which largely seems to have nothing to do with him?
The Memory of Korach
After thwarting the insurrection, God confirms Aaron in the priesthood and provides additional legislation regarding priestly and Levitical privileges and responsibilities. In chapter 17, we read the famous passage where God instructs the twelve leaders of the tribes of Israel to write their names on their staff and to place them before the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle. Overnight, Aaron’s staff – which represented the tribe of Levi – budded, blossomed, and produced almonds. Thus, confirming God’s selection.
Legends abound concerning the Rod of Aaron, and the Torah mentions that after the other eleven staffs were removed, Aaron’s staff was returned to the Tabernacle and placed before the Ark as a warning against the rebels (Num. 17:25). The Book of Hebrews asserts that the Staff of Aaron was placed inside the Ark itself, along with a golden pot of manna and the tablets of the covenant (Heb. 9:4). The midrashic traditions attest to its redemptive and messianic qualities, explaining that the same staff was given as a scepter to the Davidic kings until the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and that although it has since been lost, it will be returned again to king Messiah upon his coming as a symbol of his authority over the wicked.
On the surface, it would appear that none of these things have anything to do with Korach; however, because this section of Scripture is included in the pericope dealing with Korach, we know that somehow this is all related to his legacy.
The Memory of the Righteous
The Book of Proverbs assures us of the fate of the ungodly and the longevity of the memory of the righteous:
The name of the righteous is invoked in blessing, But the name of the wicked will rot (Prov. 10:7).
We take this to mean that the name of the wicked will be forgotten or blotted out. As a matter of fact, Talmudic tradition teaches, “Their names shall decay for we do not mention (the wicked) by name.” This principle is most notably demonstrated in the communal reading of the Megillah (Scroll of Esther) each year at Purim, where it is customary to drown out the mention of Haman’s name with boos. If the same principle were justly applied to Korach, it would seem counterintuitive to recall an entire section of Scripture by his name.
It is notable that there is no indication of righteousness in Korach’s name itself. Nevertheless, his name lives on in biblical memory - and naming a Torah portion after him is only the tip of the iceberg!
Korach’s name and legacy are perpetuated in many places throughout Scripture, primarily through the lives of his children. This should make us pause and consider: Didn’t the ground swallow up all the rebels and their children? That was certainly true of Dathan and Abiram, but that was not the fate of Korach’s descendants (Num. 16:27).
In fact, a number of the compositions in the Book of Psalms are attributed to his sons (Ps. chs. 42-49, 84, 85, 87, 88). Elsewhere we learn that Korach merited to be a forerunner to the prophet Samuel (1 Chr. 6:3-15), one of Israel’s most notable prophets. Considering that the majority of the Psalms are attributed to King David and the sons of Korach, not to mention that the prophet who would ultimately anoint David as Israel’s king is Korach’s direct descendant, it is alarming that Korach’s name and King David are even mentioned in the same breath! But they are, and favorably so. These details could lead one to speculate that perhaps Korach was not the villain that he would appear to be.
Make no mistake, there is no saving grace for Korach although he had the privilege of fathering righteous children. Whereas his progeny repented, Korach did not. Nevertheless, the fact that Korach’s punishment did not extend to his children may be indicative of his intentions. While his judgment was misguided, he wasn’t entirely insincere whereas Dathan and Abiram actively sought out a pretense to oppose Moses.
Korach’s dispute is accompanied by several peculiarities. On the one hand, it appears that he was set against the institution of the priesthood itself: “Everyone is holy and God is among them.” On the other hand, it is apparent that Korach and his followers sought the priesthood for themselves, as Moses explicitly states:
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, to perform the duties of the LORD’s tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too? (vv. 9-10)
In truth, Korach was not so double minded and he was much more calculated than he appears. As a wealthy and educated leader of the Koathite family, he held a prestigious role as the foremost handler of the Tabernacle’s sacred objects (Num. 4:4-20). Having experience and proximity to the holiest items in the Sanctuary, he was more than knowledgeable in the facilitation of the Temple service. The fact that he was able to persuade a host of influential leaders and fund the distribution of 250 incense censers is also a testament to his wealth and charisma. But he was not eligible because God entrusted the office to Aaron and his descendants. It is possible that Korach sincerely believed that he was justified in his cause, that he would elevate the priestly office, and that he alone would be vindicated before God in the trial of the accusers. Whatever the case, it is apparent from his own words that Korach opposed Moses and questioned his qualifications to hold executive authority. It is also apparent from Moses’ rebuttal that Korach sought the office of High Priest for himself.
