Korach: The Onn that Got Away
Updated: Jun 24, 2020
This week's reading contains the famous and doomed rebellion of Korach against Moses and Aaron. The rebellion was a patchwork alliance; a marriage of convenience. Korach was a first cousin of Aaron and Moses. He likely felt that he had been overlooked for high office in the Tabernacle. Although he claims to be some sort of egalitarian, "since all of the community are holy", his most likely motive was, in fact, to take the High Priesthood for himself.
Korach was joined by a number of prominent Reubenites. Reuben was the oldest son of Jacob. Consequently, members of the tribe of Reuben may also have felt usurped by Moses and Aaron. These Levites should know their place!
Alongside Korach and the Reubenites were 250 noblemen. These noblemen were probably first-born sons. First-born sons had their own reason to feel usurped by the tribe of Levi since we're told that Levites serve in place of first-born sons.
According to Rabbinic tradition, each family was supposed to be represented in the Tabernacle by a first-born son. Only after the sin of the Golden Calf was the tribe of Levi officially drafted in, as substitutes for the first-born.
Why does this rebellion occur now? Given last week's bombshell that the entry to the promised land was to be delayed for forty years, Moses' leadership may have seemed vulnerable. This generation knew that they were destined to die in the wilderness without ever seeing the promised land. They may have felt that Moses, in some sense, had failed them, and thus multiple competing grievances came together to challenge him while the time seemed ripe,
Moses in turn challenged the rebels to present a fire-pan as an offering to God. Aaron would do so too. This would allow everyone to see who God favours. The 250 noblemen end up responding to the challenge. They bring their pans to the Tabernacle, to see if their offerings would be accepted; to see if they could serve as priests.
Rabbi Chanoch Waxman notes how the language of the challenge, and the very notion of bringing fire to the Tabernacle, is eerily reminiscent of the story of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, who brought alien fire into the Tabernacle without having been commanded to do so. Aaron's sons were consumed in a heavenly blaze. So too, the 250 noblemen were burnt alive by a fire that came blazing forth from the Tabernacle. Wasn't this an obvious set-up? Wasn't it clear that Moses was reconstructing the downfall of Nadav and Avihu? Why didn't they realise that they would meet a fiery end?
Given the edict of last week's reading, this generation of Israelites were simply waiting to die in the wilderness, so that the next generation could grow-up, take over, and enter the land. In the terrifying language used by God, these people were already "corpses"; we were merely waiting for them "to drop". Perhaps what we're seeing in the suicidal attempt of the 250 noblemen to serve in the Tabernacle, was nothing more than an attempt to die a meaningful death. Better to die by the fire of God, by coming too close to holiness, by emulating Aaron's sons, than by dropping like flies in the desert.
In a sense, the hope of a meaningful death was the only way they could see to escape from living as corpses. And, of course, perhaps there was a tiny hope that God might relent, and allow them to serve as priests. There was nothing to lose. So suggests Rabbi Waxman.
This reading might also explain why, in the wake of last week's edict, a number of Israelites decided to try to enter the land on their own, and conquer it without the help of God. That too was a suicide mission. Moses warned against it. But to die for a cause might have seemed, to them, a better deal than to live for forty more years as a corpse.
By contrast, Korach and the Reubenites were not interested in a symbolic death. Unlike the 250 noblemen, they didn't rise to Moses' challenge. They had no interest in taking fire to the Tabernacle. They knew how that story would end. So they stayed behind, by their tents; setting up the famous scene in which the earth would open its mouth to swallow them up.
With this summary of the rebellion in place, I turn to this week's Midrash. In the opening line of this week's reading, the three Reubenites who joined with Korach are named. They are (1) Datan, (2) Aviram, and (3) Onn the son of Pelet. But when the earth is about to open its mouth, we're only told about Korach, Datan, and Aviram. Onn the son of Pelet is present at the start of the story but not at the end. Why?
This is exactly the sort of lacuna into which the Midrash loves to wade. Indeed, there is a very well known Midrash about Onn's mysterious disappearance from the text. But I think the fame of this Midrash sometimes leads people to gloss over it, without paying attention to all of its surprising detail.
Before I ever read it, I heard this Midrash, from various pulpits and in numerous classrooms. I was told that Onn's disappearance comes to teach us about the importance of choosing a righteous wife. Onn had got caught up in Korach's treacherous plot, but if he disappeared, it must have been because his wife interceded, and convinced him to stay at home; saving his life. If only Korach's wife had been so righteous. In other words, the Midrash, which provides a backstory to explain Onn's disappearance, was presented to me as a quaint, if slightly patronizing, ode to the women who work (always behind the scenes), in order to keep their men on the straight and narrow. But the Midrash isn't quaint at all, nor is it patronizing. What we have to do, is read it rather than paraphrase it. So, here it is:
Rav said: Onn's wife saved him, and said to him, "What's in this dispute for you? If Aaron is the high priest, you'll be the student. If Korach is the high priest, you'll be the student." She said to him, "I know that all the assembly is holy, since it is written (Numbers 17:3) "all of the congregation are holy." What did she do? She gave him drink, got him drunk, and laid him down on her bed. Then she sat down at the entrance [of her tent] – her and her daughter – and she let down her hair. Everyone who came for her husband, Onn, saw her and turned back. In the meanwhile they were swallowed up. This is alluded to in that which is written (in Proverbs 14:1), “The wisdom of women builds her house,” this refers to the wife of Onn; “but folly tears it down with its own hands,” this refers to the wife of Korach.
