A few weeks ago I committed myself to blogging about the weekly Torah portions for the coming year… but I didn’t get started with the actual blogging, in large part because I was being too perfectionistic about it.
And so for this week, I’m going to plunge ahead and acept the fact that this will not be the final or even a great word about this particular parsha, but will be a word, at least some provisional thoughts for where I’m at right now in considering this text.
And so let us begin…
The next Torah portion is a troubling one. Korach (or Korah depending on how you transliterate the Hebrew) is the account of a challenge to the power structure among the Hebrew people.
Korah (Hebrew for “bald”), a levite (but not of the priestly line of Aaron), joined with several from the tribe of Reuben and 250 others (described as “chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute”) launched their attack. The words they chose are provocative:
They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone to far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then did you raise yourself above the LORD’s congregation?” – Numbers 16:3 (JPS, 1999 version)
What happens next is predictable. Moses creates a divine test to see who is right, with the 250 followers of Korah offering fire and incense to the LORD and then Moses and Aaron did the same thing. When they do this, the presence of the LORD speaks, and shows who is holy (in this case Moses and Aaron) and then announces God’s intention to kill all of the Israelites (since the whole community is to be blamed for the sin of Korah and his follwers). Moses intercedes, so instead only the rebels are punished, in this case by some of the rebels being swallowed up by the earth (along with all of their property, wives and children!) and the remaining rebels being burnt alive.
The message of this text is clear. Rebellion against God’s established authority is always punished severely. And the message is reinforced by the commandment that the fire pans used by the rebels to offer their sacrifice be hammered down and made into a new plating for the altar (as a perpeptual reminder of what happens to rebels).
But of course the story isn’t over. This time the people of Israel themselves rise up against Moses & Aaron saying “You two have bought death upon the LORD’s people!” (Numbers 17:6) And so the LORD proceeds to send a plague on the people, killing 14,700 of them before Aaron is able to persuade the LORD to stop the slaughter by offering incense.
The remaining portion of the text is a further reinforcement of the message that Aaron’s family are to remain as the only priests and that no others can appear before the LORD in the temple.
Wow! What a text! Deeply, deeply troubling. To be frank, on the surface it seems to have a pretty vile message, that God is on the side of the powerful and that God is against those who stand up against injustice.
Considered in context, this message is slightly tempered by the remembrance in the previous torah portion of the crushing news that (after the bad reports of the 10 of the 12 spies) the current generation (except for Joshua and Caleb) will not enter the promised land, and would instead be cursed to remain as wanderers. And so arguably a change in leadership would likely mean the return of the Hebrew people to bondage back in Egypt (there were few options left since they had just been beaten badly in their attempt to invade Canaan).
Who knows really? I can’t help but see this story as an example of the messy interplay of power struggles. Moses and Aaron behaved liked tyrants sometimes (not always of course, but sometimes). Korah and his people made the theologically profound statement that “all of the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst,” and yet I have no doubt that he would have been a tyrant too if he had come to power, because power always corrupts. Likely he was a charismatic and dynamic leader (or else he wouldn’t have been able to create such a broad-base of power to challenge the Moses-Aaron leadership), and so the chance of him having the ability to become an abusive leader was high.
What is the take-home message of this text? Certainly I don’t think this story is literally true. I don’t think the Source-of-all-life is the kind of rash deity depicted here, who not only kills the rebels but “their wives, their children and their little ones.” (Numbers 16:27) Such a deity would not be worthy of worship but rather of rebellion.
Rather I think this story is a spiritualized version of an early power struggle among the Hebrew people. Later generations retold the story to reinforce the Mosaic power structure, but in their telling they actually put a powerful word in the mouths of the enemy in this story, “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst.”
What if this were true? The idea of being holy (kadush) is to be set apart. Obviously the whole community is by definition not set apart (because what would it be set apart from?) but maybe this idea of at least potential inner holiness is always present, and hence the idea of deep community leadership, rather than hierarchical leadership is present.
And so, maybe Korah is the hero of the story; Korah the “heretic” who ends up speaking a profound word of truth? It certainly makes me wonder.