Korah was perhaps Moshe’s greatest challenger and adversary. A member of the same tribe and family, Korah felt entitled to a greater leadership role. An accomplished demagogue, he tried to face down Moshe’s leadership to advance his own position. To do so, he gathered around him those who also desired to usurp Moshe’s power base by denying the authenticity of Moshe’s prophetic calling.
This attempted power grab led to a number of miraculous divine intercessions where God reaffirms his choice of Moshe as leader. In one of these episodes, Moshe’s adversaries and their families, including Korah and his family, are gathered together when Moshe calls forth a miracle where his enemies are swallowed up by the earth:
And Moshe said: ‘By this you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all of these deeds, that it was not from my own heart: If like the death of all human beings these die, and if the fate of all human beings proves their fate, it is not the Lord who has sent me. But if a new thing the Lord should create, and the ground gapes open its mouth and swallows them and all of theirs and they go down alive to Sheol, you will know that these men despise the Lord.” And it happened just as he finished his words, the ground that was under them split apart, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households and every human being that was Korah’s… (Numbers 16:28-33)
In this account, Korah and his entire family perished, yet, we read later on in the book of Numbers:
And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and Korah when the community died, when the fire consumed two hundred and fifty men and they became a sign (va’yehyu lanes). But the sons of Korah did not die. (Numbers 26:10-11)
This seeming contradiction together with the fact that Korah’s descendants are mentioned numerous times in the book of Psalms called for clarification. The following midrash uses the curious phrase “they became a sign” which can also be understood as “they became a flag or ensign” to attend to this question. [According to the plain meaning of the verse, this phrase is meant as a sign of opprobrium to deter others from rebelling. This midrash, however, reads it as a positive reference to Korah’s sons]:
After Korah and his company were swallowed up, Korah’s sons remained standing like a boat’s mast, as it is said: ‘They remained like a flag staff’ [on a ship] (Numbers 26:10). Rabbi said: “All the area around them was torn asunder, but the ground they stood upon was not torn.” Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman explained that the three sons of Korah were not standing together in one place, but that each was by himself, so that after the earth was torn asunder, they stood like three pillars. Accordingly, in the popular saying, “On what does the earth stand? On three pillars,” the three are said by some to refer to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, by others to Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, and by still others to the three sons of Korah. (adapted from Midrash Tehillim 1:15, Buber ed. pp. 14-15)
This midrash describes the survival of Korah’s sons and their heroic status, but it still does not identify the attributes which marked them as exceptional so that they might avoid the fate of their father. Another midrash from the same collection imagines the scene in the desert in a way so as to fill in this void and explain the status of their descendants as “psalmists”:
And so, the sons of Korah were unable to sing a song with their mouths before the Holy One, blessed be He. When their hearts overflowed with teshuva – repentance, God immediately accepted them. And why were they unable to sing a song with their mouths? For the pit (Sheol) was open below them, and fire burned around them, as Scripture says: ‘And the earth opened up its mouth . . . and they and all that was theirs descended alive to the Sheol’ (Numbers 16:32-33) … And when the sons of Korah saw Sheol open up below them here, and the fire burning there, they were unable to confess with their mouths, until their hearts overflowed with repentance… (adapted from Midrash Tehillim 45:4, Buber ed. p. 270)
This account provides us with a crucial Jewish message. The Torah’s original story might have left us with the impression that the Korah’s children shared his punishment. This fatalistic idea is rejected and countered in this later story. Through “teshuva – repentance”, Korah’s sons altered their fate and chose a different destiny, making of themselves religious heroes, “pillars” who sustained the world. Their model should inspire us all.