Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2

July 19, 2017 at 9:01 pm | Posted in Joshua, Judges, Mattot | 3 Comments
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Pinchas first appears in the Torah grabbing a spear and skewering two worshipers of a local Midianite god, Baal Peor. God (that is, the God-character in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar) is relieved, because “He” could not stop “His” own anger at the apostasy and the resulting plague. (See my post Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1.) Pinchas’s zealous impulse does the trick.

God tells Moses:

Therefore say: Here I am, giving to him My covenant of shalom. And it shall be for him, and for his descendants after him, a covenant of priesthood for all time, founded because he was zealous for his God, so he atoned for the children of Israel.” (Numbers 25:12-13)

shalom (שָׁלוֹם) = peace, wholeness, well-being.

The covenant of shalom makes Pinchas a priest, binding him to commit no further violence against humans (though like all priests, he must slaughter animal offerings at the altar).

However, there is no covenant of peace binding God. In this week’s Torah portion, Mattot (“Tribes”), God orders Moses:

Avenge the vengeance of the Israelites on the Midianites! Afterward you shall be gathered to your people. (Numbers 31:1)

After Moses dies, the rest of the Israelites live with the knowledge of both their unfaithfuless to God and their vengeance on the Midianites. Next week’s post, Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3, will consider the lasting effects of the Baal Peor incident on the Israelites. This week’s post explores what happens to Pinchas after his well-timed murder.

Pinchas in Mattot

Moses sent a thousand from each tribe for the army, and Pinchas, son of Elazar the Priest, for the army; and holy utensils and trumpets for blasting were in his hands. And they made war against Midian, as God had commanded Moses … (Numbers 31:6-7)

A priest accompanies an army in the Torah not to engage in battle, but to address the troops before battle1 and take charge of holy objects2. Sometimes a general consults a priest before battle, and the priest uses an oracular device to relay simple questions to God and report God’s brief replies.3

The Torah portion Mattot does not identify the holy utensils Pinchas brought to the battle against the Midianites in the valley of Baal Peor. Trumpets were used to sound an alarm, to signal troops to advance, and to signal troops to retreat.4

Pinchas in the Book of Judges

Dead Concubine at Gibeah

Pinchas does use an oracular device to answer the questions of generals many years later, when he is the high priest of the Israelites. After the tribes have conquered and settled various parts of Canaan, some men in the territory of Benjamin rape and kill a Levite’s concubine. The Levite rallies all the other tribes to go to war against the Benjaminites.5

Pinchas stays in the town of Beit-El, where the ark is in residence, about 8 miles (13 km) north of Gibeah, the main town of Benjamin. Before each day of battle, men from the Israelite army go to Beit-El with a question for God.

First they ask which tribe should advance first against the Benjaminites, and God’s answer is “Judah”. The Israelites lose the battle. They return to Beit-El and ask if they should attack again, and God answers yes. But they lose the second battle as well.

Then they went up … and they came to Beit-El and they wept, and they sat there before God, and they fasted that day until the evening, and they sent up rising-offerings and shelamim before God. (Judges 20:26)

shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = animal-offerings either to express gratitude to God for well-being, or to attempt a state of peace and unity with God. (From the same root as shalom.)

And the Israelites inquired of God—and the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, and Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron was standing in attendance before [God] in those days—saying: “Should we gather again to go out to war with the Benjaminites, our brothers, or should we give up?” And God said: “Go up, because tomorrow I will give them into your hand.” (Judges 20:27-28)

The Israelites defeat the Benjaminites the next day, wiping out most of the men of that tribe and all of the women. But the only role Pinchas plays is to report God’s answers; he takes no action on his own.

Pinchas in the Book of Joshua

Pinchas takes a more active role in the book of Joshua when nine and a half tribes are considering making war on the other two and a half.

At the end of Mattot, this week’s portion, the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask Moses for permission to settle east of the Jordan in Gilead and Bashan, the lands that the Israelites have already conquered. Moses grants them and the half-tribe of Menasheh these lands, but only after they have promised that their fighting men will cross the Jordan with the rest of the Israelites and help conquer Canaan.6

After the death of Moses, Joshua leads these men and all the other Israelites across the Jordan River. His army conquers a large part of Canaan, the men of Reuben, Gad, and Menasheh return to their new homes, and the land west of the Jordan is allotted among the other nine and a half tribes. Joshua erects the portable Tent of Meeting containing God’s ark at Gilgal first, then at Shiloh, both on the west side of the Jordan.

