Pinchas (Numbers 25, 10 – 30, 1) – is zealotry the way of God in the Biblical conception?

At the end of the previous Torah reading of Balak, Pinchas, who is a priest, takes a spear and stabs to death an Israelite man and Midianite woman, without due process of law, and without a trial, for committing harlotry (Numbers 25, 6-8). Yet, Pinchas, at the beginning of the Torah reading of Pinchas, is especially singled out for reward by God for his zealotry – “Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very zealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy” (Numbers 25, 11).

 

Even though Pinchas is singled out in the Bible for reward by God, nevertheless the taking of the law into one’s own hands, as in the case of Pinchas, not only offends contemporary moral sensibilities – but, in the Jerusalem Talmud there is an opinion that, had Pinchas not been singled out for reward by God, he would have been excommunicated. Moreover, the story of Elijah the prophet, in the first Book of Kings (1 kings 18, 46 – 19, 21) of Elijah fleeing for his life, after the slaughter of the prophets of Ba’al, to mount Horev (Mount Sinai) where the word of God comes to him (1 Kings 19, 9-15) was chosen as the prophetic reading in the Synagogue for the Torah reading of Pinchas – and, I want to suggest that this is not by accident. The story of Elijah, especially the passage in which the word of God comes to him (1 Kings 19, 9-15), represents a harsh criticism of zealotry, even though Pinchas is singled out in the Torah reading of Pinchas for reward by God.

 

In my view, the Biblical story of Pinchas is teaching that there may indeed be specific cases, such as that of Pinchas and harlotry where it is perceived as necessary to take the law into one’s own hands – even though the particular case of committing harlotry may not be such a case according to our contemporary attitudes and values. Although the specific case of committing harlotry may not be a case which we in the modern world would justify the taking of the law into one’s own hands, nevertheless we can conceive of exceptional cases, according to our modern, moral sensibilities, where we would be inclined to justify the taking of the law into one’s own hands (such as regarding the killing without due process of a terrorist who presents an immediate danger). The choosing of the story of Elijah, especially the passage in which the word of God comes to him (1 Kings 19, 9-15), as the prophetic reading for the Torah reading of Pinchas serves to teach that, even though there may be specific cases, in extreme situations, where it may be necessary to take the law into one’s own hands (as taught in the story of Pinchas), nevertheless zealotry is not the way of God in general (as taught in the prophetic reading of the story of Elijah).

 

In my view, the main message of the story of Elijah, especially the passage in which the word of God comes to him (1 Kings 19, 9-15), is that the way of God is one of compassion and not one of zealotry. But, before the story of Elijah can be understood I want to explain the significance of the two main Biblical terms for God – Elohim and YHVH (the Hebrew letters constituting the unpronounceable name of God). In the Biblical conception, God is conceived not only as a God of power (who has created the universe), but most importantly as a moral God who demands morality. These two complementary aspects of one God (power and morality) are reflected in the two Biblical terms for God – Elohim and YHVH. Elohim is the source of power and associated with the creation of the universe, and YHVH is the source of morality associated with revelation and redemption. The term Elohim is not a name of God, and is usually translated in English as God; the term YHVH is the very name of God in the Bible, and is usually translated in English as the Lord – and, the name YHVH signifies that the very essence of God is that God demands morality. The term Elohim is associated with strict justice and truth, while the name YHVH is associated with compassion.

 

The image of Elohim is that of a king (who is powerful) and judge who sits in judgment. The Hebrew term judgment (דין), that is used in connection with Elohim, is sometimes understood as justice; but, the intention is strict justice, and the term is better translated as judgment or law – as it is a function of God’s power (implied in the terms judgment and law) rather than God’s morality (implied in the term justice). The image of Elohim, as Creator and Ruler of the world, is that of a king, or judge who issues judgments. A judge in issuing judgments establishes justice. But, justice is imposed by the judge as a function of his or her power and authority. One may disagree with a ruling of a judge, and consider it to be immoral. The verdict, though, must be accepted (in respecting the power and authority of the judge), unless there is an option of appeal to a higher judicial authority. In the case of God, no such option exists. Thus, the term judgment or strict justice (דין), as characteristic of Elohim (the source of power), should be understood in a legal rather than moral sense, as a function of God’s power and authority.

