“What Would an Astute Man Like Korach See in This Nonsense?”

  • Rav Gad Eldad

In memory of Alice Stone, Ada Bat Avram, A"H, 
beloved mother, grandmother and great grandmother 
whose Yarzheit is 2 Tammuz.
Dedicated by Ellen & Stanley Stone,
Jake & Chaya, Micah, Adeline, Zack & Yael, Allie,
Isaac, Ezra & Talia, Yoni & Cayley, Marc & Eliana, Adina, Gabi & Talia.

Translated by Kaeren Fish


  1. Opposition Groups to Moshe

The description of the protest staged by Korach and his company leaves the reader with several questions.[1] The first verse of this narrative presents the opposition group to the existing leadership:

And Korach, son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi; and Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav; and On son of Pelet, of the sons of Reuven, took [men]; and they rose up before Moshe with men of Bnei Yisrael – two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, regularly summoned to the congregation, men of renown. And they gathered themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you raise yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord?” (Bamidbar 16:1-3)

At first glance, this seems to be a group of people seeking a confrontation with Moshe and Aharon. Moshe accepts the challenge and cooperates by proposing a test for the authenticity and truth of their protest:

And [Moshe] spoke to Korach and to all his company, saying, “In the morning the Lord will show who is His, and who is holy, and will cause him to come near to Him; even him whom He has chosen will He cause to come near to him. Do this: Take censers, Korach and all his company, and put fire in them, and put incense in them before the Lord tomorrow, and it shall be that the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be holy. You take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi!” (Bamidbar 16:5-7)

However, as we continue reading, this impression is progressively challenged. After proposing the test, Moshe tries to persuade the rebels that there is no need to carry it out. To this end, he tries to engage different parties within the opposition:

And Moshe said to Korach, “Hear, I pray you, sons of Levi: Is it but a small thing to you, that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself to perform the service of the Mishkan of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them? And He has brought you near to Him, and all your brethren, the sons of Levi, with you, and do you seek the priesthood also – for which cause both you and all your company who are gathered together are against the Lord. And what is Aharon, that you murmur against him?” And Moshe sent to call Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, but they said, “We will not come up; is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you also make yourself a prince over us? Moreover, you have not brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards; will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.” (Bamidbar 16:8-14)

This leads several of the commentators to conclude that the rebel group was not homogeneous, but rather a conglomeration of disgruntled parties that joined forces with a view to toppling the leadership. Abravanel examines in detail the different forces at work:[2]

Korach and his company did not represent a single dispute, but rather three distinct disputes by three parties. The first was Korach’s claim to the priesthood. His argument was that since Levi, who had been chosen by God, had four sons – Amram, Yitzhar, Chevron and Uziel; and since the kingship had been given to Moshe, who was the son of Amram, the firstborn of Levi, it was only proper that Levi’s next son – Yitzhar – would be given the honor of the Kohen Gadol. And Korach was the firstborn of Yitzhar, and therefore regarded himself as worthy of the priesthood. The second dispute and challenge was by the firstborn sons of Israel. The service of the Mikdash had been taken from them and given to the Levi’im, and this was a source of resentment and anger, for originally it was they who were to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people, and Moshe handed their honor to his family, the sons of Levi. The third dispute and challenge came from the sons of Reuven, who claimed that Moshe had taken the honor of the birthright and dominion that was rightfully theirs, and had given supremacy and primacy of the flags to the tribe of Yehuda, and in the division of the land he had given the birthright [i.e., a double portion] to Yosef. And these three disputes have already been mentioned here. (Abravanel, Bamidbar 16:1)

  1. And Men of Bnei Yisrael – Two Hundred and Fifty

While Korach and the rebels from the tribe of Reuven are identified by name, the commentators are divided as to the identity of the anonymous two hundred and fifty men. Ramban, citing Rabbenu Chananel, writes:

Those who gathered [against Moshe] were all Levi’im, from the same tribe as Korach, and this explains [Moshe’s words], “You take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi” (Bamidbar 16:7); “Hear, I pray you, sons of Levi...” (16:8). Perhaps they thought that their entire tribe had been chosen for the priesthood and that Moshe, on his own initiative, gave the honor to his brother. (Ramban, Bamidbar 16:5)

Indirectly, Rabbenu Chananel points to another problem with the composition of the rebel camp. What prompts him to suggest that they are all Levi’im is the difficulty presented by the verses that follow. Moshe addresses the “sons of Levi,” but since no such group is mentioned in the introductory verses, their role in the story is not clear. Rabbenu Chananel turns this problem into the solution, using it as proof that the nameless “two hundred and fifty men” are the same “sons of Levi” who are mentioned later on.

