Korach's Hidden Backstory
What The Bible Tells Us About Korach's True Motive
We all know Korach's story, right? Korach is a rabble rouser, a power-hungry leader who rallies people around him to fight against Moshe and Aaron. But when we actually read Korach's story, it feels like we're missing some important details. For starters, Korach seems to just come out of nowhere with all these followers and campaign slogans. As if one day Korach woke up and launched a political coup. But is this really possible? Revolutions don't happen overnight. There must be more to Korach's story that the Torah isn't telling us. What got him all worked up in the first place? Did something trigger his rebellion? And why was he angry at Moshe and Aaron? Did they do something to him? It seems like there has to be some kind of backstory here, but we're left in the dark about all of this.
But what if the Torah actually does tell us the backstory, just not in Parshat Korach where we'd expect to find it? It turns out that there's an earlier section in the book of Numbers that, if we read it closely, seems to tell us a whole lot about the roots of Korach's rebellion. This text will help us answer fundamental questions about Korach's rebellion -- his motivation, his big beef with Moshe and Aaron, and it may even help us understand Korach's strange and unusual end, when he got swallowed up by the earth. Check it out for yourself.
Hi and welcome to Aleph Beta. I’m Ami Silver, and this is Parshat Korach.
Korach… everyone loves to talk about his rebellion against Moshe and Aaron, about how power hungry he was — but do you know what no one ever talks about? What happens at the end of the story to Korach and his followers.
Why Was Korach Swallowed by the Earth?ותפתח הארץ את־פיה ותבלע אתם – the earth literally opens up its mouth and swallows them alive.
Now, maybe you’ve heard the story a hundred times so it just seems normal to you, but this is totally bizarre. I mean, when we read through the Torah, swallowing isn’t exactly one of God’s go-to methods of punishment. In fact, there’s nothing like this anywhere else in the Torah. So, of all the ways to go, why is this how God decides to deal with Korach?
And, what did Korach do to deserve this anyway? Okay, he challenged Moshe and Aaron’s leadership, and, granted, that’s not such a great thing to do, but his reasoning doesn’t seem all that bad. He said: כלם קדשים ובתוכם יהוה – everyone in this nation is holy, and God dwells within all of us. We don’t need leaders. We’re all equal. If we just listen to those words, it sounds like maybe Korach was onto something. Isn’t it true? Aren’t all people holy? But apparently, God didn’t agree, and Korach got swallowed. How are we supposed to understand this?
And, one final question, where did Korach get the idea to launch a rebellion in the first place? The way the Torah tells it, he just shows up one day with 250 men and starts yelling “Everyone is holy! Down with hierarchy!” But revolutions aren’t born overnight. What led him to do this?
Well, if you open up your Torah database and search for “Korach” elsewhere in the Torah, you won’t find much of a story. But what if you searched by his last name? I know, it sounds like I’m kidding, but I’m serious. He’s introduced as קרח בן יצהר בן קהת בן לוי – he’s from Kehat, one of the Levite families. And you know what? Just a few chapters ago we heard a whole lot about the family of Kehat and their job in the Mishkan. They carried the Mishkan’s vessels through the desert, as the nation traveled from one stop to the next.
Those verses give us a window into Korach’s life. They’re telling us what he was up to in the weeks and months leading up to his rebellion. A close read of those verses may in fact help us solve some of the mysteries about Korach’s rebellion – from its beginnings, to its strange and tragic end. Let’s take a look.
Who Was Korach?In Bamidbar chapter 4, God tells Moshe and Aaron:
זאת עבדת בני־קהת באהל מועד קדש הקדשים – this is the job of the family of Kehat in the Mishkan, in the Holy of Holies.
ובא אהרן ובניו בנסע המחנה – when the nation is ready to travel, Aaron and his sons come into the Holy of Holies and starting taking down the curtains...
Wait! What just happened here? The verses open by saying “this is the job of Kehat”… but then they start talking about Aaron and his family – the Kohanim, the cousins of Kehat – and what they do in the Holy of Holies. And this isn’t just a small interlude. The next 10 verses go on and on describing how the Kohanim prepared the Mishkan for transport – how they covered each and every vessel with special fabrics, with animal hides, and garments made of techeilet, of sky-blue. Then – ואחרי כן – after everything is all wrapped and ready to go – יבאו בני־קהת לשאת – the family of Kehat finally comes in to pick up the vessels and carry them off.
