Moses stood on a small desert hilltop overlooking the tents of Datan and Aviram in the tribe of Reuven. A large crowd greeted him.
“Depart from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs,” Moses proclaimed, “lest you be swept away in all their sins.”
The brothers Datan and Aviram exited their tents, looked up at Moses and snickered.
“Moses, you charlatan,” Datan called out, “enough with your blabbering. Don’t you realize that we are tired of your nonsense? You and your clan can walk in circles in the desert here. We are ready to lead the people back to Egypt. The people are hungry for leadership – real leadership, not this circus you and your brother have performed for us. You are nothing but a cheap magician, a fraud and a liar. Where is the land flowing with milk and honey? Where are the vineyards and orchards you promised? We should kill you for your arrogance and depravity.”
Moses looked heavenward and closed his eyes. He opened them suddenly, raised his clenched hands to the sky and yelled to the crowd:
“Thus shall you know that God has sent me to do all these works, and that I have not done them of mine own mind. If these men die the common death of all men, then God has not sent me. But if God makes a new thing and the ground opens her mouth, and swallows them with all their belongings and they go down alive into the netherworld, then you shall understand that these men have rebelled against God.”
The ground of the entire camp rumbled as if the earth had a pained gut. Holes appeared in the sandy ground around the tents of Datan and Aviram. Blasts of steam and sand erupted from each hole. Men, women and children fell into the fissures. Entire tents were swallowed up, all their contents crashing as they were sucked into the dark abyss. People ran in all directions. Some holes followed their victims until they caught up with them, the victims clawing at the sand as they fell. Other holes opened in front of the victims, anticipating their next step. Datan and Aviram ran together. They abandoned their screaming family. A large hole expanded rapidly and ingested what just moments before had been their tents. With long strides Datan outpaced Aviram. A hole caught up with Aviram. Aviram lost his footing slipped down the opening of the hole and grabbed Datan’s leg.
“Datan, help me.”
Datan pushed Aviram’s hands from his leg. “Sorry, brother. It’s every man for himself.”
“You piece of dung. God damn you, Datan. You’ll rot in hell for this.”
“Then I’ll see you there little brother,” Datan said as he kicked Aviram in the face and watched him fall down the hole.
Datan ran from the closing hole and promptly fell into one in front of him. He smashed his shoulder on the ground of a dark cavern. He quickly stood up his shoulder throbbing in pain, and felt an oppressive heat. He looked at his robe to take it off and was surprised to see he was naked.
His eyes adjusted to the darkness. He stood on a ledge in a gigantic cavern shaped like an inverted mountain. A wide ledge spiraled to the bottom far below. People shuffled and crawled upwards along the ledge.
A large bat-like creature flew towards Datan. It had the wingspan of a vulture and a familiar face. Its body was leathery and grey. The creature smiled at Datan as it aimed at his injured shoulder. With its razor-sharp fangs the creature sunk its teeth deep in Datan’s flesh and bit off a piece.
“Aaayy,” Datan wailed.
“Welcome, Datan!” The creature spat out the fist-sized flesh. “It is a thrill to finally greet you.”
“Who are you?” Datan said, clutching his shoulder. He was surprised to see his shoulder whole and healthy though still in excruciating pain.
“I’m offended. Don’t you recognize me?” The creature dug its talons on either side of Datan’s shoulders and craned its long neck to peer straight at Datan.
“You, you look like me,” Datan stammered.
“Bright boy. I am your mirror image. I am the sum of all the evil, all the bad deeds and thoughts and plotting that you accumulated throughout your life. Your evil has given me life. I’m probably amongst the most powerful creatures in hell.”
“What’s your name? What do you do?”
“I call myself Natad,” the creature smirked, “and my task in life is to torment you. I’ll be your constant companion. I will kick you when you are down. When you are feeling bad I will make you feel worse. When hope is within reach I shall smash it to pieces. I am your worst nightmare.”
A luscious Egyptian dancer whom Datan remembered from a tavern in Ramses walked up the ledge towards Datan. A hot wind blew from the bottom of the cavern tearing at Datan’s skin. Datan walked towards the beckoning dancer against the wind. His mouth hung open and a trickle of drool ran down his chin.
