“Datan and Abiram: The Protagonists”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the opening verse of this week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we encounter the names Datan and Abiram for the first time. Scripture states in Numbers 16:1: “Va’yee’kach Korach ben Yitz’har ben K’hat, ben Levi, v’Datan va’Aveeram b’nei Eh’lee’av, v’On ben Pe’let b’nei Reuven,” Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi, took himself aside [for rebellion] together with Datan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Pelet, the offspring of Reuben.

Along with Datan, Abiram and On, Korach gathered 250 other influential leaders to rebel against his cousins, Moses and Aaron. Korach’s contention was that Moses and Aaron had usurped too much authority for themselves and prevented other worthy people from assuming leadership roles.

A host of reasons are suggested by the commentators to explain why these 250 men of renown joined in Korach’s rebellion. It is suggested that many of them were firstborn sons who were upset that, because of their participation in the sin of the Golden Calf, they had been disqualified from serving as the ministers in the Tabernacle and were replaced by the Levites. Others conclude that, like Datan and Abiram and On, the rebels were members of the tribe of Reuben who were resentful for their tribe having lost their privileged firstborn status to the tribe of Joseph (see Genesis 48:5). Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) suggests that the tribe of Reuben was caught up in the rebellion of Korach because they camped on the south side of the Tabernacle near the family of Korach. Camping in close proximity to the evildoers allowed them to be negatively influenced, hence, the well-known aphorism cited by Rashi, “Woe to the evildoer, woe to his neighbor.”

Hoping that the rebels would come to their senses by morning, Moses proposes that there be a Divine test the next day to see who is truly chosen by G-d. He suggests that Korach and his cohorts bring fire-pans that were used in the daily Tabernacle incense service and that in the morning G-d would indicate who were His chosen by accepting the offering of those who were worthy.

In Numbers 16:12, Moses makes a personal effort to dissuade Datan and Abiram from taking part in the rebellion. “Va’yish’lach Moshe lik’roh l’Datan va’Aveeram b’nei Ehlee’av, va’yohm’roo: ‘Loh na’ah’leh,’” And Moses sent forth to summon Datan and Abiram, the sons of Eliav, but they said, “We shall not go up!” In addition to boldly refusing to withdraw from the rebellion, Datan and Abiram proceed to malign Moses as a failed leader who has deprived the nation of Israel of the prosperity and luxury of “Egypt” to die in the wilderness. They say (Numbers 16:13-14), “Is it not enough that you [Moses] have brought us up from this land flowing with milk and honey [Egypt!] to cause us to die in the wilderness, yet you seek to dominate us and even to dominate further?! Moreover, you did not bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey nor give us a heritage of field and vineyard! Even if you would gouge out the eyes of those men, we shall not go up!”

Instead of coming to their senses, Korach and the rebels rise early in the morning, take their fire-pans and provocatively challenge Moses and Aaron at the door to the Tabernacle.

G-d tells Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from this evil assembly so that He can destroy them instantly. Moses and Aaron plead with G-d not to collectively punish all the people, but rather only the rebels.

In Numbers 16:25, we read of one final overture that Moses makes to Datan and Abiram to separate themselves from Korach and be spared punishment. Instead, Datan and Abiram hold steadfast in their rebellion and walk away from the Tabernacle. In Numbers 16:27, the Torah describes Datan and Abiram as follows: “V’Datan va’Aveeram yatz’oo nee’tza’vim peh’tach o’ha’lay’hem, oo’n’shay’hem u’v’nay’hem v’ta’pam,” And Datan and Abiram went out standing erect at the entrance of their tents, with their wives, children, and infants. Rashi explains that their intention was to publicly defy Moses, and, by cursing and taunting him, show that Moses is not worthy of any respect whatsoever.

Eventually Korach, his entire family (with the exception of his sons) and all his followers are swallowed up by the earth. Korach’s 250 followers are then consumed by fire.

Although the Torah does not describe Datan and Abiram playing a very major role in the rebellion, they are portrayed in the Midrash as the most arrogant and defiant of people. The fact that they stand “neetz’a’vim,” erect, is identified by the rabbis as the paradigm of defiance. The Talmud therefore concludes (Tractate Nedarim 64b), “Wherever the words ‘nee’tzim,’ fighting, or ‘neetz’a’vim,’ stand erect, appears in the Torah it is an allusion to Datan and Abiram.”

Datan and Abiram are therefore identified as the two Hebrew slaves who fight with each other in Egypt (Exodus 2:13). When the Bible, in Exodus 4:19, states that “those people who sought Moses’ death are no longer alive,” they are also identified as Datan and Abiram (they lost all their wealth and hence were considered dead (Tractate Nedarim, 64b)). The Midrash in Shemot Rabba, 25:10, identifies Datan and Abiram as those mutineers who rebelliously left part of their manna overnight, only to see it rot by the next morning (Exodus 16:20). They are also the ones who announce defiantly to the people (Numbers 14:4), “Let us appoint a new head and return to Egypt,” and are as well the ones who rebel at the Red Sea. In fact, the sages in Sanhedrin 109b, attribute the very names of Datan and Abiram to their rebellious nature. The name Datan means that he transgressed the law (dat) of G-d and Abiram implies that he hardened (ee’ber) himself, preventing himself from repenting.

Despite the fact that they were thoroughly defiant and rebellious, Moses still pleads with Datan and Abiram to break with Korach. Moses’ continuous overtures to them are considered extraordinarily noble on his part and are regarded as a lesson to all that one should always try to resolve strife (Talmud, Sanhedrin 110a). The fact that the great Moses went personally to beg Datan and Abiram to give up their rebellion, and they refused, underscores how wicked they truly were (Midrash Rabba, B’midbar 18).

The Midrash in Exodus is particularly harsh on Datan, portraying him as a genuine ingrate who literally owes his life to Moses. The Midrash says that Datan was the Hebrew man who was saved by Moshe as he was being viciously beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster (Exodus 2:11). The Midrash identifies Datan’s wife as Shlomit bat Divree, a Hebrew woman who was violated by the Egyptian taskmaster. When the Egyptian realized that Datan was aware of what he had done to his wife, he attempted to kill him. Moses intervened and slew the Egyptian by pronouncing the Divine name and hiding the Egyptian’s body in the sand.

The Midrash says that the day after Moses saved Datan’s life, Datan and his brother, Abiram, contrived to argue in order to draw Moses into a quarrel and create an occasion to betray him. The brothers then went to Pharaoh, not only to inform the king that Moses had slain an Egyptian, but also to reveal that Moses was a Jewish child, and was not really the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. The royal command was issued to arrest Moses, and he was condemned to death by sword. Only though Divine intervention was Moses saved and able to flee to Midian.

Datan and Abiram live on in Jewish history in shame and ignominy. Even the hardened rebel Korach who was swallowed up by the earth is somewhat redeemed, because his penitent family members continued to serve the Jewish people with great distinction for many generations. Korach’s sons are recorded in Scripture as the composers of ten psalms, and Korach’s offspring functioned in the Temple courts. No less a personage than the prophet Samuel is Korach’s descendent (I Chronicles 6:16). In stark contrast, Datan and Abiram live on in Jewish history as the paradigms of defiance, effrontery, and brazenness. When they say to Moses (Numbers 16:14) “Lo na’ah’leh,” We shall not go up! they unwittingly utter a prophecy about themselves, for indeed they descend alive to the pit from which they never go up (Rashi, Numbers 16:33). Such is the bitter recompense for defiance.

May you be blessed.