Korach, “the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi,” incites a rebellion against Moses. He is joined by Dathan and Aviram, and On the son of Peleth, all of the tribe of Reuben. Also participating are 250 “leaders of the community, those regularly summoned to assembly, men of renown.”
They massed upon Moses and Aaron and said to them: “Enough! The entire community is holy, and G‑d is amongst them; why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of G‑d?”
When Moses heard it, he fell on his face.
When it becomes clear that Korach and the 250 “men of renown” are aspiring to the kehunah (priesthood) themselves, Moses challenges them to offer ketoret to G‑d—the most sacred of the divine services in the Sanctuary, permitted only to a priest, and only under special circumstances. Aaron, whose appointment as kohen gadol (high priest) they are contesting, will also offer the ketoret. “Come morning, and G‑d will show who is His, and who is holy . . . and he whom He has chosen will He bring near to Him.”
Korach and the 250 men accept the challenge. “They took every man his censer, and put fire in them, and laid incense on them, and stood in the door of the Tent of Meeting with Moses and Aaron.” The people are sympathetic to Korach’s rebellion, and gather en masse at the entrance to the Sanctuary.
Fire and Earth
G‑d’s anger is aroused, and he says to Moses and Aaron: “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, and I shall consume them in a moment!”
They fell upon their faces and said: “O G‑d, G‑d of the spirits of all flesh! Shall one man sin, and Your wrath be upon the entire community?”
Dathan and Aviram had already refused Moses’ summons; now Moses goes to them, in an effort to quell the mutiny. But they remain defiant.
The moment of truth arrives.
Moses said: “Hereby you shall know that G‑d has sent me to do all these works—for I have not done them of my own mind.
“If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitation of all men, then G‑d has not sent me.
“But if G‑d creates a new creation, and the earth opens her mouth and swallows them up, with all that appertain to them, and they go down alive into the abyss, then you shall understand that these men have provoked G‑d.”
It came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground split beneath them.
The earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained to Korach, and all their goods . . .
And all Israel that were round about them fled at the cry of them, for they said: “Lest the earth swallow us up also.”
As for the contenders for the priesthood, “there came out a fire from G‑d, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered the ketoret.”
G‑d instructs that the pans in which the 250 men offered the ketoret should be retrieved and hammered into plates to be used as the copper covering of the altar, “for they offered them before G‑d, and they have become holy.” Also, this will serve as “a memorial to the children of Israel, that no stranger, who is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to offer incense before G‑d; that he be not like Korach and his company.”
The next day, the people again massed upon Moses and Aaron. “You have caused the deaths of the people of G‑d!” they accuse them.
G‑d’s anger is again aroused, and a plague breaks out among the people. “Take a censer,” cries Moses to Aaron, “and put fire in it from off the altar, and put on ketoret, and take it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath is gone out from G‑d . . .”
Aaron took as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the congregation; and, behold, the plague had begun among the people . . .
He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stayed.
The Blossoming Staff
G‑d instructs Moses to conduct yet another “test” to demonstrate Aaron’s chosenness as the kohen gadol (high priest). Each one of the twelve tribal heads should place their staff in the Sanctuary; Aaron, as the head of the tribe of Levi, will place his staff as well. Each should write his name on his staff. “It shall come to pass that the staff of the man whom I shall choose shall blossom, and I will put to rest the murmuring of the children of Israel, whereby they murmur against you.”
Moses placed the rods before G‑d in the Tent of the Testimony.
It came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the Tent of the Testimony, and behold, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had blossomed; it brought forth blossoms, produced budding fruit, and bore ripe almonds.
Moses brought out all the rods from before G‑d to all the children of Israel, and they looked, and took every man his staff.
G‑d instructs that Aaron’s staff should be returned to the Sanctuary and placed there as a memorial and testimony for generations to come.
The children of Israel spoke to Moses, saying: “Behold, we die, we perish, we all perish.
“Everyone that comes at all near the tabernacle of G‑d dies; shall ever stop dying?”
G‑d reiterates that it is the kohanim, assisted by the Levites, who bear the responsibility of serving in proximity to the divine, where the slightest digression has most drastic consequences. All “strangers” (i.e., laymen) are warned to keep their distance.
The Levites and the kohanim will receive no portion in the Land when it is divided among the tribes and families of Israel. The people, in whose stead the kohanim and Levites serve in the Sanctuary, are to support them with the ordained matnot kehunah, “gifts to the priesthood.” A number of these 24 “gifts” are enumerated in the closing chapter of Korach:
Meal offerings, sin offerings and guilt offerings brought by the Israelites to the Sanctuary are eaten by the kohanim, as are portions of the peace offering (as detailed in the Parshiyot of Vayikra and Tzav).
A terumah (“uplifting”) from every crop of grain, wine and olive oil is given to the kohen, as are bikkurim, the first-ripening fruits of the orchard.
The firstborn belong to the kohen: firstborn sons are “redeemed” by paying the kohen five silver shekels, and firstborn sheep and cattle are offered in the Sanctuary and their meat eaten by the kohanim.
The Levites receive a tithe—ten percent—of the Israelite farmer’s crop; a tithe of the tithe is given by the Levite to the kohen.