When we just read these verses, it seems like Kehat is being upstaged by their cousins. Now, maybe we’re reading too much into this. But there’s more. When the members of Kehat prepare to do their job, Aaron and his sons have another role to play: ושמו אותם איש איש על־עבדתו ואל־משאו – they place each member of Kehat at his own station, telling him exactly what to do and what to carry.
In other words, God wants the Kohanim to micro-manage the family of Kehat, to literally put each one of them in his place. Why? ולא־יבאו לראות כבלע את־הקדש ומתו – because if the family of Kehat would so much as see the holy vessels before they’re properly covered… they would die. So the Kohanim need to be there to protect them and make sure nobody gets hurt.
Understanding Korach’s Backstory in the BibleSo now that we've seen this, just imagine you're Korach, and this is your job description. How do you think you’d feel? On the one hand, you get to work with the Holy of Holies… but only in a technical sense. Your illustrious cousins the Kohanim get to actually go inside and see and touch the holiest objects on earth. But for you, just catching a glimpse of those vessels would kill you. And that’s not all.
While you’re out there waiting, the Kohanim are bossing you around and telling you what to do. “Stand here, don’t touch anything, don’t even peek. Okay, ready? Now lift!” It’s like they're your babysitters. So yeah, you both work in the Holy of Holies, but they get all the glory… and you get to be their schlepper.
So can you see why Korach might have gotten fed up with his job? Can you imagine what might have led him to challenge his superiors, the nation’s leaders?
But if I’m right, and Korach’s beef with Moshe and Aaron really had to with his specific job in the Mishkan, then there’s something that needs explaining. Because, when we look at what Korach actually says to Moshe and Aaron, it isn’t what we'd expect.
We might expect Korach to say: “I’ve had enough of you and your babysitting. I can cover up the vessels just as well as anybody else. Today, I’m going into the Holy of Holies, and Aaron, you and your people wait outside to carry the load.” But that’s not what happens. Instead, Korach says:
כל־העדה כלם קדשים – we’re all Holy!
Everyone in the nation! ובתוכם יהוה – God is in every one of us!
ומדוע תתנשאו על־קהל יהוה – why should you lord over God’s people!?
Korach’s message isn’t “It’s my turn to be number 1!” It’s: “Nobody should be number 1! We’re all equal in the eyes of God! Down with Hierarchy!”
He sounds like a kid who loses a game of Go Fish. The reasonable thing to say would be, “Let’s do a rematch, I’m going to beat you this time!” But instead, the kid throws all the cards onto the floor, kicks the table over, and screams, “This game is STUPID! No more Go Fish!” The child is so angry, he’s so fed up with feeling like he’s in second place, that he just wants to put an end to it all.
This, I’m suggesting is what was behind Korach’s claim. All this talk about everyone being holy wasn’t some inspired egalitarian ideal, Korach wasn’t truly advocating on behalf of the rest of the nation. It was a veneer for his deep resentment of playing second fiddle to the Kohanim. He was trying to dismantle the entire structure of leadership.
So we’ve answered our questions about what got Korach so upset, and the hidden meaning behind his calls for equality. But there’s one burning question that we haven’t answered. What’s the meaning behind Korach’s strange and unusual death?
Connections to Korach Being Swallowed by the EarthKorach was swallowed alive. Maybe it wasn’t such a bizarre or random punishment after all. Because there was something else that was swallowed, it’s right there in the charge of the family of Kehat.
If you remember, the family of Kehat had to be extra careful not to see the Mishkan’s vessels before they were covered. ולא יבאו לראות כבלע את־הקדש ומתו. “They shall not come in to see the vessels being covered or they will die.” But here’s the thing. Look at that word כבלע. The literal meaning isn’t to cover. ב-ל-ע actually means to swallow.
So, we’ve got these two stories, both about someone from Kehat, and both of them talking about swallowing… and death. These two swallowings seem to be connected, but how exactly? One’s about vessels, the other is about rebels?
Well, ask yourself, what is being swallowed in the Mishkan? It’s the Kodesh, the holy vessels. And who gets swallowed by the earth? Korach and his followers. The ones who claimed, כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים – we’re all Kodesh, we’re all holy.
