Sandro Botticelli, Punishment of the Sons of Korah, 1480–1482, in the Sistine Chapel, Rome.

Several biblical psalms are attributed to the sons of Korah (לִבְנֵי־קֹֽרַח), but who were they? And were they related in any way to the infamous Korah who, together with Dathan, Abiram, and 250 princes (or leaders) of Israel, rebelled against Moses?

In the story in Numbers 16 the 250 leaders were consumed by fire from God (v.35) while the ground opened up and swallowed Korah, his family and all his possessions (v.32). It’s somewhat unclear in some of the details about who, precisely, was punished in this way, with one part of the story saying it was “Korah, Dathan, and Abiram … together with their wives, their children, and their little ones” (v.27), while a later account says “the sons of Korah did not die” (Numbers 26:11). A further 14,700 people died in a plague which followed the rebellion (16:49). In fact, the details in Numbers 16 and 26 are so disjointed that many scholars think what we have is actually two stories which were merged together at some point. We have further evidence for this in two other accounts of this rebellion. In Deuteronomy 11:5-7 we have a short version which mentions what God “did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab son of Reuben, how in the midst of all Israel the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households, their tents, and every living being in their company.” Interestingly, Korah doesn’t get a mention here at all, while in Numbers he is portrayed as the ringleader. Similarly, Psalm 106:16-18 which describes the same rebellion against Moses, says “The earth opened and swallowed up Dathan, and covered the faction of Abiram. Fire also broke out in their company; the flame burned up the wicked.” Again, no mention of Korah! I will come back to a possible reason for this, but first let’s take a look at the “sons of Korah” elsewhere in the Bible.

Eleven (or twelve) psalms have לִבְנֵי־קֹֽרַח “to the sons of Korah” (or Korahites) in their headings.1 The same term occurs in the genealogies of the Levites (Temple ministers) in the book of Chronicles, where they are also called קָּרְחִים Korahites. The prophet-judge Samuel is listed as a descendant of Korah (1 Chron. 6:7-13, 18-23). We can piece together enough details in Chronicles to know that Korahites were a priestly group descended from Kohath, one of the three sons of Levi (Moses and Aaron were also descended from Kohath). These descendants of Kohath, or Kohathites, were responsible for taking care of the tabernacle in the wilderness and transporting the most sacred paraphernalia. It seems that in the Temple the Kohathites also had specific responsibilities for providing music. They are listed with “the men whom David put in charge of the service of song in the house of the LORD, after the ark came to rest there. They ministered with song before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, until Solomon had built the house of the LORD in Jerusalem; and they performed their service in due order” (1 Chron. 6:31). They are mentioned again during the reign of Jehoshaphat: “And the Levites, of the Kohathites and the Korahites, stood up to praise the LORD, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice” (2 Chron. 20:19). It’s hardly surprising then that around a dozen psalms were written by Korahites. However, in one genealogy of Kohathites the sons of Korah are conspicuously absent (1 Chron. 23:12-20), suggesting that by the time Chronicles was written (after the exile) their role may have been diminished.

We can only guess why the role of the Korahites was diminished. We do know that there was rivalry throughout Israel’s history between various priestly and Levitical groups. Sometimes this is overtly stated, such as in the incident when David deposed the priest Abiathar and elevated Zadok as High Priest, setting up a rivalry which probably lasted centuries. At other times the rivalry can be inferred by comparing conflicting genealogical records. There are also some hints of this in some of the psalms of the sons of Korah. For example, in Psalm 42-43 we have a repeated refrain “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” The whole tone of these psalms is one of despondency, although the writer doesn’t explain the circumstances which led to it. In one verse the writer reminisces about his times in the Temple: “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival” (42:5, v. 4 in English). Writing in the past tense about how he led worshippers or pilgrims to the Temple, there is an implication that he is despondent because he can no longer do this. In the second part of the psalm (psalm 43) he longs for a restoration to this position: “O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God” (43:3-4). For some unstated reason the writer is no longer leading worshippers to the Temple, but longs for a return to this position. I wonder if his appeal to God to “send out your light and your truth” is an appeal for the light of truth to be shined on some injustice which has led to his present situation. We can only speculate, but it’s possible that these psalms mark a turning point in the Korahites fortunes and their prominence in Temple service.2

Going back to the accounts in Numbers, Deuteronomy and Psalm 106 about the rebellion in the wilderness, and why Numbers 16 mentions Korah while the other accounts don’t, some scholars have argued that Korah was added in to the story at some later point in time. The rebels were Dathan and Abiram, according to Deuteronomy and Psalm 106, but a redactor or editor of Numbers decided at some point to add in Korah and to make him the ringleader. It seems clear enough that this happened, but not why. I’m going to suggest that the reason for this could have been the kind of priestly rivalry which I’ve mentioned, and at the same time as the Korahites fell out of favour a rival group of priestly scribes who were responsible for the book of Numbers inserted the Korahites ancestor Korah into the story. That might seem petty, but politics can be very petty at times!

However, the book of Psalms was a fluid collection, and we have good evidence that it grew and developed as a collection over time. Even though the sons of Korah may have lost their prominence at one time, the psalms which bear their name were retained in the collection, and their “complaint” in Psalms 42-43 somehow also made it in.

Incidentally, the painting I have chosen above by Botticelli displays the rebellion against Moses in three scenes. The scene on the left has the ground opening and two of the rebels sinking into the earth. Interestingly, in the middle scene Moses is wearing a papal tiara and the Latin inscription on the arch (which is obviously modelled on the Arch of Constantine in Rome) is from Hebrews 5:4 which translates as “And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was” (NRSV). The papal tiara, and the quote from Hebrews, suggests that Botticelli was responding to some challenge to papal authority. It seems that priestly rivalry and contests for religious leadership have always been with us!

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1 Psalms 43 and 43 were almost certainly written as one psalm, then 44-49, 84-85 and 87-88, so depending on whether we count 42 and 43 as one or two psalms we have a total of eleven or twelve.

2 It is equally possible that the psalm reflects some other reason why the writer is unable to go to the Temple. Some commentators think it may have been written after the destruction of the Temple, although I personally think the evidence does not favour this.