Parashat Pinchas: What do we notice and what do we value?

Pinchas has always been a problem. We are told that this sidra begins where it does, in the middle of the narrative – to cause an interruption between the violent act and the divine response, in order the record the disapproval of the Babylonian rabbis who divided the sidrot.  A distance is created between the horror of what he did, and the reward that God seems to offer.  To read the story straight through would cause us many problems with God – how can such a terrible act be so calmly and gladly acceptable?

The Rabbis of the Talmud (San 82b) struggle with the story too. The act of Pinchas is repugnant. Rabbi Yochanan deals with the problem by giving all the responsibility to God :

Rabbi Yochanan taught that Pinchas was able to accomplish his act of zealotry only because God performed six miracles: [First, upon hearing Pinchas’s warning, Zimri should have withdrawn from Cozbi and ended his transgression, but he did not. Second, Zimri should have cried out for help from his fellow Simeonites, but he did not. Third, Pinchas was able to drive his spear exactly through the sexual organs of Zimri and Cozbi as they were engaged in the act. Fourth, Zimri and Cozbi did not slip off the spear, but remained fixed so that others could witness their transgression. Fifth, an angel came and lifted up the lintel so that Pinchas could exit holding the spear. And sixth, an angel came and sowed destruction among the people, distracting the Simeonites from killing Pinchas. (B Talmud Sanhedrin 82b.)]

Pinchas becomes simply the conduit of God’s will, and his act of individual violence is subsumed under the divine plan. But this isn’t the only rabbinic struggle with the text: on the same page of Talmud we read that after Pinchas killed Zimri and Cozbi, the Israelites began berating him for his presumption, as he himself was descended from a Midianite idolater, Jethro. ..To counter this attack, God detailed Pinchas’s descent from the peaceful Aaron the Priest. And then God told Moses to extend a greeting of peace to Pinchas, so as to calm the crowd. (B Talmud Sanhedrin 82b.)]

Here the Rabbis show the Israelites shifting the responsibility for Pinchas’ actions not onto God, but onto Pinchas’ own mixed ancestry, implying that Pinchas maybe wasn’t quite ‘one of us’, his actions not those of a mensch.

In these examples we see that the Rabbinic tradition felt both a revulsion for what Pinchas did, and a need to transform the event in some way; to try to reconcile our disgust at his act, with God’s approval of it. While God may have valued Pinchas’ actions enough to offer him the reward of the priesthood, our tradition remains uncomfortable. We find reasons for this reward – it was given because the plague stopped, it is because he saved the people, it is for anything but the actual act of violent murder without judicial process that it seems to be.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is easier to the modern mind – in fact often the modern mind finds it hard to see the problem in the first place. Zelophehad has died and left no son. So who will inherit from him, and what will be the status of his five daughters?  It isn’t an issue for Moses either, until the daughters come before him to remind him of their existence and to request that they inherit the estate. Moses is so surprised he has no answer – this is simply not part of his world view – and he goes to God for a response.  Luckily God proves to be a feminist and the women get to inherit in their own right.  Today we find this solution to be clearly right. Yet for the Rabbis of the Talmud again they needed to explicate the result – the claims of gender equality were not part of their world, not noticed and not valued.

So we are told, for example: Rabbi Joshua taught that Zelophehad’s daughters petitioned first the assembly, then the chieftains, then Eleazar, and finally Moses” B Talmud Baba Batra 119b) as if it was their following due process was somehow the deciding factor in the decision.  We are also told in a Baraita that Zelophehad’s daughters were wise, Torah students, and righteous.  That they demonstrated their wisdom by raising their case in a timely fashion, just as Moses was expounding the law of levirate marriage; and they argued for their inheritance by reference to that law. (Babylonian Talmud Baba Batra 119b.).

According to the midrash they saw the world very clearly, so that “When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the land was being divided among the tribes but not among the women, they convened to discuss the matter. They said, “God’s mercy and compassion is not like the compassion of humankind. Humankind favours men over women. God is not like that. God’s compassion extends to men and women alike…” ( Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas, 27; Sifri 27:1).

Both Pinchas and the daughters of Zelophehad caused real problems to the rabbis – they notice that Pinchas’ act of violence goes against all the values and rules of their world, yet it seems to be welcomed by God, so they struggled to signal their own disapproval, to reframe the act so that it is not possible for anyone else to repeat it, and to deal with the apparent delight of God. In this story they notice what is going on, and their job is to try to keep it together with the values and judgements they are hoping to transmit into the future.

The daughters of Zelophehad however are simply less visible or accessible to the rabbis, as they are clearly barely visible to Moses until they bring themselves forward. I would posit that because the idea of gender equality is not part of the ancient world view, they simply cannot conceive of it, even when it is presented to them with clarity and due process. They do not notice it and so they do not value it. One might add that in certain streams of the Jewish world that has not changed much! But that isn’t my point.

What I do want to say is this: What we do not notice for whatever reason, we do not value. And what we do not value for whatever reason, we do not notice. While something may be clearly apparent to someone else – think of Pinchas’ instinctive response to the actions of Cozbi and Zimri – if the tramlines of our mind don’t run on that route, we just won’t see it. And because Moses and the others didn’t see that they had to take action on the behaviour of the people rather than simply lecture them, they didn’t take any action and they didn’t value the action that was taken. It was left to God to show that Pinchas, while clearly hot-headed and over the top, was at least on the right lines. I have always felt that the reward of the covenant of eternal priesthood was at the very least an ironic reward – it would rein in the impulsive nature of a Pinchas into the very disciplined world of ritual purity and choreography and leave no space for him to behave that way again. God may have valued what Pinchas did, but he also noticed that such a zealous personality needed some serious boundaries – and so God provided them.

When Moses brings the request of the daughters of Zelophehad to God, the response is “The daughters of Zelophehad speak rightly…”  Rashi explains that God was saying : “[As the daughters of Zelophehad spoke it] so is this section of Torah written before Me on high.” This informs us that their eyes saw what the eye of Moses did not see.” (on Num 27:7)

Moses is the greatest prophet who ever lived, and yet the daughters of Zelophehad apparently saw something that he did not see. Each of us notices and values what is of meaning and importance to us, and each of us can teach the others in our world about the things that have meaning for us, so that we can all learn to value and to notice what may otherwise go unvalued and unnoticed. If we teach each other to see what we can see, we increase the richness of our understanding of our world, and so grow closer to its Creator.

הִנְנִ֨י נֹתֵ֥ן ל֛וֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽוֹם: Pinchas. The Zealot and the Covenant of Broken Peace

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.shalom broken vav