PINCHAS NUMBERS CHAPTER 25.29,06,13. Zealotry and Murder

Pinchas Numbers Chapter 25                                                                           29.06.13

Zealotry and Murder


Howard Adelman


Parshat Pinchas has six distinct parts. The first part deals with the rewards for Pinchas’ zealotry by God for killing the Simeonite Prince, Zimri, and his Midianite princess, Kozbi, who was his lover after Zimri took his Midian lover into his tent right in front of Moses and the rest of the Israelites. Pinchas killed them both. That act supposedly stopped the plague running through the Israelite camp parked on the other side of Mount Peor when the Israelites were about to enter the promised land. God rewarded Pinchas, both by making Pinchas a priest but also by instructing Moses to wage war against the Midianites. The other five parts consist of the new census, the principles of dividing the land by lots and in proportion to the numbers, the issue of female inheritance that arose because of the petition by five daughters of Tzelafchad to inherit their father’s land when there were no sons and God’s acceptance of that claim, the arrangement for Joshua to succeed Moses and, finally, the detailed list of daily and additional offerings on Shabat and the other holy days.

I will comment only on Pinchas’ zealotry. The key verses are:

25 While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women,who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods.So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.

The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the Lord’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.”

So Moses said to Israel’s judges, “Each of you must put to death those of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”

Then an Israelite man brought into the camp a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the tent of meeting. When Phinchas, son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear into both of them, right through the Israelite man and into the woman’s stomach. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped;but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

10 The Lord said to Moses, 11 “Phinchas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. 12 Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. 13 He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”

14 The name of the Israelite who was killed with the Midianite woman was Zimri son of Salu, the leader of a Simeonite family.15 And the name of the Midianite woman who was put to death was Kozbi daughter of Zur, a tribal chief of a Midianite family.

16 The Lord said to Moses,17 “Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them.18 They treated you as enemies when they deceived you in the Peor incident involving their sister Kozbi, the daughter of a Midianite leader, the woman who was killed when the plague came as a result of that incident.”

Two activities are conjoined – inter-ethnic intercourse between Israelite men and Midianite women – Jews are running around with shiksas – and, in the process of eating together and presumably engaging in a bacchanalian revelry at a festival involving Baal, the Israelite men were accused of bowing down to Baal. Later in the section we learn of a third event perceived as a consequence of these activities – a plague broke our among the Israelites killing 24,000, an enormous death toll, probably over 1% of the population.  The matter comes to a head, not when the men were off elsewhere cavorting with the Midianite women, but when a Simeon price brought a Midianite princess into his own tent within the Israelite camp. There is no trial. There is just a vigilante action of murder for inter-ethnic and/or inter-religious sexual act considered as an honour killing, for which Pinchas is highly rewarded by God by guaranteeing his priestly lineage forever.

Look at the causal connections. The Israelites have intercourse with Midianite women at a festival for Baal. This causes a plague. It does not say that God was the agent bringing about the plague on the Israelites, but a plague kills indiscriminately. Further, to allow one’s tribe’s daughters to cavort with the Israelite men is blamed on the evil machinations of the Midianites. Consequently, the Midianites are enemies. Consequently, those enemies ought to be murdered. Pinchas is given a rationale for his zealotry. The causal illogic, the misconstrual of moral agency conjoined with a false causal logic, and the enormous and wholly disproportion between the response, initially on the individual level and then, as we will see in subsequent readings, on the collective level, between the alleged action and the response by the other is so out of whack as to be totally disconcerting.

Instead of a tragic Romeo and Juliet story of Zimri and Kozbi, Pinchas (and God) saw only betrayal and licentiousness, sacreligious behaviour and depravity. Further, there is no due process, only vigilante action and taking the law into one’s own hand when there was no explicit law forbidding Israelite men from consorting with Midianite women. The conflict is between a warrior invading group, the Iraelites, and, by all accounts even of the Israelites, a peaceful tribe of shepherds. There is no reflection and consideration in the act, only righteous anger. What is more, though we are getting ahead of ourselves, the enslavement and genocide of the Midianites will follow. (Numbers 31)

What is this all about? Moses had a Midianite wife – Zipporah. Moses’ sister, as I argued previously, remonstrated Moses for ignoring and mistreating Zipporah in his political zealotry (and not because he married a Cush, an Ethiopian). Further, the Midianites were descended from Abraham by his concubine, Keturah (Genesis 25:1-2). But when zealotry becomes murder by a vigilante hothead, and then the hothead is pushed ahead into the priesthood and guaranteed that position for his descendents, then there is a glorification of self-righteousness over reflection, extreme passion over moderation, a political agenda trumping human intercourse. Creon, the symbol of political power, trumps family loyalty in the killing of Antigone. In this case, the situation is perceived as licentiousness when it was probably simply the ardour of love for what else could account for such imprudent behaviour by Zimri and Kozbi.

On the other hand, Moses was the hothead who killed a slave taskmaster in a fit of self-righteousness and had to flee for forty years where he was befriended by a Midianite king and given his daughter, Zipporah, to wed. And that wife ensured his child was circumcised. That wife stood up in defence of Moses. And now the Zealots would take Moses’ in-laws down. Was this indirect revenge against Moses after all the other rebellions failed, this time on the side of righteousness, this time when Moses was in his final year?   

Of course, zealotry can be rationalized, especially if it is executed on behalf of and in partnership with God. But in my reading of the biblical text, God’s wrath, sense of self-righteous worth and indifference to human suffering in such moments must always be constrained by human reason and sense of proportion. God learns through humans. But here we are left without God or men learning anything – just a celebration of totally irrational zealotry. Is God giving Pinchas a position where he can do no more harm – putting him in charge of rites and rituals rather than into politics? No, for he was Aaron’s grandson, destined for that role anyway. 

11 “Phinchas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. 12 Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. 13 He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.” Here, Pinchas’ act becomes an act of diversion, a way to shift God’s wrath away from the Israelites. By becoming such a ferocious agent for God, Pinchas ended up as serving as a relief valve for God’s enormous wrath which made the rage of Pinchas look miniscule.  That is why he also made Pinchas and his descendents priests forever, as a sign of peace.

But at what cost? At the sacrifice of a pair of lovers? Are there not limits to appeasing such an irrational power? As we shall see, this is just the prologomena to extremism.