But Ramban goes on to reject this interpretation, deeming it unthinkable to propose that the tribe of Levi, appointed and consecrated to serve God, could have produced two hundred and fifty men who would turn against their teacher and the greatest of their tribe, and quarrel with God. He therefore proposes (as Ibn Ezra does) a different explanation:

It would seem that the people who gathered together were all firstborn sons, who were resentful on account of the priesthood. And it is for this reason that Moshe tells them to take censers, as they would have been required to do according to their previous status, so that it could be made clear whether God had chosen them or the Kohanim. (Bamidbar 16:5)

But if these men are not Levi’im, then why does Moshe now mention Levi’im, when none were listed in the opening verses of the parasha? Moreover, in light of Ramban’s interpretation, there would seem to be opposing interests among the rebels; while the Levi’im are demanding a share in the priesthood, the demand by their fellow demonstrators – the firstborn sons – leaves them no leg to stand on.

Ramban then asserts, surprisingly enough, that there were no Levi’im among the rebel camp other than Korach himself. Accordingly, Moshe’s appeal is directed to him alone:

In the beginning, Moshe speaks to Korach and all his company, telling them, “In the morning the Lord will show...” Afterwards, he goes back to addressing Korach [alone], telling him, “You take too much upon yourselves, sons of Levi,” and he tells Korach alone, “Hear, I pray you, sons of Levi.” For this reason Moshe later says, “You and all your company who are gathered together against the Lord” – for punishment will be meted out not to him alone, but to the entire company, for they are all gathered against the Lord. (Ramban, Bamidbar 16:11)

This approach fits better with the literal sense of the text. The rebel camp includes only those who have been mentioned: Korach, the individuals of the tribe of Reuven who are listed by name, and the two hundred and fifty men who join the protest. Admittedly, however, the identification of the latter as firstborn sons who are unhappy with their loss of status (as proposed by both Ramban and Abravanel) has no textual basis.

  1. Take Censers, Korach and all his Company

For the purposes of our discussion, we will ignore the fact that at Sinai the entire congregation witnessed God speaking to Moshe, such that it is difficult to understand how they can now deny what they saw with their own eyes. Even if we set this aside, the entire protest seems to lack internal consistency and logic.

Ramban deliberates the motivation behind Moshe’s proposal of the test of the censers:

Moshe himself thought about this, and wanted incense rather than any other offering... and Moshe was confident that God would fulfill the word of His servant and carry out the plan of His emissary. But some say that “Moshe heard it and fell upon his face” – asking God what to do, and then he was told, “Tomorrow morning the Lord will show...” And my view is... that God’s hand was upon him concerning them, in what is called “Divine inspiration”... for Moshe, our teacher, was “a trusted one in all of [God’s] House” (Bamidbar 12:7). (Ramban, Bamidbar 16:5)

Of course, explanations of this sort speak to us as readers. But Korach himself argues that the entire congregation is holy, and that Moshe therefore has no reason to raise himself over them. How, then, could Korach go along with the test that Moshe proposes? From his point of view, it was altogether possible that he would present himself the next day, with all of his company, every man with his censer, and that there would be no Divine response at all, since Moshe had proposed the test of his own initiative; God was not committed to it. Thus, the very act of showing up for a test that claimed to expose who was chosen by God, and that would be carried out in a manner that Moshe stipulated, was already an acknowledgment of Moshe’s superior position. The test therefore appears not only superfluous, but in fact detrimental to Korach’s cause.

  1. Have No Regard to Their Offering

Our question only intensifies as we continue. After the failed attempt to engage Datan and Aviram in dialgoue, Moshe turns to God in supplication:

And Moshe was much angered, and said to the Lord, “Have no regard to their offering; I have not taken one donkey from them, nor have I hurt one of them.” (Bamidbar 16:15)

This appeal seems to turn everything we know until now on its head. Surely Moshe himself, if no one else, should display confidence in the face of the chaos and undermining of authority wrought by Korach and his company? Moshe knows the truth, so why does he feel a need to ask God not to accept the offering of his competitors? Did he have some basis to imagine that God might indulge them?

