Between Korach and Chukat

Parashat Chukat begins with the laws of the Parah Adumah (red heifer) and how it is used to purify after contamination from a corpse. Why does Chukat start with this law, and why does it follow Parashat Korach, which tells of Korach’s rebellion against Moshe?

In Parashat Korach, after the failed insurgency, and the demise of the rebels, the people were afraid of approaching the mishkan:

“But the Israelites said to Moses, ‘Lo, we perish! We are lost, all of us lost! Everyone who so much as ventures near the LORD’s Tabernacle must die. Alas, we are doomed to perish!’” (Bamidbar 17:27-28)

To alleviate their fears, and to prevent future rebels like Korach from trying to usurp the role assigned to the kohanim, God delivers a series of laws which clearly delineate the role of the Kohanim and the Levites. These include who is responsible for protecting the mishkan and working in it, and the rewards that the kohanim and leviim will receive for their service. Since all of this is to preserve the sanctity of the mishkan, it is not surprising that the next law is that of the parah adumah, which is necessary to prevent “a person who has become impure … [from defiling] the Lord’s sanctuary.” (Bamidbar 19:20)

The connection, therefore, between the laws at the end of Parashat Korach and the laws of the parah adumah is so logical that another question arises: Why wasn’t the section of the parah adumah included at the end of Parashat Korach? Why did the sages make it start a new parashah – Chukat?

To understand this decision, we need to consider when the events in Parashat Korach and Parashat Chukat took place. While the Ibn Ezra places Korach’s rebellion prior to the episode of the Spies, the opinion of the Ramban, that the events took place in the order the Torah tells them (first the Spies, then Korach’s rebellion), seems more convincing. For example, Datan and Aviram, participants in the rebellion, say to Moshe, “Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness…” (Bamidbar 16:13). The phrase “to have us die in the wilderness” indicates they were complaining after the decree that the generation of the Spies would die in the desert. However, it also sounds as if it was at the beginning of that process, not after the generation had died out in the past.

So we can assume, therefore, that Korach’s rebellion came soon after the report of the Spies. And so it also makes sense that the laws we discussed above, at the end of Parashat Korach and the law of the Parah Adumah, were also delivered at that time.

However, there are also hints in the text that these events happened much later, toward the end of the 40 years in the wilderness. In response to Korach’s rebellion, God commands Elazar, Aharon’s son, to remove the fire pans (Bamidbar 17:2). Elazar is also instructed to perform the parah adumah ceremony (Bamidbar 19:4). As Milgrom writes, this may indicate that “Aaron’s days were numbered and Eleazar was gradually assuming more and more of his father’s duties.”

So when did Korach’s rebellion take place? In the second year in the desert or in the 40th? Presumably, it would be easy to determine – we’d just look at the chronology of what happened in the Torah, and see whether it came before or after other events during those 38 years. But astonishingly, there is no mention at all in the Torah of any event that clearly happened between the second and the 40th year. As R. Elchanan Samet writes, the Torah presents it as an “optical illusion,” to make it seem as if no time had passed at all between the decree that generation of the Spies would die, and the new generation preparing to enter the land. Not only did the earlier generation perish in the desert, their very memory was erased from the Torah, as if those 38 years were skipped entirely.

Therefore, right after the story of the Spies in Parashat Shelach, and the intermediate story of Korach and its subsequent laws, we read the first story that clearly takes place in the 40th year – the death of Miriam, the lack of water and the punishment of Moshe and Aharon (Bamidbar 20:1-13).

This appears to me to be the reason that the section of the parah adumah was set to begin Parashat Chukat instead of ending Parashat Korach. Had the Sages begun the parasha following the story of Korach with the death of Miriam, the demarcation between the first generation in the desert and the second would have been too clear. The sages understood the Torah’s “optical illusion” and wanted to preserve it by beginning the parasha with a law whose place in the chronology in the desert was more ambiguous.

About the Author
David Curwin is a writer living in Efrat. He has been writing about the origin of Hebrew words and phrases, and their connection to other languages, on his website since 2006. He has also published widely on topics relating to Bible and Jewish philosophy.
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