One thing I want to note is how easily the text yields to a number of different interpretations. What attitude does Onn's wife have towards the rebellion? Perhaps she's a righteous woman, who knows that God favours Moses and Aaron. But she also knows to whom she's speaking. On this reading, she feigns ideological support for Korach. Indeed, she quotes his slogan: "all of the congregation are holy." She quotes the words of Korach as if she were quoting a holy text (now, of course, she is quoting a holy text, but she's quoting a quote; she's quoting Korach as scripture). She tries to disarm the rebel-sympathies of her husband, whilst pointing out that he has nothing personal to gain from standing on the barricades. Call this interpretation 1.
You might think that interpretation 1 plays into a misogynistic trope, painting the woman as a wily manipulator. But I'm not at all sure that that's fair. The women of the Bible were living in a patriarchal society. Their access to the levers of power were severely restricted. Their opinions and values were all too easy to overlook.
If a woman had a clear vision for how things should be, and if her views were afforded no respect, how else should she proceed, other than to subvert and manipulate the men who were standing in her way? We see this in Rebecca's project to promote the ascension of Jacob over Esau towards, the beginning of the Bible; in Esther's toying with the paranoia and jealousy of king Ahasuerus, towards the end of the Bible; and in many cases in between. In each of these cases the women are praised by the tradition for their vision, and for their tenacity in concretising the will of God against all odds.
As if to highlight the challenges she faced, we're not even told the name of Onn's wife. If we read the Midrash in this light, then we understand the wisdom for which she is praised. She had the moral insight to know that the rebellion was evil, and the practical insight to know how to save her husband from making a terrible mistake. By contrast, the folly of Korach's wife was, presumably, to encourage him.
But there's another way to read the Midrash. Perhaps Onn's wife really means what she says. Perhaps she really does agree with Korach, which is why she quotes him. But she also recognises the tremendous risk of being on the wrong side. She sees that her husband has nothing to win, and everything to lose. Her advice is sincere. Let's call this interpretation 2.
But if that's the case, what sort of heroine is she? Is this really a quaint ode to a virtuous wife, or is it more like a celebration of a Machiavellian spouse? It seems to me that interpretation 2 presents us with a choice. Perhaps the point of the Midrash is that this rebellion was doomed to failure, and that any ounce of prudential foresight would have saved the day. Couldn't the 250 noblemen see that a fire was coming their way? Did Korach really think he'd be safe if he stayed at home? Even if we put all ethical considerations to one side, the rebellion was stupid! Ever since Sinai, Moses has been so holy that his face shines. It shines so brightly that he has to wear a veil so as not to scare people. Did people really think that God hadn't chosen him?
So, what should we look for in a spouse? Somebody with tremendous values? Well, that would be nice. But perhaps it's even more important to find somebody who can stop you from doing stupid things! The first woman was described as an עזר כנגדו. This is classically translated as a 'help meet' whatever that means. But it can just as easily be translated as a helpful opponent. So, on interpretation 2a, Onn's wife was in favour of the rebellion, in principle, but could see that in practice it was a lost cause. On this reading, the lesson at the end of the Midrash is to find a spouse who, at the very least, can challenge you, and play devil's advocate; a spouse who's critical wisdom you can heed and respect rather than a spouse who simply encourages whatever harebrained schemes you come up with.
But there's another way to take interpretation 2; let's call it interpretation 2b. On this reading, Onn's wife still means exactly what she says, but what she says is more than just prudential; what she says is ethical too. The very first commandment that Abraham heard was "לך לך", which can be translated as "go for yourself". I have heard it said that the key insight, in that first commandment, was that doing the right thing will be good for those who do it. Moreover, you shouldn't do something just because you think it's right. You should do something because you think it's right, and because you see that doing the right thing is what's best for you. A similar point was made by Moses when he said (Deuteronomy 10:12-13):
What does the LORD your God ask of you? Only this: to revere the LORD your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the LORD’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good.
Those words often raise a smile. Moses makes it sound as if God isn't asking very much, even though he's asking for our heart, and our soul, and our absolute obedience to the details of a very comprehensive legal system. But the solution to the puzzle is in the last words: "for your good." Ultimately, this way of life isn't just good (which it is), but it's also good for you. Perhaps this insight finds common ground with Kant's contention that, in the final analysis, the morally right thing to do is always actually the rational thing to do, and the rational thing to do is always actually the moral thing to do.
On interpretation 2b, Onn's wife can see that this rebellion has nothing to offer to Onn. For that reason, it can't be the right thing to do - not just practically, but morally too. Sure, we're all holy. But if God has chosen Moses and Aaron to play special roles, then that's God's business. There is nothing to be gained from this rebellion, and so it can't be the right thing to do. Sometimes evil seems to promise us all sorts of rewards, but to follow those incentives is to give into folly. The real wisdom is to recognize the ways in which following God's law is, however hard it may seem, good for us.
I don't know which way we're supposed to read the Midrash. Should we follow interpretation 1, or interpretation 2a or 2b? They're all there in the text. That's part of the beauty of the Midrash. But let me conclude with one detail that does seem clear.
Whether Onn's wife believed her own words or not, they seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Consequently, she had to take drastic action. She basically drugged her husband to keep him out of the fray. And then, she sits with her daughter, with her hair exposed, at the opening of the tent. The exposed hair of a married woman was deemed to be so immodest that the rebels, when they came to collect Onn, simply had to avert their eyes. There was no way that they could cross the threshold of the tent in the face of such immodesty.
The irony here is delicious. These men are on their way to try to depose the greatest prophet of all time. And yet they take themselves to be so righteous that they cannot look at the hair on a woman's head. Far more exposed than her hair, it seems, is the hypocrisy of these self-righteous rebels. In exposing the rebels for what they were, it's hard not to recognise in Onn's wife, the wisdom that the book of Proverbs so admired.