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The Sacred Fire, by B.Z. Goldberg, [1930], at

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". . . and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?"

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THEY who had been slaves in Egypt were now camping in freedom in the wilderness. No longer were they huddled together in the miserable huts behind the pyramids. No longer were they awakened at daybreak by the shrill siren, a summons to be busy finding straw for their bricks. Gone was the knout of the slavedriver and almost forgotten were the tortures by the publicans of Pharaoh. The great king himself lay buried beneath the sands of the Red Sea, in just punishment for his unwillingness to allow the children of Israel to serve their God.

They who once had been slaves were now as free as a people could ever be. They were liberated from all bonds of civilization and from the encumbrances of organized society. They were even unbound by toil and labor. Their sustenance came down from the sky ready for consumption. The angels of heaven fought their wars. Their only duty was to mind Moses and to march along to the Promised Land, where each would rest under his own vine and fig tree.

And yet, they who once were slaves were not happy in their freedom. There was a grumbling in the camp of the freed man. There was a pointing of fingers to the tent on the top of the hill. For upon its summit was the camp

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of Moses, the son of Amram, who had led them out of slavery, but who refused to set them free. He who had come to them in the name of liberty now spoke to them of law and order. He who had taught them to break the chains was chaining them to commandments and law. The rebel against the king of Egypt was establishing a kingdom of his own, a royalty of priesthood. There was a spirit of rebellion against the leader of the rebels.

The groans of dissatisfaction found a ready listener in Korah, the cousin of Moses. Korah could still remember Uncle Amram, playing with him and his cousins, Moses and Aaron, in the shadow of the pyramids. Little had he suspected that this stuttering cousin of his would ever become so great. And yet Korah saw him now, forging ahead, first in the court of Pharaoh, then among his own people, taking the office of prophet to himself and giving the priesthood to his brother, Aaron.

Moses was not satisfied with making himself ruler over the people. He wanted to monopolize their God as well. They all had seen the cloud of fire in which Jehovah descended upon the mount of Sinai. All had heard Him read the ten commandments. When Jehovah had something to say, He spoke to the entire congregation. How did Moses come to talk exclusively in the name of God and to lift himself above the assembly of the Lord?

Not only did Moses rob the people of their God, but he instituted laws in the Lord's name, laws that were of his own creation, that served to make the priest thrive on the fat of the land. Suppose there was a widow with two little orphans, and she had only a small piece of land. When she was about to plow, she could not use the ox and the mule together; when she was about to sow, she must

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observe the Mosaic regulation; and when she was ready to harvest the grain, she was again bound by a Mosaic law. The greater part of the fruit she did succeed in obtaining was taken from her in tithes to the priest, to the levite, and to the temple. The poor widow could never make her ends meet were she to follow the law of Moses—of Moses, not of the Lord—laws that he had made just as had the pharaoh, in whose court he had been raised and whose rule he had helped to destroy.

And so Korah rose against Moses and took with him many of the leaders of the tribes. There was a great rebellion in the wilderness, and the end of the revolt is known to all. Fire came down from heaven and devoured some of the rebels, while the earth swallowed the rest. Tongues of flame and the mouth of the earth put an end to Korah and those that stood with him. Jehovah himself showed His hand at this critical moment in the life of His people. He was with Moses, His servant, to whom He had first spoken from the burning bush.

Korah and his followers were destroyed, but not so was the spirit of rebellion. All the people saw the horrible end of the rebels, yet they would not submit. There was another complaint over a scarcity of water; another minor revolt against the manna, the delectable food that came down from the sky. And again a conflagration was necessary to break the spirit of the revolting mass. They had neither respect nor pity for Moses, who was alone now, deserted by his closest friends, even his sister Miriam and his brother., Aaron. Instead of feeling kindly toward the lonely old man, the rebels accused him of doing away with his own brother, in a plot with Eliezer, his nephew.

The spirit of rebellion flickered on to the exasperation of

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[paragraph continues] Moses and Jehovah until it was finally relieved by an outbreak of sexual activity. As the Israelites arrived in the valley of Shitim, they plunged themselves into the worship of Baal Peor. For once, they broke completely away from the laws of Moses and the commands of his God. For once, they were truly free, inwardly free. A people "holy and pure" descended into the depths of sin and completely lost itself in one wild orgy of sexual pleasure. The extent of the orgy may be gleaned from the legends about the elder Zimri, who was found in union with a temple priestess by Pinchos, a grandson of Aaron. Zimri, according to the legend, had four hundred and twenty-four coitions with the same priestess on the one day.