 

The image of YHVH is that of a parent whose compassion and love for his or her child is unconditional. A judge may be willing to be lenient and understanding in imposing a sentence in a trial. However, such leniency and compassion is conditional, depending upon circumstances of the case, and signs of remorse and change on the part of the accused. A parent’s love for his or her child is unconditional, regardless of the behavior of the child. Incidentally, the Hebrew word for compassion (רחמים) contains within it the word womb (רחם). The image then of YHVH is that of a parent who loves his or her children unconditionally like the mother’s love for the child of her own womb. YHVH (the source of morality and redemption), the parent, redeems God’s children, the people Israel, from slavery not because they are deserving of such redemption (as according to the Jewish tradition our ancestors, the children of Israel, were idolaters), but due to God’s unconditional love and compassion for God’s children in spite of their idolatry.

 

In the story of Elijah, at Mount Sinai the word of God comes to Elijah, as recorded in a truly remarkable passage (1 Kings 19, 9-15):

 

And he came there to a cave, and lodged there. And behold the word of the Lord came to him, and He said to him, What are you doing here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts, for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant [in worshipping Ba’al] thrown down Your altars, and slain Your prophets with the sword, and I only am left, and they seek my life to take it away. And He said go out and stand upon the mountain before the Lord. And behold the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold there came a voice to him, and said, what are you doing here Elijah? And he said, I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts, because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and slain Your prophets with the sword, and I alone am left, and they seek my life to take it away. And the Lord said to him, Go return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.

 

God’s question – “What are you doing here?” – is clearly a rhetorical question to Elijah. But, in order to properly understand the question, I need to point out that Sinai is the place of revelation in two important senses in the plain meaning of the Bible. First, Sinai is the place of the revelation to Moses and the people Israel of God’s will (Exodus 19 – 24) where the covenant between God and the people Israel was established (including the giving of the ten statements and commandments to the people Israel). Second, Sinai is the place that the 13 attributes of God were revealed to Moses – the place of the revelation to Moses of God’s way as primarily a compassionate and forgiving God in the continuation of the story of the golden calf.

 

After the making of the golden calf, Moses makes two requests of God – “make known to me Your way, that I may know You” (Exodus 33, 13), and “show me Your glory” (Exodus 33, 18). These are actually two separate requests. The glory of God relates to the internal nature of God; while the way of God relates to external actions of God from which we may only infer the internal nature of God. The first request of Moses to know the way of God is granted to him when God responds by saying “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you, and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and merciful to whom I will be merciful” (Exodus 33, 19); and, this is the way of the Lord that in the Biblical conception we are to imitate – “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you but…to walk in all His ways” (Deuteronomy 10, 12).

 

Two things are important regarding the request of Moses to know the way of God. First, God tells Moses that the name of God, YHVH, signifies mercy or compassion, and that God is a God of goodness and mercy. Second, God tells Moses that God “will proclaim the name of the Lord” to Moses, in the future tense. The name, YHVH, has already been revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3, 13-17) – “thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-18). YHVH, in the verse here in the story of the burning bush, is depicted as having seen the oppression and persecution that the people Israel have suffered in Egypt, and the mentioning that YHVH is the name of God in the verse signifies God’s moral opposition to such oppression and persecution as well as God’s compassion for the people Israel. The declaration that the name of God will be proclaimed (in the future tense) in the story of the golden calf (Exodus 33, 19) therefore must involve something more than the previous revelation of the name (at the burning bush). The future tense, in my view, indicates that at this point the full significance of the name of God has not yet been proclaimed to Moses. Moses has been told to this point only that in general the way of God is one of goodness and mercy.

 

The second request of Moses is to be shown the very essence of the nature (glory) of God, and this request is denied. Before revealing God’s way, God informs Moses that the essence of the nature of God is beyond human comprehension – “you cannot see My face, for no man shall see me, and live…you shall see My back but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33, 20 and 23). Rabbi Hertz in his commentary (Exodus 33, 23), in my opinion, correctly interprets this passage as meaning:

 

No living being (including Moses) can see God’s face; that is, penetrate His eternal essence. It is only from the rearward that we can know Him. Even as a ship sails through the waters of the ocean and leaves its wake behind, so God may be known by his Divine “footprints” in human history.

