Korah was punished for his rebellion, but his questioning of the need for human rulers has remained a living issue for later generations to contemplate.

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The intent of this biblical tradition is clear--to underline in the strongest terms the political and spiritual supremacy of the priests, and their successors, who were shown to have unequivocal divine sanction. A rebellion against them and Moses as their leader was in fact a rebellion against God. Those who demurred were therefore exposed to divine wrath, which was demonstrably severe in behalf of His servant.

God could take care of His own status, so to speak, and therefore needed only the usual forms of retribution; but, when His authority was challenged indirectly and more subtly by undermining His human representatives, the punishment took on unusual and memorable form. "The earth opened its mouth" is a vivid image reminiscent of Gen. 4: 11, which also depicts the earth as an active participant in the drama, speeding the condemned to their abode in the netherworld. (Characteristically of Numbers, this story is followed in chapters 17 and 18 by legislation that sets forth once and for all what the priestly and levitical duties are to be.)

The Rabbis' View of Korah's Punishment

Over the years the Korah story assumed great importance. Rabbis of mishnaic and talmudic times viewed themselves as direct spiritual descendants of Moses, and they interpreted the punishment of Korah as a warning to their own contemporaries who challenged the divine sanctity of rabbinic teaching.

However, since a repetition of biblical miracles could not be counted on, the Rabbis threatened their challengers with eternal damnation--for instance, when they declared that those who did not believe in resurrection would have no share in the world‑to‑come. It is in this light that we must see the assertion of Rabbi Akiba that Korah not only was punished in the desert but excluded from divine grace for all time to come (Sanhedrin 109b).

This is also the meaning of the rabbinic tradition that Korah argued with Moses about ritual fringes and other halakhic matters and attacked the sense and logic of the Torah, which is to say he battled not merely Moses but the God of Moses (see Numbers Rabbah 18:3). God stood behind His chosen leader then, and in the centuries to come He would stand behind the leaders who followed Moses and taught in His name.

Korah's Argument

Korah's rebellion (taking the intertwined stories as a literary whole) was directed against the leadership of Moses. Superficially, his act may appear to be the usual attempt by someone out of power to displace the incumbent rulers. But the Bible's very silence about his motives directs our attention away from Korah's true intention to his stated argument.

Korah said: "All the community are holy... Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?" The question implies the challenge: If God is in our midst, then whoever is leading us will have His support. Or, going further (though this is not expressed): If we are all holy, what need is there for someone like Moses to instruct us, or why is there need for laws to make us holy? Since the people are holy, commandments from without are not necessary (Buber, Moses).

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Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut

W. Gunther Plaut (1912-2012) was a leading figure in modern Reform Judaism. He was rabbi emeritus and senior scholar at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. Rabbi Plaut is the author of numerous books including The Torah: A Modern Commentary and The Haftarah Commentary.