Hebrew Insights into Parashat Korach – Bamidbar (Numbers) 16 – 17
This week's Parasha features a central episode in the forty-year wilderness journey, the rebellion of Korach (Korah), Da’tan (Dathan), Aviram (Abiram), and On, and 250 other leaders, "… princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown" who … assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron…" (Num.16:2, 3). The above quotes, as well as the language employed in the rest of the discourse between the malcontents and Moshe, contain words and expressions which we have already encountered elsewhere. The usage of the very same words (or ones emanating from the same roots) but in different contexts, as well as the protagonists' method of echoing each other's expressions, intensify and add color and poignancy to the characters and the issues at hand.
The "princes," with whom we commence the study, are called here "nesi'im" ("nasi" - singular, of the root n.s.a, meaning to "lift up"), just as were the leaders in Parashat Nasso (Num. 4:21-7). In the latter we noted that "nasso," "lifting, carrying, raising," also means "to bear" and in 5:31 (of the same Parasha) it was used as the "bearing of sin" (in reference to "being guilty"). However, the verb "bearing" may also indicate the bearing of another's sin in a sense of forgiveness, as is seen in Parashat Ki Tissa (whose title also means "lifting", in that case being connected to the census of the People). In the said Parasha (Ex. 32:32), Moshe pleaded with YHVH on behalf of the people, in the wake of the Golden Calf episode, saying, "If you will forgive…"(or literally "bear"), in Hebrew: "eem tissa." In Bamidbar (Numbers) 11:11,12 (Parashat B'ha'alotcha) Moshe complains about "bearing" and "carrying" the people of Yisrael. “…You lay the burden (massa) of all this people upon me. Have I conceived this people? Did I bring them forth, that You should say to me, carry them (“sa'e'hu”) in your bosom like a nursing father carries (“yissa”) the sucking child, to the land which You swore to their fathers?" (Italics added). However, in spite of his momentary 'blowing of steam,' Moshe did in fact bear and carry the people. It was this very thing which accorded him the right to be a "nassi," one who is "lifted up." According to the words uttered by Yeshua, "whoever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant, and whoever desires to be chief among you, let him be your servant; even as the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve…" (Mat. 20:26, 27). In chapter 18 of our Parasha, the priests are told to bear – “tis'ou” - the iniquity of the sanctuary, as well as the iniquity of the priesthood (ref. v.1). "Nesi'im," therefore, aside from being lifted up, are also to be in a position of "bearing" and "carrying," a point which was not comprehended by the rebelling leaders, whose motivation and attitudes were entirely different.
Korach and company are also described here as "elect men of the assembly" (ref. above), or "k'ru'ey mo'ed." In Parashat Emor (Lev. 23:2-4) we recognized that the root k.r.a is to “call" and that "mikra" means "a called (out) assembly, a congregation, or a convocation". Thus, these leaders were not only "lifted up," but were also honored by being "called out" (translated here "elect"). However, their "calling" does not stop there. They are also the "called out" of the "mo'ed," which is translated "assembly", but if we refer again to Va’yikra (Leviticus) 23 we see that "mo’ed” stems from the root y.a'a.d (yod, ayin, dalet) and means "appoint, design, or designate." Thus YHVH's special appointments, His feasts, are called "mo'adim," plural, and "mo'ed,” singular. We also noted there that the people who are appointed and designated are collectively called "edah," of the very same root. Thus the "nesi'im" are the "princes of the congregation," which is the "edah", or the "appointed assembly." How ironic that these "lifted up" individuals of the "appointed assembly," who have been "called," or "singled out," by "appointment" for special "YHVH-designated" occasions, and who are also men of renown ("shem", i.e. "name"), are the very ones now "gathered… against Moshe and A'haron" (v. 3)! These men did not understand that it was not for vainglory that they had been raised up. Although described as "men of name" (translated "renown"), it was not their own names that were to be lifted, but the name of the One who called and appointed them for His name's sake. Let us take note, though, that in spite of their flagrant behavior their "company" (v. 5, 11, 16, 21) is still termed here "eda" which is, as mentioned, "an appointed assembly".
