The Book of Numbers includes a variety of narratives that might conveniently be grouped under the heading “rebellion.” Of these stories of conflict and controversy, this week’s account of Korach’s rebellion is among the best known.
Korach and his followers challenge the authority of Moses under the guise of what appears to be a challenge in the name of “democracy and equality” — “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)
Among the curiosities in the story as it unfolds is the way in which the response to Korach appears to be under the direction of Moses rather than God.
Immediately upon hearing Korach’s charge, Moses says, without any intervening instruction from God, that on the morrow Korach and his followers will appear along with Aaron and the kohanim, and God will determine who is legitimately invested as a “priest” charged with presiding over the religious cult. Without being told, or asking, Moses commits God.
Only after Moses has established the rules and regulations through which the competing clans will participate in an offering to God does God appear. Displaying little interest in Moses’ plan, the Torah describes God as having a more immediate and comprehensive plan: “Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!” (16:20)
There is a degree of arrogance in the way Moses goes about assuming the appearances of God. Rather than awaiting instructions or praying for intervention, Moses presumes exactly the type of authority that Korach indicts.
In the ensuing narrative, Moses determines exactly how God should punish the rebels: The earth must open up under Korach and his followers so they do not appear to have merely died a natural death. The message must be clear: Rebellion will not be tolerated. Not content with merely having the earth open, the text adds that in addition a “fire went forth from the Lord” and consumed the rebels — an additional punishment not invited by Moses.
The text thus presents a curious combination of human initiative and divine compliance. At first glance, God seems to be led by Moses, following expectations and arrangements that Moses appears to determine on his own. Yet a closer look reveals an important insight regarding vengeance and justice.
In each case where Moses proposes a means of divine punishment, God raises the stakes. The proposed trial of the rebels becomes an occasion for wiping out the entire community; the earthquake is amplified by the incineration. It is almost as if the Torah wants to teach that the impulse for retribution can easily lead to excess.
Recourse to God for decisions is a luxury that few generations have been afforded. Even in the time of the Exodus, as our story shows, it was not always easy to know exactly what God wanted or intended to do.
Moses’ actions in the rebellion of Korach may thus be the initial, incremental moments in which the community begins to rely upon its leaders rather than directly upon God. While much of the biblical tradition imagines God as the actual leader — military, political, priestly — in reality the day-to-day work of managing the community had to be the work of people, not God.
In the evolution from biblical to rabbinic Judaism, with the revelation at Sinai becoming more remote, the task of deciding for the community became increasingly vested in the rabbinic leadership of the time.
The ultimate extension of this responsibility is found in a midrashic fantasy in which a group of rabbis overrule a heavenly voice, and envision God taking delight in their seizure of power.
The rebellion of Korach marks a transition in the evolution of the ancient Israelite community. Without waiting for God, Moses assumes the authority to act and audaciously commits God to a certain set of expectations. But the response of God suggests that while power may indeed be ceded to humans, there remains a boundary between what they can decree and what God alone retains the right to do. The temptation to stand in place of God rather than to be a partner with God remains an ever-present concern.