Barring divine intervention, the act of the zealot must be judged by its murderous result, not by its declared intent.
The story of Pinchas is one of Torah’s more troubling narratives, especially when read in the context of today’s headlines.
The stage is set when the king of Midian, unable to destroy the Jews through sorcery, turns to debauchery to serve his ends. Young women of Midian are sent into the Israelite camp to seduce the Israelites in the name of Midian’s false god, Pe’or. As the plan succeeds and the Israelites succumb to temptation, God’s wrath is unfurled upon them in the form of a deadly plague.
B’midbar 25:6-10 picks up the story: “Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. When Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was ended. Those who died of the plague numbered 24,000.”
“The Lord Spoke to Moses, saying, Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying his zealousness for me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in my zealousness. Say, therefore, I grant him my covenant of shalom. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a covenant of priesthood for all time, because he took zealous action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.”
The Torah’s description of Pinchas’ action, of Moses’ inaction and of God’s reaction raises a number of questions:
1. Is religious zealousness a praiseworthy trait to be emulated by true believers?
2. Does the Torah condone murder in the service of one’s version of God’s will?
3. Does Moses’ silence in the face of Pinchas’ passion and God’s “covenant of shalom” with Pinchas imply that zealousness and murder have no consequences?
These questions resonate loudly in an era like ours in which atrocities performed in the name of God are an almost daily occurrence. They have also troubled our sages through the ages. Their answers reflect a nuanced understanding of human nature and attempt to balance the value Judaism places on even a single life with a respect for the integrity of the biblical narrative.
The rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud recorded a Midrashic tradition that the elders of Israel had sought to excommunicate Pinchas for his actions; only the hurried intervention of the Holy Spirit prevented the sentence against him from being carried out.
As explained by a later commentary, the authors of the Midrash recognized that greed, bloodlust and ego, coupled with the all-too human ability to rationalize any personal behavior, makes it impossible for human witnesses to know a person’s true motivation. Only God can know. Barring divine intervention, the act of the zealot must be judged by its murderous result, not by its declared intent.
Writing in the 14th century, Nachmanides explained that Pinchas’ intent was to save the Israelites from perishing in the plague that their actions had called upon them. His swift action was one of a Jewish hero seeking to save his people from immediate harm, not of a religious zealot defending his interpretation of the will of God. For that, God was prepared to intervene on his behalf and bless him with his covenant of shalom.
Nineteenth century writers interpreted the covenant of shalom as an apt response. Pinchas may have acted as necessary to save his people from destruction. Nonetheless, in doing so he committed an act of murder. Far from deserving praise, his readiness to kill speaks of a flaw in Pinchas’ character.
With his covenant of shalom, God corrects that flaw and grants Pinchas an inner tranquility to balance his zealous love of God and passion for the defense of the Jewish people. From then on, Pinchas will emulate his grandfather Aaron as a lover of peace, with violence relied on only as a last resort not a first response.
Rabbi Howard Alpert is the CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.