Sometimes the concatenation of torah portion and world events is simply eerie. In the UK we are dealing with the fallout of a leadership bid that spectacularly exploded outside of the narrow boundaries of party politic where it should have remained, and in bible we are dealing with the fallout of a leadership bid where the ambition of the leaders of the revolt harnessed popular opinion from those who felt marginalised and deserted by the ruling elite leading to a spectacular implosion of those ambitious challengers.
Korach, a Levite and cousin of Moses and Aaron (his father Izhar and their father Amram were brothers) felt that Moses and Aaron had taken too much power, and that others in the community were equally competent to lead and were dissatisfied at being treated as being less than the ruling group. Along with Datan and Abiram and On ben Pelet and two hundred and fifty men of standing in the community he came to challenge the right of the leadership to continue.
רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כָל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם יְהוָֹ֑ה וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל יְהוָֹֽה:
You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Eternal is among them; why then do you raise up yourselves above the assembly of the Eternal?’ (16:3)
Moses’ response was to fall on his face. He did not argue back, nor justify his leadership at this time, but seems to have been paralysed for a moment, and then he puts the onus for supporting his status on to God. A charitable reading would be that Moses was prostrated in prayer, to ask for divine guidance, but this is not recorded in the text, so what happens next seems to have come more from Moses’ mind than from God.
He spoke to Korach and all his company, saying: ‘In the morning the Eternal will show who are God’s, and who is holy, and will cause them to come near to God; (16:5) and then told Korach and his followers to take their firepans the next day and put fire and incense in them, and God would show who would be chosen, who was holy. He challenges the Levites in Korach’s group – they already have a role and status in supporting the worship ritual, are they trying to take on the role of the Cohen, the priest, as well as that of Levite, the enablers of the priests?
Then follows a strange hole in the narrative – Moses says:
לָכֵ֗ן אַתָּה֙ וְכָל־עֲדָ֣תְךָ֔ הַנֹּֽעָדִ֖ים עַל־יְהוָֹ֑ה וְאַֽהֲרֹ֣ן מַה־ה֔וּא כִּ֥י תַלִּ֖ונוּ [תַלִּ֖ינוּ] עָלָֽיו
Therefore you and all your company that are gathered together against the Eternal–; and as to Aaron, what is he that you murmur against him?’
What is the ‘therefore’ referring to? What causes the leap from accusing the rebels of challenging for the priesthood to accusing them as rebelling against God? Why does he appear to break off from this startling reframing of the rebellion and ask about Aaron specifically? The rebellion is against both Moses and Aaron, but Moses seems to be taking himself out of the equation, viewing the – quite legitimate – complaints as being about the priesthood, and not about his own style of leadership.
Having categorised the rebellion as being about something rather different than what it really was about, he turns to the sons of Reuben, the descendants of the first born of Jacob, the tribe who might really have had a claim to leadership on the grounds of primogeniture and the inheritance hierarchy of the biblical world.
But Datan and Abiram are not cowed and they are not willing to come to him on his call, interestingly saying לֹ֥א נַֽעֲלֶֽה we will not come up. Not that they will not come to him, but that they will not ascend/rise up. There are two very different understandings of this odd verb – one, that even while professing that they have an equal right to leadership their language betrays them – they see Moses as having a rightful higher status than them; or that while challenging Moses’ right to hold leadership, they refuse themselves to step up to the role, preferring to complain and challenge from the sidelines but without any intention of taking responsibility for the consequences of what they are doing.
Yet they are certainly prepared to complain and to paint a picture of failure and fault.
“Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but you must also make yourself also a prince over us? Moreover you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards; will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.'(16:13-14)
Fabricated nostalgia paints a false picture of the past which is the set against the present situation. One might paraphrase it as “We came from milk and honey and we are not now given milk and honey, nor the other benefits you told us we would acquire on leaving Egypt and going to the Promised Land. And you are creating a climate of fear here where people who dissent fear for their health and wellbeing, so we will not do as you ask” The Reubenite challengers are constructing an alternate reality in public view in order to bolster their position without in any way arguing their case or indeed using factually correct information. Egypt was most certainly NOT a land of milk and honey for the Israelites, the people are not yet arrived at the destination they are travelling towards and therefore the inheritance is not yet possible, and nowhere has the putting out of eyes of the men been mooted. But now this view is in the public domain, put forward by men of standing in the community, and there will be those who will believe it to be true, whose anxiety and disaffection can be harnessed, and the pressure is on Moses and Aaron to disprove it.
Datan and Abiram are gifted demagogues, agitating the people with manipulative appeals to popular prejudice and unfulfilled wishes. This is a dangerous moment for the people of Israel, with discontented murmurings and denigrations of the leaders’ activities and plans. They have used the language of future prosperity against current reality and against a rose tinted past that had never existed. Should they take over the leadership, what would have happened? God had not chosen them, did not seem to speak to them nor, from what the text tells us, had any relationship with them. The tribe of Reuben, who should have ordinarily have had access to leadership had lost it through the selfish and transgressive act of Reuben himself, who slept with Bilhah, mother of some of his brothers.
As Jacob lay on his deathbed, he addressed parting words to his sons, and spoke of Reuben like this:
Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigour, Exceeding in rank and exceeding in honour.Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer; For when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace-my couch he mounted! ((Gen. 49:3-4)
And yet Datan and Abiram chose to ignore the shame that lost them their tribal dominance, and stand against Moses and Aaron, presumably in the hope of restoring that advantage for themselves again.
The rest of the story is simply awful. God enters the narrative, telling Moses and Aaron to “separate yourselves from this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment” and they respond by asking God “Shall one man sin and you be angry with the whole community?” Should the whole community pay the price of the arrogance of the group who challenged?
The test of the firepans leads to the public and horrible spectacle of the rebels and their families swallowed alive when the ground beneath them opened up momentarily, so that they fell into a pit which closed over them. The two hundred and fifty men of renown who had supported the rebels and who had brought their fire pans and incense were destroyed by a fire that came ‘from the Eternal’ and the rest of the Israelites fled in panic and disarray, terrified by what had been unleashed, terrified for their futures.
So what do we learn? We learn that rebellion against leadership that comes from thwarted ambition is a dangerous event, all the more so when those who lead the rebellion are skilled demagogues who manipulate the language and the reality so that the majority of the people are left confused and unclear. We learn that leadership needs to be firm and fairly applied, that leaders should not distance themselves from the people and their concerns, take them seriously rather than see them as distractions to the long term plan and irrelevant. We learn that ALL the people have value, all of us matter, and to discount us or ignore us is a strategy that will backfire in time as enough frustration and anger builds for someone to come and use it for their own purposes. We learn not to trust thoughtlessly, but to research and learn for ourselves, to see the world around us through our own eyes and not through the filter of those with an agenda of their own.
Sometimes the Torah portion speaks to the moment in a particularly powerful way. Korach and his fellow leaders were not ab initio coming from a false position, all the people ARE holy, Moses and Aaron’s style of leadership WAS autocratic and did not take account of the feelings of the people enough. But from a platform of rational and defendable positions they shifted to irrational and indefensible actions and a terrible scenario was let loose which had implications for the entry into the land for a generation.