Korah and Dathan

The Daily Office lectionary is currently heading through a bit of Numbers 16 which brings us the interesting story of Korah, Dathan, et al. and their confrontation with Moses and Aaron.

Here’s the quick summary. Korah, Dathan, and a whole bunch of ther folks are Levites. Early in the Torah, God had called the Levites to serve in the temple and these folks are part of the batch who are not of Aaron’s lineage. So they will never be priests. Korah and the leaders confront Moses and Aaron and accuse them of usurping the priestly authority of the whole people. As a priestly people, any of them should be able to offer sacrifice. Today’s reading ended with the scene of the showdown–the two opposing groups are getting ready to present incense offerings to the Lord…

Given discussions around here recently on a number of issues, priesthood of all believers, sacramental efficacy, biblical interpretation, etc. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and comments on this text.

1 thought on “Korah and Dathan

  1. Caelius

    The theme in the recent readings from Numbers has been challenges to Moses’ authority by those who believe they are or could be as special he is.

    First, there is the attempt to relieve Moses of his heavy responsibilities by giving a measure of his affinity with God’s spirit to seventy elders. It doesn’t work so well, but Moses shows great humility when he hears of Eldad and Medad prophesying.

    Second, Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses’ authority, because he married a Cushite woman (presumably Zipporah), thereby compromising racial purity. Interestingly, the Lord speaks to all three of them, confirming that Aaron and Miriam indeed are special. But then the Lord says, “of all my household he alone is faithful.” And this much is true. Both Aaron and Miriam presumably worshipped the Golden Calf, as did the rest of Israel. So in the household of Israel or in the family of Amram (the father of the three), Moses alone is faithful (see Hebrews 3:2). Thus, it doesn’t matter that Moses married an “alien” woman (and the Midianites likely worship the Lord…). Aaron and Miriam disqualified themselves from leadership by idolatry.

    Miriam is then made leprous, horrifying Aaron. But the Lord replies to Moses’ entreaties, “Suppose her father had spat in her face, would she not have to remain in disgrace for seven days.” My Bible’s notes connect this directly with Leviticus 15:8, but that refers to the spit of a leper. Instead, I think the Lord is referring to some sort of common shaming punishment, analogous to Deuteronomy 25:8-9 or how Jesus was treated in the Gospels by some of the bystanders. Thus, the Lord poses Himself as the foster father of the children of Amram.

    Third, there’s the business of the scout operation by the end of which the Lord “swore in [His] anger that they would not enter [His] rest” (as the Psalmist says). And interestingly enough, the Mishnah says that this was not a temporal penalty but indeed, “The generation of the wilderness has no portion in the world to come.” Though the Mishnah says this of the generation of the Flood, too, and thus it’s likely that something changed during the Harrowing.

    The rebellion of Korah is just the latest challenge. What the Office readings skip is the legislative context. We read that the Lord commanded such and such through Moses, but the Israelites apparently do not believe it. Just read Numbers 15. You might be fearful that Moses and the priests were taking advantage of you, too. You would have just attended the stoning of a man for collecting sticks on the Sabbath. So there’s a revolt. My notes suggest two rebellions are combined in this account.

    What is very odd is the claim of “holiness” here. This is not an issue with the Children of Amram, because Aaron and Miriam clearly are prophets in the credal sense. The Lord speaks to them. But Korah and his confederates seem to be claiming that their presence at the coming of the “glory of the Lord” upon the Ark during the assemblies makes them holy and worthy of the altar service of Aaron and the judicial duties of Moses. The problem is, their plan has been tried with the seventy elders. They prophesized once and it didn’t work anymore.

    But it’s clear what the problem here is: the rebels don’t want to deal with the penalty for their infidelity. They are greedy. The revolting non-Levites (Dathan and Abiram) would like the “fields and vineyards” they were promised, though their children will inherit these things. The Levites’ motives are less clear, but we have to presume that the extremes measures against them on account of greed as well (for the sacrificial gifts etc.). And I think greed is their primary sin, since the Lord makes it very clear that their households and property is to be destroyed, so that not only do they enjoy nothing more and go down to death but their lineage (which would otherwise receive the promise of the Lord) is also annihilated.

    The Sheol-swallowing penalty is appropriate for Dathan and Abiram and their lineage, but the Lord has a different way of punishing the ambitious Levites: He grants their desire by sanctifying them as a holocaust offering and indeed makes their censers (and in some sense their remains, though these are separated) holy, so that they have to be made part of the altar. And indeed Numbers 26 suggests Korah might not have been greedy, since his children survive.

    But the key point is that the censers are a reminder to the Israelites that Aaron’s descendants alone should perform the duties of the priesthood.

    Derek asks what is the relevance of this story for us? And frankly I think its only significance is to warn us that we should not assume sacred duties or consume sacred foods lightly, for we can be sanctified even to death. I don’t think it speaks to priesthood in the Church directly, since the priesthood of which it speaks has been fulfilled and therefore transformed by Christ (i.e. Hebrews 7:14 etc.), though the author of Hebrews says of the high priesthood, “No one assumes the office on his own authority” (Hebrews 5:4).

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