 

The essence or nature of God is not revealed even to Moses, according to Rabbi Hertz. Rabbi Hertz understands human history as the arena in which the way of God is manifested or revealed, a conception that is implied in the name of YHVH in the story of the burning bush. Thus, his interpretation fits the plain meaning of the passage here where God, in proclaiming the name YHVH, is revealed primarily as a God of history (as a God of revelation and redemption). In the continuation, God reveals the name of the Lord (YHVH) to Moses (Exodus 34, 5) in its full significance representing the way of God – and, according to the Jewish tradition this passage is referred to as the 13 attributes of God that were revealed to Moses. It should be added that Moses is standing upon Mount Sinai. The Bible records (Exodus 34, 5-7):

 

And the Lord descended in the cloud, and stood with him there (on Sinai), and proclaimed the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed. The Lord (YHVH), the Lord (YHVH), God (El), merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in love and truth, keeping love to thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin but who will by no means clear the guilty, punishing the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the children’s children, to the third and to the fourth generation.

 

In the passage here, both terms YHVH and Elohim and both aspects of compassion and judgment are reflected – God is revealed as a God of love and truth, as forgiving and punishing. But, love and compassion precede truth and punishment. God is revealed first and foremost as a God of compassion, repeating the term YHVH twice – “the Lord, the Lord (YHVH, YHVH)” – prior to the mentioning of the term God (El, a derivative of Elohim) only once. Four characteristics of compassion are mentioned – “merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in love”; while “truth” is the only characteristic of judgment that is mentioned. In addition, God’s love and forgiveness extend to “thousands” while God’s punishment extends only “to the third and to the fourth generation”. Thus, in walking in the ways of God, the balance for us between compassion and judgment is not to be one of equal balance (50\50) but tilted far more to the side of compassion (80\20).

 

If we return to the story of Elijah, God asks him “what are you doing here?” when he comes to Sinai because Sinai is the place where God proclaimed to Moses God’s name, YHVH, and revealed God’s way as primarily a compassionate and forgiving God. Elijah, though, does not understand that this is the reason that God asks him what he is doing at Sinai. Elijah misunderstands and thinks that the reason he has been asked what he is doing at Sinai is that Sinai is the place where the covenant between God and the people of Israel was established (as the Israelites have violated the covenant).

 

Elijah is not at all ashamed to describe himself as a zealot, and demands of God strict justice. Elijah is demanding that God duly punish the people Israel for violating its covenant with God, in committing idolatry by worshipping other gods, such as Ba’al. Elijah conceives of God primarily as a God of power and punishment as reflected in the military imagery of the term that he uses for God – “the Lord God of hosts (army)”. God then proceeds to clarify to Elijah that God is not a God of zealotry, anger and strict justice, but one of compassion and understanding. Whereas God reveals God’s way, as a God of compassion, to Moses verbally, God reveals God’s way to Elijah visually. God teaches Elijah that zealotry and anger bring destruction, like the forces of nature – wind, earthquakes and fire. God’s way is not primarily that of power and destruction, as the source of nature (Elohim) – “the Lord was not in the wind…the Lord was not in the earthquake…the Lord was not in the fire”. Rather, the Lord (YHVH) is to be found in “a still small voice”. God’s way is most importantly one of compassion, forgiveness and understanding that quietly teaches and influences through words without compelling by force. God again asks Elijah rhetorically – “What are you doing here?”. Elijah again repeats, unashamed, that he is a zealot, and demands of God strict justice, accusing the people Israel of violating the covenant of Sinai, for which they should be punished accordingly. Elijah insists upon his own way of zealotry.  God tells Elijah to go on his “way”, which can be understood, metaphorically, to mean that God, whose way is primarily one of compassion, understanding and tolerance – and who does not compel by force – allows Elijah to pursue his own way of zealotry and anger, even if mistaken.

 

I am suggesting then that this story of Elijah hearing the word of God on Sinai was chosen as the prophetic reading in the Synagogue for the Torah reading of Pinchas in order to teach that even though Pinchas is singled out in the Biblical account for reward for his zealotry – nevertheless, zealotry in the Biblical conception is not in general the way of God. The way of God in the Biblical conception as reflected in the story of Elijah hearing the word of God on Sinai is one of compassion and understanding.

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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