Understanding How Korach Was JudgedSo if God called the vessels in the Mishkan Kodesh, and Korach called himself Kodesh… it seems that Korach is in some way equating himself with God’s holy things, with the Mishkan and its vessels. And maybe this is why Korach got swallowed. Because that’s what happens to holy things. They get covered, they get swallowed.
And if this sounds crazy to you, just look again at Korach's rallying cry. His claim was: כלם קדשים ובתוכם יהוה – everyone is holy, God dwells within all of us. Look at those words – Kodesh… betocham – this isn’t the first time we’ve heard them used together in the same sentence.
This actually sounds a whole lot like the words God used in the initial command for the Mishkan: עשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם – make a holy place for Me so I can dwell among you. But here, Korach is taking God’s own words and turning them on their head. “Forget the Mishkan! The Kodesh is here. The Kodesh is us! This is where God dwells now.”
And here’s another piece of evidence. Look at how God refers to Korach and his followers. Right before they’re swallowed up by the earth, God warns the rest of the nation: העלו מסביב למשכן קרח – “Get away from the Mishkan of Korach!” God calls them a Mishkan! Why would God call these rebels a Mishkan? Well, maybe because this is how they viewed themselves. As a collection of holy vessels.
It’s as if God heard the message beneath Korach’s words, and responded in kind: “You think you’re holy? You want to be the Kodesh? Well, you know what happens to the Kodesh? It gets swallowed.” In this sense, God gave Korach exactly what he was asking for – exactly what he deserved.
Pure TecheiletThis might seem like a radical read, but I think that the Midrash actually points in this same direction. Because the Midrash says that when Korach and his followers launched their coup against Moshe and Aaron, they were all wearing garments made of pure techelet. And I’ve always wondered, where did the Sages get this from and why are they commenting on Korach’s wardrobe? The text doesn’t say anything about garments of techeilet. But, it actually does… back in the description of Kehat’s job. It comes up half a dozen times! It’s what the Kohanim used to cover the vessels, it’s what was draped on top of the Ark! A בגד כליל תכלת – a garment of pure sky-blue.
This was the color that Korach saw every time he did his job. It was the cloth that rubbed against the skin of his neck as he carried the ark through the desert. That garment of techeilet, that he could never lift up, never peek under, was the barrier that stood between him and the most sacred object of all, that forever reminded him of his second-class status.
Why does the Midrash imagine that Korach was wearing that very same fabric? Where did he get it from? It’s as if Korach ripped the covers off of the vessels themselves — and wrapped them around him and his followers. As if he was saying: “We are the vessels!” And in doing so, he violated the basic law of Kehat. The Kodesh is supposed to stay swallowed, to stay covered.
At the end of the day, why did Korach rebel? He wasn’t trying to liberate the masses. He was tired of being in second place to the Kohanim. And from there, it snowballed.
The Lesson Behind What Happened to KorachIt seems to me that Korach fell into the trap of his own distorted self-perception. Because if you were to ask someone from the tribe of Shimon, “Is that Korach guy important?” He would say to you, “Korach? As in the Korach, from Kehat? He carries the Ark on his shoulders! He’s like an angel among men!” But Korach couldn’t see how precious or valuable his role was. He was so fixated on what he didn’t have, and what other people did have, that he couldn’t find any value in his own position.
You know, we generally think of Korach as this power-hungry, angry guy, and maybe he is… but I can kind of relate to Korach. I mean, haven’t you ever felt like there was someone out there – maybe a friend or a colleague – who just made you feel like a failure? As long as that guy’s got a better job than me, gets more praise than me, I have failed.
But the reality is, there’s always going to be someone ahead of me, someone more successful than me, someone who seems to just have it better than I do. But if I spend all my time scrolling through their perfect pictures on Instagram, fixating on how successful they are, something tragic begins to happen: I begin to lose touch with my own value, my own self worth.
As much as I might wish I was in someone else’s position, I have to remember that this is where God has placed me. And there’s something here for me to do, something that only I can accomplish, in the place where I’m standing. There’s a Holy of Holies here for me to carry — even one with a cover on top. But it’s up to me to see it, to open my eyes and pick it up.