These "nesi'im," in their blinded fury and haughtiness decry YHVH's leaders of choice and dare challenge them saying: "Why do you lift yourselves up [“tit'nas'u”] above the congregation of YHVH?" (v. 3b italics added). Prior to that they maintain: "This is too much ["rav"] for you, since all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and YHVH is among them" (16: 3a literal translation, italics added). Moshe's initial response to these words is to fall on his face, after which he says: "In the morning YHVH will show who are His, and him who is holy, and will cause him to come near to Him; even him whom He has chosen, He will cause to come near to Him. Do this, take fire-pans, Korah and all his company, and put fire in them, and put incense in them before YHVH tomorrow. And it shall be the man whom YHVH chooses, he shall be holy. This is too much ["rav", again] for you, sons of Levi!” (16:5-7 literal translation, italics added). "This is too much for you" - "rav la'chem" - is the expression employed by the rebels. Moshe was not unaware of their every word, and answered them tit for tat. As he continues he says: "Is it a small ("m'at", opposite of "rav") thing to you that the Elohim of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near Himself to do the service of the tabernacle of YHVH and to stand before the congregation to minister to them? And He has brought you near…" (v. 9, 10, italics added). Notice above (v. 5), Moshe claims that the one whom YHVH chooses, that one "He will bring near" (k.r.v, the same root as "offering" or "sacrifice"), and now he states that they have already been brought near by their very position. But not being satisfied with their lot, they are coveting the priesthood too, "therefore you and all your company are gathered against YHVH" (v. 11, italics). The "company," once more, is "eda," while "gathering against" is "no'adim", of the same root - y.a’a.d - which, as we have seen means "appointed." Thus, those who used to take part in YHVH's appointed congregation, feasts and service, are now gathered for another 'appointment,' this time engendered by their evil and rebellious intent against YHVH's servants, but in so doing, they are actually 'ganging up' against YHVH Himself.
The sad story continues… Again, notice the wording, "and Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab. And they said, 'we will not come up. Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land that flows with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but must you also seize dominion over us?'" (16:12, 13 italics added). In their defiance, Da’tan and Aviram are determined to not "come up" ("na'aleh"), while this is followed by their accusation, "is it a small thing…" – ham'at" - echoing Moshe's words in verse 9, "is it a small thing to you that the Elohim of Israel…?" Their excuse for "not going up" (“lo na’alea”) is that it was Moshe who "brought them up" ("he'e'li'tanu", of the root for “going up") from "a land flowing with milk and honey," and has not brought them into "a land flowing with milk and honey" as promised (v. 14; Ex. 3:8). In this way, these two are responsible for twisting YHVH's promises and substituting truth for a lie by turning the land of their slavery and bondage into a dreamland of the past, while their supposed grim present holds no promises for the future. They choose to make their point by not only repeating and twisting Moshe’s own words, but also by employing the verb for “going/bringing up” (of the root a.l.h) in a way that imbues their statement with thick sarcasm. They maintain that the purpose for having been "brought up" to the desert was in order to "cause them to die," and so that Moshe could "dominate them with dominion" – tis’ta'rer hista'rer." "Sar" is the root of "dominion," while it also constitutes another word for "prince," from whence the term "Prince of Peace" ("Sar Shalom") is derived, as well as the name Sarah and Yisrael. They seal their harangue by accusing Moshe of not having given them "inheritance in fields and vineyards," adding: "Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up ["lo na'aleh", again]" (v. 14, italics added). Their ultimate end, of "descending/going down alive into Sheol" (v. 30) highlights with an eerie light their repeated refusal to “go up".
Moshe's next comment, "I have not taken one donkey from them, neither have I hurt one of them" (v. 15) is reminiscent of Shmu'el's soliloquy in Shmu’el Alef (1st Samuel) 12:3: "Whose ox have I taken? Or whose donkey have I taken? Or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed?" The accusations hurled against Moshe are in stark contrast to his description in last week's Parashat B'ha'alotcha. Miriam and A'ha'ron's slandering against their brother was met there by the words: "Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all the men on the face of the earth" (Num. 12:3). In light of this statement, the present malicious words against him seem even more unjust and deplorable.
Now Moshe is angry - "(va)yichar le-Moshe"! (v. 15). Last week we encountered the same term for anger, which was appended to nose, and thus it was the “burning of/in the nose.” Moshe's anger here is followed by the injunction to the band of rebels to “light up” incense on their fire pans and to let YHVH judge them and the situation. YHVH commands Moshe and A'ha'ron to separate themselves from this "eda" (congregation, assembly), so that the latter may be "consumed" or "devoured" as by fire. Finally, after Korach, Da’tan and Aviram, and their entire company is swallowed up, "a fire came forth from YHVH and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who offered incense" (16:35, literal translation, italics added).