In the ancient Aramaic translation of Numbers 16:1, the opening words of our Torah portion, the phrase, “Korach took,” is translated as “Korach divided” (Targum Onkelos). To understand the intent behind the translation we must first comprehend that there are distinctions among the various sacred roles within the social fabric of Israel: For example, the primary difference between the kohanim (priests) and commoners was that the kohanim were withdrawn from the secular world and totally occupied with maintaining the sanctity of their office. This is especially true of the Kohen Gadol (High priest) to whom Korach’s accusation was levied. Concerning the High Priest, the Torah says the following:
He shall not go outside the sanctuary and profane the sanctuary of his God, for upon him is the distinction of the anointing oil of his God… (Lev. 21:12).
The Kohen Gadol had a specific vocation and carried a level of personal sanctity that did not allow him to mingle with the common people during his service. Korach certainly had this distinction in mind when he contended, “Why do you [Moses] elevate yourself above the people?”
However, there is one important aspect of the High Priest’s function that Korach overlooked: Just because Aaron was not permitted to leave the sanctuary and associate with the people did not mean that he was uninvolved in their lives. As a matter of fact, we read an inspiring account of Aaron’s service as he provides a remedy for the accusers who are dying as a result of their confrontational service:
Aaron took it, as Moses had ordered, and ran to the midst of the community, where the plague had begun among the people. He put on the incense and made atonement for the people; he stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked (Num. 16:47-48).”
Contrary to Korach’s assessment, Aaron and every subsequent High Priest carried a unique burden in how they functioned on behalf of the people. As intercessors and mediators before God on the people’s behalf, they figuratively and quite literally stood between the living and the dead. Part of the responsibility of Kohen Gadol was to draw the people up to his own level of holiness by inspiring them, sanctifying them, and elevating them through the example of his personal conduct. However, Korach did not perceive this responsibility in correspondence to the unlimited potential of the nation. He only saw the distinction and the separation between priest and nation.
When studied in this light, it is easy to see the inconsistency in Korach’s claim. Part of his argument was true, “all Israel is holy,” as Scripture states concerning her: “but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6).” However, Korach’s failure came as a result of his inability to see those distinct functions as a single entity, edifying each other and working together to sanctify God’s name in the world. Along those lines, the apostle Peter reminds us that despite our diversity and distinct callings, we are “being built into a spiritual house to be priests set apart for God to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to him through Yeshua the Messiah (1 Peter 2:5 CJB).”
Although part of Korach’s mistake was in assuming that the commoners had as much right and honor as the High Priest, the division he brought into the community had the effect of strengthening the office of the High Priest. In the end, we read about the budding of Aaron’s staff and the 24 priestly gifts that follow in chapters 17 and 18. As previously mentioned, these divine demonstrations produced a sign in Israel of Messianic proportions. Furthermore, its results and the midrashic and prophetic notion that Aaron’s rod should serve not only as affirmation of his priesthood, but also as the scepter of Israel’s monarchy, aligns well with the picture the Book of Hebrews paints about Yeshua as a messianic figure who ultimately unites Israel’s most sacred offices, just as Moses functioned for a time as Israel’s de facto king, prophet, and high priest (see Deut. 18:18).
Herein lies the connection between the first and last verses of our Torah portion. Although Korach represents division and the Torah represents ideals that strive for unity and mutual love, the union that Torah brings comes not in spite of, but through, the medium of division. Just as we see at Creation - the division of waters and the separation of light and darkness - these things precipitate the goodness and blessing that God showers on the earth. In the same way, Israel’s most sacred offices must come with distinction in order to find solidarity and fullness with the coming of the Messiah at the final redemption. The same can be said of Korach. His division was a precondition to strengthening the priestly covenant and securing its validation. Thus, the name of Korach, for better or for worse, is remembered in Scripture.