Parashat Pinchas: The Wife of Moses, the Mother of Pinchas and other Midianites

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, David Katzenelson explains what the silence of the Biblical Zipporah can teach us about refusing to allow ourselves to be ignored.

Creative Common/Martin Beek
Creative Common/Martin Beek

Parashat Pinchas takes its name from Pinchas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron. The story of Pinchas covers all of chapter 25 in Numbers. To understand this story we must also read the end of the previous parasha.

While the Israelites keep camp in Shittim, they are attracted to Moabite women and join the worship of Moabite gods, a worship that includes sex. Especially popular is the worship of Ba’al Pe’or, a Midianite god. G-d is angry and a plague spreads among the Israelites.

One of the Israelites, Zimri, a chieftain from the tribe of Simeon, finds a Midianite woman, Cozbi daughter of Zur, and has sex with her “in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who are weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” (Numbers 25:6) Pinchas gets up, leaves the assembly and stabs Zimri and Cozbi to death with a spear. The plague ends.

G-d speaks to Moses in praise of Pinchas. Pinchas and his offspring are rewarded with priesthood and G-d’s “Pact of Peace.” G-d commands Moses to make the Midianites his enemies, and defeat them in war, as they have tricked the Israelites into idol worship and sex. Pinchas is one of the military leaders of this war, while Eleazar and Moses stay behind.

So what do we have here? There is praise and a “Peace Pact” given to a fanatic murderer who took the law into his own hands. There is cruel stigmatizing of an entire nation for the sexual transgressions of one woman, and a call for war and probably genocide against that same nation. It is possible to read this text to claim that sexual relationships are forbidden with women of a specific ethnic group. It is quite enough to make my rabbi wrinkle her nose and declare “It’s all very problematic.” And she is right.

Exodus 6:25 tells us that Pinchas’ mother is “one of the daughters of Putiel.” Rabbinical literature claims that Putiel is none other than Jethro, father in law of Moses and priest of Midian. So fanatical Pinchas, with his willingness to kill a Midianite woman, has a Midianite mother!

Is Pinchas a religious zealot or a tormented soul acting out an old rage against his own mother? If the latter is true, it may explain why G-d gives him a “Pact of Peace.” Such a tormented soul truly needs peace. He would be a danger to his surroundings otherwise. But such a person should be prevented from killing more Midianites, not sent to war against them.

And what about Moses? G-d orders him to defeat the Midianites and he obeys. Not a question or word of protest. No discussion. Can he really accept the thought that an Israelite should not have sex with a Midianite due to their idol worship, while staying married to Zipporah, the daughter of the Priest of Midian?

Zipporah and her nameless sister, Pinchas’ mother, must have been present while this story was playing out. The two daughters of the Priest of Midian, both of them married to powerful Israelite men, watched as a woman from their own nation was murdered. They watched their husbands accept this murder as a deed pleasing to G-d. They did not protest.

I can only imagine the pain and fear they must have felt. They were after all, “only women,” “only foreigners” and understood that speaking up would risk their husbands’ careers. It was safer to be quiet, stay out of trouble.

The text completely ignores them and any fears or misgivings they may have had.

It is possible to make an analogy to Queen Esther. Just like Zipporah and her nameless sister, Esther is a woman and a foreigner married to a very powerful man. She is forced to watch as her husband is drawn into a plot designed to destroy her own people. Denied of any political power, Esther uses her cunning to influence her husband and save her people. It seems that Zipporah and her sister remain quiet.

It is very tempting to denounce these two women as passive cowards. But does our honesty allow this? How much support would two Midianite women be able to gather? Would we have acted any differently in a similar situation? We have yet not managed to stop the harassment of GLBT people or Jews in the world.

In the telling of these events, the Torah ignores Zipporah and her sister. They are neither praised nor condemned. This can be read as a punishment in itself. But it can also be understood in a different way. The text refuses to judge them, refuses to force them into being anything other than who they are. And the text protects their right to go under cover and protect their private lives.

Do we want to be ignored?

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