The story of Korach’s rebellion offers an interesting insight into the responsibilities that accompany leadership and privilege
The story is simple. Moses had appointed his brother Aaron as High Priest. He did so at God’s command but nobody, other than Moses knows this; to everyone else it looks like a classic case of nepotism. Moses’s cousin Korach leads a rebellion, reasoning that if there are privileges to be handed out in the family they should just as easily to him as to Aaron. Joining with various other malcontents he demands a share in the priesthood.
Moses is horrified. He asks God to demonstrate just who is holy and who is not. He tells Korach and his followers to take firepans fill them with incense. He tells the rest of the nation to keep out of the way, lest they get caught up in what will happen next. He announces that God will produce a ‘new creation’ to prove that the choice of Aaron came from heaven, Moses was not showing favouritism to his brother. Sure enough, the earth opens; Korach and his immediate circle are swallowed into the chasm of the earthquake. Then fire rains down from heaven, blasts the firepans held by the wider circle of Korach’s followers and burns them all to ashes.
The Israelites are not impressed. They have seen greater miracles. They accuse Moses and Aaron of murder. According to the rabbinic tradition they believe that Moses deliberately gave Korach’s followers lethal incense, made according to the same forbidden formula that had previously killed Aarons sons (Leviticus 9). As for the earthquake, who knows what magic they used? In any event, the people are not convinced that Aaron has been appointed to the priesthood by divine command, and instead of pacifying the rebellion, things have got worse.
God then tells Moses to instruct the leader of each tribe to take a stick and write his name on it. Aaron’s name is to be written on the stick belonging to the tribe of Levy, his tribe. The sticks are placed overnight in the holiest spot in the tabernacle. Next morning, all the sticks look just the same as they did the night before, except for Aaron’s. His stick has budded, flowered and produced almonds.
This time the people are convinced. They go into one of their periodic moods of despondency, declaring that they are all about to die. The rebellion is quelled. But that is not enough. The flowering stick worked this time, it might not have the same effect when there is another rebellion.
God speaks to Aaron. He tells him that henceforth he and his fellow priests will be responsible for the correct maintenance of the sanctuary and the sacrificial system; they will ‘bear the iniquity of the sanctuary’ and the ‘iniquity of the priesthood’. In return they will be given special privileges, sacrificial food and a share in the harvest.
It’s the first time that Aaron’s responsibilities have been specified. When Korach yearned for the priesthood it appeared to him to be all power and privilege, nothing else. But now that the priests’ responsibilities have been spelled out, responsibilities punishable in extremis by death, the priesthood is not such an attractive prospect. Few people are likely to repeat Korach’s mistake.
Biblical stories can be read allegorically. One idea behind this story is not privilege, responsibility and communication are all connected. Giving Aaron the priesthood without specifying his obligations caused a rebellion. Responsibility needs to be clearly communicated as soon as the privileges are granted. We live in a world in which communication has been divorced from responsibility, and we can see the evils that result. We need to read the story of Korach’s rebellion from beginning to end; it’s not enough to assume the story concludes with the flowering of Aaron’s stick flowered. It wasn’t the miracle that cemented power, it was the duties implicit within that miracle.
Harry Freedman’s 2014 book The Talmud: A Biography is now available in paperback on Amazon. His most recent book, Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul is available through www.harryfreedmanbooks.com