Abarbanel is puzzled by the nature of the Torah’s description of Korach’s dispute with Moshe at the beginning of the Parsha. First the Torah states that Korach, along with Datan, Abiram and On from the tribe of Reuven, separated himself. The Torah then states, in a seemingly repetitious manner, that they stood before Moshe with two hundred and fifty men and that they gathered again together before Moshe and Aharon. The whole confrontation could have been reported in one sentence.
Abarbanel explains that there were actually three separate disputes. First, Korach claimed that the office of the Kohen Gadol should have gone to himself, not Aharon. Leadership went to Moshe, as he was the son of Levi’s first-born, Amram. The office of Kohen Gadol should have then gone to Korach, the son of Levi’s second-born, Yitzhar. The second dispute was between the first-born from all the tribes and the tribe of Levi. At least some of them were angered by the fact that the privilege of serving in the Tabernacle was taken away from the first-born and given to the tribe of Levi. The third dispute involved the tribe of Reuven, as represented by Datan, Abiram and On who claimed that the privilege of royalty should have gone to them as offspring of Yaakov’s first-born, and not to the tribe of Yehuda. This analysis explains a difficulty in the simple translation of the opening verse of the Parsha which states simply, “And Korach took”, without explaining just exactly what he took. The Aramaic translation of Onkelos takes this to mean that he separated himself. However, with Abarbanel’s analysis we can now understand the simple meaning as well — that Korach took along with him representatives from the tribe of Levi and the first-born from the rest of the tribes to strengthen his own challenge by demonstrating that others had a problem with Moshe and Aharon as well.
Abarbanel is also puzzled by Moshe’s immediate response to the challenge. Rather than admonishing them first for their brazen disrespect, he tells them that G-d will be the one to choose who is correct. He tells them to take the special utensils known as ‘fire-pans’, place incense in them and bring them the following morning. Either G-d will accept their offering or the offering of the Levites by bringing down a fire to ignite the incense. Abarbanel points out that they were coming to Moshe with their challenge in the afternoon at the time of the Mincha offering and that their irrational behavior could be attributed to intoxication. Perhaps by the following morning they would realize the folly of challenging what Moshe knew was G-d’s will. Moshe also realized that it would be useless and even counter-productive to immediately criticize them at a time when they were clearly angry. He would probably only make the situation worse. Only after deflecting the challenge away from himself and Aharon and making it clear that G-d would be the one to decide, does Moshe go on to admonish directly by telling them, “You and your entire assembly that are joining together are against G-d!”