Parashat Korach 5780

18 June 2020 – 26 Sivan 5780

Rabbi Pete Tobias – 17 th June 2020



There are two angles of approach to this extraordinary biblical story. The first is an analysis of what the Torah tells us. The second is a look at what we see elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible that might shed a little light on the Torah account and make us think again.

So the Torah story. Korach and his 250 followers have a problem with Moses and Aaron – particularly Aaron, the High Priest. In a scene that could be rendered comical if it were to be presented Monty Python style, Korach and co question from where Moses and Aaron have derived their authority to laud it over the Israelites. In that scene, King Arthur explains that his claim to power, like that of the biblical brothers, rests on divine choice. Korach might argue, like the peasant Dennis (37) in Holy Grail, ‘well I didn’t vote for you.’ When Dennis continues to dispute Arthur’s authority, the King of the Britons (‘the who?’) proceeds to beat him into submission.

Moses and Aaron take a different route. Their response is one that occurs several times in the Torah in response to any challenge – they throw themselves on their faces. Then God steps in and does a much better job of dealing with the threat to the power of the chosen pair – burying Korach and his supporters under the earth. The end.

Or is it? You see, like so many other accounts in the Torah, what we are actually reading is a historical event that occurred long after the Israelite people had settled in the land of Canaan. We are currently being asked to look at British involvement in the slavery trade in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. It makes us realise that history is written by the winners, or at least the survivors and those who benefit from it. Slaves whose lives end at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean or who live out their days working in sugar plantations cannot write about their history. So it is left to their colonial masters to build and fashion a society that flourishes thousands of miles from the plantations they own, where descendants of the people they regarded as property and stole from their homes generate their wealth.

And although the Israelites have a similar account of slavery and of release from it, that eventually became a source of inspiration for this more recently enslaved folk, this was not the battleground that led to the defeat of Korach and his followers. This was a power struggle that took place when Solomon’s Temple stood in Jerusalem There was rivalry between different groups of priests. The biblical book of Leviticus, written several centuries after the Israelites’ arrival in the land of Canaan, makes it clear that it was the sons of Aaron who emerged triumphant from this power struggle. The first chapter alone makes several references to ‘the priests, the sons of Aaron’ leaving no doubt as to who the priests were.

But we know that there was a group of priests descended from Korach. In the book of Psalms, no less than eleven of its poems are introduced as having been created by ‘the sons of Korach’. And one in particular – the very last one of Korach’s psalms, Psalm 88 includes phrases like: ‘I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength.’ (4) and ‘You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.’ (6) And it ends (verse 18) with the line: ‘You have taken from me friend and neighbour— darkness is my closest friend.’ Is this a clue to the failure of Korach and his sons to assert themselves against the might of Aaron and his sons? And, once the victory is achieved and the troublesome Korachites are banished from Temple service, what better way to cement that priestly power that to incorporate that defeat into the Torah’s account of Israel’s journey through the wilderness?

History has been rewritten by the winners. It’s fake news. And clearly our colonial British ancestors weren’t the first to make use of this well-known technique…

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