The actions of Pinchas son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron have been a real problem to commentators on bible from earliest times. The Israelites were sinning, committing idolatry and cavorting with the Midianite women and God had ordered the leaders of these people to be killed. But Pinchas, apparently roused to zealous fury by the sight of an Israelite man with a Midianite woman who were shamelessly transgressing in full view of Moses and the weeping frightened people waiting by the door of the Tent of Meeting, thrust a spear through the misbehaving couple.
It was summary justice, conducted without any of the due process of warning, without trial where both sides of the story could be told, without witnesses speaking, without the judicial process that would protect the accused and offer mitigating outcomes. Pinchas’ action was simply outrageous, contravening all the rules set up to protect society. Put simply he murdered two human beings because he was ‘zealous for God’. He is the icon of proponents of violence in the name of religion.
But while God may seemingly reward Pinchas (and also the people as the plague is suddenly stopped), the ambiguity of the text and many responses of tradition make clear that violence in the name of God is unacceptable. The third century sage Rav condemned him, saying that the judgement on the two people he had killed was only to be made by God, and while the action might be within the parameters of law given on Sinai, “God who gave the advice should execute the advice”. In the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7) we read that “Pinchas acted against the will of the wise men”, and of the comment by Rabbi Judah bar Pazzi who says that Pinchas was about to be excommunicated for his action and that this was only averted when God intervened to save him. God’s declaration that this zealousness and its murderous outcome was done without any personal motivation whatsoever, done only for the honour of God, was what saved Pinchas from the legal process about to take place, but even then it is understood that only such absolute purity of motive is acceptable, and only God can know the full motives of any heart.
Zealousness or vengeance on behalf of God – it is a problem that has never left religion. God says that Pinchas was “vengeful/zealous/carrying out My vengeance for My sake (be-kano et kinati בְּקַנְא֥וֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִ֖י בְּתוֹכָ֑ם).
קַנָּא is an attribute of God, albeit one that moderns find problematic. We know, because bible tells us, that the plague on the people was an aspect of divine קַנָּא, also that God introduces Godself to the people at Mt. Sinai as “El Kana” (Exodus 20:4). And whatever the difficulty we might have with knowing that God is not only love, not only sweetness and light, but that God is complex and contains within divinity the full spectrum of possibility, it seems to me that in the way this text is written, as well as the majority of rabbinic responses to it, we are made to understand that this attribute is one that should properly be left to God. For who among us is so pure of heart that we can know that there is no other motive, no selfish desire or egoistic drive mixed in with our religious zeal?
Violence and vengeance is part of the human psyche. The book of Genesis tells us that Cain (whose name קַיִן echoes the sound קַנָּא, although it comes from the root meaning acquisition rather than vengefulness) murdered his own brother in anger when his own hopes were frustrated. He too was given something by God – the mark of Cain placed on him to protect him from those who would hurt him. Within ten generations of Cain the earth is filled with wickedness and violence, so much that God was sorry that s/he had ever created human beings (Genesis 6:5ff) and wanted to blot them off the surface of the earth, saving only one family, that of Noach, who was relatively less wicked than others. God told Noach “The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.” (Gen 6:13)
From the beginning of bible, it is clear that when God made human beings in the divine image, this included the shadow side of that image. It becomes the job of religion not to excise that which cannot be eliminated, but to recognise it and to find ways to constrain it, limiting the driver of zealousness to the point of making it impotent, making it impossible for people to act from this belief/feeling. Hence the Talmudic narrative which clarifies that Pinchas is defended by God because uniquely he has entirely pure motives for his act, with no personal impetus whatsoever.
Talmud also contains the idea that “the [torah] scroll and the sword came down from heaven tied together” – a teaching by the 3rd century Rabbi Eleazar of Modi’in. It derives from the Rabbinic idea that Torah was a complete and perfect work even before it was given to the Israelite people at Mt Sinai, and ties it together with the idea that violence/vengeance was also one of the earliest actions demonstrated in humanity. It is often quoted to suggest that both are necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, but in fact the statement of Rabbi Eleazar goes on:- “God said to Israel, ‘If you observe the Torah that is written in the one, you will be saved from the other. If you do not, then you will be destroyed/injured by it”
The teaching is clear however: Both violence and religion are intertwined and archetypal in people, but the work of religious tradition is to try to separate them, not to allow the violence which is endemic within us to overpower us, but instead to follow the will of God in order to subdue this first and primal response.
When God gives Pinchas the covenant of peace, he is not rewarding him for an achievement, he is constraining him from further violence, just as the mark of Cain is constraining others from further violence.
The problem we face today is how to constrain those who feel zealousness for God, of whatever tradition and whatever religion, so that they understand that, in the words of the final song of Moses, Ha’azinu, God says לִ֤י נָקָם֙ וְשִׁלֵּ֔ם “Vengeance and Recompense is Mine”.
It is not our work to punish or avenge in the name of God, we leave that to God. But it is our work to educate ourselves and each other that acts of violence in the name of religion or in the name of protecting the honour of God are unacceptable, beyond any parameter in this world, and will not make the perpetrators religious martyrs or otherwise glorified. Religion is designed to protect us from our shadow side, from acting on our anger and from narrowing our perspective so we no longer see the humanity of each other. If it is not doing this, then it is religion that needs to evolve in order to fulfil this function. And that is a job for people – not God – to do: And if not now, when?