Korach: God of Spirits
What is God?
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There was a second rebellion that immediately followed the rebellion of the Spies. This was the rebellion of Korach, a distant relative of Moshe, and thus a Levite, who felt he had been slighted in the appointment of authority among the Israelites. He particularly resented the absolute role of Aaron as High Priest, but he had his problems with Moshe also. He managed to gather 250 men of status to his side to contest Moshe’s authority. This was not a popular rebellion like the spies, nor was it a religious rebellion like the Golden Calf. It was a power struggle.
Moshe manages to subdue the rebels until a showdown the next day involving, of all things, incense. Somehow the incense will reveal who really has the right of authority. This showdown takes place in front of everybody right at the entrance of the Tent of Communion. Right before the ‘High Noon’ moment Hashem enters the picture. Hashem says to both Moshe and Aaron, ‘Separate from among this group and I will destroy them in an instant’ (16:21). Instead of taking advantage of this free assistance, Moshe and Aaron ‘fell on their faces and said, “God, Elohim of spirits of all flesh, one man sins and your anger is on the entire group?”’ (v.22). God’s response to this odd defense of their enemies is that everyone should stay away from the tents of Korach and two other leaders named Datan and Abiram while Hashem eliminates them and their families and all their possessions.
Moshe insists that the demise of these leaders should be a definitive show of his own contested authority. Immediately, the earth opens up and they, along with their families, are swallowed up in the Biblical equivalent of a sink hole, never to be heard from again (the sons of Korach seem to survive the disaster somehow). The rest of the rebellion is put down with the incense demonstration amidst great turmoil and a nearly catastrophic plague.
The obvious strange nuance about this story is the use of a new description of God. ‘Elohim of spirits of all flesh’ – what does that mean? It turns out that this phrase is unique to this incident and one other incident in the entire Bible. Why is the phrase so rare? Why is it used to defend Moshe’s rivals? Finally, what does this description tell us about God?
A challenge to authority could be for good reasons or it could be for bad reasons. In the Korach case, based on the Torah’s narrative, it is obviously for pretty lousy reasons. It was a classic case of a jealous underling who wanted the reins of power and was looking for any way that he could to get them. That he somehow roped these other guys into his rebellion is a question on those other guys. Korach’s own aim was clear. The fact is though, that he did have a point. The leadership of the Israelites was clearly a religious oligarchy – Moshe held all the cards by virtue of his appointed position as the prophet of Hashem. He could choose whoever he wanted for the various positions of authority and there was no recourse for dissension. This was exactly what Korach was challenging. Did he want to replace the old system with something along democratic lines, or was he just attempting to replace Moshe with himself? This much is unclear, but he did have what appears to be a valid problem with the situation as it stood.
To this, Moshe’s response is that ‘in the morning Hashem will know who is His and who is holy and He will bring that one to Him, and the one that He chooses He will bring to Him’ (16:5). In other words, it is not Moshe assuming authority on his own, but only through the express desire of God. It is a religious oligarchy, but it is legitimate since it is based on clear divine authority. This is the debate in all its detail. The results clarify who was right in the end.
But Moshe’s defense of some participants in the rebellion is still puzzling. Why did he try to save these people? Right or wrong, they were taking part in a direct challenge to his spiritual and temporal authority, and that alone deserved divine retribution. Why does he want to spare these rebels the divine wrath they deserve and put all the blame on Korach alone? The Torah’s clue to answer this question is the words that Moshe says: ‘God, Elohim of spirits of all flesh, one man sins and your anger is on the entire group?’ The God of spirits of all flesh should be able to ascertain who is really behind all this and who was dragged into it against their own better judgment. Moshe defends his God-given authority by demanding that God exercise authority in a manner befitting God.
God, if He’s all He’s cracked up to be, must be able to know what’s going on inside the mind of people. It is not enough to merely create a universe every once in a while. It is not enough to split the sea or appear in a burning bush or give the Ten Commandments amidst thunder and lightening. It is not enough to appear in glory around the Tabernacle or to be the source of holiness or blessing or grace. It is not even enough to be the hidden essence of everything that exists, to be reality. God must have another essential quality – the ability to penetrate into the human mind and know what it’s up to.