Abravanel addresses this question:

The 11th question concerns Moshe’s prayer, in which he says, “Have no regard to their offering.” If this was meant with regard to the incense, how could he imagine that God would accept it, this incense being an abomination? (Abravanel, ad loc.)

A comparison to a parallel situation might offer a key to understanding this puzzle.

  1. Whose Ox Have I Taken? Or Whose Donkey Have I Taken?

The formulation of Moshe’s appeal to God is echoed in a later episode:

And Shemuel said to all of Israel, “Behold, I have listened to you in all that you have said to me, and I have made a king over you. And now, behold, the king walks before you, and I am old and grey-headed; and behold, my sons are with you; and I have walked before you from my childhood to this day. Behold, here I am: answer me before the Lord, and before His anointed: Whose ox have I taken? Or whose donkey have I taken? Or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed? Or of whose hand have I received any bribe with which to blind my eyes? For I will restore it to you.” And they said, “You have not defrauded us, nor oppressed us, neither have you taken anything of any man’s hand.” (Shemuel I 12:1-4)

This exchange occurs after the people ask that Shemuel appoint a king – a move that the prophet understands as an expression of lack of confidence in him:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together and came to Shemuel, in Rama, and said to him, “Behold, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now, make us a king to judge us, like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Shemuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Shemuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Shemuel, “Listen to the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.” (Shemuel I 8:4-7)

Let us consider the complexity of this situation. Throughout the period of the Judges, we encounter different figures who serve as leaders of the nation. Of these, only Devora is explicitly characterized as a prophetess. The Sefer focuses on the judges who led the people, with God’s voice emerging here and there in the background.

At the end of this period, the judge and prophet merged in a single leader – Shemuel. Towards the end of his life, Shemuel seeks to bequeath the status of judge to his sons, but the people want a king. In any event, it becomes clear that Shemuel’s period was exceptional insofar as both positions (judge and prophet) were embodied in the same person. Throughout most of biblical Jewish history, the king (or “lay” political leader) and prophet were two distinct personalities.

In the verses cited above, Shemuel stands before the people, in his capacity as judge, and asks whether anyone has any complaints about him misusing his position. His status as prophet is not under dicussion here, since it is proven and universally recognized. Let us now use this parallel reading to understand the protest of Korach and his company.

  1. He Took Kingship for Himself

The Midrash Yelamdenu presents Korach’s complaint as follows:

What did Korach do? He spent that whole night courting Israel, saying to them, “What do you think, that I am trying to attain greatness for myself? All I want is that greatness be restored to all of us, for Moshe has taken the kingship for himself, and made his brother Kohen Gadol.” And he went about courting each and every tribe until they went along with him. (Midrash Yelamdenu, Mann edition, 65).

At no point does Korach question Moshe’s prophecy, which was proven before the eyes of the entire nation.[3] All Korach claims is that Moshe expanded his scope of authority beyond the bounds of its intended sphere. He argues that Moshe did not suffice with prophecy, but also took upon himself the role of leader, and as such awarded his brother Aharon the role of Kohen Gadol.

Three roles comprise the tip of Am Yisrael’s leadership pyramid: the prophet, the king, and the Kohen Gadol. Just as in the time of Shemuel the roles of prophet and leader converged in a single individual, so it was in the time of Moshe – and this is precisely what Korach objects to. That Moshe is a true prophet is agreed, but Korach argues that he should have been satisfied with this role, leaving the administrative decisions that come with the role of “kingship” to someone else.[4] He asserts that Moshe should occupy himself with prophecy and not with appointments – neither of himself nor of his brother.

With this perspective in mind, we can answer the two questions that we raised. Korach agrees to the terms of the test set by Moshe because he never denied Moshe’s prophecy. He is certain that the test is genuine, and this belief in no way diminishes his determination to prove that Moshe was mistaken in making his appointments. He wants to prove that Moshe should have allowed a broader field of selection for the other key leadership positions.

