Last time I dealt with פרשת קרח I defended Korach. Today I’m going to do something worse and defend Dathan and Aviram. Their complaint was different from Korach’s; Korach argued against Aharon’s selection: (במדבר טז:ג) כל העדה כלם קדשים ובתוכם ה׳. Dathan and Aviram were complaining that Moshe failed:
The problem is that they are right; Moshe did promise them a land flowing with milk and honey:
And it’s worse: Moshe was speaking as a נביא. G-d can’t get things wrong, so Moshe must be lying. He is a נביא שקר:
Now, the question of how to tell a נביא שקר has a long, complex history; for resources see the shiurim from AlHatorah, Michalah and Torah Musings. I do not have time to go into all that.
So בני ישראל not only should not listen to Moshe, they should put him to death.
And the problem is particularly acute for Moshe. We’ve previously discussed the fact that Moshe isn’t a נביא in the traditional sense.
Moshe is משה רבינו, not משה הנביא. A נביא only has the authority to declare a הוראת שעה, not to create some new legislation. This is connected to the inherent source of the נביא’s authority:
But Moshe gives instructions to בני ישראל that are not חפצא של תורה as the Brisker Rav puts it, but are apparently חפצא של נבואה, since they are only הוראת שעה:
There’s no “mitzvah” to turn south from Kadesh Barnea. The obligation is the obligation to listen to a נביא who says that ה׳ spoke to them. It is entirely consistent to believe in תורת משה but claim he is a נביא שקר. Dathan and Aviram were present at מעמד הר סיני, experienced G-d saying ואדברה אילך את כל המצוה והחוקים והמשפטים אשר תלמדם. But that is just Moshe’s authority to relate the eternal word of G-d.
So Moshe needs to bring אותות not for the תורה but for his authority to issue הוראות שעה.
I have to acknowledge that Ramban and Rambam may disagree here; Ramban holds that Moshe’s authority (in all things, תורה and הוראות שעה) comes from the אותות ומופתים, while Rambam holds that Moshe is fundamentally different from other נביאים. The model I am proposing, that the two aspects need to be separated, is my idea but I think it is implicit in the text. Moshe does do signs so that the people believe him:
But then Moshe “fails”; Pharaoh doesn’t release them. So the people doubt his נבואה:
And notably, the נצבים are identified with Dathan and Avriram:
The people don’t really believe in Moshe again until קרעית ים סוף:
So in our story, Moshe has to produce yet another אות to establish his credentials as a נביא:
But producing another אות doesn’t help. אפילו נפל דבר קטן בידוע שהוא נביא שקר. Once Moshe promises that they will enter ארץ ישראל and they lose that, he has lost his authority.
The usual answer is that prophecies are not absolute. G-d doesn’t change but people do. תשובה can avert a negative decree, and חטא can nullify a positive one. This is most explicit in ירמיהו:
The problem with this answer is that it is apparently wrong. While ה׳ may retract a negative prophecy, He will never retract a positive prophecy:
Many others object to the Rambam; look at the sources cited above for details. They consider the source in ברכות to be Aggadic, not Halachic and thus is to be taken “seriously but not literally”, and the underlying truth is that a הבטחה על טובה can be lost due to sin:
But what about the Rambam? Can’t Dathan and Aviram say they hold like the משנה תורה and thus reject Moshe’s נבואה? Commentators on the משנה תורה deal with understanding this and similar questions; see, for instance, Rabbi Eli Baruch Shulman’s ישמח אב on כיצד מברכין, קונטרס בעניני נבואה, ענף ג׳, עמ׳ תא.
But I would understand the nature of נבואה to always have that implicit condition. Dathan and Aviram were wrong; losing the ארץ זבת חלב was not a failing of Moshe’s (or ה׳'s!) but of theirs.