Korah: Beware how you choose your friends, allies


Numbers 6:1-18:32

I Samuel 11:14-12:22

Throughout history, revolutions have been fomented by allies with widely different agendas but one common goal. In the Book of Numbers, Korah, a member of the tribe of Levi, spearheads the revolt against Moses, with the help of several members of the tribe of Reuben.

The Bible makes a point of telling us the genealogies of these revolutionaries, apparently hinting at the causes of the revolution. Their tribal affiliations indicate differing reasons for rebelling. The 250 leaders of Israel who join the rebellion remain anonymous; we must not need their genealogies to guess at their motives.

The descendants of Reuben have every reason to demand that leadership should go to them, as descendants of Jacob's first-born son. Moses, a descendant of the third-born Levi, keeps political and religious leadership for himself. No power remains for the rightful heirs.

It makes sense for Korah, a member of the leading family of Levites, to believe that authority should rest with his tribe. However, we also expect him to maintain that his first cousins Moses and Aaron should not claim all the authority. They ought at least to share authority with the rest of the Levites, especially with him, the first-born son of their uncle (Exodus 6:21).

The other 250 men, anonymous princes of the children of Israel, present a different challenge to Moses and especially to Aaron. No one tribe should hold the ritual leadership, but leaders of each tribe should have as much right to the priestly offices as Aaron. So these princes aspire to the priestly tasks.

Each of these groups has a particular reason for objecting to one aspect or another of the leadership of Moses or Aaron. Together, though, the rebels make an even more radical demand: Really, everyone should have power, everyone should have ritual authority, for "the entire assembly, all of them, are holy" (Numbers 16:3). No one, not Moses, not Aaron, not Korah, should exercise authority. Power to the People! A sensible slogan for someone out of power; after the revolution we can decide which people.

Modern commentators worry about why the narrative mixes such separate reasons for rebellion. The text tells a multiple story about different rebels with different causes all in one paragraph, and so seems confusing. But that confusion may just reflect reality.

Bernard Lewis observes, "Like most revolutionary movements it was a coalition of different interests, held together by a common desire to overthrow the existing order, but doomed to break up into conflicting groups once victory was obtained" ("The Arabs in History"). Lewis actually wrote those words about the Abbasid revolutionaries who took over the Arab Empire in the year 750, but they could describe Korah's band.

In addition to their resentment of Moses and Aaron, Korah and the tribe of Reuben are aligned by another bond; they're neighbors. In the layout of the camp of Israel in the desert, three of the 12 tribes — Shimon, Gad and Reuben — encamped in the south under the banner of the tribe of Reuben (Numbers 1:10-16). The tribe of Levi encamped at the center, around the Tabernacle (Numbers 1:53), with the family of Kehat, including Korah, encamped to the south.

Thus, Korah encamped next to the tribe of Reuben, so close that the Torah describes the area as the "dwelling place of Korah, Datan and Aviram" (Numbers 16:23). This proximity gave Korah the opportunity to influence them, as Rashi observes, quoting the talmudic adage, "Woe to the evildoer, woe to his neighbor" (Sukkah 56b).

As parents, we hope our children will associate with others who can influence them for the good. But we also need to pay attention to who is influencing us. We might do well to heed the words of Maimonides, in the Mishnah Torah:

"It is the way and nature of a person to be drawn in his opinions and deeds after his friends and companions, and to act like the people of his country. Therefore, a person must befriend righteous people, and settle near wise people always, in order to learn from their deeds, and to keep distant from evildoers who go in darkness, in order not to learn from their deeds" (Deot. 6:1).