Light from the Sidra

Korach ('Korah') 20 June 2014. 23 Sivan 5774.

Torah: Numbers 16:1-18:32. Haftarah: 1 Samuel 11:14-12:22.

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

Life from the dead

I always read Numbers 16 with a sense of astonishment. In this chapter the authority of Moses is challenged by Korah and his band of rebels on the basis that all Israel was ‘holy’. The claim was true enough but some Israelites were ‘holier’ than others. Not in the moral or ethical sense in which we think of holiness but in terms of being separate and set apart. The nation of Israel was (and still is) holy in the senses that HASHEM separated Israel from the nations but within the nation an entire tribe – Levi – set apart from the rest of the Israelites to serve in the mishkan, the tabernacle. And among the Levites, Aaron and his sons were set apart to offer sacrifices to atone for sin. Moses had been set apart for the task of revealing the words of God to the people. Aaron as High Priest represented the people to God while Moses as the Prophet represented God to the people. The two brothers were literally the two holiest men in the world.

But grumbling against Moses and Aaron began after ten of the spies brought back a negative report following their exploratory surveillance of the land. Not only had Moses failed to bring the people into the land as he was supposed to have done but also the people had just suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Amalekites and the Canaanites when they tried to take the land, contrary to the advice of Moses (Num 14:45). But an appetite for grumbling, once it has been wakened, is hard to bed down again.

For Korah the Levite, carrying the Ark of the Covenant and the furnishings of the mishkan (see Numbers 4) was not enough; he wanted the priesthood also. Instead of humbly recognising the immense privilege of carrying the throne of God, he wanted more. And it’s not hard to rationalise the dissatisfaction of Korah’s fellow conspirators, Dathan, Abiram and Peleth. They were sons of Reuben, Israel’s firstborn. Who did Moses and Aaron, think they were? They were from the tribe of Levi. They had taken too much on themselves. They were getting above their station. It was time they started to show some respect to the sons of Israel’s firstborn. No doubt after a considerable amount of canvassing, they rose up before Moses,’ with 250 well-known chiefs of the congregation.

In Genesis 49, however, when Jacob blessed his sons he declared that although Reuben was his firstborn, ‘foremost in rank and foremost in power,’ he could not be ‘foremost’ because he had ‘mounted’ his father’s bed in the incident with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah. When speaking of Levi in Genesis 49:6, Jacob dissociated himself from ‘their conspiracy’.

What I find most astonishing about chapter 16 is that after the earthquake swallowed the rebels, the people blamed Moses for killing ‘the people of HASHEM.’ Korah must have had to do a lot of canvassing to get that kind of support. We imagine him as a sinister character but from the look of things he must have appeared to be a really nice guy like Absalom, who stole the hearts of Israel. In fact, there has never been a false prophet in history who didn’t appear to be ‘spiritual’ and, most important of all, ‘nice.’

What was to be done? It was time for God himself to step in to demonstrate once and for all, who he had chosen to be his representative. And he did it through a miracle; a miracle of resurrection.

The heads of the tribes presented wooden staffs, each with their name carved into them, which Moses deposited in the Holy of Holies (Aaron could go into the Holy of Holies only once a year but Moses was allowed to go in to speak to God whenever he needed to) overnight. The Holy of Holies was the safest place to store the rods because anyone who attempted to enter it in order to tamper with the rods would be struck dead.

When Moses removed the rods, everyone saw that Aaron’s staff had blossomed and had produced ripe almonds, thus demonstrating beyond any shadow of doubt that the only person approved by God to represent the people was Aaron. The resurrection of his staff proved Aaron was God’s appointed priest and that anyone who attempted to enter the mishkan on their own initiative would die (Num 17:12-13).

Physical resurrection was also the principle by which God vindicated his Messiah. After being brutally put to death by the Romans, his dead body was hidden away in a grave but on the third day his tomb was discovered empty. Over the last 2,000 years some bold attempts have been made, to explain away the phenomenon of the empty tomb but the arguments all fail to convince anyone but those disposed to believe them. The earliest attempt to explain away the resurrection was that the disciples stole the body of Jesus. But how could the disciples have managed to get past armed Roman guards, move the stone without being heard, roll it back again and escape undetected?

Another suggestion is that the Romans or the Jewish authorities removed the body to prevent it being stolen by the disciples. But if the Romans or the Sanhedrin had the body in their possession, why didn’t they simply produce it when the followers of Jesus began to preach the resurrection?

Some have argued that Jesus didn’t die; he simply fainted on the cross and that in the cool of the tomb he revived, pushed the stone sealing the entrance away and walked out to convince his disciples that he was the Lord of life. If that is true, it seems to me to have been a bigger miracle than the resurrection because the Romans were ruthlessly skilled in the art of killing. To suggest that the Roman soldiers didn’t know when a man was dead is to simply display utter ignorance.

Jesus had been flogged mercilessly by men who didn’t know the meaning of compassion, he had been nailed to a tree and hung in the sun for hours and a spear had pierced his heart. But even if Jesus had had the strength to survive Roman torture, it would have been impossible for him to break out of the hardened cocoon of cloths and spices in which his body was encased. Added to which, to even imagine a man with pierced hands and feet removing a stone it had taken several men to roll into place is beyond the realm of fantasy.

The resurrection appearances could not have been mass hallucinations either because no two people (let alone 500) have identical hallucinations. It is almost twenty years since the Lubavitch Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, departed this life. For almost two decades his disciples have been convinced he will rise from the dead but not one Chabadnik has ever claimed to have seen the reborn Rebbe, even though they still long for his resurrection. I suspect also that if any follower of the Rebbe did claim to have seen him, the rest would greet the claim with absolute scepticism. The only way to get a story about physical resurrection to fly is if it really happens, which is why the story of Jesus’ resurrection took hold like wildfire among both Jews and Gentiles in the Second Temple period. By his resurrection, Jesus of Nazareth was proved to be the Son of God in power. To reject that reality is to live in the spirit of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, and all those Israelites who rejected the authority of Moses and Aaron.

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