Vigilante Justice – Parashat Pinchas: Numbers 25:1 – 30:17

Loyalty was at stake. Israeli men were not only consorting with Moabite women, but also sacrificing to the Moabite god, Baal-peor. God was furious. He instructed Moses to impale the ringleaders in full view of the Lord. Moses instructed his officials to go even further and kill not just the ringleaders, but every single male who began to worship Baal-peor.

Nothing was initially said about Midianite women. After all, Moses’ first wife had been a Midianite. His father-in-law, Jethro, had been a Midianite priest and greatly contributed to the Israelite system if justice. Jethro’s son, Hobab, was a key scout in guiding the Israelites to the Promised Land. When an Israelite male went off to a bedchamber with a Midianite woman (Zimri, a Simeon “prince,” and Cozbi, daughter of a Midianite chieftain), the presumption was that the Midianites had become allies of Israel’s enemies, the Moabites. Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson and a priest, went in and stabbed both of them, through their bellies with the same spear.

However, Pinchas was not punished for killing two people who were not accused of worshiping another god at the time, seemingly only enjoying intercourse outside of marriage. Pinchas killed them without instructions to do so, and went beyond God’s orders to target only ringleaders. Instead of being punished for his fanaticism and extremism, as a result of Pinchas’ vigilante action, the Israelites were rewarded with a cessation of the plague after 24,000, or about 4% of the population, had died.  The reward for moral purity is evidently physical purification.

Further, God said that if it were not for the zealotry of Pinchas, He would have wiped all the Israelites from the face of the earth, a threat to which God reverts to time and time again. Pinchas the zealot and his descendants as priests personally received an additional award; they were guaranteed God’s friendship and support for time immemorial; they inherited the priesthood for all eternity. Priests were forever branded as the arch defenders of moral purity and cancel culture. Finally, God issued the order to assail and defeat the Midianites, not just the Moabites. God insisted that the Midianites were also worshipers of Peor. Was this possibly a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc? Was God justifying and rewarding Pinchas for his zealotry rather than the text offering any substantive explanation for that vigilante action? After all, Balaam, who was also targeted for extinction, had turned to praising God and the Israelites, but evidently to no avail.

Other than the huge commendation of what on the surface seems an extremist immoral action in the name of moral purity, there is another puzzle. By chapter 31, the Moabites seem to have been forgotten and God instructed the Israelites to “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites.” (Numbers 31:1) A thousand men are recruited from each of the tribes. Led by Pinchas, the twelve thousand slew every single Midianite male, including the five kings, as well as Balaam, the prophet who had praised the Hebrew God. “The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive, and seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth.” (Numbers 31:9) They burned their cities to the ground. And the Israelites did not suffer a single fatality.

Was Moses satisfied? Did he greet the military victors on their return with open arms and acclaim? No. He reprimanded them. But not for any reason liberals might approve of. Moses was angry because, “You spared every female.” (Chapter 31:15) The women were blamed for seducing the Israelite men. And, therefore, for striking the Israelites with the plague. Moses instructed the returning soldiers to kill all the male children and to slay all the Midianite women who had consorted with Israelites. Then they could cleanse themselves outside the camp for seven days. Only the Midianite virgins were to be saved and would be left alive, presumably to become enslaved.

God seemed to clearly endorse this action for He then gave instructions on how to divide the booty. Moses then made a deal with the Gadites, the Reubenites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, son of Joseph, and gave them the towns of Gilead and all the land east of the Jordan for raising cattle as long as those tribes provided shock troops to conquer the rest of Canaan without expecting any further reward. Those tribes first went on to defeat the Amorites on the east side of the Jordan River.

This is a tale about sexual dalliance with foreigners, backsliding in religious faith, personal vigilante action and murder by a zealot and the endorsement of mass murder that amounted to genocide. This was all in the name of worshipping God, following His instructions and serving Him faithfully as well as gaining ownership of the land through conquest.

Is there any other way to read the tale that is less unappetizing? Nehama Leibowitz was critical of Pinchas’ violence, his impetuous acting “on the spur of the moment, without trial, or offering previous warning, without legal testimony being heard, and in defiance of all of the procedures of judicial examination prescribed in the Torah.” (Studies in Bamidbar, 329). Pinchas took “the law into his own hands.” This lack of due process and unilateralism “constituted a dangerous precedent, from the social, moral and educational angles.” Why did God reward rather than punish Pinchas?

Pinchas is clearly an unusual priest, much more a man of action, indeed of rashness, rather than a man of reflection. He does not await the rule of law and the adjudication of the sinners who consorted with the Moabite women but, instead, was a vigilante who took the law into his own hands. Further, he was very impetuous. For the idolater and fornicator, Zimri, was bold in displaying what he was up to and took the Midianite woman into the tent to bed her in front of Moses and the whole congregation. A commentator even suggested that Pinchas in his zealotry threw Moses’ words right back at him – “One who is intimate with an Aramean woman is attacked by jealous avengers.” More importantly, Pinchas did not ask Moses for permission for what he was about to do. He just went into the tent and thrust the spear right through their two bellies.

However, this is not the case of the full war against the Midianites. That action follows God’s instructions. Then there is no unilateral vigilantism. What is the connection between Pinchas in the individual action ignoring the chain of command and, in fact, in being disrespectful to Moses, and, in the second case, of the full scale war against the Midianites acting only under orders but in the same absolutely violent matter, only this time on a collective scale?

