Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Korach Crux Redux

A few weeks ago, DovBear re-posted a piece entitled "The Korach Crux," a colorful deconstruction of the first part of the Torah portion of the same name. (Don't worry, we'll get to this week's portion presently.) I didn't have a chance to respond to that post before that Shabbat, but the next morning, I did notice that the rest of the portion may be similarly divided. [Please note that the verse numbers refer to Chapter 17 in the standard Tanakh; your mileage may vary.]

Collection of the Fire Pans (1-5) "and he will not be like Korah and his assembly"
Complaint on the Morrow (6-8)
Plague & Intercession (9-15) "aside from those who died due to the Korah matter"
[Despair at the Tabernacle (27-28)]
Sign of the Staffs (16-24)
Aaron's Staff before God (25-26)

Note that I have moved the final two verses of the chapter. That is because the sign of the staffs clearly relates to Korah's claims against Aaron, and it seems to be in response to something, namely the fear on the part of the people about the "Tabernacle of the LORD" (NOT the Tent of Meeting; see above 16:9) being a danger to the people. Why is it written at the end of the chapter if it belongs earlier? Well, these two verses send us into two good-sized chapters (18-19) about who shall approach and how they shall do so. These two chapters clearly must have been stated earlier, as they deal with those two inevitable human experiences, taxes and death, and could not have waited until the second year in the desert. Also note the textual clues: God speaks exclusively to Aaron in Chapter 18, which we only find immediately after the deaths of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10; and Chapter 19 again uses that special phrase "Tabernacle of the LORD."

And speaking of tabernacles, we do have one point at which our antagonists meet, in "the tabernacle of Korah, Datan and Abiram" (v. 27). Of course, this may be an innocent term, but I believe that it is significant, especially considering the use of it earlier in the chapter (for the first time in Numbers). I would like to propose that Datan and Abiram are in fact in the proper place: their rebellion is all about "you haven't brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards," which would make sense right after the decree of forty years of wandering. It is Korah who is out of place. And where does he belong? This week's portion may tell us, as in 27:3, Zelophehad's daughters declare: 

"Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the company of them that gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons." 
Now, why would the DoZ mention Korah, that tiny incident that is totally forgotten in Deuteronomy? There are many possibilities, but the simplest is that they initially approach Moses soon after Korah's rebellion; amid a census, yes, but not that of the 40th year. This would also help resolve an issue which has always bothered me: if we put Zelophehad's death in the first two years and the entire narrative of his daughters in the 40th, wouldn't they already be in their 40's and 50's at least? Did they remain unmarried through all this time? Why are the Gileadites so worried about their fertility in Ch. 36? However, if they approach Moses amid the Sinai census (and merely return now in the 40th year, cf. Joshua 17), soon after the Korah incident, the chronology works much better.

In essence, I am arguing that the Korah incident occurs, chronologically, in the end of Exodus, while the Tabernacle is under construction. (Note that "the entrance to the Tent of Meeting" is called that even while construction is still ongoing, Ex. 38:8.) Essentially, Moses promises the world to the Levites in order to put down the Golden Calf insurrection (hey, that was today!), and it's not surprising that Korah, as well as some other Levites and prominent Israelites, would resent the fact that Aaron, who made the Calf, is the one to receive the privileges of priesthood. This somewhat sullies the themes of redemption and repentance in Exodus, and the death of Korah and his men is in any case overshadowed by the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, who do something very similar, but have good reason to think they might get away with it. However, the middle of Numbers is a great place to insert Korah, as Datan and Abiram invoke his martyrdom in "the tabernacle of Korah, Datan and Abiram"--yet another honest man struck down by Moses' arrogance, in their view. This even gets a mention in this week's portion, 26:9-11.

Does this approach work, or is the fasting getting to me?

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