(Numbers 25:10-30:1)

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Whether it applies to social and political relations or to religion, our global society currently needs to take a sharp direction away from zealotry.  The horrors that occur when gullible people – whether individuals or angry crowds – are manipulated by powerful zealots for their own ends sadly fill our television and internet screens these days. It’s not new. It has happened over and over again in history, going right back to biblical times and even before. Often God – or the zealot’s misguided understanding of a deity’s transfer of power – is used as an excuse.

In the book of Numbers in the Holy Bible, Pinchas (a grandson of Aaron the priest) is rewarded for using his spear – on his own authority — to pierce through a Jewish man and his Moabite paramour (Zimri and Cozbi, daughter of Zur) in the privacy of the Jewish offender’s tent. True, the tent is in the middle of the Jewish camp, so it seems like an intentional provocation by the couple. Also, in the first few verses (1-9) of Numbers 25, which precede where the Pinchas portion actually starts in verse 10, we get the bigger picture of the Moabite women whoring with the Israelite men and subsequently enticing them to make sacrifices to their pagan god, Baal-peor.

Remember that, for the Israelites in ancient times, idolatry was one of the three capital crimes; the other two were murder and adultery. Remember also that when Pinchas kills both participants in the midst of their infamous sex act in the Jewish camp’s tent, he is taking the law into his own hands. It is murder. The coupling is a moral problem in more ways than one.

And yet the biblical account excuses Pinchas’ passionate act: God’s wrath is thus deflected from the Israelites’ licentious behavior with the enticing women, and therefore, God does not completely wipe them out with a plague (24,000 have already been killed). In God’s eyes, according to the Bible, the impassioned, zealous act of Pinchas has expiated the sin of the Israelites. That’s why he is rewarded with the covenant of peace (which suggests that Pinchas will have to keep the peace too! Nor do Cozbi’s relatives go after Pinchas in revenge.) And Pinchas and his descendants will remain priests for all time.

In my view, God made a mistake by glorifying Pinchas’ zealotry. Earlier in the Bible, Abraham argues with God when he thinks God’s decision is wrong; Moses also argues with God; and in each case God changes his actions. One may reflect that even God is still learning about human beings and their strange behavior in early biblical times. Several thousands years later, all kinds of experts in human behavior are still trying to do that.

The reason that I think excusing Pinchas from murder charges because of his noble intent is mistaken is this: Throughout the following centuries right up to today, impassioned people who believed they were the good guys, and that their cause was right, have massacred those who prayed to a different god – or even thought differently. I don’t think Pinchas deserved to keep his priestly stature after he committed an impulsive act of murder. Yet, in view of his passion for God, Pinchas is given a “pact of friendship (v.12).”

“What exactly is this pact of friendship that the Holy One gave to Phineas [his Egyptian name]?”asks the medieval rabbinic authority, Abarbanel. The commentators of the Middle Ages note, however, that in the telling of Pinchas’ story, the Hebrew letter vav (representing “and”) that connects peace and friendship is written with a break in the middle (Michael Carasik, “Numbers,” The Commentators Bible: The Rubin JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, NY: JPS, 193.) It is worthy of note that in Jewish biblical law, a priest who has killed someone was not permitted to give the priestly benediction. The Torah is subtle in its disapproval.

The whole story would make some great episodes on “Law and Order.”

Interestingly, there is some controversy among the medieval rabbis as to whether the biblical story applies to the Midianites or the Moabites. While the Jewish Publication Society translation refers to the Moabite women, medieval commentators tend to refer to the same women as Midianites. So, which pagan tribe is it? If indeed the immoral women were Moabites, we should remember Ruth, who (later in the Bible) was so loyal and kind to Naomi, who put aside her own beliefs, who was the ancestress of King David – Ruth also came from Moab. She is considered Judaism’s first convert.

So perhaps another ending was possible for the murdered couple fornicating in the tent.

* * * *

Fortunately, as I see it, this Torah portion is redeemed by the inspiring story of the daughters of Zelophehad, from the tribe of Manassah, which also appears in this portion. Their names, which should be honored, are Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They made their argument forthrightly, not to God, but to Moses, their acknowledged leader. They pointed out that their recently deceased and honorable father was not one of the rebellious Korach’s faction. Unfortunately, though, their father died without sons. According to biblical custom at that time, his five daughters could not inherit his property.

Speaking jointly, respectfully, and logically to Moses – this episode shortly follows the Korach rebellion in the chronology of the Bible – the five daughters made an excellent case for their father’s property being transferred to them even though they were women. They explained that otherwise the continuance of their father’s name would be lost to his clan, who would absorb the property. Blotting out someone’s name was a serious turn of events in biblical times.

Moses was impressed both by their argument and their intelligent demeanor. Long before the Women of the Wall clamoring for equality in modern Israel, the five daughters of Zelophehad were effective feminists – and in turn, Moses brought the case to God for judgment.

As the Bible portrays it, God also thought the case of the five daughters was just. It was right that they should get the hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen. “Transfer their father’s share to them,” God is quoted as ruling in the Bible (Numbers 27:6-11). “Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.’ ” And God’s word became the law of the land.  In my view, God made a much better decision in this instance than in the case of Pinchas. Maybe that’s why both cases are in the same parsha. If you make a mistake, it’s always possible to redeem yourself.