|Korach—The Unshifting Election|
by Rabbi Russ Resnik
Blame-shifting. It's a time-tested method of avoiding responsibility and foisting your shortcomings onto someone else. We've seen a good deal of it in the news lately. In the tragic Gaza flotilla incident, Hamas and its sympathizers blame Israel for the blockade, but never discuss why Israel might be a bit paranoid about weapons being smuggled into Gaza in the first place. In the horrific oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP blames its subcontractors for the technical breakdown, the administration blames BP, and the American consumer, who wants as much cheap gas as possible, blames the administration and BP.
Blame-shifting even shows up in this week's parasha. One of the Levites, Korach, leads a rebellion challenging the authority of Moses and Aaron. "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?" (Num. 16:3, NJPS). They can make such a claim because the Lord himself at Mount Sinai declared Israel to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6). Korach twists this truth into the lie that there are therefore no valid distinctions among God's people, that the entire people are priests and don't need a special class of priests in their midst. Korach claims that whatever pertains to Aaron and his sons as priests belongs to all Israel, or at least to the whole tribe of Levi, to which the Korach party belongs.
Korach's allies Dathan and Abiram add the tactic of blame to Korach's tactic of twisted truth. They accuse Moses of taking the people out of Egypt, which they perversely call "a land flowing with milk and honey," and not bringing them into that other land flowing with milk and honey, which God had promised (Num. 16:13-14). But, of course, Dathan and Abiram, along with Korach and all his followers, were among those who refused to go into the Promised Land a couple of chapters earlier. If Moses has failed, it is only because of their disobedience and unbelief. Nevertheless, they shift the blame onto him, thereby undermining his credibility and stature, and ultimately his ability to lead, which seems to have been their goal all along.
Moses responds to all this, "Nu? You think you're priests? You think God has cast Aaron and me aside because of our failures? Bring a censer into the presence of the Lord and we'll see what happens." He remembers the fate of Nadav and Avihu, who were destroyed for bringing unauthorized fire, even though they were of the high priestly family, and is confident that these unauthorized Levites and their followers will meet a similar end. And so they do-they encounter the divine verdict on their claim that since all God's people are holy, they all have the same role and assignment. The leaders, Korach, Dathan, and Abiram, along with their entire families, are destroyed in a judgment even more severe than the one that befalls their followers, as God causes the earth to open up and swallow them alive.
Just as the ancient art of blame-shifting continues to thrive in today's world, so does the other distortion in this story, the error of denying all distinctions within the holy community. Just as Korach sought to deny the Aaronic priesthood because all God's people are holy, so Christian theology has often sought to deny any special role to the Jewish people, because the whole body of Messiah is holy. This argument often takes a further step to say that the body of Messiah, or the church, replaces Israel altogether as the holy people of God. Like Dathan and Abiram, it blames Israel for its failures, real and imagined, denying any place of honor for Israel in God's plan today and into the future.
In Parashat Korach, however, the Lord makes it clear that there is a priesthood within Israel, even though all Israel is a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Just as the Aaronic priesthood maintains its special role within the holy people, so all Israel as a priestly nation maintains its special role of bringing the knowledge of God to all the nations. This role is taken on and carried forward by the Messiah of Israel, Yeshua of Natzeret, and his followers, but it will ultimately be fulfilled in union with all Israel. (See for example, Paul's familiar argument in Romans 11, or John's portrayal of the 144,000 in the book of Revelation.)
The entire book of Numbers makes it clear that God never shifts in his choice of Israel. Numbers chronicles repeated incidents of complaint and disobedience in addition to Korach's rebellion. It tells how the people of Israel refuse to enter the Promised Land and the whole generation that left Egypt perishes in the wilderness. But the focus in Numbers is not on blaming Israel for their multiple failures. Rather, Numbers gives us some of the loftiest portrayals of Israel—Israel from God's perspective—in all of Scripture. Balaam, the seer, who is no friend of Israel, looks out upon their encampment and is compelled by the Spirit to declare,
How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedars beside the water;
Their boughs drip with moisture,
Their roots have abundant water.
Their king shall rise above Agag,
Their kingdom shall be exalted. . . .
Blessed are they who bless you,
Accursed they who curse you! (Num. 24:5-7, 9b, NJPS)
Back to Parashat Korach: Israel was supposed to fulfill its role as a kingdom of priests not by invalidating the distinctive priesthood of Aaron and his sons, but by submitting to their priesthood, even if Aaron had his share of blame and failure. This submission would have enabled Israel to maintain its holiness and fulfill its calling to be a priestly nation to all the nations. In the same way, as the body of Messiah recognizes and honors the ongoing priesthood of Israel, even despite Israel's failures and shortcomings, it will gain power in its priestly role of bringing the knowledge of God in Messiah to all the nations.