The Case of the Missing Kohathites: Deuteronomy 11:6 and Korah’s Rebellion

Numbers 16 records the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram against Moses and Aaron. As punishment for their rebellion, Yahweh judges them by causing the ground to swallow these leaders, their households, and all their possessions. Deuteronomy contains one reference to this event (11:6), and in this reference, Moses does not mention Korah, the leader of the rebellion, or the Kohathites who joined him; instead, he identifies Dathan and Abiram as the ringleaders of the rebellion and highlights Yahweh’s unusual judgment.

Scholars have made a variety of proposals regarding the omission of Korah and his fellow Kohathites in Deuteronomy 11:6. Critical scholars attribute this omission to the presence of two sources in the Numbers account, one of which (the priestly source) the compiler of Deuteronomy did not have. Traditional Jewish exegesis has argued Moses did not mention Korah and his cohort because he did not want to hurt the sons of Korah who were present at the time of Deuteronomy’s speeches. Other commentators have offered a variety of historical and literary explanations for the omission.

After surveying these various proposals and analyzing the literary context of Deuteronomy 11, I will propose a twofold rationale for the omission of the Kohathites in Deuteronomy 11:6. First, I will argue the nature of Korah’s sin differs from that of Dathan and Abiram in Numbers 16. Therefore, Moses highlights the sin of Dathan and Abiram, who complained about their difficulties in the wilderness, a sin the Israelites had also committed (Deut. 9:7) and were prone to commit as they faced difficulties in the land (cf. Deut. 1:27). Second, I will argue the omission of the Kohathites fits the overall treatment of the Levites in the book of Deuteronomy. I will show how Deuteronomy gives a positive treatment of the Levites (e.g., 33:8–11) and regularly commands Israel to provide for them since they do not have their own inheritance (e.g., 14:27). This positive and mercy-laden portrayal of the Levites could have contributed to Moses’s omission of Korah’s rebellion from Deuteronomy altogether.

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