Datan, Aviram, and Korach: Parallel or Intersecting?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Ben Kaplan

While there are certainly many positive effects of having learned the basic narrative of the Torah as children, there are some downsides as well. Often, we think we know the story the Torah is telling so well that we don’t pay attention, when a close reading of the p’sukim might tell us something unexpected.

The story of Korach is relatively well-known, even though it appears in the middle of Bamidbar. The narrative seems pretty simple. Korach, Datan, and Aviram lead an uprising against Moshe, are pitted against Aharon in a contest of offerings to God, and are then swallowed into the bowels of the Earth.

This version of the story is technically accurate, but it misses a key element of the text. Namely, there seem to be to two parallel stories that are told simultaneously, occasionally, but not consistently weaving together to form a single narrative.

In 16:1-3, Korach, Datan, and Aviram (and On ben Pelet) all approach Moshe with the famous accusation,

רַב לָכֶם

כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים

וּבְתוֹכָם יְקֹוָק

וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל יְקֹוָק

You have too much,

for the entire congregation of the Lord is holy

and has the Lord within them,

so why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?

Moshe’s initial response is recorded in p’sukim 4-11 and seems to be directed solely toward Korach and his group. There is no explicit mention made of Datan or Aviram. One could argue that they are merely included in Korach’s group, but this explanation is challenged by p’sukim, 12-15, where Moshe sends a messenger specifically to Datan and Aviram, and the two refuse to answer his summons, instead sending back a scathing reply. In 16-20, Korach and his followers bring incense offerings at the Mishkan. Datan and Aviram are completely absent from this scene. P’sukim 21-24 have God telling Moshe to warn the people against coming to close to the משכן (potentially meaning the Mishkan or simply their places of dwelling) of Datan, Aviram, and Korach, while 25-30 Moshe warns them away only from the ohalim of Datan and Aviram, not mentioning Korach at all as he predicts that they will be swallowed by the Earth. When the prophesied event happens in 31-34, only Korach, not Datan or Aviram, is mentioned. Finally, pasuk 35 has the 250 men being burned by a fire of God.

What is one to make of this seemingly confused story? It is tempting to divide the story into two entirely separate occurrences, one rebellion of Korach and his followers and one rebellion of Datan, Aviram, and their followers. This approach is appealing since it allows us to make sense of the two separate punishments (swallowing by the Earth and burning) that appear in the story and also explains why Datan and Aviram as entirely absent from many scenes (mostly those involving the incense offerings) while Korach is missing from others (such as the harsh rejection of Moshe’s messenger). It would make sense that Korach and his followers alone participated in the incense offerings since Korach was a Levite. The punishment of burning would also be a fitting one for someone unqualified attempting to bring an unwanted incense offering before God, as is seen in the case of Nadav and Avihu. This would leave the more horrifying punishment of literally being swallowed by the Earth to Datan and Aviram, who instead of merely claiming all of the Jews holy and wishing to participate more fully in leadership, actively scorned and insulted Moshe, refusing to even meet with him.

However, separating the piece into two entirely separate narratives does not fit the p’sukim for a variety of reasons. Most obviously, there are instances where all three characters are mentioned together (e.g. 1 & 24). Furthermore, even p’sukim that seem to only describe one narrative often reference the other obliquely, such as when Datan and Aviram respond to Moshe’s message using the word המעט in pasuk 13, a clear reference to Moshe’s use of the word in pasuk 9, even though Moshe was seemingly not speaking to Datan and Aviram in that scene. Nonetheless, treating the story as a seamless whole is not totally satisfying as there do seem to be two distinct narrative threads in the story, even if they are impossible to fully untangle.

It could be suggested that the obfuscation of the two narratives is in fact a deliberate literary device which teaches an important lesson about Korach. When viewed separately, Korach clearly comes off as better than Datan and Aviram. Ibn Ezra commenting on B’midbar 26:11 says that the reason why Korach’s sons didn’t die while Datan’s and Aviram’s did was because the latter two were more evil than Korach. We also see Chazal vilifying Datan and Aviram by casting them as the villains in multiple stories in the Torah where their names are not explicitly mentioned. Korach by contrast, gets no such treatment.

The Kli Yakar (B’midbar 16:1) states that when seeking people to join his cause, Korach did not look for those who agreed with his principles. Rather he sought out מרי נפש, people who had any sort of grievance. Korach was the sort of ideologue who thought that his cause was so great that it justified allying himself with those who did not merely wish for a more active role in leadership, but felt that Egypt was a land “flowing with milk and honey” (16:14). The mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:17) states that any machloket which is not for the sake of heaven will not be upheld. The quintessential example that the mishnah gives of such a machloket is that of Korach. Korach felt that his message was so important that he was willing to work with morally abhorrent people to get his way. Rather than this unholy alliance allowing his vision to come to fruition, it instead muddied his message. His מחלוקת is not upheld but is rather combined with the מחלוקת of Datan and Aviram until even the Torah itself makes no distinction between them. While this is not necessarily a call for ideological purity, it does send a clear message that even well-intentioned people can be brought down by allying themselves with evil men, justifying it as “for the greater good.”


Ben Kaplan (SBM 2017) currently lives in Jerusalem. When not writing divrei Torah, he spends most of his time working as a biomedical engineer.

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