KORAH (Heb. קֹרַח), son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi. Korah is the central figure in the story of the revolt against the authority and status of Moses at the time of the wanderings in the wilderness (Num. 16). According to the story in its present form, *Dathan and Abiram of the tribe of Reuben, together with 250 chieftains of the community, also took part in this revolt. Behind the uprising were Korah's complaint against the religious authority of Moses and Aaron, and the complaint of Dathan and Abiram against the leadership of Moses in general, charging that he had brought Israel out of Egypt to lord it over them and to have them die in the wilderness. In punishment for their rebellion, Korah, together with Dathan and Abiram and their people, was swallowed up by the earth, while the 250 chieftains, whose complaint against Moses and Aaron was in the domain of holy privileges, were consumed by the fire of the Lord after they had offered incense before him.
The story is referred to with minor or major variations in other passages (Num. 26:9–10; 27:3; Deut. 11:6; Ps. 106:16–18). Our present text offers what Levine calls "braided" accounts of strife in the wilderness. At the very least we can distinguish two literary strata, each with its own theme. The je account did not involve Levites at all, but told of a rebellion against Moses led by the Reubenites Dathan and Abiram. The p(riestly) writers, who had access to je, added the element of a protest led by the Levite Korah against the exclusive right of the Levite line of Aaron to the priesthood (Levine). As is true of most of the Torah's narratives, the stories here are given a fictitious setting in the desert prior to the rise of Israel in its own land. However, the actual historical circumstances that underlie them are to be sought in later periods. The Reubenite element in the story is probably related to territorial disputes in Transjordan in the pre-monarchic or early monarchic period. The other element is the quarrel of Korah the Levite with the sacral status of Moses and Aaron the priest. The background would be the consolidation of the temple hierarchy during the period of the Second Temple. According to the Torah (Ex. 28:1; P), Aaron and his descendants were first chosen for the priesthood during the wanderings in the wilderness. Yet scholars have long observed that Aaron is never identified as a priest in the prophetic literature of the pre-exilic period. Ezekiel, a priest and prophet of the sixth century, devotes much attention to priestly conduct and ritual. Yet he does not mention Aaron, but considers the legitimate priestly line to run through Zadok (Ezek. 44:15–16). Outside of the Torah, it is only in the books Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles, universally dated to the Persian period (539–331), that the Aaronide priesthood is depicted as the only legitimate priestly line. This is in harmony with the excavations at Arad, which unearthed a mention of bny qrḥ, "sons of Korah," who were apparently cultic personnel by the eighth century b.c.e., if not earlier. It is to these "sons of Korah" that many biblical Psalms (below) are ascribed. During the first half of the first millennium b.c.e. the existence of two distinct Israelite states with numerous shrines in each meant that no single family or clan had a monopoly on the priesthood. In contrast, the temple rebuilt in Yehud, the former Judah, in the late sixth century adhered to the principle of centralization associated with the reform of *Josiah in being the single sacrificial temple in the land. The result was that far fewer people could become priests. The restriction of the priesthood to the "sons of Aaron" must have resulted from a compromise among many competing factions. One of the factions unhappy with the compromise was the "sons of Korah," who were being demoted to "performing the sanctuary's labor" (Num. 16:9–10). The Torah's story of their unsuccessful challenge to Aaron, which resulted in their being swallowed up without a trace (Num. 16: 31–5), was meant to illustrate the fate in store for all who would challenge the new order (Num. 17:5).
The Bible provides other notices about the status of the sons of Korah as a levitical family in the census list of Numbers 26:58, and in the detailed genealogies in, e.g., Exodus 6:24. That the Korahites, or part of them, functioned as choristers in the Temple, is clear from the heading "For the sons of Korah" found at the beginning of many Psalms (42–49; 84–85; 87–88). According to the genealogical list of the levites in i Chronicles 6, the chorister Heman, too, is connected with Korah (6:18–23). With this must be associated the report of ii Chronicles 20:19 concerning levitical *Kohathite families and the Korahites who rose to praise the Lord, i.e., who acted as choristers. At the same time, Chronicles numbers the Korahites among the families of gatekeepers (i Chron. 9:19ff.; 26:1ff.). According to i Chronicles 9 they were also in charge of the treasures and vessels, of making the flat cakes, and of carrying out other similar functions. Although the simplest reading of Numbers 16:31–4 indicates that Korah left no survivors, the author of Numbers 26:11 wrote that "the sons of Korah did not die," apparently to account for the Psalms of the sons of Korah, and other cultic traditions about them.
