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Parashat Korach - Quick Summary

Weekly Torah Reading

Parashat Korach ("Korah")

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Brit Chadashah


Numbers 16:1-18:32

1 Sam. 11:14-12:22

Rom. 13:1-7

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Torah Reading Snapshot:

We read in last week's Torah (Parashat Shelach) that on account of the "sin of the ten spies" the entire generation of Israelites rescued from Egypt was sentenced to die while in the desert. In this week's reading, the hard truth of their condition began to sink in, and the people bemoaned their fate and rebelled further by attempting to overthrow the LORD's designated leadership and return to Egypt. This rebellion was instigated and organized by Moses' cousin Korach, who - along with co-conspirators from the tribe of Reuben - was swiftly judged and put to death, thereby vindicating the Aaronic priesthood and Moses' leadership of Israel.

The parashah begins:

Numbers 16:1-2 (BHS)

Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth -- descendants of Reuben -- to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. (Numbers 16:1-2)

The Four Rebellions

Four separate rebellions are mentioned in this parashah: Korach against Aaron; Dathan and Abiram against Moses, the tribal chiefs against Aaron, and finally, the entire community against Moses. The chief conspirator, however, was Korach, a member of the Kohathite clan who appears to be involved in all four of the rebellious movements.

Korach was a cousin of Moses who rationalized that he should be the head of the Kohathite clan (instead of his cousin Elzaphan), since he was the firstborn of Kohath's second son, whereas Elzaphan was the not even a firstborn son. According to Jewish tradition, Korach was accustomed to power in Egypt and preferred the "old order" of primogeniture laws. The midrash states that he gained his great wealth by discovering some of the treasures that Joseph had hidden in Egypt which he took for himself. It is possible that he served as a liaison with the Egyptian royalty and helped organize the taskmasters. Indeed, Korach appeared to have lived as a prince back in Egypt....

At any rate, here is a condensed genealogy of Levi that indicates some of the relationships within the tribe:

Line of Korah

The Midrash Rabbah states, "Korach argued: My father was one of four brothers; as it says, "And the sons of Kehat: Amram, and Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel" (Exod. 6:18). As for Amram the firstborn, his son Aaron attained to greatness and Moses to royalty. Who then should rightly take the next office? Is it not the next in line? Now I, being the son of Izhar, should by right be the leader of the Kohathites, yet Moses appointed the son of Uzziel! Shall the son of the youngest of my father's brothers be superior to me? Behold, I shall dispute his decision and put to naught all that has been arranged by him."

Korach's co-conspirators were two brothers named Dathan and Abiram from the tribe of Reuben, Israel's firstborn son. Since traditionally the firstborn son obtained the leadership of the people, these tribal leaders would have resented Moses' leadership of Israel.

The parashah begins with Korach and 250 leaders of Israel confronting Moses and Aaron: "You have gone too far! (רַב־לָכֶם, lit., "(too) much for you!")... Why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?"

Moses then fell on his face and challenged Korach and his company to offer the sacred ketoret (incense) at the Holy of Holies in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) the following morning (this ritual was the most sacred of the services in the sanctuary, permitted only to the Kohen Gadol (high priest), and only under special circumstances). If their incense was accepted, that would prove their worthiness for the Aaronic kehunnah (priesthood).

To establish his credibility as the leader of the people (instead of the heads of the tribe of Reuben), Moses then called for Dathan and Abiram, but they refused to meet with him. Moreover, they sent message that accused Moses of deceiving the people (note that the idiom, "should you gouge out their eyes?" means "pull the wool over their eyes").

The following morning, Korach and the 250 leaders of Israel appeared before the Mishkan with their fire pans, ready to offer the incense. The whole assembly of Israel stood nearby and watched the power encounter unfold. But the Shechinah glory of the LORD suddenly appeared and the LORD spoke to Aaron and Moses saying that He would now destroy the  people in an instant.  But they fell upon their faces and said: "O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh (אֱלהֵי הָרוּחת לְכָל־בָּשָׂר), shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?"

The LORD then told them to instruct all the people to move away from the surroundings of Korach, Dathan, and Abiram. Moses then went before the tents of his rivals Dathan and Abiram and affirmed that the LORD had chosen him to lead Israel. He then pronounced the LORD's judgment and the earth swallowed them up alive.

Next, "fire from LORD" went forth and consumed the 250 men who offered incense. The LORD then instructed Eliazar, the son of Aaron, to collect the fire pans which the 250 men offered the ketoret and hammer them into plates as a covering of the altar. This was to serve as a warning that no one who is not of the family Aaron should presume to come and offer incense at the altar, lest they suffer the fate of Korach.

The following day, however, the entire community of Israel rose up in rebellion against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of "bringing death upon the LORD's people." When mob looked toward the Tabernacle, however, the Glory of the LORD appeared, and God descended to tell Moses and Aaron that he was going to destroy the entire congregation. Despite their fervent intercession, however, a deadly plague broke out among the people. Moses then instructed Aaron to take a fire pan with ketoret and bring it in the midst of the congregation to make atonement for them (though this was not part of the ritual use for ketoret). Aaron did so, "and he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stayed." The Torah tells us that 14,700 Israelites died because of the plague, not including the deaths of those involved in the rebellion of Korach.

