A Song. A Psalm of the sons of Korah. For the choir director; according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite. Psalm 88:1 (Hebrew text – NASB)
Sons of Korah – Our story begins with the rebellion of Korah against Moses’ authority. The event is recorded in Numbers 16 and again in Numbers 26. But there is just one small difficulty (handled in various ways by both Christian and rabbinic commentators).
The punishment inflicted by God on the rebels is found in Numbers 16.
“and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men who belonged to Korah with their possessions” (Numbers 16:32 NASB).
The Hebrew text is pretty clear. Everyone involved in the rebellion and everyone who belonged to Korah, died. The Hebrew noun, kōl, doesn’t leave much wiggle room.
(kōl). All, every, any, whole, none. A very common particle, occurring about 5400 times. Of these all but about 800 are in a genitive relation with the following word, signifying thus, “the whole of something.” It is commonly translated “all” if the following word is plural, and “every” if the word is singular and without the article.
“‘All,’ if the following word is plural,” which in this case, it is. All means everyone.
“who belonged to Korah” is the questionable part. Does this mean only those who were part of the rebellion (who belonged to him in this challenge to Moses) or does it mean Korah’s line, that is, everyone who was part of the extended family of Korah? It’s a fair question for on the surface, it seems to imply that God brought the verdict against the entire clan (as He did in other places where corporal punishment extended beyond those who were directly guilty of offense). But then we have this, just a few chapters later:
“The sons of Korah, however, did not die” (Numbers 26:11 NASB).
And, of course, there’s the fact that David, centuries later, attributes one of the poems set to music to “the sons of Korah.” It’s pretty clear that not all of them died. So apparently “all” doesn’t mean “everyone.” So is it “all” or “not-quite-all”? Obviously, it has to be the latter. But we don’t know that when we read Numbers 16:32. We have to read Numbers 26:11 to find out that kōl doesn’t quite mean what we naturally assumed it meant. And we need to read Psalm 88:1 to discover that Korah is still around, even if the earth swallowed him up. No wonder people find the stories a bit difficult. But, of course, you already thought through this little issue, didn’t you?
Topical Index: Korah, Numbers 16:32, Numbers 26:11, all, kōl, Psalm 88:1
Oswalt, J. N. (1999). 985 כָלַל. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament(electronic ed., p. 441). Chicago: Moody Press.