Arguing with God

Arguing with God

Bemidbar 16

Interactive Learning Module

Korach's Rebellion / Jean Fouquet

1. Introduction

  • לגרסה בעברית של יחידת לימוד זו, לחצו כאן.‏
  • In several instances in Tanakh, righteous figures argue with Hashem, suggesting that Hashem is doing an injustice. One such case is found in the story of Korach's rebellion in Bemidbar 16.
  • Upon Hashem telling Moshe to separate from "the congregation" so that He can destroy them (Bemidbar 16:21), Moshe responds, "הָאִישׁ אֶחָד יֶחֱטָא וְעַל כׇּל הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף", apparently questioning Hashem's intent to collectively punish the nation for Korach's sin.
  • How is one to understand the conversation? Was Hashem really planning to collectively punish the nation? Is Moshe correct that this is illegitimate? If this was not Hashem's plan, is it possible that Moshe misunderstood Hashem's intentions?
  • An in depth analysis of this issue can be found at Dialogue with the Divine During Korach's Rebellion. As you use this module, you are invited to compare your own analysis with the analysis found there.

2. Abundant Ambiguity: עדה

  • Let's begin by looking at the relevant verses in Bemidbar 16:16-27. Access the text in the Tanakh Lab and scan the verses, paying close attention to the usage of the noun, "עדה". Click on the word "עֲדָתְךָ" in verse 16 so that all appearances of the root will be highlighted.
  • To whom does the word "עדה" refer in each case – the entire nation or just Korach's congregation?
  • According to each of the various possibilities: Whom does Hashem initially intend to wipe out? Whom is Moshe asking that Hashem spare? How is one to understand Hashem's response in verse 26?

3. Theological Questions

  • The ambiguity surrounding the usage of the word "עדה" leaves the reader with several theological questions.
  • Was Hashem threatening to impose collective punishment on the entire nation for the crimes of a minority, or was He always planning on punishing only the sinners (or was the entire nation truly guilty)?
  • Was Moshe challenging Hashem's mode of justice on philosophical grounds or merely begging for mercy? Or did Moshe simply misunderstand Hashem's intentions?
  • Did Hashem shift course as a result of Moshe's intercession?
  • What do the different possible scenarios say about Hashem's modes of judgment, prophetic fallibility, and Divine immutability?

4. Moshe Errs

  • Let's move to the Mikraot Gedolot to see how commentators have addressed these issues. We'll begin with R. Chananel, cited in Ramban's comments to Bemidbar 16:21.
  • According to R. Chananel, whom did Hashem intend to destroy? What did Moshe mistakenly believe?
  • What questions does Ramban raise on this approach? How might one respond?
  • For other topics which touch on the issue of prophetic fallibility, see Moshe and Prophetic Actions Without Explicit Divine Sanction.

5. Hashem Has Mercy

  • R. Chananel asserts that Hashem never intended to collectively punish the nation. Moshe simply misunderstood His words, leading Hashem to correct his misperception. Ramban, though, finds this possibility unfathomable, writing "וחלילה שלא יבין משה נבואתו ויטעה בה".
  • What alternative reading of the verses does Ramban offer in the continuation of his commentary?
  • According to Ramban, was the nation guilty or innocent? Is this a case of potential collective punishment?
  • How, then, is one to understand Moshe's argument, "הָאִישׁ אֶחָד יֶחֱטָא וְעַל כׇּל הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף"? What is Moshe requesting of Hashem? Does Hashem acquiesce?

6. Hashem Retracts Collective Punishment

  • According to Ramban, the nation as a whole was deserving of punishment. Moshe was not accusing Hashem of injustice but rather pleading that Hashem have mercy on the nation despite their guilt, as their sin paled in comparison to that of Korach.
  • However, one might argue against Ramban from Moshe's words "הָאִישׁ אֶחָד יֶחֱטָא וְעַל כׇּל הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף" which more simply imply that Moshe believed that the nation was innocent.
  • This leads to a third approach to our story. Let's access Tanchuma Korach 7 from the library and begin reading from the words "אָמַר לְפָנָיו, רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם", found towards the ends of the passage.
  • According to Tanchuma, what is Moshe's argument? What is Hashem's response?
  • Do future stories in Tanakh support the implication of the Midrash that, after this conversation, Hashem no longer implements collective punishment? For discussion of other apparent cases of collective punishment in Tanakh, see Collective Punishment.

7. Can Hashem Change His Mind?

  • According to Tanchuma, Moshe convinced Hashem that His decision to collectively punish the nation was wrong, leading Hashem to retract His decision.
  • Is it possible that Hashem changed His mind, recognizing justice only after Moshe pointed it out?
  • In the input bar at the top of the library, type Bemidbar Rabbah 19:33 (or press here). This Midrash points to three other cases where Moshe's argumentation leads Hashem to change His policies, saying "you have taught me". Are these cases comparable to ours? Do they present the same theological difficulties? Why or why not?
  • For more about the suggestion that Hashem retracted the principle of "פֹּקֵד עֲוֺן אָבֹת עַל בָּנִים" see: Are Children Punished for Their Parent's Sins.

8. Comparison to Avraham

  • Let's compare our story to another story which raises similar questions and issues: Avraham's plea for the people of Sedom in Bereshit 18.
  • Return to the Mikraot Gedolot, and scan Avraham's conversation with Hashem in Bereshit 18:20-33. How does the story compare to ours?
  • Is this a discussion about collective punishment? Is Avraham's argument a plea for justice or for mercy?
  • Does Avraham convince Hashem to change His mind, or was he mistaken about Hashem's initial plans? If the former, what leads Hashem to defer to Avraham?
  • How might one's reading of the Bereshit story impact how one reads our story in Bemidbar?
  • For further discussion, see Avraham's Prayer for Sedom and compare how the approaches of commentators there compare to those discussed here.

9. Summary

  • Moshe's brief dialogue with Hashem presents us with the challenge of how to contend with a debate between two sides, both of whom are often viewed as infallible or close to it. How does one "choose sides" in such a case, or can a way be found to understand and justify both.
  • R. Chananel prefers to posit a degree of prophetic fallibility rather than to present Hashem's will as mutable and open to human influence (especially if this insinuates that Hashem was wrong). He, thus, suggests that Hashem never intended to wipe out the entire people and that Moshe simply misunderstood Hashem's plan.
  • Tanchuma takes almost the exact opposite stance, claiming that Hashem indeed planned to collectively punish the nation, changing His position only after Moshe convinced Him of the injustice in the act.
  • Ramban attempts to justify both parties, claiming that Moshe's argument revolved around mercy rather than justice. Though the nation was guilty and Hashem was correct for desiring to punish them, Moshe pleaded with Hashem to nonetheless spare the sinners.

10. Additional Reading