No, Korah Is Not the Hero
Ethan Schwartz is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at Villanova University.
The story of Korah (Numbers 16), who gives his name to this week’s parsha, is one of the most memorable in the Torah. Korah is a bigshot Levite who joins with Dathan, Abiram, and On to instigate a coup against Moses and Aaron, whom they accuse of elitism and incompetence. The crisis is solved by prophetic and ritual contests in which Moses and Aaron emerge victorious. The insurrectionists are subsequently swallowed up by the earth (proving Moses’s prophetic legitimacy) and immolated by fire from the altar (proving Aaron’s priestly legitimacy).
Traditionally, Korah has been remembered as perhaps the greatest villain in the Torah not named Pharaoh. However, for a while now, it’s been trendy among some Jews—especially, though not exclusively, in liberal and progressive spaces—to defend Korah and his associates as great men of the people, democratizers who challenged corrupt leadership. (I’ll concede that this is anecdotal; I don’t have data to prove that this approach has been on the rise, but, for whatever it’s worth, it’s something that I personally have encountered for a while.) “The whole congregation is holy,” Korah says, “and the LORD is among them. So why do you lift yourselves up over the LORD’s community?” (Num 16:3). It’s an appealing message that seems to resonate with grassroots, egalitarian impulses. No wonder that some have tried to reclaim its spokesperson.
I don’t buy this alternative reading. However, I have discovered that resisting it is socially challenging because it sets me up to be dismissed as an apologist for the establishment. “Why are you automatically siding with Moses!?”—I get this all the time when I register my dissatisfaction with divrei Torah about how Korah was actually the good guy. Behind this reaction is an unstated but crucial assumption: the only way to see Korah as a villain is to maintain a pious assumption that Moses must be the hero. In other words, no one would ever side with Moses in this story unless they were already determined to do so at all costs—an unquestioning loyalty that would, in a way, end up proving Korah’s point.
Here, I’d like to lay out a case for why this assumption is flawed. The story is more sophisticated than these readers think. It presents Korah as the villain not simply because he challenges Moses, full stop, but because of how he does so. Once we appreciate this, we see that the pro-Korah reading is uncompelling—both literarily, in terms of the logic of the narrative, and ethically, in terms of its political implications.
To understand the significance of the story in its present, canonical form, we need to delve into the history of the Korah tradition. This will involve getting a bit into the weeds of the composition of the Torah. As a Bible scholar, I find this stuff inherently interesting. I’m aware that many Jews don’t share this sentiment. However, bear with me—these details are narratively material. Perhaps ironically, Korah’s role as the villain in the canonical story becomes clearest when we see that it wasn’t always so straightforward.
Numbers 16 contains a host of inconsistencies, jumps, and redundancies. These are the most prominent ones:
- For the most part, Korah and the Dathan/Abiram pair don’t show up together in the narrative.
- Korah’s complaint is solely about Moses’s and Aaron’s privileged status, whereas Dathan and Abiram are also upset about the hardships of the wilderness trek.
- Korah is more focused on Aaron, with only minor reference to Moses, whereas Dathan and Abiram are entirely focused on Moses, with no mention of Aaron whatsoever.
- Korah and his band come before Moses to lodge their complaint, whereas Dathan and Abiram lodge their complaint precisely by refusing to come before him.
- The ritual challenge involves only Korah, while the prophetic challenge primarily involves Dathan and Abiram.
- There are two distinct divine acts of destruction against the insurrectionists: the opening of the earth and the fire from the altar.
Bible scholars have generally understood these difficulties in terms of source criticism—i.e., the disentanglement of originally independent literary sources that underlie the biblical text as we know it. Separating the Korah verses from their Dathan/Abiram counterparts yields two remarkably coherent stories, requiring almost no changes to the actual words that appear. (No one knows quite what to do with On, who disappears from the story and from the Bible as a whole after the opening verse.)
In the Korah story, Korah is a disgruntled Levite who wonders why only Aaron and his sons enjoy the special privilege of being full priests. He and Aaron participate in a ritual duel, each offering incense in order to see whose ritual God will approve. God shows up and makes quite clear his displeasure with the seditious Korah. Moses backs everyone away from Korah and his crew, who are then killed when God’s fire blazes forth from the altar. This story is about the boundaries of the priesthood. Only Aaron and his sons are true priests.
In the Dathan/Abiram story, Dathan and Abiram are a pair of Reubenites whom Moses summons. However, they refuse to come, instead publicly impugning both the effectiveness and the legitimacy of Moses’s leadership. In response, he makes a promise: if the rebels die a natural death, they will know that he was in fact a fraud—but if they die through a miraculous, unnatural fissure in the earth, it will serve as a sign that he is God’s authentic prophet and Israel’s duly appointed leader. As soon as the words leave his lips, the earth is torn asunder, swallowing up Dathan, Abiram, and all their associates. This story is about the boundaries of prophecy. Only Moses is a true prophet.
The classic (if increasingly contested) source-critical theory of how the Torah came to be is the Documentary Hypothesis. According to this paradigm, the Torah was redacted from four distinct sources: the Yhwistic (J), Elohistic (E), Priestly (P), and Deuteronomic (D). The Korah story clearly belongs to P, which affirms the special status of Aaronide Levites (as full priests) over non-Aaronide Levites (“mere” Levites) and is preoccupied with ritual protocol. The Dathan/Abiram story, on the other hand, belongs to E, which evinces a running concern with the uniqueness of Moses’s prophetic status. The integration of these two rebellion stories in Numbers 16 is part of the redactor’s larger project of integrating the sources themselves.
