“And Korach son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab and On, son of Peleth sons of Reuben, took up and they rose [in rebellion] before Moses.” (Numbers 16:1) In later generations, the rabbinic teachers of the Mishna will describe the rebellion of Korach as one that was “not for the sake of heaven” — a dispute that aimed at elevating one person and claiming power.
Although the main thread of commentary on this narrative follows the interaction between Moses and Korach, the inclusion of Dathan and Abiram suggests another angle. As Robert Alter notes in his commentary and translation of The Five Books of Moses, the Torah here reflects the literary confluence of what were once likely independent narratives, one focusing on priestly primacy (Moses against Korach), one on political primacy (Moses against Dathan and Abiram, of the lineage of Reuben).
If all we had to rely on for an understanding of the power dynamics of ancient Israel was the traditional prayerbook, we would think there was unbroken agreement that political power inheres in the line of David, from which the Messiah is expected to emerge and that there was an unbroken line of priestly legitimacy beginning with Aaron, the brother of Moses, from which would emerge the Kohen clan within the Levite tribe. The biblical record suggests things were not nearly that neatly arranged, and the rebellion(s) of Korach and Dathan and Abiram point toward that.
We know from Samuel and Kings that the very monarchy was contested during the transition from the period of the Judges. Some Israelite tribes favored minimal “central government,” fearing the consolidation of power in one person. Other tribes not only supported a monarchy, but one based on lineage, ensuring that power would reside in one family line.
We know from the story of Korach that there were for centuries competing claims as to who was authorized to perform priestly rituals and offer sacrifices. There are even Psalms that are attributed to “the Korachites,” suggesting that at some ancient time and place being “of Korach” was a plus, notwithstanding this week’s parsha.
The alliances among religious and political forces in ancient and contemporary Judaism serve as a caution both against the consolidation of power in one personage (such as a king-priest) and the manipulation that coalitions willing to split seats of power may effect under the guise of “speaking for the people” — precisely the claim that Korach, Dathan, and Abiram make when they claim “all the community are sacred, each one of them.” (Numbers 16:3) In preserving the mingled stories of the rebellions, the Torah reminds us to remain alert to attempts to seize power that masquerade as missions of reform.