The Mutiny on Moses

Parashat Korach, Numbers 16:1-18:32

by Dr. Jeffrey Seif

Ever heard the title Mutiny on the Bounty? On April 28, 1789, Lieutenant Fletcher Christian seized control of HMS Bounty, and set Captain William Bligh adrift in a small boat on the open sea. I mention it here, because we’re looking at one of the Hebrew Bible’s versions of a mutiny—in this case, against Moses not Bligh.

This week we’re told Korach (or Korah) “rose up against Moses” (16:1–2a, TLV). It wasn’t simply a personal dispute, however. It was political. With a mind to put checks on Moses’ authority, and garner more and more authority for himself and his associates, Korach “took two hundred and fifty men” with him, all of whom were “men of renown” (16:2, TLV). “You’ve gone too far! All the community is holy—all of them—and Adonai is with them,” was their battle cry. “Who do you think you are, Moses?” they exclaimed, and “We don’t need you telling us what to do” (paraphrase). The charge closes with a question: “Why do you exalt yourself above the assembly of Adonai?” (16:3, TLV).  Sounds like a mutiny to me—on the open sand, not the open sea.

The HMS Bounty left England in 1787. The crew had a five-month layover in Tahiti, during which time they settled and co-mingled with the islanders. Crew members became lax, prompting the captain to impose disciplines on his crew—adjudged to be his prerogative. Chagrined by Bligh’s (mis)management, Lt. Christian rebelled, and the better part of the crew with him. T’was a mutiny! As noted, Captain Bligh was put off on a small boat and set adrift on the open seas. That was Bligh’s situation. What of Moses’ back-story?

Moses had been walking down a rough stretch of highway for some time, before Korach actually took him on. In 10:11, the people left Sinai and disembarked for Canaan. In 11:1ff, their kvetching over lack of provisions invoked Moses’ ire. In 12:1-2, Moses’ sister Miriam expressed chagrin over her sister-in-law, Moses’ wife. Aaron was drawn into her consternation, and together they uttered a comment that appears later—on the lips of Korach: “Has Adonai spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” (12:2, TLV). The Hebrews were restless while en-route to Canaan, and it only got worse when they arrived. Our last parasha, Sh’lach l’cha, told how a reconnaissance mission into Canaan, launched from Kadesh-Barnea, turned into a feasibility study—one with dire consequences (Num. 13:1ff). Spies assessed Canaan, and returned with various pieces of information. The spies processed the data but offered unsolicited advice along with it: “we cannot attack these people because, they are stronger than we,” was the upshot of their report (13:31, TLV). In sum, Israelites were disconcerted by circumstances they happened upon en-route to Canaan, and they were chagrined by their prospects for success in a soon-coming war with the intimidating Canaanites. “Enough already!” was Korach’s response. He and others believed political change was necessary.

I’ve never commanded a sea-faring vessel, and I’ve never led multiple hundreds of thousands of people through a wilderness. For my part, I’ve been involved in religious leadership for over thirty years. Incessantly taken aback by pressures and problems associated with the pastoral office, I’ve forever read myself as Moses in the Korach story, and Korach and his associates as vociferous associates disinclined to follow my lead. In sum, I refracted the narrative through the prism of my experience and used it to tacitly justify myself and vilify my detractors. Perhaps you have too. Is that fair, though?

Though there are congregational applications, to be sure, the problem I have with reading the passage through my experience now is that it betrays a core hermeneutical principle I hammered as a seminary professor for years: the first interpretation of a passage belongs to the first recipients of it—not the exegete. This is axiomatic. Never mind my context. What was Moses’ context?

Moses wasn’t a rabbi or a reverend attending to the personal one-on-one spiritual needs of one or two hundred people. He wasn’t a religious therapist/counselor. Moses wasn’t tasked with responsibilities associated with building communal consensus to chart paths forward, either. Congregational boards wrestle direction, personnel issues and expenditures, and interact with rabbis and reverends to get it all done. Unlike the reverends and rabbis and boards of today, Moses of yesterday was something of a political leader—much as he was a religious leader. The Mosaic economy he brought forth had a juridical component, one that dealt with a host of criminal and civil mandates. Reverends and rabbis have power to suggest a course of action—not demand it; Moses did, and he actually had power to even effect a death sentence. The Mosaic code imposed mandatory tax burdens, too, in order to support the Levites who were vested with responsibility to manage Israel’s civil affairs and oversee its criminal ones. Rabbis and reverends politely ask for a buck; Moses’ code taxed for it. The ancient world was driven by an agrarian economy, one regulated tightly in the Torah by various Mosaic promulgations. Do reverends, rabbis and boards regulate congregants’ economies? I think not. Some thought Moses took too much power. Korach said as much. Might you have thought or said so, too?

Alighting upon political issues as I close, and not pastoral ones, I am wondering if God’s people would do well to be a bit more respectful toward legitimate, political leaders. My reading of Korach prompts applications to congregational life, to be sure—it can’t help but do that. It also prompts me to advocate for better civil discourse and responsibility, reminding me that we do well to respect those in authority—and so heed the words of the Rabbi from Tarsus, who beckoned us to do just that (Rom. 13:1–7).

Stephanie Escalnate