This outburst was followed by a bloody civil war, the devotees of Jehovah slaughtering all who were caught paying homage to Baal. Thus, in sex and in blood was drowned the spirit of rebellion, the spirit of the Israelites in the wilderness. The revolt had run its course, and a submissive people patiently listened to the exhortation of a tired leader. Moses soon passed quietly out of existence. The people returned to their drab existence and monotonous routine, following a mediocre leader. Their spirit was broken. The dramatic moment had passed. The curtain had been drawn.


It was only through a physical accident that Korah lost his rebellion against Moses. Had he succeeded, we might now be reading different stories about him and Moses in the chronicles of the Hebrews. Had he succeeded, he would have established, in the course of time, a theocracy or oligarchy of his own. It would not have been long,

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then, before insurrections against the domination of Korah broke but, and they who were rebels by nature would rise against their leader, saying: "All the people are holy. Why do you lift yourself above the assembly?"

For in every generation there is the spirit of revolt. It breaks through like the spring from beneath the rocks. Religion ever has its inception in spontaneity. It wells up in the prophet, priest, or religious leader, suddenly, unconsciously. God appears in the burning bush, or upon a tree in the wilderness, or in a dream at night. When man has had his vision, he comes to his fellows in the name of God, but also in the voice of his innermost soul. This is the revelation, the inspiration, the divine element in the faiths of man.

But religion is not only divine; it is also human. This great source of energy is soon directed into channels that would make a better people and a better world. Religion is not only to be believed, but primarily to be lived. It thus becomes a social institution. From its original status as a bond between man and man, it develops into a bond upon man and man. To Charles A. Elwood, religion is "one of the oldest means of control in human societies, an effective means of preventing too wide a variation in conduct in individuals." It is but another steam roller in the hand of an exacting society, exerting pressure upon the asphalt of humanity. It crushes the individual who stands out from his own people and transforms the odd, angular, variable humans into one thick, smooth, flat humanity.

Once religion is to serve society, it must itself be socialized. The spontaneous call of man to his God and the divine reply are institutionalized and subjected to steam-rolling.

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[paragraph continues] There are so many books in the canon; all others, even of the same period, are apocryphal. Not a word may be added to the Bible nor a line subtracted from it. There are so many dogmas to believe, so many commands and precepts to follow. Even prayer has been supervised, stereotyped, and institutionalized. There are set devotions for set occasions. One can no longer approach his God in his own personal, intimate way. He must speak in words prepared for him by priest or leader. Religion, man's ladder from earth to heaven, has dropped the rungs. One can no longer climb upon it; he must remain at the foot, while the adept priest ascends for him.

No wonder, then, that there are rebellions in religion no less than in other forms of social organization. Religion has always blessed the meek, the humble, the obedient, promising them the Kingdom of God, in heaven if not on earth. But it has always had difficulty with the independent spirit, the true men of God. These do not wait at the foot of Sinai for what a Moses will bring down to them. They will not be persuaded by argument or won over by promise of reward. They will not even be cowed by threats of punishment, here or hereafter. They are the men of Korah, the non-conformists of every age who spread the spirit of religious revolt. It is they who assemble themselves against the Moses and the Aaron of their day, protesting: "All the congregation are holy; . . . God is everywhere, accessible to everyone. Why do you set yourself up as leader and lift yourself above the assembly?" These are the rebels of the Lord against the rule of man in the worship of God.

As in the case of Korah, it is very often chance, accident, that decides the fate of the revolt. Had Korah been

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successful, his name would have been written high in the annals of faith. Because he lost, an unfriendly chronicler told his tale and set him forth as an object lesson for a disobedient humanity. If the rebellion fails, it is left for the historian to deal with it. If it succeeds, the movement is bound to grow. The rebellious group will soon sectate itself from the parent religion, developing into a sect and growing into a faith of its own. In time, it may even rival the religion from which it sprang. But as it grows, it necessarily becomes socialized, institutionalized, building up canon and dogma and precept. The very same man who led the revolt against authority places himself in a position of power. Seeking to free man from his yoke of institutionalized religion, he only changes the yokes. The soul of man has not been set free. So other non-conformists will rise in rebellion against the non-conformist of an earlier day. History repeats itself. Every age has its spirit of revolt and its religious rebellion.

A symbol of life
A symbol of life

Next: Chapter II. Love the Force of Rebellion