In verse 9 we read that the Elohim of Yisrael had separated Korach and his band in order to "bring you near Himself to do the service of the tabernacle." "Separated" there was "hivdil," being of the root b.d.l (bet, dalet, lamed), "to divide, separate, set apart, exclude, and single out." Later on, before punishment is meted out to this group, YHVH tells Moshe and A’ha'ron to "separate" themselves from “this congregation" (v. 21). There too the root b.d.l is used ("hibadlu"). Thus, when those who have been called and separated out by YHVH, according to His order and method of selection, oppose His ways they become separated and set apart again from the rest of the community, but this time for reproof of the severest kind. Further, YHVH says to the congregation (of Yisrael): "Turn away from the tents of these wicked men" (v. 26). "Turn away" is "suru," of the root "sur" (samech, vav, resh), whereas in verse 15 Moshe asks YHVH to “not turn" to these men's offerings, using the root panoh (of which we get "panim – face”). We have dealt with "p.n.h" a number of times, and found that it indicates a "turning toward," in contrast to "sur" which is a "turning away from." A "sorer" (again, of the root “sur”) is a stubborn rebel (e.g. Deut. 21:18,20) – a description quite appropriate of these 250 and some individuals.
Interestingly, the bronze fire pans used by the sinners were to be salvaged from the fire, and were to be reshaped and made into plates for covering the altar, thus rendering these objects sanctified. This was to be a visible sign and a warning for the Children of Yisrael, so that in the future no one who was not of the seed of A'ha'ron would attempt again to “come near” and offer incense before YHVH, “so that he may not be as Korah and as his company” (v. 40).
Only one day goes by and the people begin to complain again, saying to Moshe and A’haron: "You have brought death [“ha'mitem”] on the people of YHVH" (v. 41, italics added), thus echoing the words of Da’tan and Aviram to Moshe in verse 13 ("you have brought us up here… to cause us to die - le'hamitenu"). In both cases the root is "ma'vet", that is, “death” (m.v.t - mem, vav, tav). Once again the cloud covers the Tent of Meeting and the glory of YHVH appears (ref. v. 42), much like the description in verse 19, where the same thing took place before Korach and company. This time YHVH admonishes Moshe (and A'ha'ron) to stand back, as He is about to “consume” the congregation, using the very same verb which we encountered above (in verse 21). Moshe and A'ah'ron fall on their faces, as they did in the episode of the rebels (cf. V. 22), and what starts out as a plague is halted by A'ha'ron's action of kindling the incense on fire pans, with fire obtained from the altar. He then runs through the camp, holding on to the fire pans to "make an atonement… for wrath has gone out from YHVH" (v. 46), and thus halts the plague. The "wrath" described here is termed "ketzef", k.tz.f. (kof, tzadi, fey), which is also found in verse 22, when Moshe and A'ah'ron display their concern for the entire congregation of Yisrael upon the mutiny of Korach and his band, saying: "Shall one man sin and will You be angry [“tiktzof”] with all the congregation?" (Italics added). Thus, the entire congregation of Yisrael, far from learning the lesson displayed before them the previous day re-enacts this unfortunate scenario.
Following the major affront dealt to the office of the priesthood and the roles of the Levites, the rest of the Parasha is devoted to reconfirming their uniqueness, by the blossoming of A'ha'ron's rod which is the ultimate evidence, witness, and testimony of YHVH's choice. It was for this reasons that another title is being accorded here to the Tent of Meeting. Ohel Ha’edut, that is, Tent of the Testimony/Witness, replaces its usual title of Ohel Mo’ed (17:8). A female witness happens to be “eda,” sounding the same as the word for “band or congregation” employed so often in our Parasha. This may be subtly pointing out to the (poor) ‘testimony’ of the assembly “eda,” as compared to YHVH’s true witnesses, represented by the Tent of the Testimony (Ohel Ha’edut).
A’haron’s dead rod "had budded and had brought forth buds, and had bloomed blossoms, and had yielded almonds" (17:8); A miracle of life sprouting out of death – death that has been so characteristic of these last episodes - has taken place in front of the entire nation. As we have already noted (in Parashat Trumah, Ex. 25:31-40), almond is "sha'ked," which is of the root sh.k.d (shin, kof. dalet) meaning to “watch and to be diligent." From the famous passage in Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) 1:11,12 we learn of YHVH's watchful determination to perform His word. Here too, after a line of incidents and insurrections, complaining and disciplinary measures, YHVH is pointing to His irreversible will (marked by resurrection power) to carry out His word and accomplish it, in spite and in face of all opposition.