And the Israelites heard [a report] saying: Hey! The Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Menasheh built an altar opposite the land of Canaan, in the district across from the Israelites. (Joshua 22:11)

This is the same region where the Israelites were camping when they joined the Midianites in their worship of Baal Peor.

And the Israelites heard, and they assembled, the whole community of the sons of Israel, at Shiloh to go up to make war upon them. And the Israelites sent Pinchas, son of Elazar the [high] priest … to the land of Gilead, along with ten chieftains … (Joshua 22:12-14)

If anything could trigger Pinchas’s jealousy and zealotry for the God of Israel again, it would be news that some Israelites had built an altar for a foreign god. When his delegation arrives, Pinchas protests:

Is it a small matter for us, the crime of Peor from which we have not purified ourselves to this day? It is a scourge in the community of God! And you, you would turn away from God? If you rebel today against God, tomorrow the whole community of Israel will become angry! (Joshua 22:17-18)

The east-bank tribesmen quickly explain that they have no intention of worshiping another god. They claim they were afraid of being excluded from the community of the God of Israel, and they only built a symbolic replica of God’s altar in Shiloh.

because it is a witness between our eyes and your eyes. Far be it from us to rebel against God!” (Joshua 22:28-29).

And Pinchas the priest heard, and the chieftains of the community and the heads of the companies of Israel who were with him, the words that they spoke … and it was good in their eyes. (Joshua 22:30)

Pinchas and his delegation return to Shiloh with their new understanding, and war is averted. Pinchas has indeed become a man of shalom, of peace, wholeness, and well-being.

Did God’s covenant of shalom transform Pinchas because it gave him the responsibilities of a priest?7 Or did it transform him because God’s response shocked him into recognizing his own excessive zeal?

Imitating God’s forgiveness might be a fine strategy, but imitating the murderous zeal of the God-character in the Torah is bad for a human being. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the 19th-century author of Ha’amek Davar, wrote: “Since it was only natural that such a deed as Pinhas’ should leave in his heart an intense emotional unrest afterward, the Divine blessing was designed to cope with this situation and promised peace and tranquility of soul.”8

May all human beings who are overwhelmed by jealousy or anger be transformed like Pinchas —whether by a new responsibility, a new realization, or an inner blessing—into people of shalom.

1  See Deuteronomy 20:2.

2  See 1 Samuel 4:4-5.

3  This oracular device is called urim and/or tummim in Numbers 27:21, 1 Samuel 14:41, and 1 Samuel 28:6; and an eifod in 1 Samuel 23:9-12 and 1 Samuel 30:7-8.  An eifod in the Bible is usually a tabard worn by priests and other attendants on God’s sanctuary: a garment made of two rectangular panels of cloth fastened together at the shoulders and belted around the waist. Exodus 28:6-30 describes the elaborate eifod of the high priest and the choshen tied to its front panel. The choshen is a square pouch with twelve precious stones on the front side. Inside the pouch are the urim and tummim, items that scholars have not yet identified.

4  2 Samuel 17:6, 20:22; Jeremiah 4:19, 6:1, 51:27; Ezekiel 33:6; Amos 3:6.

5  Judges 20:1-48.

6  Numbers 32:1-33.

7  The priesthood was hereditary, so Pinchas, son of the high priest Elazar, son of the high priest Aaron, could expect to be consecrated as a priest eventually. But the Zohar notes that someone who has killed a person is normally disqualified from the priesthood. (Arthur Green in Sefat Emet, The Language of Truth, by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, translation and commentary by Arthur Green, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1998, p. 264)

8  Translation from Ha’amek Davar in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar (Numbers), translated from Hebrew by Aryeh Newman, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1980.

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  1. […] Or does the covenant modify Pinchas’s kina, giving him an ability to make peace? (See next week’s post, Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2.) […]

  2. […] The God-character rewards Pinchas for calming “His” rage in the next Torah portion, Pinchas. (See my post Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2.) […]

  3. […]  Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1; Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2; and Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part […]


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