Pinchas - First Part in Triennial Cycle

Bemidbar 25:10 to 26:51

Etz Hayim 918-24 (907-908); Plaut 1193-94; Hertz 686


My d’var focuses on Verses 10 to 18, Chapter 25, of Bemidbar, which is the very first part of Parashat Pinchas.  However, those nine verses don’t make sense unless we also read Verses 1 to 9, which are the very last part of the previous parashah, Balak. Theologically, the split between these two parashiyot is strange because it means that Balak ends on a downbeat note with 24 thousand Israelites dying from a plague.  Literarily, the split is a disaster as it turns a good story into a lurid serial.  Perhaps the Masorites, who fixed the divisions that we see in our Chumash, saved the end of the story for this week’s reading to ensure that the hero got top billing, as Parashat Pinchas. Or perhaps they wanted something interesting to start what is otherwise one of the most boring parashiyot in the entire cycle of weekly readings.


Chapter 25 describes a time just before the Israelites are at last ready to cross the Jordan but when idolatry again raises its ugly head, instigated, so we are told, by the local women.  God responds with plagues, and the day is only saved when Pinchas, who is in the priestly line, murders Zimri, a prominent Jewish man, and Cozbi, an equally prominent Midianite woman, who were publically defying the law – perhaps worshiping Baal of Peor and certainly having sex.  Given that sex is involved, you can be sure that there is lots of commentary, and I will add to it with three questions:

1.            Should we blame the Midianites?

2.            Should we blame Pinchas?

3.            Should we blame the women?


Should We Blame the Midianites?

The Midianites were not traditional enemies of Israel.  To the contrary, when Moses fled from Egypt, he went to Midian, and he met Jethro who was a priest of Midian and later married his daughter, Zipporah.  The Midianites do have good yichus, for they were descendants of Abraham and Keturah (Ber 25:2), which makes them close kin.  Most  evidence suggests that the Midianites were a semi-nomadic people who lived in Sinai and the northwestern corner of Saudi Arabia (see 2d map in Etz Hayim).  What were they doing so far north in Shittim, where the Israelites were camped, which lies across from Jericho but on the east side of the Jordan?  To complicate the story, Verse 25:1 refers not to Midianites but to Moabites enticing the Israelites to worship their gods;  it is not until Verse 6 that we even hear about Midianites, and then only in the context of sexual relations between Israelite men and Midianite women. Plaut’s says (p. 1195), “the Moabite fertility cult was to the Israelites the incarnation of evil, and the mortal enemy of their religion.”  No mention of the Midianites who were at least proto-monotheists.  Yet, by the time we get to Chapter 31 in the next parashah, we read about a war of annhilation waged by the Israelites against the Midianites, a war that was God told Moses he must undertake to avenge the acts of the Midianites” as one of the last things he would do before he died (Bmd 31:2).

It is a confusing situation, and all I can suggest is that perhaps we are dealing here not with the whole Nation of Midian but with a small and perhaps renegade section of an otherwise responsible people – or perhaps a scribal error confusing the Moabites and the Midianites. Yet Etz Hayim claims (918n) that the Midianites (or at least this band of Midianites) were not just a physical threat to Israel, they were a moral threat.


The answer to my question as to whether we should blame the Midianites is that we will never know.  The Hebrew Bible is not a book of history, and its lesson is not about the one-time fight with some enemy but about the continuing struggle against idolatry.


Should We Blame Pinchas?

Pinchas is an interesting character.  The Torah treats him very well.  Not only does the plague end, but, as Aaron’s grandson, he is given God’s “pact of friendship” (םולש יתירב) and the pact of priesthood (תנהכ תירב) for him and for his descendants in reward for acting to honour God’s commandments and as expiation for the Israelites.  According to Ibn Ezra (cited in Hertz), the םולש  יתירב constituted a promise of divine protection for Pinchas from any revenge on the part of Zimri’s family.


Without doubt, Pinchas acted boldly.  The Israelite man he killed, Zimri, was the son of a chief of the tribe of Shimon, and the woman, Cozbi, was the daughter of a chief of a tribe in Midian. There is no indication in Torah that Pinchas asked anyone for advice, though Numbers Rabbah (20:25) says that there was discussion among the elders as to whether Zimri’s act made him liable to the death penalty or not (How typical!) when Pinchas rose up, told them the law – If a Jewish man cohabits with a heathen woman, he is to be killed – and volunteered to do the deed himself.  Now, I know of no basis for Zimri’s assertion that having sex with a heathen woman incurs the death penalty.  Had he charged Zimri with bowing down to any of the heathen gods, he would have been on solid ground (Shm 22:19).  The latter would have been a clear challenge to God, but marriage with a Midianite woman was instead a challenge to Moses, something that I will come back to in a moment.


