Parashat Korach : The women behind the men emerge. Take a bow Ms On ben Pelet

The rebellion of Korach is a powerful and pivotal moment in Torah, as the leadership of Moses and Aaron is challenged by their cousin who proclaims that they have taken too much of the power for themselves, that all the people were holy, and Moses and Aaron are raising themselves up above the ‘kehal adonai’ the community of God.

With Datan and Abiram the sons of Eliav, and On the son of Pelet, all of them grandchildren of Reuben the oldest son of Jacob, Korach the great grandson of Levi, third son of Jacob and ancestor of Moses and Aaron, musters 250 men of stature – this is emphasised in the text: “n’si’ei eidah, k’ri’ei mo’ed, anshei shem – princes of the congregation, elect men of the community, men of renown”.

The testosterone level is so high in this story we can practically smell it. The clashing of antlers of the big beasts jousting for power and control. There might be a pretence about the need for all the people to be recognised as holy, but the reality is clear that this is a palace coup, and Moses doesn’t know what to do.

A great deal has been written about this, but I want to focus today on one of the more minor characters, On ben Pelet. Because while he is there at the beginning of the revolution he is missing from its denouement. And he doesn’t appear again.  The other rebels go down into the yawning pit as the earth opens, On ben Pelet however simply disappears from history.  Why?

The midrash provides a wonderful explanation. His wife gets involved. In this testosterone soaked challenge the men have essentially lost the plot. Where there are reasonable grounds for saying that Moses and Aaron have taken on too much of the leadership, there is no accountability and there is no transparency, the plotters went too far themselves, scenting regime change. It takes, in the view of the midrash, the calm and thoughtful intervention of the women we never really see (except as witnesses to the divine destruction of the hard line conspirators).

Talmud tells us this: (BT Sanhedrin 109b-110a)

“Rav said: On, the son of Pelet was saved by his wife. Said she to him, ‘What matters it to you? Whether the one [Moses] remains master or the other [Korach] becomes master, you will be nothing but a disciple.’ He replied, ‘But what can I do? I have taken part in their counsel, and they have sworn me [to be] with them.’ She said, ‘I know that they are all a holy community, as it is written, “seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them. [So,]’ she proceeded, ‘Sit here, and I will save you.’ She gave him wine to drink, intoxicated him and laid him down inside [the tent]. Then she sat down at the entrance and loosened her hair. Whoever came [to summon him] saw her and retreated. Meanwhile, Korach’s wife joined them [the rebels] and said to him [Korach], ‘See what Moses has done. He himself has become king; his brother he appointed High Priest; his brother’s sons he made vice High Priests. If Terumah is brought, he decrees, Let it be for the priest; if the tithe is brought, which belongs to you [i.e., to the Levite], he orders, Give a tenth part of it to the priest. Moreover, he has had your hair cut off, and makes sport of you as though you were dirt; for he was jealous of your hair.’ Said he to her, ‘But he has done likewise!’ She replied, ‘Since all the greatness was his, he said also, Let me die with the Philistines. Moreover, he has commanded you, Set [fringes] of blue wool [in the corners of your garments]; but if there is virtue in blue wool, then bring forth blue wool, and clothe your entire academy with it.  And so it is written, Every wise woman builds her house — this refers to the wife of On, the son of Pelet; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands — to Korach’s wife.”

The Talmudic midrash sees the minor figure of On ben Pelet, notices his disappearance by the end of the story, and pins this on the even more minor figures of “the wives”.

The unnamed wife of On ben Pelet is a politician to her fingertips. She can see that her husband is of lowly status and is never likely to amount to much. Whoever wins in the rebellion, he will never be an important part of the hierarchy. He isn’t much of a catch, one gets the feeling, but he is hers and she would rather he were alive than dead. Whether this is love or not is irrelevant, his fate would have repercussions on her status, she does not want to be the widow of a dissident – that would make her even more vulnerable than she is now.

So, in time honoured fashion, she gets him drunk. We think of Boaz and Ruth, of Noah and his daughters, of Yael and Sisera – when a woman wants to get a man pliant and to do her bidding it seems, the answer is to ply him with intoxicants. The drunken On ben Pelet is ushered into the tent to sleep it off. But this is still not enough to ensure he doesn’t rouse and put himself – and her – into danger. So she sits at the entrance with loosened hair – immodest, sexually charged, a terror to the scouts who may come to demand his presence. Like Rachel she uses her body to prevent anyone coming to search. And her husband slumbers on all unknowing.

On ben Pelet is, in the story, a nudnik, a schlemiel, scion of a great family maybe, but incompetent and easily led. He needs all the skills of his competent wife to survive. And it would be lovely if the midrash ended there. But no, the Talmud having decided on a verse in Proverbs (14:1) feels the need to explicate the other half of it.

