God promises Pinchas peace and the priesthood… attacking Midian for its behavior against the Jews… final census taken… total population remained virtually unchanged… changes in tribes…procedure for dividing the land …census of the Levites…daughters of Tzelafchad ask for and receive their father’s inheritance…laws of inheritance…God appoints Yehoshua to be Moshe’s successor…listing of daily (Tamid) and Festival (Musaf) communal offerings
In the city of Shittim (last stop before crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land) the Jewish people engage in (forbidden) sexual relations with their non-Jewish neighbors and embrace the worship of the local pagan deity, Baal. According to the Talmud, this behavior resulted from Bilaam’s insidious plan to have the local harlots insist that the prospective Jewish client worship an idol prior to consummating the deal.
God is incensed and some 24,000 people die in a plague. A prominent Jewish prince (Zimri) is publicly intimate with a prominent Midianite woman.
Zimri not only engages in a flagrant act of sexual immorality in the public square but probably in some form of cultic orgy as well. Such sinful behavior could undo the progress that had been made to form an ethical and holy nation. Based on a law he remembers learning from Moshe --“One who sexual relations with a heathen, zealous people have the right to strike him”--Pinchas kills the couple with a spear through their genitals.
As a reward for this spontaneous response to this public display of immorality and idolatry, God promises Pinchas His covenant of peace and also promises that he and his descendents would always retain the Priesthood.
What is the covenant of peace?
Pinchas acted selflessly with no concern for how powerful and well-connected these people were. Because he brought peace to the Jewish nation (the plague ceased) by acting quickly to avenge in God’s name, he was granted peace. Rashi opines that the covenant is an expression of a warm, friendly feeling of thankfulness for a kindness done. Ibn Ezra thinks it is a protection from any retaliation by friends and family of the powerful and prominent people who were slain.
The covenant may also be understood in psychological terms. Rabbi Z.Y. Berlin thinks the covenant is a protection against the internal demoralization that can result from killing and was meant to prevent Pinchas’ becoming quick tempered, angry and exacting. He was given a blessing to remain gentle and peaceful.
Anyone who murders must be conflicted on some level at some time. As such, it may be that God promises Pinchas that he will not suffer from these internal conflicts and guilt.
In his zeal on God’s behalf, Pinchas defies all the of the Torah’s legislated judicial procedures and spontaneously murders two people without warning, without witnesses and without testimony and trial. Yet God seems to approve: “Pinchas…turned my wrath away from the children of Israel in that he was very jealous for My sake (kano es kenasi) among them and I did not consume the children of Israel in my jealousy (b’kinasi)”. Even more amazing is that he was rewarded with the covenants of peace and everlasting priesthood!
In his discussion of this topic, Rabbi B. S. Jacobson cites the Jerusalem Talmud that states that Pinchas acted without the sanction of the authorities and that they would have even excommunicated him, but for the intervention of God’s declaration. A discussion in the Talmud Bavli cites one opinion that Pinchas’ act was sanctioned by Moshe and two opinions that he took the initiative without discussing the matter with Moshe.
Rambam concludes that zealotry can only be condoned if four conditions exist: the illicit intimacy is public knowledge; the killing occurs in flagrante delicto (in the act of having sexual relations, especially illicit sexual relations); there has been no prior authorization or discussion with authorities; and “the impunity of the criminal killing the zealot in self-defense”.
The Midrash offers opposing views regarding the role of zealotry. Pinchas is also associated with Elijah the Prophet, both of whom execute punishment for those deserving it.
Nechama Leibowitz cites Rabbi Baruch Epstein (author of Torah Temimah) who concludes that the zealot needs to be motivated by an unselfish, genuine desire to advance and/or defend the glory of God. But who can tell what really is in the zealot’s heart and mind? Is he defending God or is he committing murder? It was because of this uncertainty that the Sages wanted to excommunicate Pinchas.
Shmuel Hakatan was known for his love of fellow man and lived by the verse in Proverbs, “Rejoice not when your enemy falls and don’t let your heart be glad when he stumbles”. Rav Kook explains that only such a person-- who is completely unselfish, who is inspired by the purest of motives --could formulate the prayer against slanderers and heretics (that occurs in the daily Shmona Esray). Hostility towards our enemies evokes feelings of anger and hatred, unsuitable emotions in a prayer. Only Shmuel Hakatan somehow was able to remove enmity from his heart. Therefore, he had the unique ability to compose the special prayer to limit the damage caused by our enemies.
The zealot, too, must be a person with such an exceptional personality who has a love for God and whose behavior is not based on personal jealousy. The moment his personal prejudices are involved, he ceases to be a zealot. That God rewarded him suggests that Pinchas was the rarity whose motives were 100% pure.
Notes Rav Frand: “The ability to properly perform an act of zealotry is not something everyone can take upon themselves. The person must be at the highest spiritual level”. In my opinion, the story of Pinchas is the story of the exception--of that one unique individual --and cannot be cited as a basis for condoning anyone who kills “in the name of God”.