Being one of the top international best sellers of all time is not an easy spot to maintain, taking into account changing cultures, societies and times. But the Bible possesses this rare quality, which has enabled generation after generation of readers to identify with its heroes and messages and find in it answers, refuge and remedy.
There was, however, the issue of adaptation to different needs and literary tastes that affected the interpretation of the Bible throughout the ages. One of the most common and influential is the tendency of the late Second Temple period sages to unearth the mysteries of the anonymous characters of the Bible, which seems to have alienated some of that era’s synagogue-goers, who measured Torah reading or the sermon against the tragedies and comedies played in the adjacent Greek theater and demanded the same level of interest and entertainment. (High school students who had to read “Beowulf” were complaining about how they wish they could have watched the recent movie as an alternative to the archaic, boring text.)
One element that fascinated the ancient Jewish theater aficionados was the wealth of details and history attached to each character, which is so often missing in the laconic, terse language of the Torah. The rabbis responded to the trend by identifying the anonymous protagonists, usually tying them to other characters, who are mentioned by name. Such is the case of the leaders of the civil rebellion against Moses — Dathan and Abiram — whom the rabbis identified as the two Israelites confronted by Moses on the second day he ventured from the royal palace to see his brethren’s tribulations.
When Moses approached the attacker, asking him why he was beating his fellow Israelite, the man angrily responded: “Who appointed you a judge? Are you planning to kill me as you did the Egyptian?”
This identification of the quarreling Israelites with Dathan and Abiram undoubtedly adds an element of continuity and familiarity to the story. We almost expect to see those two at every hot spot, as the rabbis in the midrash most certainly did. But it is problematic for several reasons.
First, when God tells Moses to return to Egypt, He says that all those who sought to harm him are dead. If that includes Dathan and Abiram, how come they surface later during the Korach dispute? Moreover, in the quarrel story, only one is defined as a wicked person, while the other seems to be innocent, and if they are indeed Dathan and Abiram, both are wicked. Lastly, naming these two defies the intention of the Torah, which chose to leave them anonymous because their names are not essential to the narrative.
The answer to these questions is that the rabbis took the liberty, as playwrights, to introduce high drama and a sense of continuity and familiarity to the biblical text. Undoubtedly, they based their interpretation of the original text on the fact that in both cases, those who confronted Moses used words derived from the Hebrew root S.R.R., which means authority or rulership, and that they accused Moses of seeking to rule and dominate them, replacing one rogue regime with another.
Nothing could have offended Moses more, being sincere and genuinely concerned about his brethren’s suffering as he was. Moses could have stayed in the palace and enjoyed royal privileges, but he chose to commiserate with his brothers and, indeed, tried to save one of them by killing the Egyptian taskmaster.
When his altruism was faced with such doubt and accusation, he abandoned his plans altogether and fled to the desert, which was to become his fortress of solitude until God forced him to resume his mission and his role of a leader.
As the curtain draws, the audience of that ancient biblical play, in the new rabbinical rendition, can identify with the characters. Moses is the hero, the leader who once and again is being confronted with the machinations of those who seek power for themselves by casting doubt on the purity of his motives. The rabbinical narrator ties together loose ends and connects Moses’ response to the first confrontation (i.e., running away to the desert) with his response to the last one, in which he is in a position he cannot quit — leading the whole nation.
After attending services during the rabbinical times and hearing the rabbi dramatizing these fateful encounters, it’s not difficult to imagine congregants on their way home considering how this drama played out every so often in their lives and how they would rise to the occasion themselves if challenged by those who embodied Dathan and Abiram.
Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.