Pinchas: On Vigilante Justice

Pinchas’ vigilantism takes place at the end of the last parashah.

Numbers Chapter 25 

א  וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל, בַּשִּׁטִּים; וַיָּחֶל הָעָם, לִזְנוֹת אֶל-בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב. 1 And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab.
ב  וַתִּקְרֶאןָ לָעָם, לְזִבְחֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶן; וַיֹּאכַל הָעָם, וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶן. 2 And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods; and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods.
ג  וַיִּצָּמֶד יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר; וַיִּחַר-אַף יְהוָה, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל. 3 And Israel joined himself unto the Baal of Peor; and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.
ד  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, קַח אֶת-כָּל-רָאשֵׁי הָעָם, וְהוֹקַע אוֹתָם לַיהוָה, נֶגֶד הַשָּׁמֶשׁ; וְיָשֹׁב חֲרוֹן אַף-יְהוָה, מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל. 4 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them up unto the LORD in face of the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.’
ה  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-שֹׁפְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  הִרְגוּ אִישׁ אֲנָשָׁיו, הַנִּצְמָדִים לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר. 5 And Moses said unto the judges of Israel: ‘Slay ye every one his men that have joined themselves unto the Baal of Peor.’
ו  וְהִנֵּה אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּא, וַיַּקְרֵב אֶל-אֶחָיו אֶת-הַמִּדְיָנִית, לְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה, וּלְעֵינֵי כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. 6 And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting.
ז  וַיַּרְא, פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר, בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן, הַכֹּהֵן; וַיָּקָם מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה, וַיִּקַּח רֹמַח בְּיָדוֹ. 7 And when Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from the midst of the congregation, and took a spear in his hand.
ח  וַיָּבֹא אַחַר אִישׁ-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-הַקֻּבָּה, וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת-שְׁנֵיהֶם–אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-הָאִשָּׁה אֶל-קֳבָתָהּ; וַתֵּעָצַר, הַמַּגֵּפָה, מֵעַל, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 8 And he went after the man of Israel into the chamber, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.
ט  וַיִּהְיוּ, הַמֵּתִים בַּמַּגֵּפָה–אַרְבָּעָה וְעֶשְׂרִים, אָלֶף.  {פ} 9 And those that died by the plague were twenty and four thousand. {P}  

In this case, God seems to reward Pinchas for his vigilante action.

י  וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. 10 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
יא  פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי, בְּתוֹכָם; וְלֹא-כִלִּיתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקִנְאָתִי. 11 ‘Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy.
יב  לָכֵן, אֱמֹר:  הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, שָׁלוֹם. 12 Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace;
יג  וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו, בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם–תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו, וַיְכַפֵּר, עַל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 13 and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’

Why would God reward a vigilante? And why give two rewards: God’s covenant of peace and the right of his descendants in perpetuity to be priests? A vigilante acts without legal authority. A vigilante justifies his actions because the law is non-existent, or exists but is not and/or cannot be enforced, or because whatever punishment is handed out is deemed to be insufficient, or because immediate justice is wanting and delayed. A vigilante often claims a higher authority – God or the will of the people – for authorizing his actions. The just authority is often self-perceived but, in this case, the text seems explicit that God viewed Pinchas’ action as carried on in defence of God’s jealousy because the Israelite princes were engaged in harlotry with Moabite women. God’s justification: Pinchas was jealous on behalf of his God and by his action, Pinchas atoned for the children of Israel and caused God to veer from his desire to wreak vengeance on the Israelites.

However, there are a number of puzzles that seem inexplicable, quite aside from Judaism somehow justifying vigilantism. The man killed was Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of the Simeonites. The woman killed was Cozbi, a Midianite princess, the daughter of Zur, the “head of the people of a father’s house in Midian.” She was not a harlot. She was not referred to as a Moabite. Were the Midianites the same people as the Moabites? No.

If you recall from last week’s discussion of the previous portion, Balak, the King of the Moabites, addressed the Midianite princes to enlist them to support his recruitment to curse the Israelites. “So Moab said to the elders of Midian, ‘Now this company will lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field’.” (22.4) Were both Moabites and Midianites punished because they conspired together to curse the Israelites?

There is a further puzzle. The Midianites were much closer kin to the Israelites than the Moabites. Moses had married a Midianite woman. Even more significantly, Pinchas’ mother was a Midianite. The Midianites were direct descendants of Abraham through Keturah. In contrast, the Moabites were descendants of one of the sons of Lot as a result of the incest with his daughter. One explanation and justification for the vigilante action: the Israelites were consorting with Moabite harlots and were being seduced to worship Baal of Peor. Or was it because Zimri, a Simeonite prince, was consorting with a Midianite princess, Cozbi, or because Pinchas was until then considered an outsider because his mother was a Midianite and he was suspect and/or he was ashamed of his ancestry. But Moses married a Midianite and his father-in-law was esteemed by both Moses and the Israelites.

It is very difficult to figure out what is going on. Just when the Israelite men are to be killed for both consorting with harlots and worshipping Baal of Peor, Pinchas murders both Zimri and his Midianite consort, by putting a lance through both their bodies, presumably while they were both engaged in loving one another. Why does this stop a plague that we never heard was underway? Why after a series of great victories were the Israelites even suffering from a plague? Was it because they were intimately involved with harlots as they celebrated their victories? This is certainly the line we are led to take when Moses blames the Midianite, not the Moabite women, for worshipping Baal of Peor (Numbers 31:1-18), leading to the destruction of all of the Midianites except the virgin women who were taken as spoils of war. Weird!