As a final test to vindicate Aaron as God's chosen priest, each of the twelve tribal heads of Israel, as well as Aaron himself, were instructed to bring their staffs to Moses. Moses then inscribed their names on each staff and brought them into the sanctuary before the ark of the testimony. "And the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout. Thus I will make to cease from me the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against you."


The following day Moses went into the Mishkan and "behold, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds." He then brought out all the staffs and gave them back to each of the tribal leaders. The LORD then told Moses to return Aaron's staff to the Mishkan as a memorial and testimony for generations to come (King Josiah is said to have hidden the rod before the destruction of the First Temple).

After all this transpired, the people began to dread the Presence of the LORD and the Mishkan. To allay their fears, Moses gave them assurance that the sons of Aaron (i.e., the priests) and the Levites alone would bear responsibility for any encroachment of the sanctuary. All "strangers" (i.e., laymen) are warned to keep their distance. But since the Levites and Kohanim (priests) would receive no portion in the promised land, the people were instructed to support them by means of mattanot (gifts), which are listed at the end of the parashah (see note, below).

In conclusion, parashat Korach establishes the authority of Moses (not Reuben) as the leader of Israel, and the authority of Aaron (not the other sons of Kohath) as God's chosen priestly line.

Note: Even today, within modern Judaism, there are three well-defined classes of Jews recognized:

  1. Kohanim (כּהֲנִים) - A direct descendant of Aaron. Today, a kohen is the first one called to perform aliyah at a Torah reading in the synagogue.
  2. Levites (לְוִיִּים) - A descendant of Levi (e.g., a Gershonite, Merarite, or Kohathite other than from Aaron's line). Today, a Levite is the second one called to perform aliyah at the synagogue.
  3. Israelites (יִשְׂרְאֵלִים) - A descendant of one of the 12 tribes of Israel (i.e., a descendant from Asher, Benjamin, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Joseph, Judah, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulun).

Note that while all priests are Levites, not all Levites are priests....

Mattanot Kehunah - Gifts to the Priests

Because the Kohanim and Levites were given no specific portion of the land of Israel, they were to be supported by contributions (terumot) from the people. The Torah lists 24 of these gifts to the priests, including the regular terumah (portions of crops), bikurim offerings (First Fruits), parts of various sacrificial offerings, and revenue from pidyon bechorim (First Born). The LORD calls this agreement brit melakh, a "covenant of salt" (salt is a symbol of eternity because of its preservative properties, opposed to chametz (leavening). Salt does not ferment and preserves food against rot.)

Ma'aser - Tithes to the Levites

Just as God made an agreement with the Kohanim, so He made one with the Levites, who would receive ma'aser rishon - the first 10% of each farmer's produce.  This regular tithe amounted to supporting the servants of the priests of Israel.

The fate of the "Wilderness Generation"

According to the Midrash (Eichah Rabbah), every year until the fortieth year, on the eve of the Ninth of Av, Moses would command the people, "Go out and dig," and the people would leave the camp, dig graves, and sleep in them overnight. The following morning a messenger would proclaim, "Let the living separate from the dead!" Fifteen thousand would die that very night, but the survivors would return to the camp for another year.

This occurred year after year, but in the fortieth year no one died. Since they thought they might have miscalculated the days, they slept in their graves an additional night. This went on for five nights until the fifteenth of Av, when they saw the full moon, realized that there calculations were correct, and rejoiced that no more of the first generation would die. They subsequently declared Tu B'Av a day of celebration. The "desert generation" had finally died off and the new generation was finally ready to enter the land!

Haftarah Reading Snapshot:

The Haftarah for Korach likewise concerns a change in leadership for Israel, but transports us to the time when the prophet Samuel anointed Saul as the first king of Israel. Samuel (a descendant of Kohath) gathered the people of Israel to Gilgal to "renew the kingdom" and there recounted their history as a people, from the time of the patriarchs up to the present time - when Nachash the Ammonite had threatened Israel with bondage. In response to this threat, Israel demanded a king to lead them. Samuel told the people that their present condition was a result of their disobedience to the LORD by worshipping idols and refusing Him as their rightful King.

King Saul's Anointing  (

The LORD allowed the Israelites to have a king, even though this was a tacit rejection of His Kingship, but Samuel warned that having an earthly monarch would not change their condition before the LORD. Only if the people and the new king submit to the LORD would it go well with them; otherwise, they would be punished, just as their ancestors were. 

Samuel demonstrated the truth of his words by calling upon the LORD to perform a miracle to show that He would indeed punish the people if they did not follow Him. Even though it was the time of the wheat harvest and rain was rare in the climate of Israel, Samuel called for a thunderstorm to come to show the people that they sinned by asking for a king.

The people then were afraid that they had sinned by asking for a king, but Samuel comforted them with these words: "Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. For the LORD will not forsake his people, for his great name's sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself."

Brit Chadashah Snapshot:

The New Testament reading reinforces the instruction that we are to submit to God's chosen authority. The Apostle Paul emphatically states that Christians are to submit to civil authorities, since these have been established by God. We are further warned that whoever resists these God-established authorities will incur judgment.


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