“Every wise woman builds her house; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands.”

The wise woman here is clearly aligned with the wife of On ben Pelet, but who is the foolish wife? After all, 250 men joined Korach, Datan and Abiram in the failed rebellion.

It is interesting to me that the midrash decides that the parallel is with the wife of Korach – the main protagonist in this affair. And more than that, they give her great knowledge and legalistic reasoning – this is an educated woman able to debate and hold her point.

She begins first with the nepotism: Moses has made himself king. He has made his brother the High Priest, he has made his brother’s sons vice High Priests – something that is new to this text. Then when the Terumah offering is brought, it is immediately taken up by his own close family. This food (or oil or wine) can only be eaten by the Cohanim. Korach being only a Levite, is not permitted to have use of it.

Then she points out the tithing which would go to the Levites – Moses had set a limit of a tenth to go to the priests.

Then she moves on to the cut hair done as part of the purification rites. Before her husband can object she layers meaning over it – Moses was jealous of Korach’s lovely hair. He now laughs at him once the hair is cut off and Korach is, presumably, less attractive. No matter that Moses also had his hair cut according to Korach, his wife clearly believes that the impact on Moses was much less than that on her husband. Moses comes out the winner.

Now she moves onto ritual grievances. Moses had told them to wear blue threads on the fringes of their garments, but this is simply tokenistic in her eyes – if blue is to be worn as a mark of honour, then the whole garment should be blue. Otherwise, her reasoning seems to be, there is no real honour, just pretence, a token and perfunctory nod to the status of her husband; Korach is damned by faint praise and his wife notices.

She is painted as an intelligent and ambitious woman. Curiously she too seems to have the upper hand in the relationship – and she gives Korach the intellectual underpinnings for his challenge.

But her ambition for her husband is too much. He is not a strategist, not really a leader. Having made his alliances his own thirst for power comes through – why else would On ben Pelet feel uneasy having agreed to join the alliance? Korach cannot deviate from the path he is on. He doesn’t seem to realise that the atmosphere is changing, that his leadership is doomed.

His wife too is given no more voice. Who knows whether she had she would have been able to persuade her husband to reverse his challenge. Instead we see from the text that Datan and Abiram, their wives and children, stand at the doorways of their tents; And we see the earth opening and everything that pertained to Korach was swallowed up alive into the pit. The 250 men who were offering their own incense were destroyed by divine fire. Yet curiously Korach and his wife are not mentioned in the text as explicitly as Datan and Abiram were. Did Mrs Korach have one last trick up her sleeve? Did they melt away from the scene of destruction they had caused, in the hope of living to fight another day?

Sarah: blinded by her outward appearance we miss the person within

Deception and beauty, the bible is fascinated by the interaction of the two.

When Avram, having left Canaan because of the famine, arrived in Egypt he feared that the beauty of his wife Sarai would mean that the Egyptians would kill him in order to take her for themselves, and so he asks her to lie, to say that she is his sister “that it will be well with me for your sake, and so my soul may live because of you”. And certainly his fear is grounded, because the Egyptians see Sarai’s exceptional beauty,“ki yafah hi me’od”. The princes of Pharaoh see her, sing her praises to him, and she is taken into Pharaoh’s house. Pharoah gives a great deal of wealth to Abram as dowry, but God intervenes, plagues Pharaoh and his house on account of Sarai, until Pharaoh understands that he has taken Avram’s wife and arranges for her to go back to him, and for Avram and Sarai to go on their way with their accumulated gains.

This is the first of three wife-sister deception narratives in Genesis, the others being with Sarah and Abimelech and with Rebecca and Abimelech.  The repeated retelling seems to imply that these are not historical reportage, but a motif to give us a deeper understanding of our patriarchs and matriarchs.

Any number of questions emerge from even a cursory reading of this text. We already know that Avram married Sarai (Gen 11:29) yet surprisingly her ancestry is not given, while that of Milcah, who married Nahor Abram’s brother is given her full background. Immediately we are told that Sarai is barren, she had no child – an enormous economic disbenefit for any wife in that society and that she went with her father in Law Terach, with her husband and with Lot the son of Abram’s dead brother, from Ur Kasdim towards Canaan, leaving behind Nahor and Milcah. (Gen 11:29-31)

Sarai’s great beauty is only told to us in the following chapter – which seem surprising if it were really so extraordinary. Her passivity – travelling with the family including the heir apparent Lot – leaving Ur Kasdim to go to Canaan but settling in Haran in the interim – seems to be the expected role of women, yet clearly the family did well, making great wealth, and the plural form is used – “all the wealth THEY had gathered, and the souls THEY had made” from which the midrash develops the idea of Avram and Sarai as the great models of inclusivity and openness, who between them had converted both men and women to the one God of Judaism.