For the same reason, Moshe also has reason for concern. While he knows that in all matters he acts in accordance with God’s word, Korach is correct in pointing out that Moshe holds a double position, and therefore God might accede to the demands of the protesters and appoint a “king” alongside Moshe, the “prophet.” At this point, then, Moshe feels justified in defending himself, declaring that just as his prophecy is genuine and true, so his statesmanship has been faultless:

And Moshe was much angered, and said to the Lord, “Have no regard to their offering; I have not taken one donkey from them, nor have I hurt one of them.” (Bamidbar 16:15)

  1. For All the Congregation are Holy... Why Then Do You Raise Yourselves Up?

The commentators note a shift of emphasis in the test proposed by Moshe. At first, he offers the incense test as an opportunity to all those demanding a fair chance:

And [Moshe] spoke to Korach and to all his company, saying, “In the morning the Lord will show who is His, and who is holy, and will cause him to come near to Him; even him whom He has chosen will He cause to come near to him. Do this: Take censers, Korach and all his company, and put fire in them, and put incense in them before the Lord tomorrow, and it shall be that the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be holy. You take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi!” (Bamidbar 16:5-7)

However, after the defiant speech of Datan and Aviram, Moshe emphasizes Aharon’s participation:

And Moshe said to Korach, “Be you and all your company before the Lord – you and they and Aharon, tomorrow, and take every man his censer, and put incense in them, and present before the Lord every man his censer, two hundred and fifty censers, you also, and Aharon, each of you his censer.” (Bamidbar 16:16-17)

According to Ramban (Bamidbar 16:16), Aharon’s participation had not been made clear at the outset. If so, we must ask what caused Moshe to include him now. Ibn Ezra (ad loc.), on the other hand, understands the original test as including Aharon. According to his view, the renewed emphasis here requires some explanation.

As noted, the rebel camp comprises different groups. Their common slogan is formulated loosely in a manner directed against Moshe and Aharon: “For all the congregation are holy, every one of them… Why then do you raise yourselves up?” As a response to this claim, Moshe’s proposal will suffice: anyone who presumes to be worthy of the priesthood is invited to come and prove it.

But Datan and Aviram’s statement is a more brazen expression of the hard core of this protest:

And Moshe sent to call Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, but they said, “We will not come up; is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you also make yourself a prince over us?” (Bamidbar 16:12-13)

This exposes the true essence of the resistance. Its focus is not limited to the realm of holiness and the selection of Aharon and the Kohanim; rather, it includes criticism of Moshe’s functioning as leader. The slogan, “all the congregation are holy, every one of them,” turns out to be merely a rallying cry for a number of conflicts.[5] Now the matter is no longer one of “new positions,” but rather a vote of no confidence in the leadership and a call to replace it.

Datan and Aviram explicitly attack Moshe’s series of independent appointments. They focus on his executive leadership, not his prophecy, arguing that he has failed in the task of navigating in the desert. On this basis, they conclude that Moshe has made himself a prince over the people with no good reason.[6] Since the protest now clearly takes on the form of a contest, Moshe acts accordingly.

All this makes sense, and Korach seeks the priesthood and competes with Aharon. But who are the two hundred and fifty men competing with?

  1. “Two Hundred and Fifty Princes of the Assembly, Regularly Summoned to the Congregation; Men of Renown”

The text offers only one identifying feature of this group: they are leaders of the people. This information, it seems, it meant to help us understand their place in the battle that is being waged against Moshe and Aharon. Since they are presented neither as Levi’im nor as firstborn sons, we may conclude that they are not trying to compete with Aharon.

In view of the claim of Datan and Aviram, it appears that the argument that “all are holy” is also the basis for the call to replace Moshe. If so, we have two hundred and fifty of the heads of the nation who view themselves as candidates for Moshe’s position.[7] But if our analysis is correct, surely Moshe himself should have to present himself with his censer, along with the others. Why is he exempt?

To understand Moshe’s handling of his opponents, let us return to the parallel scene from Sefer Shemuel. Shemuel rebukes the people for wanting to appoint a king. As noted, he reads their request as a personal affront to him, but God assures him that he is not the target:

And the Lord said to Shemuel, “Listen to the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.” (Shemuel I 8:7)

In light of this new understanding, Shemuel mentions this point in his rebuke:

“And when you saw that Nachash, the king of the children fo Amon, came against you, you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us’ – when the Lord your God was your King.” (Shemuel I 12:12)

Shemuel internalizes God’s message. The people’s request for a king is not a vote of no confidence in him, since the nation’s King is in fact God.

Now let us consider Moshe’s situation. Until now we have explained that the argument against Moshe was focused on his taking upon himself a dual role, and the demand was that he give up the “kingship” role to someone else. But he tells the rebels that they are mistaken because he never occupied both positions. Moshe was supposed to be a prophet, and he never deviated from this mission. The position of leader of the nation is indeed occupied – not by Moshe, but rather by God Himself. Therefore, it is not Moshe who needs to stand with a censer opposite the two hundred and fifty men, but rather, as it were, God.

