As Rich as…Who?
This week’s reading centers on Koraḥ, the Levite leader who sought to foment a revolution against Moses and Aaron. Ultimately, Koraḥ went down in defeat—quite literally! The Torah reports that the earth “opened its mouth and swallowed them [Koraḥ and his allies], along with their households and everyone connected with Koraḥ and all the possessions—they and all that they had—went down to Sheol alive. Then the earth closed over them and they disappeared from the midst of the congregation” (Num 16:32-33).
In modern terms, this sounds like an earthquake. The earth just opened its mouth and swallowed the rebels whole, so that nothing was left of them. They themselves, their families and their households simply disappeared and were never seen again.
One thing that struck ancient interpreters about this account was the mention of Koraḥ’s possessions. It’s not clear where a recently liberated slave might have accumulated enough material wealth for the Torah to have made special mention of it. Perhaps Koraḥ had been uniquely successful in persuading his Egyptian neighbors to “lend” him gold and silver and other goods at the time of the exodus. Or perhaps he was just a skinflint; while everyone else was contributing all they could to the building of the tabernacle (mishkan), perhaps Koraḥ held on to all that he had, and this is what made him so rich. If so, then the Torah then specifically mentioned the loss of his possessions as a kind of object lesson: be generous to your fellow human beings while you can, because you never know what ultimately will become of your wealth.
There was another biblical text that stressed the same point, Psalm 49. It is all about the vanity of the blind accumulation of things, and the way some people seem to think that their riches will ultimately bring them victory over death itself:
Why should I fear in time of trouble, when the harm of my enemies is all around me—
people who put their trust in their riches and glory in all that they own?
No, money can’t buy a way out, or provide God with payment of ransom,
allowing someone to go on forever and save him from seeing the grave…
So pay no mind when someone is rich and the worth of his household grows great.
When he dies he won’t get to keep it; his glory won’t follow him down. (Ps 49:6-10, 17-18)
This almost sounds as if it is talking about the story of Koraḥ—and perhaps it is. As is well known, many of the Psalms contain headings that connect them to a particular person or persons. Psalm 49 begins with such a heading: it says “a psalm of the sons of Koraḥ.” Read in this context, it seems to be describing the patriarch of the Koraḥ clan, and specifically the fact that his household and his riches quite literally “went down” with him into the earth’s “mouth” and disappeared from sight.
But if his household—which seems to mean his whole family—went down with him in this episode, who are the “sons of Koraḥ” mentioned in the heading of this psalm—weren’t they all dead? Apparently, an exception was made in their case, as the Torah goes on to specify in a later mention of these events:
The earth opened its mouth and swallowed up [the rebels] along with Koraḥ…and they became an example. However, the sons of Koraḥ did not die” (Num 26:10-11)