The Distribution Of Power As The Essential Question Of Conflict And Coexistence: Korach

ICAR professor Marc Gopin headshot. One of the great mysteries of Numbers 16 to Jewish religious believers is the collective punishment of men, women and children belonging to Korach, Dathan and Aviram, and many other chieftains of the Jewish people in the desert. Their crime? They claimed that the whole of Israel is holy, and that Moses and Aaron have arrogated to themselves too much power and authority. Once again, in a bizarre and disturbing twist to the modern enlightened reader, the text has God wishing to wipe out the entire Jewish people for this ‘rebellion’. A reader of the text who is not a believer has no trouble seeing a literary characterization of a capricious and frightening God who can save and destroy at will, who best be feared and absolutely obeyed. This is the God that the author, with Moses as the main protagonist, wants the reader to embrace and obey. There is no moral problem, because this text is not about moral categories, it is about absolute obedience to a generous but dangerous God who only rewards obedience and exacts a terrible price for anything less.


For rabbinic religious Jews rooted in strong Talmudic ethical traditions, this is not so simple to swallow. Through the generations these Jews have tried to make sense of this portrayal of God and square it with the visions and mandates of justice, morality and compassion that are expressed in many other sacred texts. This amoral vision of God is a bit of a problem.


I want to take it one step further. I think Korach was right, and I think the text ultimately admits just that. The sacred text does have many Jews die at the hands of God in this portion, with great literary flare and frightening imagination. But exactly after this chapter the following chapter makes a very clear move in terms of power distribution that signals clearly that the complaint about power distribution was heard loud and clear, and in fact power was redistributed.


The solution of the following chapter is that the Levites who control the sacred leadership and access to God will have many gifts and support from the entire people, all of the tithes and gifts. However, they will have absolutely no land, land being the bedrock of safety and security, then as now. “And the Lord said to Aaron: You shall, however, have no territorial share among them or own any portion in their midst; I am your portion and your share among the Israelites.” In effect, the sacred text is distributing and limiting everyone’s power in very clear ways. The Priests and Levites will now be exclusively in charge of the sacred realm, but the rest of Israel will own the land and support the Priests and Levites through extremely specific gifts carefully measured and distributed.


This is an early attempt to accomplish one of the classical aims of democratic governance and nonviolent civil society, the distribution and dissemination of power, the separation of powers, and the creation of a carefully constructed system of interdependence. In a democratic society, we hand enormous power to police, for example, the discretion over the use of lethal force, and in exchange we give them salaries. In theory the law is separate from the police and can come down just as harshly on them as on us citizens should the police misuse their power or privileges.


In reality we all know that it never works out this way easily. Police and judges can become corrupted just as surely at the ancient Jewish priests and Levites became so corrupted that the classical prophets railed against these Priests and Levites as thieves and murderers, corrupted by the kings. But therein lies hope.


Hope comes from the capacity of humanity, including religious humanity, to learn, to grow and change, and to evolve. The Book of Numbers optimistically plans out an elaborate system of gifting for the Priests, a distribution of powers and privileges. But by the time the Bible is expressed through the writings of Amos and many others, there is learning, there is evolution, there is recognition that this system of power distribution did not work, and the hoped for holiness of human community was not achieved.


This evolution of learning is similar to the evolution of learning away from the ancient imperial traditions, East and West, of rigid distribution of roles and capacities, and toward the enlightened notion that each person has rights, privileges and duties exactly like every other human being. The arc is long toward this modern position, but we cannot forget that Ezekiel the late prophet, in the Hebrew bible itself, asserts boldly, fully aware of the past and the competing sacred texts, that each human being is judged for their own sins, no more collective punishment in the name of God. Religious community and religious conscience is capable of evolution. Democratic experiments are capable of evolution, as long as adherents to a religion or citizens of shared societies never stop evolving, growing, recognizing the responsibility they have to use their minds constantly to interpret, to exercise their conscience, and to negotiate the best path forward to sacred and social peace.

© Marc Gopin