Of course, the challenge to Moshe’s leadership is also an indirect undermining of his prophecy. Korach argues that Moshe is behaving like a king and making decisions, while Moshe argues that he has no authority to decide; all his “decisions” are merely implementation of God’s instructions, conveyed to him through prophecy.[8] To prove his argument, Moshe needs an extraordinary sign that will be evidence of God’s direct involvement in this contest. The result must leave no room for doubt as to where the decisions are made.

Had Moshe decreed merely a death sentence for Korach, Datan, and Aviram, this would have proved Korach’s argument that he behaves like a king, passing judgment on those who rebel against him. A nature-defying wonder is needed to prove beyond all doubt that Moshe is merely carrying out God’s instructions, while the King, Who goes before them, is God Himself:

And Moshe said, “By this shall you know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, for I have not done them of my own mind. If these men die the common death of all men, or if they are visited after the visitation of all men, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates a new thing, and the earth opens her mouth, and swallows them up, with all that appertain to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall understand that these men have provoked the Lord.” (Bamidbar 16:28-30)


[1] The question is addressed by R. Elchanan Samet in his Iyyunim Be-Parashot Ha-Shavua, 1st series, “Korach: Manhigut Be-Mivchan Ha-Hitnagdut Be-Shetei Chazitot” (Miskal, 2009), pp. 198-213, and in other articles in the Bamidbar volume of Torat Etzion.

[2]  He is preceded by Ibn Ezra, whom he quotes. Ramban appears to present a similar scenario. Ibn Ezra posits that this episode took place immediately after the Levi’im were appointed for service in the Mishkan instead of the firstborn. Ramban and Abravanel maintain that the parasha appears in its proper chronological place, after the sin of the spies.

[3] Compare the Midrash Tanchuma (Buber edition): “He opposed Moshe and Aharon. What did he say? ‘See what the son of Amram is doing: he has given the priesthood to his brother Aharon, and has taken the kingship for himself….’ He began opposing them, saying, ‘Moshe is not a prophet; Aharon is not the Kohen Gadol, and Torah was not given from the heaven.’”

[4]  Compare Siftei Chakhamim (Bamidbar 16:1), who maintains that Korach’s protest focused on the priesthood: “And if you would ask why Korach did not also argue about the kingship, one might answer that originally the plan had been for the firstborn sons to perform the Mishkan service, and therefore the firstborn sons joined him in undermining Moshe’s words, so that they could be Kohanim themselves. But concerning the kingship everyone was in agreement that Moshe was king; this was proper since he had brought them out of Egypt. Furthermore, not every one [of the rebels] could be king. Therefore, they did not join him in arguing over the kingship.”

[5] A similar hypothesis as to the development of the protest, formulated by R. Yishayahu di Trani (cited by the Chida in his Penei Ha-Dor), suggests that Korach calculated that if he launched an all-out assault on Moshe’s leadership, Moshe would rally the people behind him. Therefore, his strategy was to first attack the issue of the priesthood, and then to progress to question Moshe’s leadership.

[6] According to Ramban and Abravanel, this argument sits well with the timing of the episode. They explain that the report by the spies and the bitter punishment that it brings in its wake lead to a considerable drop in support for Moshe, facilitating the fermentation of the revolt. In terms of our discussion above, the people perceive their new situation as resulting from Moshe’s failure as national leader – i.e., in his role as “king” – and hence the initiative to cause him to vacate this role. However, at no stage is there any question or undermining of his status as “prophet.”

[7]  In the repetition of the terms of the incense test, two motifs are omitted. First, the contest is no longer described as pertaining to the realm of “holiness,” whereas in the original proposal this had seemed like the essence of the test. In addition, the optimistic and relaxed atmosphere in which the contest is open to everything and God will choose from among them has given way to a rigid, closed competition. This might be understood against the background of Moshe’s improved grasp of the nature of the rebellion. He himself had declared in the past, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Bamidbar 11:29), but now he sees that their aim is to replace him as leader.

[8]  Since, as we have explained, Moshe’s prophecy was never directly questioned, and since Moshe argues that God is King, the only appointment that Moshe has made was that of Aharon. Later on, the test of the staffs provides final proof that this appointment was in accordance with God’s command.