THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Pinchas – פרשת פינחס
July 27, 2019 – כד תמוז תשעט
Discomfort with Phinehas’ Zealotry
Phinehas lethally impaled the Simeonite chieftain Zimri and the Midianite princess Cozbi as those two engaged in illicit copulation. Phinehas’ vigilantism assuaged God’s wrath, which had been kindled against the iniquitous Israelites; the nation was spared and a devastating plague came to an abrupt end after having claimed 24,000 lives. God rewarded Phinehas for his zealotry with both a covenant of peace and one of perpetual priesthood (Numbers 25:7-15).
For readers of Scripture, Phinehas’ zealotry presents a conundrum. The Book of Deuteronomy sets down strict rules concerning the administration of justice, especially regarding capital cases. The collection of testimony, rendering of a formal verdict by authorized judges, and the implementation of the death penalty are all regulated by the Mosaic Code. Phinehas’ extrajudicial killing lacked any element of official justice. Had Scripture not recorded God’s post factum approval, one might have thought that though Phinehas was motivated by admirably righteous zeal his passions led to him to commit an unlawful double homicide. But since Scripture does record God’s exceedingly favorable reaction to Phinehas’ bloody deed, seemingly, thereby, to legitimate rash vigilantism, there emerges the intellectual difficulty of reconciling the permissiveness of Numbers 25 with the strictures of Deuteronomy 17 and 25.
In the Second Temple era, Phinehas was remembered as a heroic figure. Ben Sira considered Phinehas to be the third most glorious personage in Israelite history (after only Moses and Aaron), “because he had zeal in fear of the Lord and stood up with good courage of heart (Ecclesiasticus 45:23).” Mattathias, who killed the Jew who worshipped at the pagan altar in Modi’in, was praised for showing “his zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did with Zimri (I Maccabees 2:26).” On his deathbed, Mattathias urged his five sons to remain steadfast to their ancestral religious tradition, just as had Phinehas “our father in being zealous and fervent (2:54).” Hannah, the mother of seven martyred sons, reminded her sons how their father had taught them about the great heroes of the Israelitish past. “He told you of the zeal of Phinehas, and he taught you about Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael in the fire (IV Maccabees 18:12).”
Philo of Alexandria wrote at length about Phinehas in several of his treatises. He praised Phinehas’ noble daring and spontaneous zeal and credited Phinehas with steering a vast multitude of Israelites away from the egregious cultic and sexual sins they were about to commit (Special Laws 1:10:56). Philo explained the deaths of the 24,000 Israelites as having occurred not through plague. Rather, many righteous Israelites learned from Phinehas’ example and took it upon themselves to slay the transgressors. Philo adds to the Scriptural account by noting that Moses had wanted to reward Phinehas for his valiant deed, but that God pre-empted him with His covenants of peace and priesthood (Life of Moses 1:55:301-304). Philo considered Phinehas to be greater than Joseph. Whereas Joseph merely withdrew from sin by fleeing from the wife of Potiphar, Phinehas actively defeated evil -- represented by Cozbi -- “so that no plant or seed of wickedness might ever be able to shoot out from it (Allegorical Interpretations 3:86:242).” [Some scholars suggest that Philo read the Phinehas story with such a benevolent hermeneutic because the Jews of Egypt, who lacked capital jurisdiction over their diaspora community, would resort to extrajudicial lynching when it was thought to be necessary.]
According to Pseudo-Philo’s embellished version of the Biblical tale, the Israelites were so furious with Phinehas for having killed Zimri that they wanted to kill him. God intervened by sending an angel to save Phinehas and to smite the 24,000 Israelites who would have done him harm. Phinehas was rewarded for his heroism with inordinate longevity (Biblical Antiquities of Philo 47:1).
For Josephus, Phinehas’ zealotry was a sensitive subject to be addressed carefully. On the one hand, Josephus was very much like Phinehas in that he was (a) a proud Aaronid of the highest-ranking priestly watch (Life of Josephus 1), (b) an illustrious general, and (c) staunchly opposed to intermarriage [all four of his wives were Jewish.] On the other hand, Josephus opposed lawlessness. He wanted, through his writings, to convince his Roman patrons and gentile readers that the Zealots of the late Second Temple period – whom he blamed for the war with Rome and the loss of the Temple – were a marginal phenomenon in Judean life and without Judaic legitimacy. With these aims in mind, Josephus wrote at length about Zimri, making him the Biblical archetype for then-contemporary Jews who were dismissive of the Mosaic Code, especially where the Law interfered with their sensuous enjoyment of the world. Josephus regarded Phinehas as “bold” but never called him “zealous” or a “Zealot.” Tellingly, Josephus omits from his account any mention of God’s having enunciated in favor of Phinehas His covenants of peace and priesthood (Antiquities 4:6:11-12).
