Dathan and Abiram, descendants of Reuben, are mentioned in the Torah in conjunction with Korah’s rebellion. According to Jewish tradition, however, that wasn’t their only rodeo. Midrash and Talmud tell us that their antagonism to Moses began at the very outset of Jewish slavery in Egypt and continued unabated until their premature passing.

The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Lowy, writes that in the fight between good and evil, the warring sides must be balanced. In order to keep things even, when G‑d created great leaders like Moses and Aaron, He chose to fashion equally compelling antagonists.1 The Midrash confirms that Dathan desired to usurp Moses, and Abiram to usurp Aaron.2

In Egypt

During the Egyptian slavery, Dathan and Abiram served as Israelite overseers who had to report each day’s work to Egyptian taskmasters. Many of the overseers were whipped in the Jews’ stead and were ultimately rewarded by being appointed as the first Jewish elders.3 Dathan and Abiram, however, were less noble;4 according to the Talmud they were wicked from beginning to end.5

We are first introduced to the brothers when Moses, who was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, ventured outside to witness his people’s suffering:

Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers. 6

According to one opinion in the Midrash,7 the Hebrew victim was none other that Dathan. The Egyptian had been secretly assuming Dathan’s identity at night to be intimate with his wife. Now that Dathan had found out, the taskmaster intended to kill him.8 To save the unfortunate man’s life, Moses killed the Egyptian using G‑d’s four-letter name and buried him in the sand.9

The next day, Moses went out again and saw two Jews arguing.10 Midrash, once again, identifies Dathan and Abiram as the squabblers.11

Some commentators12 posit that the two stories above are connected. They say that Dathan wanted to end his marriage when he found out what the Egyptian had been doing with his wife. His brother Abiram13 vehemently disagreed and this led to the argument.

In the course of their skirmish, Dathan raised his hand to strike his brother, prompting Moses to admonish, “Why would you hit your fellow?!”14 Our sages teach us that although no blows were dealt, the verse calls Dathan “wicked” for the mere act of lifting his hand with the intent to hit.15

Dathan and Abiram were not pleased with the meddlesome youth.16 “Who made you a man, a prince, and a judge over us? Do you plan to slay me as you have slain the Egyptian?” Moses, they fumed, was neither an appointed judge nor a minister with executive power.17

Intent on having Moses executed, Dathan and Abiram slandered him to Pharaoh.18 Moses miraculously survived the attempt on his life and escaped to Midian.

In this episode, we begin to see the extent of the animosity they felt toward Moses, and the lengths they were willing to go to ensure his complete removal.

Read: The Prohibition Against Physical Violence: Lifting a Hand

During the Exodus

According to Targum Yonathan, when the Jews were finally freed from Egypt, Dathan and Abiram remained behind.19 We know that they were obsessed with Egypt, evidenced by their descriptions of the country.20 But according to another tradition, Dathan and Abiram simply didn’t get the memo! Moses had told Pharaoh that the Israelites were departing for a mere three days,21 but the truth—that they were planning to leave with no return—was spread clandestinely only through the Israelite community. Because Dathan and Abiram were known informants, no one told them the real plan, and they continued to believe that the Exodus was temporary. They decided that this three-day trip wasn’t worth their effort so they stayed behind.22

An interesting question is borne of this interpretation—when and how did the pair eventually rejoin the Israelites in the desert?

According to the Midrash,23 they joined Pharoah’s chase but defected to the Israelite camp when they saw the sea split.

Be’er Mayim Chaim24 makes the fascinating contention that the sea split a second time just for Dathan and Abiram, to allow them to catch up with the Israelites.25

Spoiled Manna and Bird Food

The next time we bump into these characters is when the Jews run out of food in the desert. They complain to Moses and he promises them manna, bread from heaven. G‑d wanted to train the Israelites in the art of faith, so no one was to keep the manna from one day to the next;26 it would fall daily.

Dathan and Abiram, however, did not heed Moses’ warning and kept their portion overnight.27 The manna became wormy and then spoiled, defying the natural order where food first rots and then the worms come. Why is the order important? G‑d wanted the miracle to be witnessed, and had the manna first become putrid, Dathan and Abiram might have thrown it out.28

Popular Jewish lore records another episode surrounding Dathan, Abiram, and the manna: That first Friday after the manna began to fall, Moses29 told the Israelites to gather a double portion for the manna would not fall on the Sabbath.30 Dathan and Abiram went outside late Friday night and spread out the extra portion of manna they had gathered, hoping the rest of the Israelites would wake up, see the manna, and believe Moses had been wrong. But a miracle occurred to protect Moses’ integrity—birds swooped in and consumed every last morsel of manna before any other Israelites awoke.31 Some say32 that this is the source for the custom of feeding the birds on the Sabbath that this Torah portion (Beshalach) is read.33

Further Reading: Music, Language of the Soul

During the Incident of the Spies

As the Israelites neared the Promised Land, Dathan and Abiram sowed doubt in their hearts, once again defying G‑d and His messenger on earth.

