(Some) Villains of Tanakh - Datan and Aviram By Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

Datan and Aviram (Dathan and Abiram) always appear as a pair, so we have no knowledge about them as individuals. In Part I we will study the story in which they appear. In Part II we will look at other biblical material that responds to their story, and in Part III we will examine some rabbinic commentaries on them.

Part I: Numbers 16:1-35

Korach is a major player here, but we will not focus on him. He seems to have had his personal reasons for causing a rebellion against Moshe and Aaron, and altruism had nothing to do with it.

1. What was the complaint of this rebellious group? (V.3)

2. How do we know that the request is not a genuine desire to move closer to God?

  • Notice the ridiculous nature of their argument: They claim that all are קדושים (Kedoshim = sanctified.) A sanctified thing is a thing/person set aside for a specific purpose. If an entire crowd is sanctified, the uniqueness is lost.

3. The group is described as approaching: “They assembled on (ויקהלו על)Moshe and Aaron.” What does the expression mean? (It appears again in v.19)

4. Why do you think that Moshe sent to call Datan and Aviram? (v.12)

  • And what does it say about Moshe as a leader and a person?

5. What do Datan and Aviram answer?

  • The boundaries of their response are clearly marked by a repeating phrase that says it all. Pay attention to the linguistic details here. In the body of the message there is a play on the Land of Milk and Honey. Which land is that? What seems to be at the center of their response?

6. What is Moshe’s reaction? Is it justified? What did God think?

  • What in Datan’s and Aviram’s case might have set off Moshe? (Remember that in chapter 12 Moshe did not open his mouth when his siblings bad mouthed him, and God had to take up the case.)

7. What does God plan to do as a reaction to the situation? (2 phases)

  • Notice that just like in other cases, God is willing to give a sweeping punishment, and Moshe objects. Is it possible that more people (not only Datan, Aviram and Korach) deserved to die? In other words, is it possible that such people thrive without some communal backing?

The punishment of Datan and Aviram also functions as the proof that God appointed Moshe. The conflict moves from one between people to a conflict with God.

Part II: Other Biblical Sources

Datan and Aviram are mentioned (by name) twice outside of the story in Numbers. How are they viewed?

(ג) וְאֶת־אֹֽתֹתָיו֙ וְאֶֽת־מַעֲשָׂ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָׂ֖ה בְּת֣וֹךְ מִצְרָ֑יִם לְפַרְעֹ֥ה מֶֽלֶךְ־מִצְרַ֖יִם וּלְכָל־אַרְצֽוֹ׃ (ד) וַאֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂה֩ לְחֵ֨יל מִצְרַ֜יִם לְסוּסָ֣יו וּלְרִכְבּ֗וֹ אֲשֶׁ֨ר הֵצִ֜יף אֶת־מֵ֤י יַם־סוּף֙ עַל־פְּנֵיהֶ֔ם בְּרָדְפָ֖ם אַחֲרֵיכֶ֑ם וַיְאַבְּדֵ֣ם יְהוָ֔ה עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃ (ה) וַאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָׂ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר עַד־בֹּאֲכֶ֖ם עַד־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃ (ו) וַאֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֜ה לְדָתָ֣ן וְלַאֲבִירָ֗ם בְּנֵ֣י אֱלִיאָב֮ בֶּן־רְאוּבֵן֒ אֲשֶׁ֨ר פָּצְתָ֤ה הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ וַתִּבְלָעֵ֥ם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּיהֶ֖ם וְאֶת־אָהֳלֵיהֶ֑ם וְאֵ֤ת כָּל־הַיְקוּם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּרַגְלֵיהֶ֔ם בְּקֶ֖רֶב כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ז) כִּ֤י עֵֽינֵיכֶם֙ הָֽרֹאֹ֔ת אֶת־כָּל־מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה הַגָּדֹ֑ל אֲשֶׁ֖ר עָשָֽׂה׃ (ח) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־הַמִּצְוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לְמַ֣עַן תֶּחֶזְק֗וּ וּבָאתֶם֙ וִֽירִשְׁתֶּ֣ם אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֛ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃ (ט) וּלְמַ֨עַן תַּאֲרִ֤יכוּ יָמִים֙ עַל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר֩ נִשְׁבַּ֨ע יְהוָ֧ה לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶ֛ם לָתֵ֥ת לָהֶ֖ם וּלְזַרְעָ֑ם אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָֽשׁ.