The rabbis saw in the story of Phinehas’ zealotry a reminder of the rough and tumble late Second Temple era when Judea was ruled by the Hasmoneans, Herodians, and Romans. In the Aggadic retelling of the story, before Phinehas approached Zimri’s tent he removed the sharp metal point of his javelin and hid it in his clothes so that the Simeonite guards would think that his long wooden shaft was merely a harmless walking stick. Then, in the hope of gaining entrance to the tent, Phinehas muttered a comment to the guards that was seemingly supportive of Zimri’s licentiousness. The guards were convinced that Phinehas, too, wished to participate in the debauchery. In granting him access, the guards said “even the Pharisees have permitted this” (Sifre Numbers 131, Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 28d). The extra-biblical detail about a lethal spearhead concealed in an assassin’s clothing is a thinly veiled reference to the first-century CE Sicarii, a splinter group of the Zealots, who “mingled themselves among the multitude, and concealed daggers under their garments, with which they stabbed their enemies (Wars of the Jews 2:13:3, Antiquities 20:8:10).” The anachronistic reference to the Pharisees is an even more explicit linking of the Phinehas narrative to the violent sectarian divisiveness of the late Second Temple period.
The Mishnah teaches that if a Jewish man fornicates with a heathen woman the zealots attack him with lethal force (Mishnah 9:6). Use here of the jussive mood makes it unclear whether the Mishnah intended to issue a ruling about what ought to happen or whether the Mishnah merely describes an unpreventable social reality. The context of the statement, though, is a strong indicator that the Mishnah preserved a pre-rabbinic idea emanating from the wild and lawless final century of the Second Temple era. That very same Mishnah teaches that someone who steals a Temple vessel is felled by the Zealots and that a priest who serves in the Tempe while in a state of impurity, rather than having his sin adjudicated by a court, is bludgeoned to death just outside the Temple Courtyard by young priests wielding logs. The Babylonian Talmud, citing Rav Dimi (who had arrived from the Land of Israel), concedes that the overly harsh treatment of inter-religious fornicators had its origins in the Court of the Hasmoneans (Sanhedrin 82b).
In a variety of ways, some more explicit and some less so, the sages expressed their discomfort with Phinehas’ zealotry and recast the narrative so that it could not serve as an example for future behavior. After asserting that “zealots attack” is a Halakhah L’Moshe M’Sinai, the Talmud also states that the applicable lewd behavior must occur in a public setting and be consistent with the narrative details of the Phinehas-Zimri incident – requirements creating a highly unlikely scenario (Avoda Zara 36b).
Rabbi Yochanan said that if a would-be zealot inquired from the halakhic authorities whether it is permissible for him to commit an extra-judicial killing in a given instance of inter-religious intimacy, the authorities must tell him that he is forbidden to act. In other words, only post factum legitimacy is conferred upon truly spontaneous acts of zealotry; that legitimacy is never obtained from officialdom ab initio. Moreover, added Rabbi Yochanan, had Zimri removed himself from Cozbi just prior to his being assaulted, Phinehas would have been guilty of murder. Also, had Zimri attempted to defend himself, and in the process killed Phinehas, he would not have been guilty of murder because he would have been merely warding off a pursuer.
Rav was asked how Zimri might have been punished by God had Phinehas not killed him. Rav answered with a homiletic reading of Malachi 2:11-12 and asserted not that God would have put the fornicator to death but, infinitely more mildly, that the sinner would have had no disciples in Torah or sons serving in the Temple (Sanhedrin 82b).
The Midrash says that twelve miracles were performed on Phinehas’ behalf, the majority of which related to the physical position of the bodies of the victims and to the purpose of incontrovertibly proving their guilt and Phinehas’ innocence (Sifre Numbers 131). Implied here -- especially given the rabbinic dictum that one must not rely upon miracles -- is that a would-be zealot ought to seriously consider the possibility that he himself will be regarded as a criminal if he allows his zealotry full rein. That consideration could well deter a hotheaded zealot from shedding blood.
