Presented by David P. Stern on 21 June 1998 in Greenbelt, Maryland


Today's reading is Korach, ending the middle part of the book of Number, Bamidbar.

      The first part continues from Leviticus, with various regulations and priestly matters--also with the census, which is why the book is called "Numbers." The last part tells of the wars waged by the Israelites to conquer the east side of the river Jordan, and includes the story of the sorcerer Balak. But the middle part is about various rebellions against the authority of Moses, starting with the story of the spies and with the despair that followed their report. It ends with today's parashah of Korach.

      Each of these rebellions seems to have the same ending, some dire punishment from God and the death of many people. But because we follow the triennial cycle of weekly readings, we cover today only the aftermath of the Korach rebellion. Our first aliyah therefore concludes in a downbeat tone (Ch. 17, verse 28) "Are we finished dying yet?"

      Looking ahead in the book, the answer is no--still to come are the punishment of the Israelites who attached themselves to the Midianite idol Pe'or, at the end of parashat "Balak". But after that gloomy phrase, the reading concerns itself mostly with other matters, such as the entitlements which Levites and priests were to receive, including the tithe, a tax of 10% of all crops.

      More interesting and perhaps more timely is the haftarah in which the prophet Samuel finally bows to the demands of the people and anoints their first king, a tall young man from the tribe of Benjamin, named Saul. It is a fundamental change for the Jewish nation: from the rule of prophets and judges, who came and went according to the needs of the times, to a king, whose authority is part of a permanent institution. At the end of the service we will discuss further this contrast--some times confrontation--between prophet and king, between informal inspiration and institutional religion, because its counterparts still exist among us.

      Actually, the book of Samuel picks up this topic 3 chapters before the present one, and the haftarah is just the final act. Samuel has already given in--he has already privately anointed Saul as king, presented him in public, and the king has already led his people to victory over the Ammonites. What remains is just the farewell address of Samuel as he hands over the leadership to Saul.

      And here is what he says to the people: look at my record! "Have I unjustly taken anyone's ox or ass? Have I oppressed anyone or taken anybody's bribe?" And the people admit--no, you have never comitted any wrong.

      Perhaps the reason this section was chosen to be the haftarah of Korach, is that Samuel's words echo the words of another prophet--the greatest prophet of them all, Moses. When confronted with the rebellious Korach clan, Moses calls for God's help--saying he has never done anything to offend any of those people, or to quote Ch. 16, v. 15: "I have not taken even one donkey from them, neither have I hurt one of them."

      Here Moses the prophet, with his informal, direct link to God, confronts Korach and his people, who were elevated by their institutional role as custodians of the tabernacle, the mishkan. It is more a confrontation between the prophet and the priesthood, which may be closer to where we stand today: we no longer have a king, but we do have organized religion.

      With Samuel, we know how the story ends. His premonitions turned out to be justified: Saul did not follow Samuel's path, and in the end Samuel gives up on Saul and turns to an alternative choice--the youngest son of a Betlehem family, a redheaded young man, with beautiful eyes and great skill with the slingshot. That, however, is another story altogether.



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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 10 June 2002