I’ll be blogging one bite at a time through Jacob Milgrom’s Excursus 39 in his Jewish Publication Society commentary on Numbers: “Korah’s Rebellion: A Study in Redaction.” The reason is that Milgrom may cover ground that is different from what I have covered before on this blog, and so I want to be aware of that by going through his excursus in a careful manner.
Milgrom states some things that I have read in other sources: that the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram is from a tradition that is separate from the story of Korah’s rebellion. Milgrom bases that on the apparent discreteness of the traditions, for example, the Korah story in Numbers 17 not mentioning Dathan and Abiram. But Milgrom also points out that Deuteronomy 11:6 only mentions Dathan and Abiram. I know how many scholars would handle this: they would say that Deuteronomy relied on J’s account, which had Dathan and Abiram, and that, at a time later than Deuteronomy, P added the story about Korah’s rebellion—as a way to polemicize against Levitical rivals for the priesthood. My hunch is that John Van Seters would go a different route, saying that we first had the story in Deuteronomy about Dathan and Abiram, that J constructed a fuller story based on that passage in Deuteronomy, and that P later came along and supplemented J’s story with the story about Korah.
Whether Milgrom believes that P added all of the story of Korah, I do not know so far. But Milgrom does say on page 415 that Numbers 16 appears to have four rebellions: “Dathan and Abiram versus Moses, Korah and the chieftains versus Aaron, Korah and the Levites versus Aaron, [and] Korah and the community versus Moses and Aaron…” That’s why I am writing this series of posts: Milgrom appears to be saying something a little bit different from the source criticism that I have encountered regarding Numbers 16.
I want to talk about the riddle of Korah’s death. The story of Numbers 16 talks about at least two ways that rebels died: by earthquake, and by fire. According to Milgrom, the Masoretic Text leans in the direction of saying that Korah died by the earth swallowing him up (the earthquake). Numbers 16:24, 27 exhorts people to get away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, as if the earth is about to swallow up Korah. And yet, Numbers 16:32 does not appear to say explicitly that Korah himself died, but rather that every man that was “to Korah” was swallowed up. But that conflicts with Numbers 26:10a-11, which says that the earth swallowed up Korah, but that the sons of Korah did not die. The reason that Numbers 26:10a-11 makes this statement is that the Korahites were an existing Levitical line (see Numbers 26:58) in the time of the author. That could be why Milgrom interprets Numbers 16:32 to mean that Korah was swallowed up but not his sons: Milgrom’s argument seems to be that, according to Numbers 16:32, what was “to Korah” himself was swallowed up—as in Korah’s own person.
But Milgrom believes there is also a tradition that Korah died in the fire. Korah in Numbers 16:5-7, 16-17 was among those in the incense test, and 250 of those men died by fire from the LORD. Numbers 17:5 (which is actually Numbers 16:40 in many verse divisions) says that the fire-holders of those who participated in the incense test were to be made into plates for the altar—so that no stranger or non-Aaronide would suffer the fate of Korah and his company by offering incense before the LORD. For Milgrom, the implication is that Korah died from the fire.
And there are different views in the history of biblical interpretation about how Korah died. Milgrom states on page 416: “Thus, the Samaritan [version of Numbers 26:10] and Josephus (Ant. 4.55-56) opt for death by fire, whereas the Mishnah follows the quake tradition (Sanh. 10:3). Indeed, both traditions are actually recorded in the Talmud (Sanh. 110a).”
More on this excursus tomorrow!