No biblical figure is so identified with zealotry as is Pinchas. He steps out in the closing verses of last week’s sidra, so completely outraged by the sight of a prince of Israel and a Midianite woman cavorting together that he acts immediately, not waiting for Moses or for any process of law – he thrusts his spear into the couple as they lie together, and kills them both.
It is a horrible spectacle for us to read, but more horrible still is God’s response. God says that for his actions Pinchas is to receive a special reward – “Pinchas is the only one who zealously took up My cause among the Israelites and turned my anger away from them so that I did not consume the children of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore tell him that I have given him My covenant of peace” (Num. 25:11-12)
Pinchas’ action had ended an Israelite orgy of idolatry and promiscuity that was endangering the integrity of the people far more than any of the curses of the prophet Balak could have done. But while the outcome was important, the method was terrible. And this rage which led him to act without any inhibition or process is not unique in bible. Remember the young Moses who murdered the Egyptian taskmaster in a moment of rage? Or Elijah who slaughtered the priests of Baal?
These are events in our history which we cannot ignore, but neither can we celebrate. We have in our ancestry the reality of jealous rage and zealotry – and we can be ambivalent about this quality and how it is used.
I have always been interested in the response to these acts of biblical jealousy and zealotry for God.
Elijah, having killed hundreds of idolatrous priests and having demonstrated to his own satisfaction the falseness of their faith, finds that being zealous for God does not guarantee safety. Queen Jezebel is angered and Elijah had to run for his life to the wilderness. There he encounters many strange phenomena, but ultimately he hears God not in the storms but in the voice of slender silence.
Moses’ act of killing was a little different – a young man who had only recently taken on board his connection to an enslaved people he found their treatment unbearable, and when he found an Egyptian beating one of his own kin –( ish ivri may’echav )– he looked around, saw no one and (using the same verb as the Egyptian taskmaster had done) beat him and hid the body in the sands. Only on the next day when he realised he had been seen, did he flee into the wilderness, there to meet God at the bush which burned but which was not consumed.
And Pinchas, whose act of violence was completely unpremeditated and grew from his anger against those who were mingling with the Midianite women and taking up the Midianite gods was rewarded by God with a ‘brit shalom’, a covenant of peace and the covenant of the everlasting priesthood.
Each of these men killed in anger – anger that God was not being given the proper respect, anger that God’s people were being abused. None of the men seemed to repent of what they had done, although Elijah and Moses were certainly depressed and anxious after the event and in fear for their lives. And God’s response seems too mild for our modern tastes.
Yet look at God’s responses a little more closely. Elijah is rewarded not by a triumphalist God but by the recognition of God in the voice of slender silence – what the more poetic translation calls the ‘still small voice’. And that voice doesn’t praise him but challenges him – What are you doing here, Elijah? After the high drama and the great energy expended at the sacrifices of the priests of Ba’al, Elijah has to come down from his high point and his conviction-fuelled orgy of violence and recognise in the cold light of day the reality of what he has done. Only when he leaves behind the histrionics does God become known to him – in that gentle sound of slender silence, and with a question that must throw him back to examine the more profound realities about himself and his own journey.
Moses too is not rewarded with great honour and dramatic encounter – his fleeing from the inevitable punishment for his killing has something of the self-centred need for survival rather than his being able to defend a glorious act, and there is a tradition that Moses did not enter the promised land, not only because of what had happened at the waters of Meribah when he struck the rock rather than speaking to it, but because that action brought to mind the striking of the Egyptian – Moses hadn’t learned to control his temper and his actions even after forty years of wandering in the wilderness.
Moses’ first encounter with God too was so gentle as to be almost missable. In the far edges of the wilderness alone with his father in law’s sheep this miserable young man saw a bush which burned but which wasn’t burned out. It is a dramatic story we are all used to from childhood, but what is implicit in it –though not something we generally recognise, is that to notice such a phenomenon in the wilderness where bushes must have burned regularly, took a great deal of time – Moses must have stood and watched patiently and carefully before realising there was something different about this fire. There is gentleness and an awareness of something on the edges of our senses, the very antithesis of drama and spectacle, of the immediacy and energy of the zealot.
The reward for Pinchas is also not as it first seems. God says of him “hineni notein lo et breetee, shalom”. “Behold, I give him my covenant, peace”. The Hebrew is not in the construct form, this is not a covenant of peace but a requirement for Pinchas to relate to God with peace, and his method for so doing is to be the priesthood.
The words are written in the torah scroll with an interesting addition – the vav in the word ‘shalom’ has a break in it. The scribe is drawing our attention to the phrase – the violent man has not been given a covenant of peace but a covenant to be used towards peace – that peace is not yet complete or whole- hence the broken vav – it needs to be completed.
Pinchas is given the eternal priesthood. One of the main functions of the priesthood is to recite the blessing of peace over the people, the blessing with which we end every service but which in bible is recited by the priests who form a conduit for the blessing from God.
Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta tells us “there is no vessel that holds a blessing save peace, as it says ‘the Eternal will bless the people with peace’” in other words, the eternal priesthood given to Pinchas forces him to speak peace, to be a vessel of peace so as to be able to fulfil his function and recite the blessing. In effect, by giving Pinchas “breetee, shalom” God is constraining him and limiting his violence, replacing it with the obligation to promote peace. It is for Pinchas and his descendants to complete the peace of God’s covenant, and they cannot do so if they allow their innate violence to speak.
Each of the three angry men – Moses, Pinchas, Elijah – are recognised as using their anger for the sake of God and the Jewish people, but at the same time each is gently shepherded into a more peaceful place. And this methodology is continued into the texts of the rabbinic tradition.
When one first reads the text it seems on the surface that Pinchas was rewarded for his act, but the weight of Jewish traditional reading – and writing – militates against this. Clearly by Talmudic times the sages are clear that self-righteous zeal is dangerous and damaging and must never take root in our people or be allowed to influence our thinking.
Times change, but people do not – there are still many who would act like Pinchas if they could: every group and every people has them. Their behaviours arise out of passionate belief and huge certainty in the rightness of those beliefs. Rational argument will never prevail against them, but gentle patient and persistent focusing on the goal of peace, our never forgetting the need for peace, must temper our zealots.
Every tradition has its zealots and its texts of zealotry, but every tradition also has those who moderate and mitigate, who look for the longer game and the larger goal. Especially in the light of recent events in Israel, when the zealots of both sides acted unchecked and with terrible violence, it is important that we who look for peaceful resolution rise to the occasion and with patient and persistent focus rein in those who would act otherwise.
I always enjoy your writing “shepherded into a more peaceful place” today we would call it jail. x