The featured episode in this week’s reading also gives the parashah its name, which doesn’t often happen. This week, we are reading about Korach’s rebellion.
A number of years ago in Chicago, when it was my turn to give the dvar torah, Parashat Korach fell precisely on the 4th of July. I ended up saying that his revolution was not merely appropriate, but that in the long run it had actually succeeded after all.
That (checking my Hebrew calendar app) was in 1992, and I see it will happen again in 2076 for America’s tricentennial — a long stretch in between times to assert, as I did thirty years ago, that Korach was right.
This year, I’m just going to call your attention to the chapter that I heard being echoed in the story of Korach. That chapter is Exodus 16. Not getting it? The word that echoed for me was בוקר bóqer ‘morning’.
In Numbers 16, Korach challenges Moses for having raised himself and his brother above the rest and says that everyone in the Israelite community is holy. Korach, “son of Izhar son of Kohath” (Num 16:1), is the first cousin of Moses, who was the son of Amram son of Kohath according to Exod 6:18 and 20. The great-grandfather of both of them was Levi.
If you are thinking of the Levites as the sweet singers of Israel that they seem to have become in the Second Temple period, think again. The Levites in the Torah are not musically inclined. Don’t forget the Golden Calf incident, which was followed by the Levites killing 3,000 of the other Israelites to restore order. It is quite reasonable for them to want to continue throwing their weight around and not have to take orders from Moses.
Moses, in his turn, is quite naturally upset by this challenge to his rule. In Num 16:5, he tells Korach (in the NJPS translation), “Come morning, the LORD will make known who is His and who is holy.”
That expression “Come morning” immediately caught my attention, because “Come morning” in the Hebrew original is just the word בֹּ֠קֶר bóqer. This is a phenomenon in biblical Hebrew called the “accusative.” It’s nothing to do with the accusative case in a language like Latin or Russian. What it means is that they use a noun as if it were an adverb. In English you usually have to translate these with a prepositional phrase: “in the morning.” The NJPS “Come morning” is actually quite an elegant way to do it.
I’ve only found one other place in the entire Bible where בוקר is used this way, as the first word of a verse, to announce that something would happen “[in the] morning.” That’s in another chapter 16, Exodus 16. (Numerology fans, take note!) “In the wilderness,” v. 2 of that chapter tells us, “the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.”
Sound familiar? In the next verse, the Israelites complain that they haven’t got anything to eat and yearn for the food they had in Egypt — which should also sound familiar (see Num 11:4–6). Exodus 16 is the chapter where the Israelites are introduced to manna (which by Numbers 11 they are thoroughly sick of) and to the Sabbath. In Exod 16:6–7, we read this:
Come evening [עֶ֕רֶב], you’ll know that it was YHWH who brought you out of Egypt, and come morning [וּבֹ֗קֶר], you’ll see the Presence of YHWH.
The NJPS translation here does not employ that same nice locution; instead, they translate “by evening … in the morning.”
In our story, in the book of Numbers, Korach and his 250 men are swallowed alive by the earth (v. 32) — and/or burnt by a fire from YHWH (v. 35). Our chapter seems to be combining the stories of two different revolts, the other involving a couple of characters named Dathan and Abiram, who were swallowed up by the earth as well.
Or perhaps there were multiple revolts, since Numbers 17 has Moses taking a stick from the leader of each tribe — if you know your biblical Hebrew, you remember that stick and tribe are the same word, מטה matteh — and one from Aaron as well. (The stick/tribe pattern works with a different word as well, שבט shévet, the same word that eventually developed into שרביט sharvit ‘scepter’ in the Late Biblical Hebrew of the book of Esther.)
Overnight (or should we say, “come morning”?), Aaron’s staff turns green and produces fruit, while the other ones just remain sticks, yet a third sign that Moses is the one who has been given the stamp of approval. Before that third sign, just as “the whole Israelite community” is about to overwhelm Moses and Aaron, they “turned toward the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence [כבוד kavod] of YHWH appeared.”
We’ve talked before about this kavod, the thing that’s too bright to look at that shows you YHWH is there, the Presence with a capital P. In Exodus 16, the other place in the Bible that says “come morning” by using boqer as an accusative, exactly the same thing happened. This was before there was a Tent of Meeting, but Moses and Aaron did “turn” toward the wilderness and the kavod appeared.
Don’t expect this kind of sign to designate God’s chosen leader nowadays, whether in the U.S. or Israel or anywhere else. (If it happens, all bets are off.) Do expect to notice lots of incidents that took place in Exodus happening a second time in Numbers, and start looking out for the unique verbal clues that reward careful readers of the Torah.