The problem of justifying vigilantism has become even more complicated by all the apparent contradictions and inconsistencies in the tale.  One answer is that of the new criticism which simply sees two different stories from two different sources mashed together by a compiler in an incoherent way. Those familiar with my practice of hermeneutics recognize that, though this may have been the case, I am more concerned with finding coherence in the synthesis. The rationale that the priestly sources had a political motive in turning on the Midianites and becoming xenophobes is insufficient to justify the monolithic control of the Aaronites over the priesthood. Pinchas was a grandson of Aaron.

Review a few elements of the two strands:

The Israelites had become apostates The Israelites were loyal to their God and had been rewarded with victories
The jarring introduction of the apostasy The subsequent return to the tale of the occupation of the Promised Land.
Moabite + Midianite responsibility The shift from Moabite to solely Midianite responsibility

There are a number of ways to explain the apparent inconsistencies and textual as well as moral issue of justifying vigilantism. I list some.

  1. The effort at synthesis was driven by the priestly heirs of Aaron to justify their exclusive control of the priesthood which was supposed to be for eternity, but the synthesis was a clumsy effort.
  2. Pinchas’ zealotry was used to mollify God’s zealotry since it was better to sacrifice the loves of two people, especially one like Zimri who is a “wild goat,’ than have God’s wrath visited on the Israelites as a whole.
  3. The text is an effort to justify zealotry in general, whether applied by 1 Maccabees to justify the Hasmonean actions and the rebellion (1 Maccabees 2:24-28) or by the current West Bank extreme right-wing settlers in Israel.
  4. In Josephus, the rationale is not about Jewish religious politics, or about preventive action in providing boundaries, nor a catharsis for God’s passion for religious vengeance, and certainly not to justify zealotry but to explain the events in terms of political-military necessity. In the Antiquities, Josephus blames the zealots as culpable for the destruction of Jerusalem by Flavius, his patron. For Pinchas was countering sedition and effective desertion by the warriors of the Israelite army, both because of their behaviour with the women and because of religious practices that would undercut their morale and discipline. Hence, in his account, the judicial framework is indeed set aside, but for the higher purpose of “reasons of state,” in this case, preserving the military ability of the Israeli army necessary for completing the conquest.
  5. To fit in with rabbinical belief in juridical processes versus vigilante action, the action was considered not to be a vigilante one exactly since the story is given a legal framework: a) God enjoins Moses to impale the ringleaders, a punishment meted out to criminals, thus defining the action of consorting with non-Israelites as a criminal act, and b) Moses summoned the judges to offer a verdict, so that Pinchas is not viewed as a vigilante but as an agent of the court.
  6. But there is no mention that the verdict of judges impelled the action of Pinchas. The murders seem clearly portrayed as impulsive, unilateral and precipitous, and extra judicial killing contravenes: a) the rules of evidence; b) the rule of judicial procedure; c) the norm that punitive legal actions be the result of deliberation; d) that the authority to mete out punishment be clearly indicated, especially in cases of capital crime which require witnesses to testify and not simply be present. However, in the version of rabbinic justification, in extreme cases, unilateral citizenship action is justified and this instance falls within that type of case. The exception proves the rule.
  7. This was a case of tit-for-tat vigilante action for it had been Simeon, along with Levi, who had wrecked vengeance on the adult males of Shechem for the rape of their sister, Dinah.

I want to offer a somewhat different explanation as well as condemnation for the vigilante action. Once, when I had only two children, I was walking with my eldest when he was about two years old. I was holding his hand. We came to the north-west corner of Spadina Avenue and Bloor Street and waited for the light to change. When it did, I stepped off the curb with my son on my left. Suddenly a car traveling south on Spadina did not stop, but turned the corner driving very fast. I stepped back and snatched my son out of the path of the car.

My two-year-old son was unhurt, but in my wrath, I lifted my leg and smashed in the back fender of the car in with my foot as it went by. The driver stopped, got out of his car and confronted me for causing serious damage to his car. However, when he saw me and detected my rage, he quickly got back into his car and drove off. I clearly was ready to kill him, but I did not have a spear in my hand.

If I had killed him, I would have been found guilty of manslaughter. I was, however, guilty of the material damage I caused, but I would have defended myself based on a natural impulse that was understandable even if unjustified and I might have gotten away with a token fine. I was saved from that result because of the fear I instilled in the driver with my fury.

I believe I can understand vigilante action motivated by passion rather than Josephus’ rationale of a deliberative action for military purposes or other efforts to justify what Pinchas did. But understanding does not excuse. And vigilante action is easily used for vicious purposes, as when the white racists in 1964 killed three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were working for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) trying to register Blacks to enable them to vote to counter. They were zealots for racism and white supremacy and the event is seared into my memory.

I can understand the actions of the racist murderers, but those murders were horrific and not even just deplorable. It does not matter what justification one offers. Due legal process demands the condemnation of vigilante action, no matter what the motive or whomever is the agent carrying out the task or whatever the rationale, whether because one is dissatisfied with current morality, defending a regressive creed, countering an injustice or because of the failure of legitimate authority to adequately deliver justice and good governance.

I am not sure what motivated Pinchas. Some explanations appear more powerful than others. However, not one of them can justify vigilantism. Attempts to do so merely undermine any motive to use the Torah as a moral guide. In any case, God revoked his promise of a priesthood in perpetuity for Pinchas and transferred the right of descent to the youngest son of Aaron.

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