The JPS translation committee renders the words as rebels, but the Hebrew is, as is often the case, a bit more complex.
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה הָשֵׁ֞ב אֶת־מַטֵּ֤ה אַהֲרֹן֙ לִפְנֵ֣י הָעֵד֔וּת לְמִשְׁמֶ֥רֶת לְא֖וֹת לִבְנֵי־מֶ֑רִי וּתְכַ֧ל תְּלוּנֹּתָ֛ם מֵעָלַ֖י וְלֹ֥א יָמֻֽתוּ׃
17:25 The Lord said to Moses, “Put Aaron’s staff back before the Pact, to be kept as a lesson to rebels, so that their mutterings against Me may cease, lest they die.”
The Hebrew being translated as rebels is לִבְנֵי־מֶ֑רִי
Without the prefixed לִ we have just בְנֵי־מֶ֑רִי
Sons of …of what? The venerable BDB lexicon renders it as rebellion, while HALOT translates it as contentiousness. The JPS committee simply chose to translate it as rebels.
Though we can’t be sure of the derivation of the word, there is some speculation that it does indeed come from the root mem-resh-hey, marah, meaning bitterness. That same root also doubles in meaning as rebellious or recalcitrant.
As is often the case in Hebrew, one word or basic shoresh (root) serves many different meanings, sometimes closely connected, and at other times apparently not so related.
Subtleties. Do they really matter here? In reading these words, many assume this is about about Korach, Dathan, and Abiram and their followers. Does it matter if we label them rebels, discontents, embittered followers, recalcitrants? Some would say it matters not. Yet what stands out to me is that these are, according to the text, G”d’s words.(Whether you believe they are actually G”d’s words, or simply those that the authors/redactors attributed to G”d is, for at least my purposes here, irrelevant. We can save that for another time.)
So yes, for me it matters what “b’nei m’ri” means, because this is how G”d is describing those who challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron. (This particular verse, 17:25, follows the account of how only Aaron’s staff blossomed among the staffs of all the chieftains, a clear demonstration by G”d that the authority does indeed rest with Aaron (and of course, Moses.)
If we translate “b’nei m’ri” as discontents, or embittered followers (i.e. sons of bitterness,) then we have the sense that these folks at least perceived an injustice or unfairness and were acting upon those feelings. However, if we see them as recalcitrants, then we are predisposing them to be rebellious by their very nature, making it easier for us to assume their claims are of little merit.
There’s little doubt that G”d sees all the Israelites as predisposed to be doubtful, argumentative, rebellious – in a word, recalcitrant. We’ve given G”d every good reason to see us that way – even unto this day.
Thus it should matter to us very much how G”d perceives us, and how, exactly, G”d perceived Korach, Dathan, Abiram and all their followers. After all, their punishment was pretty severe.
Context, again, steps in. The followers of Korach, Dathan, and Abiram had already been severely dealt with in the previous verses! It was the day after the 250 followers had been consumed by heavenly fire, that the people were protesting that the punishment of the rebels was unfair, complaining that Moses and Aaron had only brought death and destruction upon them. It was at this point that G”d stepped in to order the blooming staff test to once and for put to rest any question of the authority of Aaron (and Moses.) It was at the conclusion of this test that we read the verse (17:25) in question.
So we now have to ask to whom G”d is referring. Just Korach and his band, or all the Israelites. The context would seem to suggest the answer is all the Israelites, for they all railed against Aaron and Moses. Or, at the least, anyone among the Israelites who harbors even the slightest rebellious tendency against Aaron and Moses (and by inference, G”d.) However, do we not already know that all of us are a stubborn, recalcitrant, stiff-necked people? Is G”d asking us to accept this natural tendency yet contain it and not becoming active rebels? (Sounds to me a lot like those rabbis in the orthodox community who says it’s okay to be gay as long as you don’t act on it! Really?) Really? Really G”d? You know we are, perhaps even made us people who tend to be recalcitrant, and yet You want us to control and subliminate those impulses? Talk about a no-win situation. Talk about a set up.
Perhaps “b’nei m’ri” is a better name for us than “b’nei Yisrael.” Although I could argue that it is things just like this that cause us to be, in one meaning of “b’nei Yisrael,” those who struggle with G”d. It’s an eternal paradox. To be both “b’nei m’ri” and “b’nei Yisrael.” How are we to simultaneously wear both mantles?
That, dear friends, is the question. I know I will puzzle over it this Shabbat and many others. Perhaps you will, too.
©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Korakh 5771 – Supporting Our Priests and Levites
Korakh 5770 (Redux 5758/62) Camp Rebellion
Korakh 5769 – And who Put G”d In Charge (or 2009: A Space Odyssey)
Korakh 5768-If Korakh Had Guns
Korach 5767-Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad, Tabernacle?
Korach 5766 – Investment
Korah 5765 – Stones and Pitchers and Glass Houses
Korach 5764-B’tzelem Anashim
Korach 5761-Loose Ends