“Lie with me,” the dancer offered from a few feet away. Datan ran towards her, but the wind kept him back. The harder he tried, the stronger and hotter the wind roared. The wind lacerated Datan’s skin. His eyes boiled from the heat, yet he did not remove his gaze from the dancer. Other men walked past Datan untroubled by the wind. Some of the men ran up the slope of the ledge. Others walked slowly, peering back at the dancer. The wind pushed Datan closer to the end of the ledge.
“Desist you fool!” Natad yelled.
“I…must…have…her…” Datan gritted against the blasting wind and was pushed further to the edge.
Datan fell off the ledge down to the next ledge several feet below. He quickly got up and tried to walk up the spiral, but his feet could not move. He could only move down the spiral. He spotted Natad flapping overhead.
“Why can’t I move up the spiral?”
“Only those who prove themselves, who have realized the error of their ways, can move up the spiral. Otherwise you are stuck on the spiral. You will be here for as long as it takes you to understand how much you messed up your life.”
“How long does it take?”
“Most people climb up after a few months, some even in a few days.”
“I can’t even take a step forward.”
“You are a particularly nasty case and a source of great pride to me.”
“I see a constant stream of people walking up the spiral through all sorts of obstacles.”
“They are being both punished and tested for their failed traits.”
“The list is long, but I’m anxious to get you to some specific ones.”
Without further warning, Natad flew at Datan and knocked him over the ledge.
Datan fell to the next ledge. Before he could get up, Natad knocked him over again. Ledge after ledge, Natad repeatedly knocked Datan. In a blur, Datan saw all types of people, many of whom he recognized. People he knew as angry, cruel, proud and power-hungry. Most of them had been his friends. He saw them in a variety of positions: bent over, huddled, contorted, hugging themselves, doubled over in anguish or in fetus-like positions.
Many crawled up the spiral only to stop and twist their bodies in agony. Eventually they picked themselves up and moved up the spiral again.
“Stop!” Datan yelled. “Please, I can’t take it anymore. Stop knocking me over.”
“Good idea,” Natad responded. “I like this level. Let’s check it out.”
Datan stood up. In front of him was the biggest sack of gold he had ever seen. The sack came up to his chest, was wide as it was tall and was brimming with gold coins. Datan hugged the sack only to recoil as it burned his arms and torso. Besides the insufferable heat, Datan finally noticed the horrible stench. He tried to identify its source. He then understood that it emanated from his own body.
Datan pushed on the sack, ignoring the blistering heat on his hands. The sack pushed him back. Datan dug his heels into the ground only to have them scraped raw. Men passed him with a look of pity. They slowed down when they eyed the gold, but turned their faces away and moved up quickly. Datan couldn’t stop the sliding of the sack of gold. He lost his footing and slipped underneath the sack. The sack rolled over Datan slowly. He felt the bones of his toes break, then his ankles and his legs. His entire rib cage collapsed under the weight of the gold, followed by his arms, fingers and skull. The sack reversed direction and rolled over Datan again, turning whatever bones he had left to dust.
Datan never imagined such pain could exist. His bitten shoulder, his burned skin, his broken body all cried out with thousands of voices of agony. He could barely breathe. He didn’t know how he was still alive.
He tried to move and was shocked to find he could. His body looked unharmed. He was able to stand. He tried to take a step up the slope. A stream of people continued to pass him.
“How come they can move forward and I can’t? Don’t they feel the weight pulling us down?” Datan spat at Natad.
“You think it is your body that can’t move?” Natad flapped his wings merrily. “You have no body here. It is your spirit. Your spirit is weighed down by your avarice and lust and envy and sloth and the malevolent being you became on Earth. Have no fear though. This isn’t even the beginning for you.”
Natad knocked Datan off the ledge again.
