By Israel Drazin


The following are surprising interpretations of the biblical portion Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32) that provoke questions about the Torah’s organization and the presence of God.


Is the Bible chronological?

The portion starts with an obscure word. Korach challenges Moses’ leadership after he “took,” but the verse fails to state what he took. Many commentators offered imaginative solutions. Rashi quotes Midrash Tanchuma: he took himself aside; he separated from the rest of the Israelites who accepted Moses’ leadership and rebelled. Rashi also suggests that “took” might mean “persuaded”: Korach persuaded people to join his rebellion.

Arnold Erhlich took a radical approach: Korach saw the harsh death sentence that Moses imposed on the man who simply gathered sticks on the Sabbath, was appalled, and used it to enflame the crowd gathered to hear his complaint that Moses’ naming his brother and nephews priests and his Levite cousins ministers in the tabernacle is nepotism.

Then, Ehrlich offers what some readers might consider a radical idea: one shouldn’t object to his explanation because the tzitzit laws interpose between the episodes of the stick-gatherer and Korach’s use of it; thus removing the connection between the two episodes. Ehrlich says an editor may have misplaced the tzitzit section and it belongs elsewhere in the Torah.[1]

(The phenomenon of misplaced segments has been recognized by ancients and has led many scholars to believe that the Torah was assembled from many scraps, sometimes conflicting scraps, by Ezra and his helpers in the fifth or fourth century BCE. Ezra assembled the different documents but did not change or edit them and therefore discrepancies were created and sections were misplaced. A good example is the seemingly out of place chapter Genesis 38, a story about Judah that is placed in the middle of the Joseph tale even though Judah’s story has nothing to do with Joseph’s tale. As sacrilegious as this claim may sound, very religious classical commentators recognized that parts of Scripture are “out of place.” Rashi, for example, states that although the Torah speaks about the construction of the tabernacle[2]  before the episode of the golden calf,[3] the decision to construct a tabernacle occurred after the acts with the golden calf. The Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 6b, states ein mukdam ume’uchar baTorah, “there is no order to the Torah.”[4])

Building on the idea that we are not bound to accept the narrative sequence in the Bible as chronological, Erhlich suggests that Moses’ selection of his tribe Levy as tabernacle ministers occurred just prior to Korach’s complaint of nepotism, not earlier as narrated in the Torah. The selection provoked Korach and members of the tribe of Reuben, Jacob’s eldest son, who felt they should have received priority as priests, and, as previously stated, Korach exploited Moses’ death sentence to enflame people to join his cause.


Where is God?

            In his comment on 16:27, Erhlich describes his iconoclastic stance that there is an earlier and later concept in the Torah about the presence of God.[5] The early Hebrews, like the Greeks in Homer’s Iliad, felt that God resides in heaven and occasionally descends to earth to perform various acts. This explains Genesis 11:5 “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower (of Babel)”; Genesis 18:21 where God says “I will go down now and see whether they (the people of Sodom) have done (as bad) as the cry of it which came to me”; and Jacob exclaiming in Genesis 28:16 “Surely the Lord is in this place, but I didn’t know it.” However, after the revelation at Sinai, the Torah describes God as being everywhere.[6]


The lesson of “a covenant of salt” – midrash?

            What is the meaning of “a covenant of salt,” a concept also found in Leviticus 2:13. In 18:19, God informs Aaron that he assigned priests many duties and they are “an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for you and your seed.” Ehrlich explains the phrase with a Talmudic comment[7] discussing human suffering: just as salt has a bitter taste but adds sweetness to meat, so sufferings are bitter, but “wash away human misdeeds.” In other words, life’s difficulties can lead to something good, such as a learning experience. God is telling priests, your work in the tabernacle is hard but you will gain much from it.[8]

Is this Talmudic interpretation midrash or is it the phrase’s plain meaning? Ehrlich takes it as the plain meaning. However, it is possible that the plain meaning is: salt does not decay; your role as priests will also continue forever.[9]

[1] In contrast to Ehrlich, Rashi repeats a midrashic interpretation that connects Korach’s complaint not with the tale of the stick-gatherer but with the tzitzit. Korach complained that the tzitzit law was not sensible. If a person wore a garment that was blue why wear tzitzit with a blue thread to remind him to obey God; the garment itself would accomplish this goal. Commentators say that one thread was painted blue to remind the wearer of God who is in heaven. However, see the short discussion below whether God is in heaven or everywhere.

The midrashic understanding of Korach’s complaint – that a blue garment would remind one of God – is somewhat silly. Obviously, only wearing something unique that is also blue would draw a person’s attention to this lesson. We see blue every day in many things and are not prompted to think of God. Is the midrash silly? We should be reminded of Maimonides’ comment in Chelek: a person who believes that what a midrash is true says is a fool, but if he dismisses it entirely because it is not true, he is also a fool. People need to realize that midrashim are parables designed to capture a person’s attention and teach lessons.

It is not always easy to decide whether a particular interpretation is midrashic or the plain meaning of a word, phrase, or sentence, as shown in the section about “covenant of salt” below.

[2] Beginning Exodus 25.

[3] Exodus 32.

[4] Maimonides explains in Guide of the Perplexed 3:32 that God neither needs nor wants sacrifices. Thus he is saying in essence that God did not need or want the tabernacle but only allowed it because he saw that the people needed something physical (such as the golden calf) to show their love of God and to establish a relationship with him. This is why the idea for a tabernacle followed the misdeeds with the golden calf.

[5] Both views reflect a belief in an imminent God who is involved in the happenings in this world, but not the idea of a transcendental deity that created or formed the world, set in it laws of nature, and is no longer involved.

[6] An argument can be made that Ehrlich’s “proof” is faulty. Each of these statements can be understood as metaphoric. In the first two, “come” or “go down” means intervene. See Maimonides’ Guide 1:10. Jacob’s astonished cry could be: I didn’t know God would help me here.

[7] In the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5a.

[8] The priests are given the items mentioned previously in 18:8-19.

[9] Ehrlich says he cannot understand why the phrase is “everlasting covenant of salt”; the word everlasting seems superfluous to him. However if the second interpretation is the true meaning of the phrase, the word “everlasting” emphasizes this meaning.