The Torah clearly looks at Pinchas’ act with favourable eyes, but, even Talmudic commentators were more skeptical.  They feared that he had created a dangerous precedent.  Thus, Etz Hayim cites a Talmudic ruling (BT Sanh. 82a) that says “had Pinchas asked the rabbinical court if it was permitted to kill Zimri and Cozbi, citing halakhah to justify his request,1 the court would have told him: ‘The law may permit it but we do not follow that law’” (918).  Most of the later commentators followed the Talmudic view.  The 19th century rabbi Naphtali Zvi Judah Berlin (the Netziv) claimed that God made the "covenant of peace" with Pinchas as a cure for his behaviour rather than a reward.  He would henceforth have to moderate his actions to accommodate his new role as high priest.  And the script of a Sefer Torah has the yod in Pinchas’ name in Verse 11 a smaller size than the other letters, which leads Etz Hayim to comment (918): “When we commit violence, even if justifiable, the yod in us (standing for the name of God and for y’hudi, ‘Jew’) is diminished thereby.”


Commentaries make much of the similarity of two words in verse 8.  The verse says first that Pinchas followed the man and the woman into the chamber (הבוק), which is often translated as women’s section of the tent, but which has the general sense of a vault or dome or, in Aramaic, brothel.  The sentence continues that he stabbed both of them, man and woman (for once, the text is explicit) through the belly (התבק), which is an obscure word that, according to David Steinberg, probably does mean belly, but here suggests genitalia.  Numbers Rabbah is not content with just word play.  It says that God gave Pinchas 12 miracles, including spearing both man and woman through the genitals during the act of coitus, raising them upside down on his spear with their private parts exposed so that the public could see clearly that they were in the act of sex; and ensuring that they did not bleed so that Pinchas, the priest, was not defiled.


Should we blame Pinchas?  My answer is ambiguous. Midrash says (Numbers R. 20:24), one must be “fierce as a leopard, swift as an eagle, fleet as a deer, and strong as a lion in the performance of God’s will.”  But who can be sure of knowing God’s will?  Besides, it seems to me that Pinchas was defending Moses, not God.  I suggest that Moses’ authority was challenged by Zimri’s blatant defiance – an act of high treason, not apostasy -- but my view is not the norm, which sees Pinchas as acting to defend divine law.   There is little evidence in Jewish literature that Pinchas is a role model for anything but that moment in time.  However, there are exceptions, notably Maccabees Book I.  The high priest Mathathias initiates the war that we now celebrate at Chanukah by killing the Jew who came forward to worship at the Greek altar.2 The author of the text compares Mathathias to Pinchas (2:26), and later from his deathbed Mathathias charges his sons to act as did Pinchas (2:54).


Impassioned action is always dangerous, and each act must be judged in context.  Was Yigal Amir thinking of Pinchas when he murdered Yitzhak Rabin?  Both Pinchas and Amir defended their acts by saying “I know the Law,” which as someone commented is a statement that could only be uttered by someone who does not know Jewish law.


Should we Blame the Women?

To start, sex is not the issue when asking about the women.  Idolatry is. The women were, if anything, only the tools of men who gave them direction. True, there are pages and pages in the Midrash that elaborate on how the women would entice men and then insist that they bow down to idols before giving into to their carnal desires.  Anthropo-logically, this claim is strange.  Heathens are mainly known for tolerating a variety of religious beliefs.  Even the intentions of Cozbi are unclear.  Some stories say that she wanted to have a relationship with Moses because only Moses was equal to her in rank.  Zimri responded that he was as great as Moses and dragged her before the elders and asked Moses for permission to marry her.  Moses replied that marriage between Zimri and Cozbi was forbidden, whereupon Zimri taunted Moses because of his marriage to Zipporah, who was also a Midianite.  Moses was unable to respond, and only at that point did Cozbi go off with Zimri.

What can we make of all this seeming licentiousness?  Nehama Aschkenasy, who wrote Eve’s Journey: Feminine Images in Hebraic Literary Tradition (U. of Penn. Press, 1986), says that women are often treated in the Biblical period as representing the main characteristics of the community from which they come. Given the traditional Biblical analogy between idolatry and harlotry, and its bias against heathens, it is only a short step for our Bible to assume that women tended to be both idolatrous and promiscuous.  And that gives classical Midrash an impetus to incorporate some of the most misogynist texts Jewish literature.


In contrast to my two previous questions – that we will never know whether the Midianites were at fault, and that it is ambiguous whether Pinchas was at fault – I find it possible in this case to be categoric:  No, the women were not at fault.   If we take the story at face value, blame should go mainly to the Midianite men, who were willing to prostitute their women.  If we take the story as symbolic, blame should go mainly to the Israelite men, who, after 40 years in the wilderness, and on the verge of entering the promised land, could so easily sell out their God for physical pleasure.  As so often in Torah, the ultimate sin is idolatry.


Shabbat shalom,


1. The Halakhic issue is called kanaim pogim bo, which is generally translated as that he is killed by zealots.  However, the rationale and the punishment both are vague, and the commonly cited proof texts (I Kings 2:25, 34, 46) do concern extrajudicial murder but the context is entirely political and has nothing to do with sex.  All of the discussion in the Talmud is in the context that sex will lead to idolatry.  Further, it is unclear whether Midianites are to be treated as heathens.

2. For pointing me to this exception, I thank David Steinberg.  David also notes that Pinchas’ charge to his sons points out that Pinchas received the priesthood for acting precipitously, and this amounts to an implicit justification for the Hashmoneans to take over that post, as they later did.