To understand Korah’s function in P, we need to understand how the story implicates a different source: D. Korah’s bid for full priesthood runs afoul of the Priestly insistence that only Aaronides may be priests, which remains the case in Rabbinic Judaism to this day. However, it aligns perfectly well with D, according to which, indeed, all Levites are priests—“the levitical priests,” with no distinctions between levitical families. Meanwhile, Korah’s affirmation of the congregation’s inherent holiness contradicts the Priestly imperative that Israel “shall be holy for I am holy” (Lev 19:2)—i.e., holiness is a result of one’s observance of mitzvot. However, it matches up well with the Deuteronomic idea that Israel is “a people holy to the LORD your God” (Deut 7:6)—i.e., holiness is a quality that grounds observance of mitzvot in the first place. Korah’s challenges to Aaron in P are a dramatization of actual challenges that D, a crucial and powerful document in ancient Israel, posed to the authors of P. Once we recognize this, we may better characterize what the Korah story is: Aaronide propaganda.
If there is a path to Korah’s redemption, it leads through the Documentary Hypothesis. Once we articulate the agenda that motivates the story in P, we may justifiably doubt whether Korah deserved this smear campaign. If the book of Psalms is to be believed, Korah was the ancestor of a respected, central levitical family, credited with a substantial corpus of psalms. It’s hard to imagine the children of a notorious traitor composing liturgical poems for the temple. Instead, it seems likely that P chose Korah as its cipher for D precisely because he was such a prominent non-Aaronide Levite. The Korahite psalms, then, reflect a time before this slander had become part of the tradition.
The smoking gun is in D itself. When Moses recounts the wilderness wanderings, his mention of the rebellion is missing a notable name: “And what [God] did to Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab the Reubenite—that the earth opened wide its mouth and swallowed them, their households, their tents, and everything in their train, in the midst of all of Israel” (Deut 11:6). Where’s Korah? Did Moses just forget about him? No, of course not. Rather, it seems that D didn’t know about a Korah rebellion story at all. The reason why is obvious: it hadn’t been created yet. It was a Priestly response to D itself, a polemical caricature of Deuteronomic theology. The Documentary Hypothesis therefore invites us to imagine Korah differently. Pushing past the Priestly propaganda, we find a disenfranchised leader acting in good faith based on his own understanding of God, Israel, and the priesthood.
Part of why I study the Bible historically is because I believe that the Torah is enriched when we uncover its hidden literary layers. However, I also believe that, at the end of the day, the Torah to which Jews are accountable is the canonical one. Even if the Korah story originated as an ideologically motivated hit piece, this doesn’t necessarily bear on how the redactor incorporated it into the story that we’ve received. After all, the redactor’s Torah also includes the D source itself, with all its “Korahite” affinities, as it were. Clearly, we should resist any facile identification of the redactor with the Priestly agenda. Instead, we need to ask what Korah is doing in his present narrative context.
In Numbers 16 as we know it, the two distinct rebellions are not simply folded into a single coup. The narrative intertwinement is more sophisticated. Korah’s sights remain on the priesthood, as in P. He shows no inherent interest in Dathan’s and Abiram’s complaint, and with good reason. It’s just the crude, selfish whining in which Israel has indulged since leaving Egypt. Korah joins them not because they share a cause but because they share an enemy: Dathan and Abiram are angry at Moses, and Moses is Aaron’s principal defender. Korah shrewdly realizes that he can ride this popular anger toward his own political ends. The redactor centers Korah in this manner by consistently naming him first in the list of rebels and positioning his contest and demise as the opening and closing events, respectively. He isn’t just an associate of Dathan and Abiram. He’s the brains of the operation.
In weaving together the two rebellion stories, the redactor has maintained Korah’s motives from P while transforming his methods—and that transformation makes all the difference. Korah forges an alliance with scoundrels because it’s politically expedient; he’s so consumed with deposing Aaron that he doesn’t stop to think about the potential dangers of letting Dathan and Abiram loose. In this way, Korah becomes a textbook case of the cynical manipulation of populist unrest for personal political ambition. In the year 2021 in the United States, the perils of this sort of political thinking scarcely need elaboration.
Some readers might still insist that this story is surely just the redactor’s pious defense of Israel’s greatest prophet and first high priest—and implicate me in this apologetics. However, there’s actually little basis for this. The redactor’s Torah is strikingly honest about Moses’s and Aaron’s inadequacies. Moses loses his cool on a regular basis and needs Jethro’s help setting up a legal system. Aaron oversees the sin of the golden calf. Neither lives to see the promised land. There’s no indication that the sheer fact of Korah’s objection would have scandalized the redactor, or that he believed Moses and Aaron to be perfect leaders. A major upshot of my reading, therefore, is that Korah is in the wrong for reasons that don’t ultimately depend upon Moses and Aaron being squarely in the right. There are responsible ways to challenge ineffective political leadership. The point here is that those ways are not Korah’s.
Those inclined to defend Korah are attracted to what they see as his commitment to checking the idolatry of unquestioned power and to standing up for the people. But here’s the thing: the Torah as a whole and the rest of the Hebrew Bible—to say nothing of classical Rabbinic literature—also pulsate with this commitment. The Torah embeds a suspicion of human power and a concern for the disenfranchised into the very foundation of its vision for society. The prophets thunderously held Israel’s leaders accountable to this vision. The Rabbis creatively adapted it for a community in exile. When it comes to resources for challenging authority productively, with integrity, and in genuine service to God, our tradition is an embarrassment of riches.
It’s therefore equal parts baffling and infuriating to me that every year, like clockwork, I hear so many Jews turn to Korah as a model of these exalted ideals. Even if—and it’s a big “if”—Korah is guided by some version of these ideals, his misguided means of realizing them make him the villain of the story. His defenders valorize a superficial, sanitized version of his challenge to authority without thinking through the dangerous implications of the specific type of rebellion that he stokes. In so doing, they replicate precisely their hero’s own mistake.