In Numbers 16 and 17 we find the story of the rebellion of Korah. Actually, critics distinguish two stories that someone has spliced together. There is the rebellion of Korah against Moses and Aaron, which was an issue within the tribe of Levi. Then there is a rebellion of certain members of the tribe of Reuben (Dathan and Abiram), which reflected the demotion of that once-great tribe. The story of Reuben sleeping with Jacob’s concubine is another Bible explanation for the slippage of a tribe that was originally preeminent.
Even though the story in Numbers 16 seems to say that all the Korahites died when the earth swallowed them or fire devoured them (vs.31-35), the sons of Korah have an honorable place in subsequent biblical history.
The prophet Samuel was a descendant of Korah.
After the sons of Zadok took on the sole right to preside at sacrifices in Jerusalem, the sons of Korah took on the lesser role of being a kind of security force for the Temple—what the Bible calls doorkeepers. Some scholars think there was a power struggle that led to this and that Numbers 16 shows the Zadokite victory written back into the wilderness story.
There are eleven Psalms of the Sons of Korah, some of which seem to celebrate the survival of Jerusalem following the Assyrian invasion in King Hezekiah’s day..
Some have noted that the name Korah means bald. Perhaps there was a line of prophets who shaved their heads that extended from Samuel down to the bald prophet Elisha. Those of us who shave our heads would claim that heritage.
More seriously, I think you could make a case that the mysterious priest, Jehoiada, who engineered the coup against Queen Athaliah (2 Kings 11 and 2 Chronicles 23) descended from Korah. He is never listed as a Zadokite priest and he seemed to be in charge of temple security.
Anyway, while reading James Hoffmeier’s Ancient Israel in Sinai, I found an idea that I had never heard before.
There was a distinction among Egyptian priests between the hem-netjer (servants of the god) and the wab (pure) priests. The exact function of priests depended on which god and which temple they served. But, in general, the hem-netjer were closer to the god and allowed to enter the holiest part of the shrines, while the wab priests had more practical duties.
One of the marks of a wab priest seems to have been a perfectly smooth head.
So Hoffmeier says he cannot help but think that perhaps Korah and Aaron both had a background in the Egyptian priesthood and that the story in Numbers 16 reflects a difference in rank. Maybe Korah was pressing Aaron for a promotion in the light of a more democratic ethos after escaping Egypt. He also points out that an ally of Korah, according to 16:1 was named On. On was the Egyptian name for Heliopolis, an Egyptian city and cult center. Joseph married the daughter of a priest from On, according to Genesis 41:45.
This is intriguing. Nevertheless, it is pretty speculative. According to Egyptian art, many Egyptians besides wab priests shaved their heads. It was a precaution against lice. It is why Yul Brynner played the Pharaoh. And On, in the Numbers story, seems to have been a Reubenite, not a Levite.
Though it is speculative, Hoffmeier’s theory takes on new interest in the light of the case made by Richard Elliott Friedman that the Exodus people consisted of just the Levite tribe.