Most Jews do not know that the account of Korah and his rebellion against Prophets Moses and his brother Aaron, are also referred to several times in the Qur’an. Korah, named Qaroon in the Qur’an, was a Levite, as was Moses, and they shared a grandfather, Kohaith. This meant Korah was one of Moses’ cousins.
Korah was a leader of the rebellious Levites, because of his immense wealth. He was so wealthy that even the keys of his treasury needed several men to carry them, an image which is referred to in rabbinic Midrash literature. Qaroon was also an arrogant person prone to spreading mischief and corruption among the people.
According to the Bible, he went as far as to incite his followers to question Moses’ authority, claiming that Moses and Aaron had usurped the priestly right to transmit God’s message to the people. According to the Quran and Islamic narrations, Qaroon assumed he had been blessed with wealth because of his intrinsic worthiness as a man of knowledge. When the more God-fearing among the people came advising him not to gloat over his wealth or display it arrogantly abroad, but to use it wisely, he refused to listen.
They used to say: “Seek, with that (wealth) which God has bestowed on you, the home of the Hereafter….” (Qur’an 28:77) They did not mean he should forgo all enjoyment, such as a nice home, wives and children, and the provision of adequate clothing and food for them.
They meant that to spend beyond necessities in vainglory, boastfully spreading lies about his self importance, would simply stir others to envy and create dissension and mischief. Rather, he should generously spread his wealth by spending in charity, helping relatives and strangers, and providing funds for military and civic campaigns. This would only be just, as God had been generous to him in giving him his wealth in the first place.
He would say: “This has been given to me only because of knowledge I possess….” (Qur’an 28:78) In other words, he felt he was deserving of his possessions, believing he had obtained them by virtue of the knowledge he had been gifted with. Korah came out with all his retinue, showing off in front of the people. Many people whose desires were orientated towards fulfillment in this world were swayed by the display, considering him lucky and envying him. They said: “…Ah, would that we had the like of what Korah has been given? Verily! He is the owner of a great fortune.” (Quran 28:79)
According to one oral narration, Korah challenged Moses’ prophethood with his own wealth, and suggested that they invoke curses upon each other before God to see which of them would be answered. “So We caused the earth to swallow him and his dwelling place. Then he had no group or party to help him against God, nor was he one of those who could save themselves.” (Quran 28:81) While the Qur’an focuses more on Korah’s wealth and arrogance; the Torah focuses more on religious and moral issues.
One very important Jewish belief is the balance of believing in a God whose qualities include both mercy and judgement. In the narrative of Korah (Torah, Numbers 16:1-18:32) many people find a great deal of harsh judgement and practically no mercy from God for the Israelite rebells. At Sinai the Israelites made a golden calf, complained bitterly about the lack of food and water and even complained about missing their homes in Egypt. Prophet Moses was always ready to show mercy and compassion for his people and get God to forgive them.
Korah leads a major rebellion against Moses, unlike any other that happened before in the Sinai desert. It was an open challenge against the authority of Prophets Moses and Aaron And because those two leaders were chosen by God it was also a challenge to the authority of God. Korah, a Levite along with Dathan and Abiram, of the tribe of Reuben were extremely threatening to the leadership of Prophets Moses and Aaron because the rebels stated that those two leaders had no right to take the religious leadership for their own. After all, Aaron’s decedents would be the priests of the Jerusalem Temple for the next 1,200 years.
In their accusation, the leaders of the rebellion might seem to echo God’s own language at Mount Sinai, calling the Israelites “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Torah, Exodus 19:6). Their logic, that when all are holy, no one is above another, sounds right. But if the “rebels” really echo God’s earlier sentiment, why does their rebellion anger God so much that the earth metaphorically opens up and swallows them?
The twentieth-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber explains God’s remarks at Mount Sinai by calling our attention to the “if” clause: ” If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession . . . you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” (Exodus 19:5-6). Korah’s error, according to Martin Buber, is in thinking that holiness is a fixed given rather than a state that each of us must continually strive toward, working in partnership with God. Buber’s teaching shines a light on the actions of Aaron, who, in the terrifying consequences of the rebellion, risks his life to try to save the rebels.
God said to Moses and Aaron, “Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!” (Torah, Numbers 16:21). Moses and Aaron bravely convince God to do otherwise, falling on their faces and saying together, “O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one person sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” (16:22). In response, instead of annihilating the whole community, God takes the lives of only the rebel leaders, their families, and their followers.
First “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed” Dathan, Abiram, and Korah along with their households (16:32), then a fire came forth from God and consumed the 250 other leaders (16:35), and then a plague fell suddenly on the people, killing an additional 14,700 (17:11,14).
More than these numbered dead, it is how the plague is stopped that inspires me. At the instruction of Moses, Aaron made an offering of expiation for the people. Then Prophet Aaron did something he was not instructed to do-he “ran to the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun among the people . . . and he stood between the dead and the living, until the plague was checked,” (17:12-13).
When the first-century sage Hillel told us: “Be one of Aaron’s students, loving peace and pursuing it, loving people and bringing them to the Torah” (Pirkei Avot 1:12) surely he was thinking, in part, of the actions of Aaron at this moment in the wilderness. It is Aaron, who risked his life by choosing to stand up for the living; even though some were challenging him and his brother Moses, threatening them, and making their life difficult. It is Aaron, who, despite the anger raging between some of the Jewish people and God, understood that the whole Jewish people were to be God’s first successful monotheistic people, and thus were destined to struggle continually throughout their 3,000+ year long history to live up to their covenant with God.
It is Aaron, lover and pursuer of peace, whose actions bring an end to the violence. In the next scene, God brings about a different metaphor; not the earth swallowing whole families, not a plague killing thousands, but a much subtler, far gentler miracle: God causes Aaron’s staff, a symbol of his leadership, to sprout, bringing forth flowers and almonds. God then instructs Moses, as a reminder to the people, to place Aaron’s blossoming staff in front of the stone tablets of the covenant, the second set of stone tablets, Judaism’s enduring symbol of ongoing second chances.
The reason we know that the earth “swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions” (Numbers 16:32) is a metaphor is because later on, in a remarkable statement, the Torah tells that “the sons of Korah, however, did not die” (Numbers 26:11), thus affirming the principle of individual responsibility. Indeed, some of Korah’s descendants wrote inspiring Psalms that were included in the Biblical Book of Psalms.