One Mutiny or Two or Even Three?
In this week's parsha, Korach organizes a rebellion against Moshe. However, the text is quite confusing. Moshe seems to be going over the arguments a few times, it's unclear what the rebellion is about and even the rebel's punishment.
Let's clarify the complaints:
Claim 1: Moshe responds to the Levi'im: "He (God) drew you near, and all your brothers, the sons of Levi with you, and now you seek the priesthood as well?" (16:10).
The Levi'im seem to want more and be priests as well.
Claim 2: Datan and Aviram say to Moshe: "You have not even brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Even if you gouge out the eyes of those men, we will not go up" (ibid 14).
They claim that Moshe's political leadership is a failure as he has been unsuccessful in delivering his promise of bringing Israel into Canaan.
You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?" (ibid 3).
The people are claiming that everyone has a right to be a priest.
Moshe argues, or tries to argue, his case a few times:
"He (Moshe) spoke to Korach and to all his company, saying…" (ibid 5).
"Moshe said to Korah, "Please listen, sons of Levi" (ibid 8).
"Moshe sent to call Dathan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav" (ibid 12).
Finally there are two separate punishments:
"The earth beneath them opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses, and all the men who were with Korah and all the property" (ibid 32).
"The earth beneath them opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses, and all the men who were with Korah and all the property" (ibid 35).
What is going on here?
It seems that there was a coalition of disgruntled groups against Moshe. These groups were united only in their opposition to Moshe.
Group 1: The 250 men
From the challenge Moshe sets them, i.e. to put incense on their fire pans etc, it appears that they wanted to be priests. Ibn Ezra suggests that they were first-borns who had their priestly duties removed from them and given to Levi.
Group 2: Korach and the Levi'im
They seem to be unhappy at being Levi'im and also want to be priests – Rashi suggests that Korach was disgruntled to being overlooked for a leadership position.
Group 3: Datan and Aviram – The tribe of Reuven
They are unhappy with Moshe's leadership – Ibn Ezra suggests that they are disgruntled ate their tribe losing its first-born rights.
Nevertheless, each group has a common claim: Moshe's nepotism.
Korach is the troublemaker. He is the focal point and he unites the group: "Korach the son of Izhar, the son of Kohat, the son of Levi took [himself to one side] along with Datan and Aviram, the sons of Elia, and On the son of Pelet, descendants of Reuven. They confronted Moses together with two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel".
However, as each group has distinct claims Moshe has to negotiate with each group separately. Adiitionaly, each group is given a separate punishment which is relevant to them, the 250 men are burned and Datan and Aviram are swallowed up.
What about Korach – well he's in both camps he seems to share both fates:
Fate 1: "The earth beneath them opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses, and all the men who were with Korah and all the property" (ibid 32).
Fate 2: "So Eleazar the kohen took the copper censers which the fire victims had brought, and they hammered them out as an overlay for the altar, as a reminder for the children of Israel, so that no outsider, who is not of the seed of Aaron, shall approach to burn incense before the Lord, so as not to be like Korach and his company, as the Lord spoke regarding him through the hand of Moshe" (ibid 17:4-5).
Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Korach, entitled: "The Innocent and the Guilty" appears at http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2007_06_01_archive.html
Another Sedra Short on Parshat Korach, entitled: "Aharon’s Blossoming Rod" appears at http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2006_06_01_archive.html.