il portale dell'ebraismo italiano

The Earth’s Mouth and the Power of Words

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

I was never a rebellious child, never a rebellious adolescent, and of course I have had to experience the yoke of rebellion (to everything except Yeshayahu Leibovitz, and maybe lasagna…) in my early 40s – seriously, I have a soft spot for revolutionary ideologies, I have a very hard time tolerating authority, and personally find those who challenge accepted systems of power and cultural values as much more interesting and attractive. For these reasons, and of course many others, when I took a seminar course on “Milton’s Poetry” the first year of my Ph.D. in English Literature, Satan became my hero. I couldn’t stop reading his bold and rebellious arguments against the unbearable absolutism of G-d; I loved his rhetoric, and physically felt the thrill while reading his speeches to the rebel angels in Hell, in the newly built Pandemonium.

Korah too is a mighty rebel, one who looks straight at Moses, straight into the eyes of the individual who has been established as the sole channel the Israelites have to hear God’s voice, and tells him, in an almost Camusian way, “No!” Korah will not accept the hierarchy established by Moses, he will not stand by as an oligarchy of theocrats decides what is right and what is wrong. Korah is, in short, a heroic anti-hero.

But as a literary scholar I cannot ignore the monumental efforts made by the various rabbinic authors in different generations, to justify the horrific punishment G-d inflicts on the rebellious crowd Korah manages to seduce with his mellifluous rhetoric. Let me make it very clear that Korah’s rebellion is still quite important to me – but I am, personally and professionally, obliged to understand texts. The greater the efforts invested to justify Divine justice (apparently an unnecessary thing, in and of itself), the more problematic that very Divine justice is.

Korah is, first and foremost, not a rebel. He betakes – without an apparent reason, he separates himself (to use Onkelos’ interpretation) from the social consensus and forms a sub-society of his own:

(Numbers 16:1-3) – “Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben – to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?'”

Korah’s rebellious starts not from the dissent of the people, from an acknowledgment of their situation, their difficulties, and the injustices operated against them – Korah is not a defender of the weak strata of society. What he does is start from the political statement and action, in order to continue then with the social outcome of that statement – he starts with the rhetoric, and then moves on to social mobilization. As Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch points out, Korah, Datan and Aviram rebel against Moses only after they manage to incite two-hundred and fifty men into supporting their requests – the political power they get from the incitement allows them to question the existing power system and the Divine authority of Moses. This is when Korah infamously states: “You have gone too far!”

I will leave the subject (of great interest and certainly very evident in the text) of the tension existing between the few and the many – what I would like to shed light on right now is Moses’ reaction to the incitement and the rhetoric and the political manipulations operated by Korah and his crowd:

(Num. 16:4) When Moses heard this, he fell on his face.

Faced with the manipulative words of Korah, Moses reacts with silence. Hirsch, again, sees this silence as a demonstration of muteness – similarly to his experience vis-à-vis Pharaoh, here too Moses lacks the words to respond to the attacks. Other commentators have tried to give alternative explanations to this reaction, arguing that upon falling on his face Moses began to pray to G-d, and cried, quietly, for Divine justice. The rebellious crowd of 250 men is then ordered to present, each one individually, an offering of incense to G-d:

(Num. 16:17) Each of you take his fire pan and lay incense on it, and each of you bring his fire pan before the LORD, two hundred and fifty fire pans;

This offering is the trial for Korah – and Moses presents it as the moment in which G-d will establish if his objections are truthful or not. Divine punishment is immediate:

(Numbers 16:30-34) But if the LORD brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, you shall know that these men have spurned the LORD.” Scarcely had he finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. All Israel around them fled at their shrieks, for they said, “The earth might swallow us!”

Korah’s verbal incitement, which initially meets Moses’ silence, is now answered by the earth’s mouth, which opens up and devours the rebel crowd. The concept of the “earth’s mouth” is, I think, not merely an anthropomorphism, but is directly related to the way in which Korah uses the words aggressively to incite people, to the way in which his mouth utters words which bring people to act rebelliously. The relationship is that existing between the sin and its punishment as in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Commedy, as the ‘contrappasso’ rationale presents the sinner’s punishment as a sort of grotesque caricature of his sinful act – the sinful and speaking mouth of Korah is devoured by the earth’s open mouth, while the voice emitted by the latter is that of the crying mouths of the former. This passage of the events narrated is not allegorical – the earth has a veritable mouth which truly devours Korah without any feeling, but with the horrific cruelty of an insensitive executioner. The Mishna explains, in the treatise of Avot (5:6) that the earth’s mouth was created, together with other supernatural mouths, on the first Shabat at twilight:

Ten things were created on the eve of the [first] Shabbat at twilight. And these are they: The mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach in Numbers 16:32]; and the mouth of the well [that accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness in Numbers 21:17]; and the mouth of the donkey [that spoke to Bilaam in Numbers 22:28-30]; and the rainbow [that served as a covenant after the flood in Genesis 9:13]; and the manna [that God provided the Israelites in the wilderness in Exodus 16:4-21]; and the staff [of Moshe]; and the shamir (the worm that helped build the Temple without metal tools); and the letters; and the writing; and the tablets [all of the latter three, of the Ten Commandments]. And some say, also the destructive spirits, and the burial place of Moshe, our teacher, and the ram of Abraham, our father. And some say, also the [first human-made] tongs, made with [Divine] tongs.

In his commentary to this Mishna, the Tosfot Yom Tov explains that there is a fundamental difference between the two expressions used by the Torah for the description of the earths open mouth: “ופצתה” (16:30) and “ותפתח”, which in English translate both as “opened” but which in Hebrew, of course, point to two rather different operations. The second one is an opening of the earth’s mouth which does not entail the emission of voice, the uttering of any voice, for, he explains there, that opening is done in order to devour and swallow. But the first one is an opening of the mouth for the uttering of a prayer, for the uttering of a desperate cry by those devoured as they describe, verbally, the things they see as they go down alive into the pit, down into the heart of the earth. Korah’s words are the rhetorical tools of a manipulative individual who wishes to gain power – and as a consequence, the punishment is carried out by both a quiet and quasi-mechanical devouring of the rebels, and by the vociferous swallowing of crying individuals whose voices describe, from the depths of the underworld, what it is to suffer Divine punishment.

Korah is not merely a rebel – he is a verbal manipulator, he uses words to fashion people’s consciences and thus must be punished by a mouth. It is interesting to notice how this punishment also resembles the Ovidian metamorphoses, where the sexual violence of the raping male characters is contrasted by the upsurge of a chaotic nature, which contrasts the stiffness of the masculine violence with the variability and otherness of metamorphosis. Here too, Creation comes alive as the verbal ravishing of Korah’s rhetoric encage the minds of the crowd, and the earth opens its mouth to silence the political blabber of this man. As Korah attacks Moses and incites his followers into believing that sanctity is inherent, that it is in each and every one of us and has nothing to do with actions, as he utters words to change the way people think of Moses and G-d, the earth opens its mouth and quietens the noise, ends the endless and senseless noise of political manipulation.

Korah is not a hero – he is a politician.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.