Zeal And Peace

How can we reconcile Pinchas' act of zealous violence and the covenant of peace he receives?

Commentary on Parashat Pinchas, Numbers 25:10 - 30:1

One of the more startling, and for many troubling, episodes of the Torah bridges last week’s reading of Parshat Balak with this week’s reading of Parashat Pinchas.

The stage is set at the end of Parashat Balak. The king of Midian, unable to destroy the Jews through sorcery, turns to debauchery to serve his nefarious ends. Young women of Midian are sent into the Israelite camp to seduce the Israelites in the name of the 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.

Numbers 25:6-10 picks up the story:

Biblical Text 1 (Numbers 25:6-10)

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 were checked. 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 Pinhas’ action, of Moses’s inaction, and of God’s reaction raises some disturbing questions. Among them:

1. Does the Torah condone zealousness? Is even murder permitted when performed in the service of one’s personal sense of God’s will? Are there no limits to what the Torah believes can be done in the name of God?

2. Does Moses’ silence and God’s “Covenant of Shalom” with Pinhas imply that zealousness and murder have no consequences? Is Pinhas the model for Jews through the ages to emulate?

These questions stem not only from the sensibilities of the late 20th-century liberal. In truth, the story of Pinhas has evoked ambivalent feelings among Jewish sages throughout the ages, as the following texts attest.

Rabbinic Text 1: Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 9:7

“The Elders of Israel sought to excommunicate Pinhas until the Holy Spirit hurried and said: “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.'”

[Rabbi Baruch Epstein, author of the Torah Temimah explains: “Such a deed must be animated by a genuine, unadulterated spirit of zeal to advance the glory of God. In the case, who can tell whether the perpetrator is not really motivated by some selfish motive, maintaining that he is doing it for the sake of God, when he has actually committed murder? That was why the Elders wished to excommunicate Pinchas, had not the Holy Spirit testified that his zeal for God was genuine.”]

The Rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud  (as explained by Rabbi Epstein) understand Pinchas’ act as singular, and acceptable only with the testimony of God. No matter what the provocation, zealousness such as Pinchas’ requires immediate excommunication; an individual prone to such action cannot be abided in the community. God’s intervention on his behalf is understood as both promoting Pinchas as a uniquely righteous individual (can there be another who meets the commentary’s standard for selflessness?) and as denying permission for others to follow in his footsteps in an era when God no longer speaks.

Rabbinic Text 2: Midrash Shemos Rabbah 33:5

Pinchas expounded, ‘A horse who goes to war risks his life for his master. How much more so should I risk my life for the sanctification of the name of the Holy One Blessed Be He!’ He began to ponder: ‘What shall I do? Alone I cannot prevail. Two can overpower one; can one overpower two?” While he was pondering, the epidemic raged among the Israelites.’

Like the first text, the Midrash Shemot Rabbah also assumes Pinchas’ righteousness. To do so, it denies zeal for God as a motive for his actions and sees only that he needed to act in order to end God’s plague. Only God may act zealously on his own behalf. Pinchas’ action was to save Israelite lives by appeasing God’s wrath, and in that regard he is criticized for acting too slowly.

Rabbinic Text 3: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Zevachim 101b

Pinchas did not become a priest until he had made peace among the Tribes [i.e. between the Tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menasheh, and the rest of Israel.

The Babylonian Talmud is less certain of Pinchas then are texts 1 and 2. Were his actions warranted? Perhaps. But their results are those of “Ei-Shalom” (lack of Shalom) and their reward claimable only after Pinchas has compensated for the loss of Shalom that they wrought.

The theme set by the Babylonian Talmud, that there is a price to be paid for acts of zealousness and that Shalom is the higher goal, is reflected by medieval and modern sources. As the following texts indicate, inner harmony and communal peace are perceived as both the ultimate objective and the highest blessing:

Rabbinic Text 4: Commentary Of The Netziv (Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin)

In reward for turning away the wrath of the Holy One Blessed Be He, God blessed Pinhas with the attribute of Shalom, that he should not be quick tempered or angry. Since, as 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 inner peace and tranquility.

The Netziv focuses on the self-destructive nature of zealous violence. It as if the Netziv is warning that such acts can only lead one away from the path of Godliness, i.e. the path of Shalom. Perhaps informed by the Midrash Shemos Rabbah, the Netziv assumes that Pinchas may be justified only through an understanding that he acted to protect the Israelites (from God’s wrath). An act of zealous violence on behalf of God would not be justifiable.

Rabbinic Text 5: Rav By Nathan (as quoted in “Iturei Torah”)

After the great zealousness that he acted upon for God, God gives him as a gift the Covenant of Shalom. It is as if the Torah is hinting that the path of Shalom is always preferable to, and more successful than, the path of zealousness and war.


[Note: All of the texts referred to above are available in English translation and accessible to the casual student. Two compendiums which are especially helpful in finding primary sources for a Torah study such as this are Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzberg and The Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities by Yishai Chasidah.]

Reprinted with permission from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.


Discover More

Gittin 38

Perpetual service.

Sotah 35

The spies' good intentions.

Sotah 48

The good old days.