Fribble Friday: Divine Favor (Numbers 16:1–18:32)

This week we have פָּרָשַׁת קרח (“Korach” portion), named after a character who (surprise!) spurns the divinely appointed law of Israel and gets smote for his trouble.

The quick snarky summary: The Israelites rebel again. God promises to destroy them (again), and Moses talks him downl Predictably, a show of force reduces the Israelites to gibbering fear and they commence whining. God reiterates a lot of the fairly simple rules he’s already told the community, because clearly they don’t get it.

This parsha is taken up mostly with the fallout from a rebellion. For once, we get named ringleaders, so instead of just random community revolts, we actually have an instigated rebellion. In this case the instigators are a Levite, Korach, together with three Reubenites: Dathan, Abiram, and On. On isn’t mentioned again in this story, so he must not be important, but the other three are a big deal. In addition, they’ve gathered followers. Specifically, they’ve gathered 250 followers, which sounds a hell of a lot more impressive before you realize that this is a tiny, tiny fraction of the population. Seriously, they’re hardly worth worrying about. I mean, Louisville metro has less than a third of the population attributed to the Israelite community in the desert, and we had over 1000 people vote for the mayoral candidate who thought the utility company was trying to kill her with radiation transmitted through the telephone. My point is, this is way below the general crazification threshold in a community (the traditional figure for that is, of course, 27%) and Moses would probably be happier either ignoring them or just making them vanish quietly (he’s got enforcers, he could do that).

Then again, these people kind of have a point, and maybe Moses would do well to listen to them. Their point is that God dwells among the community of Israel, and has proclaimed them all holy in his sight, so how are Moses and Aaron more holy? It wouldn’t be a half bad argument, except that God himself has pretty unequivocally said that Moses is his deputed agent and Aaron chief among his servants, and pretty much everyone who has contradicted Moses or Aaron has immediately been stricken with divine wrath. In a religion which didn’t have God explicitly speaking to them and telling them how it’s going to be, their argument might have merit, but the point “God’s dwelling among us, so he obviously likes us all” is kind of invalidated by that exact same God explicitly saying, “I don’t like you all equally. Moses I like. Aaron I tolerate. The rest of you I would’ve massacred a while ago if Moses hadn’t begged me not to.”

Anyways, Moses decides to issue a challenge: if the followers of Korach want to try the holy service, they’re welcome to, and see if God approves. Unspoken, of course, is the extreme likelihood that divine disapproval will be fatal. Definitely the message in Leviticus boiled basically down to “fuck up the divine service, and you die”. Even the tiny slice of narrative in the book, the story of Nadav and Avihu, supports that moral. In addition, he talks to the ringleaders (except On, who doesn’t really show up in the story). I’m not sure why he bothers; he knows the challenge will be a massacre, and he doesn’t need to talk to these people first. To Korach he delivers a not very useful admonition, in that it really gives Korach no face-saving way to back down; a more politic leader might try to defuse the situation, but having told Korach how lucky he is to serve in the temple at all, it’s hard to imagine Korach saying, “why, yes, clearly the drudgework common Levites do is sufficiently honorable holy service.” Moses isn’t real good at diplomacy, and he doesn’t really make much of an effort here to sweeten the pot for Korach. The story doesn’t report Korach’s reply, but you can imagine it wasn’t terribly enthusiastic.

Dathan and Abiram, on the other hand, are just unremittingly hostile, with the usual bitterness about how good things were in Egypt and how crappy they are out in the wilderness. Incidentally, although this is the first mention of this pair in the Bible, rabbinical exegesis blames these two dudes for pretty much everything. They’re supposed to be the two fighting Israelites back in Exodus 2:13, and the instigators of the various previous moanings about water and food and meat and suchlike.

Anyways, the next morning, Korach has apparently assembled the whole community to watch his men perform the holy service. Whether they’re there for the spectacle or actually on his side isn’t clear, since the previous mention of the rebellious party was much, much smaller, and it’s hard to imagine that the community at large is unfathomably dim enough to go against God again when it worked out so well the last several times. God wants to kill them all, and as usual, Moses argues him down to the three ringleaders, and because he’s an enormous showoff, God has the earth open up to swallow their tents. And then he strikes the 250 followers dead for good measure, and looses a plague that kills 14,700. God’s pretty liberal with his wrath, because it’s not clear that those people were even involved.

And now we have a bit of fallout from this brief, failed rebellion. For one thing, there are 250 incense pans which have to be ceremonially disposed of, since, even though they were used in bad faith, an offering to God is still an offering and these braziers are thus holy. They’re melted down and made into an altar cover, which both disposes of them conveniently and keeps them visible to everyone as a warning as to what happens if you misappropriate th holy service. I’d imagine the Israelites already had enough reminders of that, but then again, they’re astonishingly slow-witted.

In addition to a threat, God figures the people need an incontestable show of Aaron’s divine favor. So Moses takes a staff from the leaders of each tribe, puts them all in a pile in the Tabernacle, and shows on the next day how Aaron’s staff has burst into bloom. Oddly, this seems to miss the point (in addition to being pretty redundant: if people don’t get the point when you atomize 250 of them, they aren’t going to get the point when you cover a stick in flowers) in that it indicates a favor of Aaron over the leaders of other tribes. But Korach, and some of his followers, were Levites of the nonpriestly order, and members of the tribe God has just crafted a bewildering test to praise! So it’s not clear what the point is here; it might have been more effective if the heads of the Levite families also had sticks in there, or something.

In Chapter 18 God reiterates the exact scope and specifics of the choosings of the Levites and or the specific priestly order within the Levites. I can kind of understand the frustration of the non-priestly Levites: after all, they’re bound in service tot he priests forever with no real hope of rising in the ranks. And in verses 9–19 is a specific itemization of the rather enormous quantities of temple donations which the mere Levites miss out on: namely, a share of every sacrificial or ceremonial offering. All that the everyday Levites get is a tithe of grain, which might well come out to be pretty generous in the end, but ultimately it’s still a bit of an insult, with the choicest offerings being reserved for the much smaller priestly class.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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