So maybe Sarai was not so passive, but was a valued working partner in the relationship. And yet, as soon as they come near to Egypt she is prevailed upon not only to lie about her relationship to Avram, but essentially to become adulterous in order both to protect his life and increase his wealth.  She does not speak, she does not seem to object, and while one can see what is in the deal for Avram it is not so clear what is in it for her – except maybe that as a widow captured after her husband’s death she may be even more unprotected and powerless than as the sister of a living and wealthy man.

She doesn’t even seem to speak to Pharaoh, who, plagued by God, realises all by himself that the cause of his troubles is that he has taken the wife of another man into his household. Clearly at the beginning if she has bought Avram’s reasoning that this will save his life it is important that she keep the secret, but what about later when it is obvious that something is deeply wrong?  She is returned, as passive as ever, into the safekeeping of Avram her husband, and they are sent on their way, greatly enriched by the whole adventure.

Yet this story, with its overtones of sexual trafficking for gain cannot be left here – there is the repeated retelling with some alterations with a different king Abimelech, and then later with her daughter in law Rebecca and Abimelech. And there is the persistent motif of great beauty and deception.

Others are described in bible in almost the same words as having extraordinary beauty, the most prominent being Sarah’s daughter in law Rebecca, described as being tovat mar’eh me’od (24:16 and 26:7), Rebecca’s daughter in law Rachel about whom we hear “V’einei Leah rakot; v’Rachel hay’ta y’fat to’ar, vi’fat mareh” – The eyes of Leah were soft/ weak,  and Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance. (Gen 29:17, and her older son Joseph who is “y’fei to’ar vi’fei mar’eh” (Gen 39:6)

Three matriarchs and the favoured son Joseph all described in bible in terms of their exceptional beauty. And all of them recorded in bible as deceiving in ways that change the narrative profoundly. Sarah and Rebecca are the objects of the their husband’s deception in the wife-sister narratives, but Rebecca goes on to deceive her blind husband in order to gain the major blessing for her favourite son Jacob, when he intends and expects to give it to Esau.

Rachel deceives her father and husband about having taken the household gods when they left Haran, an act that will bring about her early death. And her elder son Joseph, also described as beautiful, deceives his brothers who come to buy food, putting them through a horrible ordeal as they contemplated their father’s devastated reactions.

It is strange that on the whole we don’t know much about the physical appearance of the main characters in the narrative. What does Avram look like? We are not told. Likewise Isaac and Jacob, though we are aware of the physicality of Ishmael and Esau who are earthy,  athletic and skilful hunters.

It seems that only ‘outsiders’ and women are worthy of comment about their appearance. And then, as now, such comment serves to objectify, to limit in some way, to categorise. We no longer see the person, nor do we see their abilities or potential, we see the colour, the gender, the beauty (or lack of) and we make a judgement.

Later on in the narrative we will be able to see Sarah a little better – we will see her as the strong and independently minded woman trying to give her husband his much desired heir, however problematic that intervention is. We will see her as the woman who is visited by God, who laughs on hearing God’s voice telling her and her husband that she too will bear a child, and who speaks directly to God’s challenge to her, albeit to dissemble rather than be upfront with her views. We will see her as the mother determined to protect her child even if it means asking her husband to disown his older child – and ensuring that he does. We will see that her name is changed by God along with that of her husband. We will see that she lives away from her husband after the Akedah until her death when he has to travel to organise her funeral.

Sarah is the matriarch to match Abraham’s role – the promise of the heir who would receive God’s blessing is clearly as much to her as to him – it is Isaac son of Sarah who will inherit the blessing and take on the chain of tradition. She saves Abraham’s life at least twice, she helps him to increase his wealth, she directs the family life.

What is her beauty? The deception of Sarah’s beauty seems to be not so much what she does, but that it hides the strong and independent character within, the personal connection with God that she develops, the innovative and formative life that she lives. Her antecedents are shrouded in mystery, unlike Abraham’s, but their descendants are as much hers as his.

Proverbs tells us “charm deceives and beauty fades” when describing the perfect woman (Eshet Chayil) (31:30) and we should read the narrative of lech lecha with this in mind – if we only see the outward passivity and the blinding beauty that Abraham fears Pharaoh will see, then we miss what is important about Sarah.

Yet plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Those who only see the outward appearance and the gender will layer on their own perceptions, their own beliefs about what they see, and will miss the gold that lies within.