The most unambiguous expression of rabbinic opposition to Phinehas’ zealotry is a Baraita that reads: “Phineas acted contrary to the will of the sages. Rabbi Judah ben Pazi said: ‘The sages would have excommunicated Phinehas had not the Heavenly Spirit swiftly proclaimed that Phinehas and his offspring are granted a covenant of perpetual priesthood (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 27b).’” The Talmudic era sages retrojected their discomfort with Phinehas’ zealotry onto phantom “sages” of the Biblical period, yet were constrained in their ability to besmirch the historical memory of Phinehas because the Biblical account ends the way that it does. The contrast between the views and respective narrative embellishments of Philo and Rabbi Judah ben Pazi is stark. Philo, who was untroubled by the slaying of Zimri, has the human authorities trying to reward Phinehas only to be pre-empted by God; Rabbi Judah ben Pazi, discomfited by the killing, has the earthly authorities overridden by God.
Rabbinic objection to Phinehas’ zealotry likely stemmed (at least in part) from its gory brutality. Beyond that, the sages were troubled by the idea of an unguided layman taking the law into his own hands. Samuel (Amora) claimed that Phinehas acted precipitously and without consulting the authorities because when the honor of Heaven is at stake and there is need for prompt action, one ought not to delay merely so as to show respect to earthly dignitaries. Rabbi Isaac said that Phinehas consulted nobody because he saw the destructive angel already laying waste to Israel. In contrast, Rav claimed that Phinehas did consult Moses and reminded him of the Zealot’s Law, to which Moses responded that Phinehas himself should carry out the deed (Sanhedrin 82b). The Midrash (Tanhuma Balak 30) and Targum (Pseudo-Jonathan Numbers 25:7), in a clear departure from the plain meaning of Scripture, claim that Phinehas deliberated at length with members of the Sanhedrin and that only when others shamefully refused to act did Phinehas personally carry out the carefully considered judgment. [While the Pentateuch offers no hint that Phinehas’ action was anything other than spontaneous vigilantism motivated by raw emotion, the notion that he acted in an official capacity might be supported by the verse ויעמד פינחס ויפלל “Phinehas stepped forth and intervened (Psalms 106:30). For the Hebrew root פלל meaning a judicial ruling see Exodus 21:22.]
Despite rabbinic squeamishness about the slaying of Zimri and Cozbi, Phinehas’ legacy in the minds of the later rabbinic writers is quite positive. Phinehas is identified with Elijah the Prophet (Pseudo-Jonathan Exodus 6:18) who lives forever (Baba Bathra 121b). The Midrash (Tanhuma Pinchas 1) finds a hint for Phinehas/Elijah’s immortality in the verse “I had with him a covenant of life and wellbeing (Malachi 2:5).”
The post-Talmudic codifiers had to decide whether to include the Zealot’s Law in their halakhic codices. Maimonides ruled that if someone is caught fornicating with a heathen woman in the presence of ten or more Israelites and a zealot kills the sinner, the zealot is considered praiseworthy (Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 12:4). Interestingly, Maimonides only rules on the attitude that the community (or “the law” as an abstraction) should have toward the zealot; no real guidance is offered about what should be done to the sinner or how the fuming zealot ab initioshould behave. Raabad, the glossator, added that the killer is considered praiseworthy only if, before striking the fatal blow, he warned the fornicator to desist.
Rabbi Joseph Karo omitted the Zealot’s Law from the Shulhan Arukh. Rabbi Moses Isserles, however, did include it in his glosses. In Isserles’ formulation, the Zealot is permitted to kill, but only while the sin is actively happening and after the issuance of a warning and the passage of sufficient time for the sinner to heed the warning (Choshen Mishpat 425:4).
While the rabbinic attitude toward the Zealot’s Law as it emerges from the Phinehas-Zimri narrative might seem, to some students, to be sui generis, I tend to agree with Eliezer Segal, who sees in the above rabbinic sources an attitude that is consistent with how the rabbis handled the subjects of Lex Talionis, the idolatrous city, the rebellious son, and the institution of capital punishment generally. Troubling laws can be interpreted in ways that make them nearly inapplicable. The uniquely difficult aspect of the Phinehas story is God’s seal of approval for his action. No amount of mental or exegetical gymnastics can overcome that explicit statement in the Torah.
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