2017-06-21 / Religion Column

Who was Korach, and what motivated him?

RABBI LEWIS J. ERON

Parashat Korach
Num. 16:1-18:32

During the 40 years in the wilderness, Moses faced a number of challenges to his leadership. Some arouse out of our ancestors’ sense of loss and deprivation. Others centered on issues of policy. The most threatening of these challenges, however, was the constitutional crisis brought about by Korach’s attempt to supplant both Moses as political leader and Aaron as High Priest.

According to the Torah, Moses and Aaron received their positions as part of the divinely ordained political and spiritual organization of the Israelite nation. The laws, ordinances, rules and directives of the Torah, central to the covenant between God and Israelites, served as our ancestors’ constitution. Moses and Aaron did not seize their leadership positions by force or even by the strength of their personalities. God called them and they, reluctantly, came forward.

The Torah provides little information concerning Korach beyond a short genealogy that reveals that he was Moses’ and Aaron’s cousin. No reason is given for his actions. The text only suggests that jealousy might have motivated him.

The rabbinic tradition, however, adds additional material. The rabbis of the Talmudic period created a fuller picture of Korach and his rebellion based on hints in the Bible and on the challenges they faced as Jewish leaders. In the Midrash, narrative explorations of biblical themes, a clearer image of Korach, the man who threatened the established constitutional order of the Jewish people, emerges.

Following clues in the Torah, the rabbis envisioned Korach as an incredibly wealthy member of the power elite of Israel. Even today, the Hebrew (and Yiddish) expression “as rich as Korach” describes an extremely affluent individual. Yet Korach’s wealth did not prompt him to do good deeds but only fed his sense of self-importance.

Korach did not earn his wealth. He either came upon it by luck or by dishonorable means. By some accounts Korach expropriated part of the treasure that Joseph hid for Pharaoh. Other stories relate that as a Hebrew slave, he was Pharaoh’s treasurer and placed a good portion of the royal riches into his own purse.

Korach knew how to manipulate the feelings of those who felt a loss of standing in the newly freed Israelite community. Datan and Abiram, leaders of the tribe of Reuben, descendants of Jacob’s oldest son, who resented the preeminence of the tribe of Judah, turned to him. Two hundred and fifty other Levites who believed they had as much a right to be High Priest as Aaron responded to Korach’s call.

Korach mocked the law. He ridiculed the basic symbols of Jewish identity—the mezuzah and the fringes on the tallit. He presented absurd readings of biblical ordinances.

Korach exploited people’s aversion to taxes and regulations to undercut support for the Torah and the political and religious establishment of Israel. He argued that the Torah was a tool of an oppressive elite in his account of the poor widow who was blocked from making a living by the rules and regulations imposed on her by the Torah as enforced by Moses and Aaron.

Furthermore, Korach derided his opponents. He and his followers argued that Moses was a tyrant whose rule was more onerous than Pharaoh’s. Beyond this, they claimed that Moses behaved immorally and warned women to stay away from him.

Thus, in the rabbinic imagination, Korach was a rich demagogue who sought personal gain at the expense of the Torah, its divinely ordained directives, and those called to lead the Jewish people under its guidance. To our sages, Korach’s self-serving and irresponsible attempt to overthrow Moses, Aaron and God’s covenant presented a major challenge to the continuity of Israel as a community based on the rule of law and the mutual respect and affection of all its members. It was perhaps a fitting punishment for the man who, by challenging Moses, sought to undermine the constitutional foundations of Israel, that the earth opened up beneath his feet and swallowed him and all his associates.

(For a summary of rabbinic material concerning Korach, please see Louis Ginzberg, “The Legends of the Jews,” Vol 3, pp. 286-300, The Jewish Publication Society, 1968.) 

Return to top