Dathan and Abiram

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DATHAN AND ABIRAM (Heb. דָּתָן, cf. Akk. datnu, "strong"; and Heb. אֲבִירָם, "my [or 'the'] father is exalted"), sons of Eliab of the tribe of Reuben, leaders of a revolt against the leadership of Moses (Num. 16; 26:9–11). According to these sources, they joined the rebellion of *Korah during the desert wanderings. Defying Moses' summons, they accused him of having brought the Israelites out of the fertile land of Egypt in order to let them die in the wilderness (16:12–14). Moses then went to the tents of Dathan and Abiram and persuaded the rest of the community to dissociate themselves from them. Thereafter, the earth opened and swallowed the rebels, their families, and property (16:25–33). Modern scholars generally regard this narrative as resulting from an editorial interweaving of originally distinct accounts of two separate rebellions against the authority of Moses. It is noted that verses 12–15 and 25ff. form a continuous, self-contained literary unit and that the former contains no mention of Korah, who is likewise omitted from the references in Deuteronomy 11:6 and Psalms 106:17. The event described served as a warning to Israel and as an example of divine justice (ibid.). Ben Sira (45:18), too, mentions it. However, no further details are given about the two rebels, and the narrative is clearly fragmentary. It is not unlikely that the rebellion was connected with the series of events that led to the tribe of Reuben's loss of its earlier position of preeminence.

[Nahum M. Sarna]

In the Aggadah

Dathan and Abiram are regarded as the prototype of inveterate fomenters of trouble. Their names are interpreted allegorically, Dathan denoting his violation of God's law, and Abiram his refusal to repent (Sanh. 109b). They were wholly wicked "from beginning to end" (Meg. 11a). They are identified with the two quarreling Israelites (Ex. R. 1:30) and it was they who caused Moses' flight from Egypt by denouncing him to Pharaoh for killing the Egyptian taskmaster, and revealing that he was not the son of Pharaoh's daughter (Yal., Ex. 167). They incited the people to return to Egypt (Ex. R. 1:29) both at the Red Sea and when the spies returned from Canaan (Mid. Ps. 106:5). They transgressed the commandment concerning the manna by keeping it overnight (Ex. R. 1:30). Dathan and Abiram became ringleaders of the rebellion under the influence of Korah, as a result of the camp of their tribe being next to that of Korah, and on this the rabbis base the statement "Woe to the wicked, woe to his neighbor" (Num. R. 18:5). When Moses humbly went to them in person in order to dissuade them from their evil designs, they were impertinent and insulting to him (mk 16a). In their statement to Moses, "we will not come up," they unconsciously prophesied their end, as they did not go up, but down to hell (Num. R. 18:10).


J. Liver, in: Scripta Hierosolymitana, 8 (1961), 189–217, incl. bibl.; M.J. Perath, in: Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschrift, 16 (1961–62), 47–48; R. Gradwohl, in: zaw, 75 (1963), 288–96; em, 1 (1965), 33, incl. bibl.; 2 (1965), 773–4, incl. bibl.; Ginzberg, Legends, index.