It seems weird after reading all the stuff about rape and slavery that this would be the first passage that I find deeply problematic.
I blame it on my Lutheranism. See, we believe in something called “the priesthood of all believers,” which means that there’s no need for intercessors between us and God. Now, a lot of that idea comes from the beliefs that (1) Christ is the only true “priest” at this point, and (2) the various prophecies and foreshadowing of everyone being a prophet or a priest and everyone having the covenant written on their hearts were all fulfilled with Christ. So I suppose it’s unfair to impose that new doctrine back on the Hebrew Bible.
But I’m also an American, and we have a real streak of egalitarianism, of being against arbitrary, unelected powers. And when I hear Korah and his group of rebels talking, I can’t help but feel that they have a point.
Part of the reason they’re wrong is that God in these early passages is almost like this force that has to be contained. Only a small number of people go through a purification process that can let them withstand his presence. Technically, the offerings that the rebels give in this chapter are actually valid, but they’re burned up because they’re not ready to be in God’s direct presence. But that just changes the nature of the question: why can’t everyone go through the same process? Why does there need to be this tiny elite who control access to God?
I went looking for answers in Rabbinical sources, but was dismayed to find that the midrash usually make this story even worse. There’s a parable attributed to Korah in which he uses examples from Mosaic law to show how following it to the letter would leave some people destitute. And there’s no rabbinical rebuttal to this; the only place where he’s wrong is that he uses this parable to try to “prove” that Moses and Aaron are making everything up to benefit them.
The upshot is that it makes God seem extremely unfair when he calls down judgment without offering any explanation on not just the rebels, but on their families.
That’s where my reading on rabbinical traditions actually gave me some relief. Rabbis who’ve read further than me note that in Chronicles, Korah is given a whole list of prestigious descendents, including Samuel, the last judge. Which means that, indications of this chapter aside, his children don’t die. The only members of “his household” who perish are the adults who’d joined with him. The lens of tradition (and Chronicles is quite a bit later than the Pentateuch) seems to deem the judgment of Korah’s family too harsh. For once God doesn’t treat people as guilty-by-association.
And then there’s Aaron’s actions at the end of the chapter, placing himself in between the plague and the people. Maybe this is meant to indicate that Korah’s fears about Moses and Aaron being tyrants are unfounded – that they’re benevolent theocrats, who try to help the people. To which I would say that, while sometimes as in this case they’re very good at their jobs, other times they’re not.
Which is why, in the end, Korah did have a point. And why I find this passage so frustrating.
The Japanese: totou “faction, gang,” bun wo koeteiru “to go too far” (v 3), youkyuu suru “to demand” (v 10), shuuketsu suru “to gather (intransitive)” (v 11), kunrin suru “to reign” (v 13), eguridasu “to gouge” (v 14), aitai suru “to come face-to-face” (v 19), samonai to “or else” (v 26), soushi suru “to begin, to author,” naigashiro ni suru “to make light of, to ignore, to slight” (v 30), oou “to cover” (v 33).
Note: it’s not that verses 36-50 had no words I didn’t know in Japanese, but rather that, again, the NCT is following the Jewish verse numbering, and those are part of chapter 17, which is much shorter in the traditional Christian version.