This week in the West Bank and Gaza a bloody war is waged – Hamas Vs. Fatah, and it is not clear who are the rebels and who is in charge. Somewhere between mythology and politics, this week’s Torah Episode ‘Korach’ is a sad nod to the blood history of political factions shedding blood, as it introduces the first public assault on the Moasic administration, a (some say) valid democratic motion that was fatally squashed with Divine intervention. If one is to take sides on this ancient battle, then the official party line is NOT pro rebels. But alas, underdog fans that we are, and especially in these heating up political days, we are not quite sure whether the Korachites and co. who will be mysteriously killed again this coming Saturday at every synagogue where the story will be repeated were guilty of heresy or simply of bad PR. The Divine, however, had quite a firm opinion on this matter and provided a unique and singular sensation to deal with this political opposition – a form of execution so bizarre it was simply referred to as ‘phenomenon’. But, of course, translations differ, and once again, more is hidden here that beckons the seeker of secrets.
The context: Moses has been challenged by his cousin Korach, another Levite, to share power with the other tribal leaders. Moses is outraged and in chapter 16 of the book of Wilderness delivers a passionate speech. It concludes with the proclamation/warning that Divine judgment will settle this dispute and deal with the rebels, once and for all:
16:30 But if the LORD make a new thing, and the ground open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down alive into the pit, then ye shall understand that these men have despised the LORD.’
According to this translation – the JPS – a ‘new thing’ is to be made by the Lord, looking like the ground opening ‘her mouth’ to swallow up the bad guys. Is this an odd way to describe a local earthquake?
The Hebrew word used here, and ONLY here throughout the Bible, is BRIAA – literally – ‘creation’, translated elsewhere as ‘Novelty’, ‘New creation’, ‘something unheard of’, or ‘phenomenon’.
The tricky thing is that the word BRIAA stems from the same root that describes the very creation of the world back at the beginning of Genesis. SO – is this earthquake an afterthought? Was it ‘created’ just in time for this political crisis? What is the unique feature of this terrible event?
From a mythic point of view, Jewish scholarship has held that indeed Korach was a unique case, swallowed up whole by the ‘mouth of the earth’ – which opened and then closed again – just this once. The earth’s mouth, according to this Talmudic legend, was created on the first Friday of Creation, just before Sunset, and set aside for this and only this occasion. This way, the Talmudic sages solved the problem – it was a NEW creation – but already planned for at the beginning of time.
The Pseudo Jonathan translation however, goes political, not mythic, when translating this verse to his contemporary audience, who then, like now understood the relevant implications of this story: “ But if a death which has not been created since the days of the world be now created for them, and if a mouth for the earth, which has not been made from the beginning of the world, be created now, and the earth open her mouth and swallow them and all they have, and they go down alive into Sheol, you will understand that these men have provoked the Lord to anger.’
The implication here is clear – some actions deserve similar repercussions, and a rebellion against God’s Authorized Leadership is punishable in mythic proportions.
In today’s political climate one would hope for a more benign method of dealing with opposition, but, we wonder, what IS the modern equivalent of being swallowed up alive by a new and unimagined form of humiliation and/or extinction?
As for Korach’s legacy, it lives on. He may have paid with his life and the lives of his followers for challenging Moses, but some say his sons did not die. If you listen closely, you can hear them sing. Open the psalms for a long list of hymns composed by Korach’s lines of Levites. Some rebellions get swallowed up but the music, apparently, lives on, every time a new creation.