[Jacob Liver /
S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]
In the Aggadah
Many reasons are given for Korah's opposition to Moses and Aaron. In Egypt, Korah had been Pharoah's treasurer, and he amassed so much wealth that 300 mules were required to carry the keys of his treasures; his pride in his wealth brought about his subsequent downfall (Pes. 119a). He resented Moses for appointing his cousin (Elizaphan b. Uzziel; Num. 3:30) as head of the levite division of Kohathites, maintaining that this office belonged to him (Num. R. 18:2). He did not doubt the ultimate success of his challenge since he foresaw that Samuel, whose importance would equal that of Moses and Aaron (cf. Ps. 99:6), would descend from him, and felt that God would not permit the forefather of such a man to perish (Num. R. 18:8). Korah's wife also encouraged him in his insurrection (Num. R. 18:4). Korah is regarded as the arch-detractor of the Torah. He negated its laws and sought to demonstrate the injustice of the laws instituted by Moses by telling the following tale to the masses: A widow, the mother of two young daughters, started to plow her solitary field whose yield was just sufficient to keep body and soul together. Moses told her that it was forbidden to plow with an ox and an ass together (Deut. 22:10). When she began to sow, Moses told her not to sow with diverse seeds (Lev. 19:19). When the first fruits appeared, Moses demanded that she give them to the priests (Deut. 26:2), and when she began to harvest the field, Moses reminded her to leave the gleanings and the corner of the field for the poor (Lev. 23:22). When she was about to thresh the grain, Moses demanded the separations for the priests and levites (Num. 18:8, 21). Unable to maintain herself from the field under such conditions, she sold it and purchased ewes. Once again, she knew no peace. When the firstling of the sheep was born, Aaron demanded it for the priests (Num. 18:15). When she began to shear the sheep, Aaron claimed the initial shearings (Deut. 18:4). The widow thereupon decided to slaughter the sheep. This time Aaron came for the priestly portions (Deut. 18:3). The widow then vehemently cried out: "If you persist in your demands, I consecrate the flesh to the Lord." "If so," Aaron replied, "the whole belongs to me" (Num. 18:14). Aaron then took away all the meat, leaving the widow and her two daughters entirely unprovided for (Mid. Ps. to 1:15).
Korah tried to make Moses appear ridiculous in the eyes of the people. He appeared with his 250 followers, all dressed in garments of *tekhelet, requesting a ruling from Moses on whether they were obliged to attach fringes to such garments. On Moses' affirmative response, Korah mocked him by declaring, "If one fringe of blue suffices to fulfill this commandment when the garment is entirely white, should not a garment which is entirely blue meet the requirements of this commandment even without the addition of fringes." Likewise, they asked Moses about the necessity of affixing a mezuzah to the entrance of a house filled with sacred scrolls. Once again they decried Moses' answer that such a doorpost also needed a mezuzah despite the fact that its passages are included in the scrolls (tj, Sanh. 10:1, 27d–28a). In this and similar aggadot, Korah is presented as the prototype of the opponents of the Torah and of the authority of the rabbis.
Moses desperately attempted to appease Korah and his followers, but they insisted on opposing him (Num. R. 18:4). Finally, Moses had to make a public stand against them, realizing that the integrity of the Torah was at stake when they proclaimed that "the Torah was not given by God, Moses is not a prophet, and Aaron is not the high priest" (tj, Sanh. 10:1, 28a). At the time of Korah's engulfment, the earth became like a funnel, and everything that belonged to him, even clothes at the laundry and needles borrowed by neighbors, rolled until they fell into the gap (Num. R. 18:13). Korah himself suffered the double punishment of being burned and swallowed up alive by the earth (Num. R. 18:19), while his repentant sons were spared and became the progenitors of Samuel (Num. R. 18:8). Later, a place was set aside for them in the netherworld, where they sit and sing praises to God (Sanh. 110a). Rabbah b. Bar Ḥuna related that he saw the place of Korah's engulfment and heard voices crying, "Moses and his Torah are true, and we are liars" (bb 74a).
One of the world's wealthiest men, he prided himself on his wealth and, therefore, the earth swallowed him up (Sura 28:76–82). Along with Firʿawn (*Pharaoh) and *Hāmān, Qārūn (Korah) ranks among the proud (29:38), and with them he proposed the counsel to kill all the sons born to the people of Israel (40:25). Muslim legend emphasized the familial relationship between Qārūn and Moses (Ar. Mūsā). The jealousy of the former increased as the greatness of Moses grew. One of the explanations of the source of his treasures is that his wife was the sister of Moses, who taught her the art of "alchemy," and that Qārūn, in turn, learned the method of making and amassing gold from her. Qārūn built one house after another and constructed the walls of his palace from silver and gold (see bibl. Thaʿlabī, Kisāʾī). These and similar tales come from Jewish legends which spoke of the fabulous "treasures of Korah." The stories of the haughtiness of Qārūn and his associates also are derived from Jewish sources.
[Haïm Z'ew Hirschberg]
J.W. Rothstein and J. Hänel, Kommentarzum ersten Buch der Chronik (1927), 174ff., 462ff.; K. Möhlenbrink, in: zaw, 52 (1934), 188ff., 191ff.; H.S. Nyberg, in: Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok, 12 (1947), 214–36; M.Z. Segal, Masoret u-Vikkoret (1957), 92–95; J. Liver, in: Scripta Hierosolymitana, 8 (1961), 189–217; idem, Perakim be-Toledot ha-Kehunnah ve-ha-Leviyyah (1968); S. Lehming, in: zaw, 74 (1962), 291–321; S. Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel's Worship, 2 (1962), 82, 95ff. in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, 3 (19473), 286–303; 6 (19463), 99–105. in islam: Tabari, Taʾrīkh, 1 (1357 A.H.), 312–9; idem, Tafsīr, 20 (1328 a.h.), 67; Thaʿlabī, Qiṣaṣ (1356 a.h.), 179–82; Kisāʾī, Qiṣaṣ (1356 A.H.), 229–30; H. Speyer, Die biblischen Erzaehlungen im Qoran (1931 repr. 1961), 342–4. add. bibliography: R. Hutton, in: abd, 4:100–1; B. Levine, Numbers 1–20 (ab; 1993), 405–32; idem, Numbers 21–26 (ab; 2000), 318; S. Japhet, i & ii Chronicles (1993), 151–56; S.D. Sperling, The Original Torah (1998), 112–19. in islam: "Kārūn," in: eis2 4 (1978), 673, incl. bibl.