At the request of the Israelites, Moses sent spies to scour the Holy Land with the simple task of reporting on the size and might of the enemy. The news they brought back was bleak, “The people who inhabit the land are mighty and the cities are extremely huge and fortified. We even saw the offspring of giants there!” The spies assured the Israelites that even G‑d could not defeat the Canaanites; “We are doomed to die if we enter Canaan,” they said.34

The Israelites lamented that entire evening, and when morning came Dathan and Abiram called a gathering. “Appoint us instead of Moses and Aaron and we will take you back to Egypt!” they roared. “We would rather be living slaves than dead freedmen!”35

Moses and Aaron were devastated by their remarks for they displayed a complete lack of faith in the Almighty. G‑d would look after the Israelites as per His word, they assured the people.

G‑d was angry as well. “How long will this people provoke Me? How much longer will they not believe in Me after all the signs I have performed in their midst?”36

As punishment for their obstinance, the Israelites were doomed to wander the desert for the next 40 years until everyone from that generation had passed. They had lost their right to the land; their children would inherit it instead.

Korah’s Rebellion

The grossest example of Dathan and Abiram’s hostile attitude is their treatment of Moses during Korah’s rebellion.

Korah, son of Izhar, was Moses’ and Aaron’s cousin and a Levite who served in the Tabernacle; he even carried the Ark of the Covenant.37 For a while, Korah was upset at Moses because he hadn’t been appointed to a distinguished position among the Levites.38 Those feelings festered among Korah’s small group of cohorts but were never aired publicly because Moses was too popular among the people. After the incident of the spies, people began to lose faith in Moses’ leadership and Korah was ready to launch his coup.39

He parlayed with his neighbors to the south, the tribe of Reuben, and played to their insecurities, “You’re of the firstborn tribe,” Korah told them. “Shouldn’t you be the priests and the Levites? Why did Moses appoint only his tribesmen?”40 His gamble paid off; 250 of the greatest Reubenites joined his cause, inspiring the adage, “Woe for the wicked, woe for his neighbor.”41

Dathan and Abiram, Reubenites themselves, jumped at the opportunity to further antagonize Moses, and became leaders in the mutiny.42 When Moses no longer felt like he could talk to Korah, he tried to reason with Dathan and Abiram.

“Please come to my tent for a meeting,” he pleaded.43

“Even if you gouged our eyes, we would not meet with you, Moses,” they retorted. “Is it not enough that you have brought us out of Egypt, a prosperous land, to have us die in the desert? You want to exercise authority over us as well!?”44

These remarks greatly distressed Moses and he prayed that G‑d punish the participants of the rebellion.45

The next day, Moses warned everyone to stay away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram lest they be inadvertently struck. Suddenly, the ground began to open and a huge chasm formed under Korah’s tent. Korah, Dathan, Abiram, their families, and all their belongings began to be pulled toward the hole as if by magnets. And like that... they were gone.46

That is how the story of the world’s greatest pair of Jewish villains came to an end—in dust and smoke.

Korah: The Rebel of the Bible

Why Didn’t They Die?

In Parshat Beshalach47 the Torah says, “And the Israelites left Egypt chamushim.” Rashi first translates chamushim simply—the Israelites were armed in anticipation of attacks in the desert—and then introduces a Midrashic interpretation that relates the word chamushim to chomesh, a fifth.48 The Midrash49 records that a whopping 80 percent of the Israelites died in Egypt during the plague of darkness because they did not believe in the promise of redemption; only the remaining fifth (chomesh) merited to be freed.

As demonstrated above, Dathan and Abiram—who called Egypt “a land flowing with milk and honey,” an epithet usually reserved for Israel—were at the forefront of the movement to return to Egypt, and even stayed behind when the Israelites escaped! Clearly, they were not supportive of the Exodus; why were they chosen for survival?

A few answers are given:

Rabbi Asher son of Yechiel, the Rosh,50 explains that as antagonistic as they were to Moses and the idea of a promised land, they retained the faith that an Exodus was possible, even if undesirable. Those who perished during the plague of darkness denied that redemption could happen at all.

Based on the writings of Rabbi Judah Lowy, the Maharal of Prague, we may be able to contend that G‑d kept Dathan and Abiram alive so Moses had worthy antagonists while traveling through the desert. This way, the realms of good and evil could be balanced.

Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin (Maharil Diskin)51 answers that despite all of their flaws, at the end of the day, Dathan and Abiram were among the group of Israelite overseers who got whipped instead of their brothers and sisters. This alone was enough to save them and have the sea split in their honor.