Numbers 16:3 – Korah Rebellion Against Moses

The rebellion of Korah against Moses resulted in him and his followers being swallowed by the earth. What was Korah’s sin and why was this punishment appropriate?

In this article I will focus on Korah, even though other people were part of the rebellion.

Meaning of the Name Korah

The name Korah (sometimes written Korach) is spelled in Hebrew kuf-reish-chet.

As a verb, the 3-letter root kuf-reish-chet means either “make a bald patch” or “shave oneself.”

This fits with the midrash that Korah was upset that he and other members of the tribe of Levi were shaved as part of their purification to serve in the Tabernacle.

According to the Gemara (Sanhedrin 109b) his name is fitting because he created a “bald spot” among the Jewish people. As a result of his rebellion more than 14,000 people died (see Numbers 16:32,35; 17:14).

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Korah Family Tree

The story of Korah’s rebellion against Moses begins with a brief genealogy of Korah.

Numbers 16

1. Now Korah, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi, …

Here is his family tree based on Exodus 6:18-24.

Korah Family Tree

Note that Kehat’s youngest son, Uziel, had 3 sons: Mishael, Eltzafan, and Sitri.

Korah’s Jealousy

According to tradition, Korah was upset that Moses appointed his cousin, Eltzafan, to be the head of the Kehat family. Korah reasoned that since Moses and Aaron were sons of Amram, then the sons of Yitzhar should be next in line for leadership positions.

Naturally, he concluded that since he was the oldest of Yitzhar’s sons, the leadership role belonged to him.

There is also a tradition that Korah perceived that distinguished people would descend from him. That made him think that he was worthy of honor.

Korah’s Rebellion

Here’s the verse that encapsulates Korah’s rebellion and his sin.

Numbers 16

3. And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you lift up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?

Let’s look at this verse with the help of some commentators.

all the congregation are holy, every one of them
Rashi – at Mount Sinai everyone heard God speak. Therefore, they can all be considered prophets similar to Moses.

Netziv explains that they realized that Moses and Aaron were on a higher spiritual level. But they thought the rest of the Jewish people were at a sufficient level that God’s presence would rest on them to the same degree.

Why then do you lift up yourselves
Rashi – if you took the leadership, then you should not have made your brother the priest. Rashi understands that both leadership and priesthood are part of the dispute.

What was Korah’s Sin?

But what actually was Korah’s sin? The Jewish people had complained to God several times before Korah, but they were not as severely punished.

Malbim explains Korah’s sin in his commentary on 16:28.

He begins by pointing out that after the Golden Calf and the spies, Moses prayed for the people. Why didn’t he pray for them this time?

In fact, Moses did the opposite and asked God to punish them immediately. And he requested that the punishment be something entirely new and different.

Moses realized that the truthfulness and fulfillment of the Torah for all time was at stake.

All of the people had stood at Mount Sinai. They heard God appoint Moses as His messenger to deliver the Torah and the commandments to the Jewish people.

They knew that Moses taught them the commandments of God. Moses did not make up anything from his own imagination.

This was crystal clear to the people at that time. So clear that they would pass it on to their offspring and it would be as if those future generations also stood at Mount Sinai.

The rebellion of Korah put all of this at risk. Even while Moses was still alive, they denied that he was God’s messenger. By implication, they were also denying the Divine truth of the entire Torah.

They accused Moses of acting on his own and appointing Aaron as priest. This could lead to the conclusion that every commandment of the Torah was made up by Moses.

Based on Korah’s rebellion, future generations would be able to say that people doubted Moses even while he was alive. Because of that doubt, why should he be believed by the coming generations?

Korah Swallowed by the Earth

Here are the verses that describe what Moses asked God to do.

Numbers 16

28. And Moses said, Hereby you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works; for I have not done them of my own mind.
29. If these men die the common death of all men, or if they are visited by the fate of all men; then the Lord has not sent me.
30. But if the Lord creates a new thing, and the earth opens her mouth, and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol; then you shall understand that these men have provoked the Lord.
31. And it came to pass, as he finished speaking all these words, that the ground split beneath them;
32. And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men who belonged to Korah, and all their goods.
33. They, and all that belonged to them, went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed upon them; and they perished from among the congregation.

There’s lots here, but I’m going to focus on verses 16:30 and 32.

In verse 16:30, what is the “new thing” that Moses asked for?

According to Ramban, the new thing is that the earth opened its mouth to swallow only certain people. Normally after an earthquake the crack stays open and fills with water. This time the opening closed and returned to its original state.

Parshat Korach - the earth splits

Malbim (on verse 16:28) writes that Moses asked God to do something similar to what happened at Mount Sinai. At Mount Sinai God came down with great signs. These signs were meant to be a reminder of God’s creation of the world from nothing.

But now Korah is denying that the Torah is from God. Therefore, Moses asks God for an event that is similar to the creation of the world and the giving of the Torah. He wants a clear demonstration that the Torah is from God, that Moses is God’s chosen messenger, and that Korah is wrong.

Abarbanel states that the punishment of Korah was in keeping with his false deed (midda k’neged midda). Korah and his followers opened their mouths without reason and spoke against the greatest of prophets.

They made themselves despicable and lowly. Therefore, the earth, the lowest of the foundations, opened its mouth and swallowed them.

The Aftermath

Netziv (on 16:32) writes that Datan and Aviram and all of their households perished. Not so with Korah. Only those “who belonged to Korah” perished.

This excludes his sons who survived (Numbers 26:11) because they did not join their father’s rebellion. They survived and wrote songs that are included in Psalms.

Unfortunately, miracles don’t have a lasting impact. Next day the people again complained against Moses. That’s the subject of Numbers 17:6-15.

Korah’s Future?

From all of these verses, it’s easy to conclude that Korah was destroyed and will be excluded from the World to Come.

However, there are hints that Korah will be resurrected in the future along with all the other righteous people!

Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, prayed for Korah as part of her prayer of thanksgiving:

1 Samuel Chapter 2

6. The Lord kills, and returns to life; he brings down to Sheol, and brings up.

Rabbi Eliezer (Gemara Sanhedrin 108a) learns from this verse that Korah and his followers will be included in the World to Come. God, who brought them down to Sheol, in the future will bring them up.

Hannah was praying for Korah because her husband, Elkanah, was a descendant of Korah’s sons. Korah was correct that distinguished people would descend from him.

The kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal) finds a hint to Korah’s fate in this verse:

Psalms Chapter 92

13. The righteous flourish like the palm tree [Hebrew: tzadik ka-tamar yifrach]

The Arizal points out that the last letter of these 3 Hebrew words spell the name Korah: kuf-reish-chet.

He explains that in the World to Come, when God repairs the world, Korah also will be repaired and be included in the resurrection.

I think this is because Korah’s sin has brought many people to righteousness. His rebellion clearly revealed the truth that God’s Torah is true and that Moses was God’s messenger. For that Korah will be rewarded.


A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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