Pinchas: Good Violence?

April 13, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Posted in Pinchas | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on June 28, 2010.)

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon the high priest, turned back my hot wrath from the children of Israel, with his kina, kina for me among them, so I did not wipe out the children of Israel in my kina.  Therefore, say: Here I am, giving him my covenant of peace.  And it shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of priesthood for all time, founded because he was fervid for his God, so he covered for the children of Israel.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:10-13)

kina (קִנְאָ)= fervor, zeal, jealousy, passion for a cause

At the end of last week’s Torah portion, after God makes Bilam bless the Israelites, they prove unworthy of the blessing.  The men of Israel yoke themselves to women who worship Baal-Peor, worshiping their god by having ritual sex.  The God of the Israelites becomes enraged, starts another plague, and tells Moses to impale the ringleaders.  Moses calls for judges to sort out the guilty.  While the people are weeping outside the Tent of Meeting, God’s portable sanctuary, an Israelite man and a Midianite woman swagger into the Tent itself for ritual copulation.  Pinchas, son of the new high priest Elazar, runs in and spears the couple through the private parts, catching them in the act.  The plague stops (after it has killed 24,000 Israelites).

This week’s Torah portion picks up the story with the paragraph I translate above.  Then it names the impaled couple:  Zimri (possibly “Vine-Pruner” or “Singer”, but the etymology is uncertain), the son of the leader of a clan in the tribe of Simeon; and Cozbi (“Deceiver”), the daughter of the head of a Midianite clan.  Both are members of their peoples’ aristocracy, so their deed sets an example.

Why does God praise and reward Pinchas for taking the law into his own hands and committing a sudden double murder ?  Answers in the commentary include:

—that Pinchas is one of the Levites charged with protecting the Tent of Meeting from intruders, so he’s just doing his job.

—that Pinchas assumes responsibility for impaling the first ringleader because Moses and the 70 elders, i.e. judges, are too slow to act on God’s orders.  (According to the Talmud, judges cannot order the death penalty unless the culprit was warned by witnesses before he committed the crime.)  Emergency action is needed because the people of Israel are weeping but not objecting to the debauchery, and God’s plague is already raging.

—that Pinchas’s act is only acceptable because he spears the couple in the act, and because he has no time for reflection, and because he does it in order to stop the desecration of God’s name.

—that God’s apparent rewards are really warnings that before Pinchas succeeds his father as high priest, he will have to master his destructive impulses.  The fervor for God and the covering, or atoning, for Israel are good, but killing will not be accepted again.  God’s “covenant of peace” binds Pinchas to committing no further violence.

I think another answer lies in the Hebrew word kina, which is repeated, in various grammatical forms, three times in the first sentence above.  Something terrible is happening; the Israelites are falling so far away from their God that now even a tribal leader is flaunting his debauched idol-worship, bringing an outsider into God’s sanctuary (which is taboo), having sex there (though Israelites must purify themselves with water after sex before they can even enter the sanctuary), and worshiping Baal-Peor, another god.

Pinchas and God are both overcome with outrage at this flagrant desecration.  God apparently acts reflexively with a plague, God’s usual modus operandi, then asks Moses to stop the plague by impaling the ringleaders.  Pinchas acts in the passion of the moment, impaling one ringleader and his partner in the sanctuary.  Both God and Pinchas are fervent about this religious violation.

In contrast, Moses seems calmer than usual.  He does not react until God gives him an order.  Then, instead of impaling the ringleaders himself, he instructs judges (presumably the elders of Israel) to kill the malefactors.  By then it is too late.  Without kina, without passion, zeal, fervor, Moses is ineffectual.

Is there a place for Pinchas’s violent fervor today?

Imagine that “the children of Israel” are actual three-year-old children running into the street without looking, despite what they’ve been told.  God is the oncoming truck.  Moses fails to stop the children in time because he’s too calm and reasonable.  But Pinchas screams bloody murder.  Shocked, the kids stop in their tracks.  And they are saved.

The only question is why God acts like a truck–not just in this example, but in the many indiscriminate plagues mentioned in the Torah.  Any comments?


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