Parashah Ponderings

Extremism in the Defense of the Holy: Vice or Virtue?

Parashat Pinchas / פרשת פינחס

Torah Portion: Numbers 25:10 – 30:1


This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Pinchas, is disturbing on many levels as it touches on nerves frayed by recent events in Israel. Last week, we read that Pinchas, son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron, the high priest, ruthlessly kills Zimri, an Israelite of the tribe of Simeon, and Cozbi, a Midianite woman, when he sees them pass before Moses and enter a tent ostensibly to engage in sexual relations. A casual read of this incident reveals Pinchas acting on his own on behalf of God. If this is the case, how do we reconcile our love for Torah with our contemporary abhorrence for murder in the name of a higher cause, especially in light of the recent tragic murders of three innocent Israeli teens and one Palestinian teen in Israel? Is our tradition condoning vigilante justice?

First, some context: Just prior to that aforementioned event, Israelite men had en masse been “profaning themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. The people partook of them and worshiped that god” (Numbers 25:1-2). Incensed that Israel was straying after a foreign god, God instructed Moses to “Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before the Lord, so that the Lord’s wrath may turn away from Israel” (25:4). It was just after Moses issued God’s command to Israel’s officials from the opening of the Tent of Meeting that Zimri, in the sight of all, brings Cozbi over to his companions en route to a marital tent.[1]

At the moment that Pinchas rushes after Zimri and Cozbi and runs them through with a spear that a plague, which had taken the lives of twenty-four thousand people, ceased. God instantly rewards Pinchas (25:10-13):

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.'”

In other words, God establishes a unique pact with Pinchas and his descendents, a brit shalom, a covenant of peace or friendship, and guarantees the priesthood of Pinchas and his line for all time.

What? Pinchas murders two people in cold blood without having been instructed to do so by Moses and now he’s a hero? How could God possibly have made a brit shalom with someone who acted so violently? Why would God have also ensured the perpetuity of the priestly line from Pinchas? To my eyes, what Pinchas did was just plain wrong. What if others followed suit and resorted to vigilante justice because they felt it was the right thing to do? Could there be peace then? It seems to me that a harsh rebuke, at the very least, is in order.

While it is the case that most commentators have seen in Pinchas a model of fidelity to God and willingness to act when others wouldn’t and, thus, worthy of God’s praise[2], others have been more critical of Pinchas and have offered interpretations of the Torah that suggest that God’s intentions are more complicated than simply rewarding Pinchas for a job well done. For example, in the 3rd century C.E. Rav Abba, aka “Rav” in the Talmud, condemns Pinchas for failing to follow Moses’ instruction (Fields, p. 76):

He holds that Pinchas sees what Zimri and Cozbi are doing and says to Moses, “Did you not teach our people when you came down from Mount Sinai that any Israelite who has sex with a non-Israelite may be put to death by zealots?” Moses, says Rav, listens to Pinchas and responds, “Let God who gave the advice execute the advice.”

According to Rav, Pinchas may have acted within the law, but that he should have heeded Moses’ instruction and trusted that God would, indeed, execute judgment in God’s own way.[3]

That the tradition has not always viewed Pinchas favorably is further supported by the insights of Rabbi Jack Reimer, who shows that the brit shalom was more a necessity for Pinchas’ own protection than a divine reward for exemplary behavior. In his essay My Covenant of Peace, Rabbi Reimer writes[4]:

…Abravanel says that God had to promise Pinchas peace in the sense of protection because the relatives of the one whom he had killed would be out to get him. The inference of Abravanel’s comment is that violence only leads to counter‑violence, that when a man takes the law into his own hands he only starts a chain reaction of revenge that goes on without end.

The Talmud offers a different explanation of what “My covenant of peace” means. It says that Pinchas needed protection, not so much from the relatives of the person he had killed, but from Moses, and Aaron, and the Sanhedrin. They were the ones who wanted to punish him and disqualify him from the priesthood for he had taken the law into his own hands. If God had not intervened to protect him they would have punished him for murder, or at the least, taken away his priesthood for taking the law into his own hands. This is a bold midrash for it changes the whole character of the biblical story. For the midrash Pinchas is not a hero but a criminal for if every man were to take the law into his own hands society could not stand.

The third explanation of what “My covenant of peace” means comes from the Netsiv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin. According to his commentary, God had to bless Pinchas with the covenant of peace so that he would be protected, not only from the relatives of the one he killed, and not only from the courts, but from himself. For when a man has killed, whatever the reason the act of killing inevitably has an effect upon his soul. There is the danger that he may used to it and become casual about it, and there is the danger that his conscience may drive him mad with guilt. This is why God had to promise him “My Covenant of peace.” God had to promise to help him recover from the damage to his own soul that the murder had done. What the Netsiv is suggesting is that violence not only harms the victim and society but also the soul of the one who does. It makes him less stable, less sensitive and less human.

Against this argument by Rabbi Reimer, my friend Rabbi Gideon Estes shares a traditional view that Pinchas was not a vigilante, but rather a person of authority among the Israelites who was carrying out God’s earlier command conveyed by Moses to impale all the Israelites who had gone astray. Furthermore, Rabbi Estes explains that the “tent” into which Zimri and Cozbi entered was the Tent of Meeting, not a private abode, making their sin all the more heinous and deserving of Pinchas’ extreme response.[5] Rabbi Estes, thus, suggests that Pinchas’ action was understandable and even justifiable.

I believe as contemporary Jews we must hold both interpretations of this story to be True. On one hand, we have a story told in hyperbole about the responsibilities of Jews to perform mitzvot and to intercede when we see sins being committed. On the other hand, though, we have a story of zealotry gone tragically awry, a story in which one man’s action is roundly criticized. Pinchas’ act, like all acts of violence, merely begets further violence. It instills anger and pain in the families of the ones he kills and in the wider community and also compromises his own soul. Both stories are True.

It is my hope that as we read Parashat Pinchas this week we are able to see both sides of the story. Pinchas’ extremism in the defense of God’s word may be no vice from one perspective, but we mustn’t overlook the horror of his action, either. The lesson, I believe, is that as devotees to any ideal we must check ourselves and ensure that our actions truly serve the cause of peace. May this lesson sink into the hearts of all those caught up in conflict around the world.


[1] Jacob Milgron, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990), 215.

[2] See Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Time: Volume 3, Numbers and Deuteronomy (New York: UAHC Press, 1993), 77-78. Fields points to Samuel, head of the academy in Nahardea, Moses Maimonides, and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch as staunch defendants of Pinchas and God’s response.

[3] Ibid., p. 77.

[4] Accessed by subscription, 7/10/2014.

[5] Conversation held on 7/9/2014.

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