This is the meaning of this strange phrase, ‘God of spirits of all flesh’. God must know the spirit. ‘Spirit’ is a rather vague Biblical term that seems to mean several things. It can mean an emotional inclination or motivation; it can mean inspiration to prophecy or divine insight; it can mean the soul itself or some aspect of it; and it can mean one’s general state of mind at any given time. The Hebrew word ruach - spirit, is the epitome of Biblical ambiguity. It seems to be deliberately open-ended, perhaps because the human mind itself is pretty elusive. It has a clear physical meaning – it means wind. Physical wind, a somewhat non-solid thing to begin with, translates into spirit when it comes to the mind. It moves things in the mind in an unseen but palpable manner, like the wind does to physical things in the world.
God has to know what the spirit is doing in the mind of each person. What makes them tick? What are they really after when they do the things they do? Are they motivated by a godly spirit or is it tainted by ego and other selfish desires? Human beings can only stab in the dark at this. We look into the eyes of the person we are trying to fathom, we read into their words or their body language to decode what is hidden from us. We might even try to hypnotize them or penetrate into their mind by some other means. It’s all a big guessing game with few definitive clues. We don’t even have all that clear of an idea of what is going on in our own minds, let alone that of somebody else.
But God, as part of the divine repertoire, has this mysterious power. God reads minds. God penetrates into the spirit. Unlike us, God can tell the absolute difference in motivation between two people who are doing what seems like the exact same thing. Both want to help; both want to rebel. Both want to understand; both want to challenge. We guess at which one is genuine and which one is fake; which one really wants it and which one is being dragged along. God has no such limitations. God knows the entire story, even better than the person who is doing whatever is being done. This is what it means to be the God of spirits – to understand and to fathom the unfathomable spirit.
Moshe begged this of God - that the rebels be looked upon as individuals and not as a mob. Some might be genuine rebels, out for blood, while others might be hangers-on whose hearts were not into it. Only Hashem has this ability. But if Hashem has it, Moshe had a right to demand that Hashem use it.
Perceiving the Image
This image, the image of God who penetrates the spirit, has become a classic of Judaism. It almost defines the image of the personal God. God knows us intimately, even better than we know ourselves. Anytime we sense that feeling deep within ourselves, that feeling of inner self-knowledge, it means that we have touched on this image. We may mistake this image for our own abilities. The truth is that the image probably does intersect and interact with our own faculties. It is an image that penetrates into the mind, so there is a gray area in which the personal self is almost indistinguishable from the personal God.
There is a disturbing quality about this image, however. We all have a comfort zone in knowing that nobody else can read our minds. We can think what we want with impunity; fully confident that there is a barrier which faithfully protects us from the prying of other minds. This barrier is infinitely reassuring in that it guarantees that the content of our minds is ours alone. But what if that barrier was not impenetrable? What if there was a way inside? What if God had access to our innermost secrets? Would we feel so confidant as we merrily think whatever thoughts we want - killing some people in our minds, embarrassing others, cutting all those we fear down to size? Very likely, the answer is ‘no’. We would be at least a little reluctant to think those outrageous thoughts, knowing that God is reading them all and perhaps recording them for future reference.
But there is a flip side to this. Gnawing as it may be, it is just as reassuring to know that God understands who we are and what we really need. God knows our inner emotions and our deepest desires. God can detect the true path we want to take and even open up a few doors for us. It is nice to know that there is somebody with you every step of the way, rising and falling with your emotional and spiritual upheavals, sensing the concerns and perhaps voicing tidbits of advice. The God of Spirits is the divine component of the human conscience. It is the part that cannot be reduced to chemicals and atoms, and always remains above those physical limitations. It interfaces with the soul in ways that religions attempt to understand but rarely get beyond the tip of the iceberg. That interface is the point at which God touches us most personally. It is our point of contact with God. It is so close that it is difficult to tell where the divine ends and the personal starts.
God knows our innermost secrets. It is like having a 24-hour divine psychologist analyzing us even when we don’t necessarily stop in for an appointment. Are we spiritually mature enough to live with this burden?
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