(3) the signs and the deeds that He performed in Egypt against Pharaoh king of Egypt and all his land; (4) what He did to Egypt’s army, its horses and chariots; how the LORD rolled back upon them the waters of the Sea of Reeds when they were pursuing you, thus destroying them once and for all; (5) what He did for you in the wilderness before you arrived in this place; (6) and what He did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab son of Reuben, when the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them, along with their households, their tents, and every living thing in their train, from amidst all Israel— (7) but that it was you who saw with your own eyes all the marvelous deeds that the LORD performed. (8) Keep, therefore, all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you today, so that you may have the strength to enter and take possession of the land that you are about to cross into and possess, (9) and that you may long endure upon the soil that the LORD swore to your fathers to assign to them and to their heirs, a land flowing with milk and honey.

(טז) וַיְקַנְא֣וּ לְ֭מֹשֶׁה בַּֽמַּחֲנֶ֑ה לְ֝אַהֲרֹ֗ן קְד֣וֹשׁ יְהוָֽה׃ (יז) תִּפְתַּח־אֶ֭רֶץ וַתִּבְלַ֣ע דָּתָ֑ן וַ֝תְּכַ֗ס עַל־עֲדַ֥ת אֲבִירָֽם׃ (יח) וַתִּבְעַר־אֵ֥שׁ בַּעֲדָתָ֑ם לֶ֝הָבָ֗ה תְּלַהֵ֥ט רְשָׁעִֽים׃ (יט) יַעֲשׂוּ־עֵ֥גֶל בְּחֹרֵ֑ב וַ֝יִּשְׁתַּחֲו֗וּ לְמַסֵּכָֽה׃ (כ) וַיָּמִ֥ירוּ אֶת־כְּבוֹדָ֑ם בְּתַבְנִ֥ית שׁ֝֗וֹר אֹכֵ֥ל עֵֽשֶׂב׃ (כא) שָׁ֭כְחוּ אֵ֣ל מוֹשִׁיעָ֑ם עֹשֶׂ֖ה גְדֹל֣וֹת בְּמִצְרָֽיִם׃ (כב) נִ֭פְלָאוֹת בְּאֶ֣רֶץ חָ֑ם נ֝וֹרָא֗וֹת עַל־יַם־סֽוּף׃
(16) There was envy of Moses in the camp, and of Aaron, the holy one of the LORD. (17) The earth opened up and swallowed Dathan, closed over the party of Abiram. (18) A fire blazed among their party, a flame that consumed the wicked. (19) They made a calf at Horeb and bowed down to a molten image. (20) They exchanged their glory for the image of a bull that feeds on grass. (21) They forgot God who saved them, who performed great deeds in Egypt, (22) wondrous deeds in the land of Ham, awesome deeds at the Sea of Reeds.

1) What is the general context in which they are mentioned?

Both settings are historic recaps of Israelite history. But a recap is brief, so it is interesting to see which details the narrator chose to include in his limited space. Which events were deemed important enough by both Deuteronomy (Moshe’s parting speech) and the Psalmist to be included?

2) Does the speaker seem to be familiar with the Numbers version?

A story can appear in different places, sometimes with very similare details, sometimes with real differences. In addition to the details, pay attention to the language that is used: Is it reminiscent of that which is found in the version in Numbers that you studied earlier?

3) Notice that Egypt is mentioned in both sourced. What might it tell us about Datan and Aviram?

This is somewhat connected to the first question. In what setting does their name come up? Why might it be significant that they are associated with Egypt? Look at their response to Moshe – their version of what has happened since the Exodus until that point. Were they alone in their “pro-Egyptian” sentiments? After the spies came back with a subtly negative report about the land, the people suggest appointing a leader and returning to Egypt… (Numbers 14:2-4) What could we learn about some of the winds that might have been blowing among the Israelites during the years in the desert (and even be before being forced to leave?)

Part III – Rabbinic Sources

Perhaps due to the scant (but troubling) material about Datan and Aviram in the Torah, rabbis and commentators have augmented our understanding of these people with links to other narratives. Here is a sampling:

The following comments appear in Rashi (10th century) and in Exodus Rabba (a medieval midrash) regarding Exodus 2:13-14: Moshe intervenes when he sees two quarreling Israelites. One of them turns on him saying: “Who made you prince and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”

(א) שני אנשים עברים. דָּתָן וַאֲבִירָם, הֵם שֶׁהוֹתִירוּ מִן הַמָּן (נדרים ס"ד)

(1) שני אנשים עברים TWO MEN OF THE HEBREWS — viz., Dathan and Abiram (Nedarim 64b); it was they, too, who left over some of the manna (Exodus Rabbah 1:29).

שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשה א ד”ה וירא כי

ויצא ביום השני והנה שני אנשים עברים נצים – זה דתן ואבירם. קראם “נצים” על שם סופם. הם הם שאמרו דבר זה, הם היו שהותירו מן המן, הם היו שאמרו (במדבר יד ד) “נתנה ראש ונשובה מצרימה”, הם שהמרו על ים סוף.

Midrash Shemot Rabba

And he went out on the next day and here: two Hebrew men scuffling – Those are Datan and Aviram. He called them “quarreling” because of what will become of them: They are the ones who said this, they are the ones who left over of the Manna, they are the ones who said (Num. 14:4) Let us give head and return to Egypt,” they are the ones who rebelled at the Reed Sea.

1) Why did Rashi bring a shorter list than the midrash brought?

Rashi is very sensitive to the Hebrew text. He fully expects you to check his sources and see the philological link. To check his source on the Manna, read Exodus 16:20. Do you see any language in common? The sources for the additional 2 stories that the midrash brought: The reference to the spies’ episode, in which the Israelites did not wish to enter the land, is found in Numbers 14:2-4. The reference given for the Reed Sea (based on the language) is taken from Psalms 106:7.

The video at the end of this class works through this question.

2) Philology might provide a link, but why do you think that both Rashi and the midrash attributed all these incidents by nameless people to Datan and Aviram?

אמר משה: הואיל ולא רצו לבא, אני אלך אצלם, אולי יתביישו ויחזרו בהם, שנאמר ויקם משה וילך אל דתן ואבירם. (במד’ טז כה) כשראו אותו התחילו לחרף ולגדף שנאמר ודתן ואבירם יצאו נצבים (שם כז). וכי יושבין או כורעין או נופלין יוצאין בני אדם? אלא מלמד שיצאו כשהן מחרפין ומגדפין, שנאמר כאן יציאה והצבה ונאמר בגלית הפלשתי יציאה והצבה, שנאמר (שמואל א’ יז ד,טז) “ויצא איש הבינים… ויגש הפלשתי השכם והערב ויתיצב” מה יציאה והצבה התם בחרופין ובגידופין, אף כאן בחרופין ובגדופין.

Moshe said: Since they did not to come, I will go to them; perhaps they will be ashamed and repent, as it says: “And Moshe arose and went to Datan and Aviram.” (Num. 16:25) When they saw him they began to shame and curse [him] as it says “and Datan and Aviram came-out stationing [themselves]” (Num.16:27). Do people come out sitting or kneeling or falling? Rather it teaches that they came out shaming and cursing, as it says here ‘coming-out’ and ‘stationing’ and with Goliath the Philistine it says ‘coming-out’ and ‘stationing’ as it says “and the champion came-out…and the Philistine stepped forward morn and eve and stationed [himself]” (I Samuel 17:4,16.) There he was shaming and cursing, so here it is shaming and cursing.

1) How does the Midrash understand Moshe in this episode?

Moshe’s second (attempted) contact with Datan and Aviram seem unclear. But the idea that is put forth by the midrash appears also in the Talmud Bavli in the name of Reish Lakish: “From here we learn that we are not to hold onto a dispute.” (Sanhedrin 110a)

2) What did this midrash accomplish by using philology?

What we might have sensed but not found in our text in Numbers, becomes clearer when compared with another character in a story in which similar language is used.

3) Finally, by linking these 2 stories, this midrash might answer why God got involved. Why do you think He did?

Something to think about when we put it all together:

Reading the story of the Exodus from the beginning, one realizes that while the event was miraculous, not all the Israelites were grateful for it. Moshe was criticized by the Israelites from early on, while still in Egypt. (He anticipated this already when told about his mission. He had some experience with the Israelites in Egypt.) The Israelites finally left because they were forced out by the Egyptians, not because they broke free.

Who were those ‘nay-sayers’? When and why did they start? Did this “pro-Egypt” party last as a subversive force among the people? Who were their leaders?