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B'Midbar/Numbers 16:22 One man sins and you will be angry with the whole assembly?
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The context is Korah's rebellion against the authority of Moshe and Aharon. Moshe and Aharon are speaking toHaShem after He has announced His intention to destroy the whole assembly. It is not immediately clear whether the pointing of the first word - - is correct. Jacob Milgrom suggests that the qametz under the hay should be a patach, reading to denote an interrogative hay rather than a definite article, 'the'. That would render the whole phrase as a question, as assumed by many translations, and is supported by normal syntax which would require 'man' and 'one' to match in gender and definiteness. Quoting the incident where Aharon's two eldest sons are killed for offering "strange fire" - "And Moshe said to Aharon and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, 'Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community'" (Vayikra 10:6-7, JPS) - Milgrom points out that the divine right to punish collectively is both assumed and questioned in this text.
The early Sages expanded these words into a parable: "'Sovereign of the Universe! In the case of a mortal king, if a province rebels against him and rises and curses the king or his deputies, even if only ten or twenty of them have done so, he sends his legions there and carries out a massacre, slaying the good with the bad, because he cannot tell which of them has rebelled and which has not, or who has honoured the king and who has cursed him. You, however, know the thoughts of man and what the hearts and minds counsel. You discern the inclinations of Your creatures and know which man has sinned and which has not, who has rebelled and who has not. You know the spirit of each and every one.' The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: You have spoken well! I shall make it known who has sinned and who has not" (B'Midbar Rabbah 18:11). TheSforno cites a previous verse as evidence - "Korah gathered the whole community against them at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting" (v.19, JPS) - adding, "since he (alone) caused the congregation to assemble against us".
Richard Elliot Friedman comments that Moshe's words are "reminiscent of Abraham's plea in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah: 'Will you annihilate the virtuous with the wicked?' (B'resheet 18:23)." He explains that, "the connection to the case of Sodom is highlighted by the fact that Moshe tells the people to get away "or else you'll be annihilated" (B'Midbar 16:26), which are the same words that the angels say at Sodom - "As dawn broke, the angels urged Lot on, saying, 'Up, take your wife and your two remaining daughters, lest you be swept away because of the iniquity of the city'" (B'resheet 19:15, JPS) - but occur nowhere else in the Torah.
Hirsch, too, shapes words for Moshe to say in mitigation of the people: "You know how easily the minds of the masses can be swayed to wrong ideas by the influence exerted by the superior intellect of one who hitherto had enjoyed uninfringed confidence and who places dazzling prospects and highly coloured assertions before them. When the masses rise to commit crime, as a rule the true guilt lies with a few superior agitators." This despite the words of Jeremiah: "In those days they shall no longer say: "'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.' But everyone shall die for his own sin. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge" (Jeremiah 31:29-30, JPS) and Ezekiel: "As I live, declares the L-rd G-D, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:3-4, JPS). After all, Chizkuni asks, "It is the nature of man to sin! Will You be wrathful with the whole community?"
Isaac Arama draws an important parallel in the book of Joshua: "But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things, for Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of the devoted things. And the anger of the L-RD burned against the people of Israel" (Joshua 7:1, JPS). Israel attacked the city of Ai, but because of the "devoted things" the Israel army was defeated and some of the men were killed. The elders of Israel are so disturbed by this lesson that when the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh want to return to the territory that Moshe had allocated for them on the east of the Jordan, they try to dissuade them by reminding them, "Did not Achan the son of Zerah break faith in the matter of the devoted things, and wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel? And he did not perish alone for his iniquity" (22:20, ESV). Why was the whole community not punished because of Korah's rebellion? Arama writes, "The individual is a part of the whole just as the whole man is sick even when only one part of the body is affected ... Divine anger is directed against the community for the sin of the individual as in Achan's case when the individual is knit to his group and is identified with it (since in such a case we blame the community for not having warned him or disassociated itself from his acts). But when the sinner has separated himself from the community and taken himself to one side to take issue with them, the burden of sin is already removed from them. We no longer hold the public guilty then for the misdeed of the individual. It is like a limb that has been severed from the living body, having no further connection with it." Nechama Leibowitz observes that, "According to the foregoing comments, the Israelites were in the dangerous situation of many people to this day. They neither agreed with Korah nor actively opposed him, but stood aside to see how things would work out." They were just waiting to see what happened.
We can hear the echoes of Rav Sha'ul's analogy of the different parts of the body: "If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body" (1 Corinthians 12:15-16, ESV). Sha'ul reminds us that we are all part of one body and have responsibility for each other - we cannot just remove ourselves. When one of us hurts, we all feel it; when one of us sins we are all affected by it. When John writes Yeshua's letters to the churches at the start of the book of Revelation, no church is wholly bad. Yeshua says that He knows their works, as G-d knew the hearts of the Israelites; He rebukes those who are in sin and encourages those who are still living for Him, for example, the church in Thyatira: "I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel ... But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come" (Revelation 2:19-20,24-25, ESV).
Today, living in a post-modern world, where everyone is allowed to be right and all opinions are considered equally valid, we in exactly the same danger as the Israelites at the time of Korah. We see repeated rebellion against G-d's word, kingdom and standards; we hear repeated challenges against our faith, the name of Yeshua and even the existence of G-d; and yet, on the whole, we do nothing. We stand on the side and wait to see how things will work out. Perhaps it won't be as bad as it looks; perhaps they won't go that far. We try to avoid conflict or engagement that might expose us to ridicule or personal loss, that isn't absolutely necessary. And every time the bar slips a little lower and there is greater tolerance for the intolerable in society.
We all know the story of the Good Samaritan; we all recognise the caricatures of the priest and the Levite who ignore the man who had been robbed and left to die. We understand the race and religious issues that Yeshua highlighted in the compassion of the Samaritan. But we can easily miss the personal risk and cost to which the hero exposes himself. He stops at the site of the robbery, even though it might be an ambush and the robbers still waiting for another victim; he treats and binds the man's wounds, at his own cost and possible harm since he might have needed clean oil and wine for himself; he puts the wounded man on his own donkey, even though he himself will now have to walk the rest of the way in the hot sun; he takes him to an inn and cares for him, even though that delays his own journey possibly in the opposite direction; he pays the bill, to his own direct cost, and leaves a deposit and an open-ended financial commitment, "Whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back" (Luke 10:35, ESV).
God is calling all of us to be different from those who saw and heard Korah's rebellion, yet did and said nothing. He is calling us to be like the Good Samaritan, who had compassion and accepted a risk and a cost to serve another.
Further Study: Ecclesiastes 9:17-18; Romans 12:3-8; Hebrews 12:15-6
Will you hear and acknowledge the call of G-d your life today? Will you
respond by allowing Him to use your hands, feet and voice in His service?
© Jonathan Allen, 2013
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© Jonathan Allen, 2013
Your turn - what do you think of the ideas in this drash ?Like most print and online magazines, we reserve the right to edit or publish only those comments we feel are edifying in tone and content.