Even as an impetuous action, Jewish commentators tend to applaud his extremism. Except! Except! Rabbinic commentators are a clever lot. See Talmud Y’rushalmi 9.7 which claims that Pinchas acted “against the will of the Sages.” How do you turn praise into criticism? One way is to asset that if the action was simply good, there would be no need for praise. Thus, the praise must have a different meaning. It was ironic. A man beats up a rabbinical student and another man sarcastically congratulates him for beating someone half his size. God’s irony is verified by God’s action – rewarding Pinchas with the eternal priesthood. It is as if God were saying, “If you are so righteous, if you are so high and mighty, then you, like Prometheus, are condemned to doing the same thing for the rest of your life. Not only you. But all your descendants until eternity. The reward becomes a punishment.

According to this inverted interpretation, the very absurdity of the latter promise is further evidence that the portion is ironic. If the comment and compliment had been straightforwardly sincere, then Pinchas would have been made a Brigadier-General, not a priest, at the very least second in command to Joshua whom God instructs Moses to name as the new commander and leader of the Israelites. In contrast, God made Pinchas a priest, inherently supposedly a man of peace, as Aaron had been, rather than a warrior. But Pinchas was a warrior for purity and zealotry.

Certainly, the inverted interpretation is clever. It is often tied to situational ethics that describe the Israelites as living in spiritual and existential peril, not only from their exposed position, not only from the age and weariness of their leadership, but for their apostasy. Radical change and quick action was needed. But this is a liberal apologetic uneasily married to an ironic interpretation. Except such an ironic interpretation makes no sense of the tone of the section or of the other passages. There is simply no sense of irony or sarcasm in the text. Pinchas did overstep his bounds. He did go a step further than even Moses and, in the process, ignored Moses altogether and acted unilaterally. But God certainly seemed pleased with Pinchas even though God had not instructed Pinchas to act that way. 

Was Pinchas righteous in the other direction, for taking the matter into his own hands, for breaking the behavioural norms and becoming a disrupter who forges a new and more radical militant ethos needed by a bunch of ex-slaves in order for them to become real warriors? The right thing really appears to be doing dirty deeds. Moses, even though he one ups God, does not one up Him enough. Moses is not ruthless enough, further proof that he no longer has the guts (חוּצפָּה), the chutzpah to lead the Israelites. He can mouth strong words and commands but does not take the responsibility for punishment into his own hands.

This section is not about the endorsement of peace or even about legislating the rules of just war. It is about all-out-war against male children and non-virgin women. It is about turning the Israelites into genocidaire for the sake of God. One can read the portion with the inverse meaning to satisfy one’s modern liberal conscience, but only by misrepresenting the divine and erasing how far God evolved and developed over the centuries. We are sill in the very early days of nation building.

Pinchas does not listen to any moral or practical reasoning. Pinchas does not allow any moral sensitivity to get in his way. Pinchas does not engage in any consequentialist thinking. He acts. He just acts, driven by his fury and self-righteousness. The only conscience he demonstrates is one that demands absolute loyalty to God and absolutely no loyalty to any other human, including Moses. He does what he feels he has to do without reflection, deliberation or presumably any qualms.

Pinchas is like the impatient screamers involved in current identity politics, tired of pussyfooting around or offering abstract gutless homilies. Moses is simply considered full of empty rhetoric, incapable of action. What is needed is someone who can plunge into the mud and wrestle with the unscrupulous other side on their own terms. Only, in Pinchas’ case, he is not urging the thought police on by his protests and actions, but challenging the thought police and insisting by his actions that extremism in the defense of Judaism is a duty, not an aberration. Pinchas has no time for conflicted liberals like myself.

Whether it is Jewish survival or the survival of the planet, Pinchas might argue, finger wagging and lecturing from the sidelines are useless. You have to get into the muck and exercise your will or wrestle on the same level with those who do so in the name of fairness and justice. No more wallowing in reasoned and subtle discussion. Action! That’s what God’s creativity is about for zealots. Pinchas, pen and chas, means lest we fall into sin. Pinchas means that “he had pity on my face,” that he acted to save the Israelite people from embarrassment before the eyes of God. Murder was justified in the name of spiritual purity and the survival and expansion of the Israelites.

Words are intended, not for debate, but for changing the world. And for changing the world in the direction of moral purity rather than free expression. This was certainly the view of Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli physician who murdered 29 Muslims and injured another 150 in the massacre in the mosque in Hebron. It was the view of Yigal Amir who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. This is the extreme rationale used to justify impassioned and barbarous behaviour in defence of one’s own beliefs.

It is also a rationale used to justify pre-emptive action rather than dithering, as in Israel’s pre-emptive strike in 1967 against the Egyptian military and its airfields, against the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and, just recently, against the Iranian Natanz uranium nuclear enrichment facilities. However, actions rather than words in the UN are also used to justify “irregular” settlement activity in the West Bank.

Further, the principle of fairness applies only to victors who must distribute the spoils of war in proportion to the population of each tribe. Even women, but only Hebrew women, must be treated fairly when it comes to their rights of inheritance. Given this evolution in political and legal theory, it should be no surprise that many if not most liberal commentaries focus on female egalitarianism and tend to ignore the issue of Pinchas’ zealotry and role in genocide.

Long live moral righteousness, zealotry, the quest for moral purity, and the effort to drive out and even murder heretics. Praise or surrender to mob cancel culture that puts equality on a pedestal – but equality within a restricted sphere for the former slaves demanding their place in the sun. Glory to moral purity rather than celebrate free expression. This is the meaning and message of Pinchas and no amount of twisted and clever exegesis can cover that up.

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