He was a son of Eliab, the son of Pallu, the son of Reuben. Together with his brother Abiram, the Levite Korah and others, he rebelled against Moses and Aaron. The Holy Bible's Book of Numbers relates that, "the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses." (Book of Numbers 16:31)
Alexander Murray in his volume on suicide says that the fact that Dathan and Abiram were punished along with their families demonstrated to medieval authors that families should be punished as well as perpetrators for crimes.
In Rabbinic literature
Abiram—who obtained his name from the fact that he fled from God—belonged, together with his friend Dathan, to the quarrelsome and seditious personages in Egypt and in the wilderness who sought, on every occasion, to place difficulties in the way of Moses. Being identified with the two Israelites at strife who were the cause of Moses' flight from Egypt (Ex. ii. 13-15), the two were thus regarded as having interfered with him at the beginning of his career. Later, as punishment for their wickedness, they became poor and were degraded in rank; yet they did not cease their hostility to Moses, and opposed his first endeavor to deliver Israel. It was Abiram and Dathan who were the immediate cause of the bitter reproaches made to Moses and Aaron recounted in Ex. v. 20, 21. When, despite this, the exodus from Egypt took place, Dathan and Abiram tried to induce the people at the Red Sea to return (Ex. xiv. 11, 12); and in the failure of this attempt, they made an effort, through disregard of Moses' commands, to incite the people against their leader—Ex. xvi. 20 being applied to them—until they thought they had a following sufficiently numerous to risk the great rebellion under Korah. On this occasion, also, Dathan and Abiram were conspicuous for their wickedness. Not only were they among Korah's chief supporters, but they were impertinent and insulting in their speech to Moses, who, in his modesty and love of peace, went to them himself in order to dissuade them from their pernicious designs (Sanh. 109b; 'Ab. Zarah, 5a; Ex. R. i.; Num. R. xviii. 4). L.G.[clarification needed]
Dathan's most notable appearance in modern popular culture is through his appearance in Cecil B. DeMille's epic movie The Ten Commandments where he is played by Edward G. Robinson. In the film, he is an Israelite who works as an overseer of the Hebrews and informant for the Egyptians, and later, after betraying Moses' Hebraic origin to Ramses, he becomes Governor of Goshen. However, his loyalty to the Pharaoh conflicts with his Hebrew origins; that fact is made clear when the Pharaoh orders him expelled from Egypt after the Plague of the Firstborn and forces him to join Moses and the other Israelites in their Exodus. After the Exodus, he leads the Israelites in their worship of the golden calf, and is one of those swallowed up in the crevice that opens up when Moses (Charlton Heston) smashes the tablets of the Ten Commandments in a rage, after discovering the Israelites' idolatry.
- Alexander Murray, Suicide in the Middle Ages Vol. 2 The Curse of Self Murder, Oxford University Press, 2000 p.78