Datan landed on the bottom of the cavern. Suddenly, he felt cold. He had landed on a sheet of solid ice. He thought the ice might soothe his burned body, but the pain of the cold was even worse.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“This is a special place,” said Natad, “reserved for esteemed sinners, for those who have betrayed their family, their people and God. Those whose deeds are so despicable they have little chance of redemption. You’re a small step from the beginning of the slope, but I don’t know if anyone has ever made it. Once you reach here, it is hard to leave.”
Datan felt the cold from the icy floor seep through his legs. He was paralyzed by the realization of all he had done wrong in his life. His life had not only been a waste, it had been a blight on all those around him. His evil had pervaded all those he touched. A tear fell from his eye, solidified in mid-air and shattered on the icy floor. Datan was able to move his toe.
“Not so fast, Datan,” Natad said. “There’s someone here who’s been waiting for you.”
Datan turned around and saw his brother. Aviram’s face was frozen in fury, anger and anguish.
“You said we would meet here,” Aviram whispered through clenched teeth. “I couldn’t think of a worse punishment.”
Neither could I, Datan thought to himself. He tried to move his toe, but realized it was frozen again. All the hurt he had experienced on his way down, all the hurt he had inflicted on others revisited him in throbbing waves. He saw unceasing visions of the victims of his cruelty, plotting and self-centeredness. He felt their pain like needles in his heart. The burning of his flesh, the lack of air and the putrid stench assaulted him. His brother looking over him, yelling curses, reminded him of his betrayals. It reminded him of the many chances he had been given in life and how he had turned each opportunity into disaster. He recalled his repeated betrayal of God, Moses, the Israelite nation, his tribe, friends, family, his brother and finally, himself.
Datan barely remained conscious through the waves of anguish. With every moment of awareness the pain increased.
Then, as he thought he could take no more, the pain multiplied a thousand-fold. In horror he realized he might be here forever.
* * * * * *
Based on and inspired by Dante’s Inferno. While Dante’s vision is based on Christian sources, I suspect that some of them are based on even earlier Jewish sources. If anyone can bring references one way or another, it would be appreciated.
“Korach and his followers shall not rise (from hell).” Tractate Sanhedrin
Anything you can blame on those wicked men (Datan and Aviram), blame on them. Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot 167
Datan and Aviram stood fast in their wickedness, and they descended to the nethermost depth after descending into the grave alive. Bamidbar Rabbah 18:4
They had two traits: brazenness and divisiveness. Bamidbar Rabbah 18:12
In the wilderness, the people of Israel decided to appoint Datan in place of Moses and Aviram in place of Aaron. Shocher Tov 106:5
“Two quarrelsome Hebrew men” (Exodus 2:13). These were Datan and Aviram. It was they who said to Moses, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?”; it was they who left over manna; it was they who said, “Let us appoint a captain and return to Egypt” and it was they who rebelled at the Sea of Reeds. They also intended to kill one another. Both of them were wicked. Shemot Rabbah 1:29
As soon as they saw Moses, they began to mock him and blaspheme. Bamidbar Rabbah 18:4
Numbers Chapter 16
1 Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; 2 and they rose up in face of Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown; 3 and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them: ‘Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’ 4 And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face.
12 And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab; and they said: ‘We will not come up; 13 is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but thou must needs make thyself also a prince over us? 14 Moreover thou hast not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards; wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? we will not come up.’
23 And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: 24 ‘Speak unto the congregation, saying: Get you up from about the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.’ 25 And Moses rose up and went unto Dathan and Abiram; and the elders of Israel followed him. 26 And he spoke unto the congregation, saying: ‘Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest ye be swept away in all their sins.’ 27 So they got them up from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, on every side; and Dathan and Abiram came out, and stood at the door of their tents, with their wives, and their sons, and their little ones. 28 And Moses said: ‘Hereby ye shall know that the Lord hath sent me to do all these works, and that I have not done them of mine own mind. 29 If these men die the common death of all men, and be visited after the visitation of all men, then the Lord hath not sent Me. 30 But if the Lord make a new thing, and the ground open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down alive into the pit, then ye shall understand that these men have despised the Lord.’ 31 And it came to pass, as he made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground did cleave asunder that was under them. 32 And the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods.