Parashat Pinchas (Num. 25:10-30:1)
by Dr. Jeffrey Seif
During my nearly thirty years as a Bible College and seminary professor I got asked a lot of questions. When a young ministry candidate in a Pentateuch class once asked me how he could launch his ministry, my answer was very simple and very direct. “Find a couple who are fornicating in a hotel room,” I said. “Grab a spear . . .” “Kick down the door . . .” “Barge into their room . . .” “And while they were getting to know each other, if you get my drift, take the spear and drive it through both of them!” To my utter surprise, the student said he was shocked by my answer and retorted it wasn’t quite the answer he’d expected. By way of response, I asked rhetorically: “Well it worked for Pinchas, didn’t it?”
Let me get to the point—literally. Those who work through this week’s Torah reading in Parashat Pinchas (Nu. 25:10–31:1), bump into the second half of this two-part story, wherein, in response to Pinchas doing exactly what I described (cf. 25:1–9, esp. vv. 7–8), the Lord says: “I am making with him [Pinchas] a covenant of shalom! It will be for him and his descendants after him a covenant of an everlasting priesthood—because he was zealous for his God” (Nu. 25:12-13). His ministry was launched on the heels of his action, was it not? Last week’s Torah reading ended with Pinchas making a point, literally: “When Pinchas son of Eleazar son of Aaron the kohen saw it,” the “it” being the fornicating between an Israelite man and a Moabite woman (Nu. 25:6; cf. vv. 16-18), “he arose from the midst of the assembly, took a spear in his hand, and went after the man of Israel into the tent and pierced them through—both the Israelite man and the woman’s belly” (Nu. 25:7-8). Do you get the point? The Hebrew man, Zimri, and the Midianite woman, Cozbi, certainly did—literally. But what’s my point in all this—besides my wanting to start off with a catchy introduction, in the hope you’d abide my musings? Let’s consult some of the sages through the ages, first. I’ll weigh in afterward.
H. Hertz, former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, said: “The Rabbis have a saying: ‘Pinchas is Elijah’ . . . a counterpart of the prophet of storm and fire.” He certainly was that, passionate as he was. Through the “covenant of peace” noted in v. 12, Rashi alights upon God’s friendly attitude toward him thereafter. This notation, in part, was said to have been articulated to stave off any thought of retaliation from Zimri’s clan—powerful as they were and minded to seek revenge, as some of them, no doubt, would be. On this point, the Complete Jewish Study Bible—a valuable resource for all of our libraries, I might add—is insightful, noting Pinchas’ summary execution could have sparked a civil war between the two prestigious families (p. 209, n. 25:14-15). The Masoretic text picks up on the oddity of the text and breaks up the third letter in “shalom” (from “Covenant of peace/shalom”); there, the broken letter indicates peace had been “reached by means of violence, which is not the ideal” (p. 209, n. 25:12). Save for a brief interruption in Eli’s days, the High Priesthood stayed in Pinchas’s family, till the Temple’s destruction, and with it the remembrance of the aforementioned moment. Hertz reminds that Pinchas is even remembered later in a psalm: “Pinchas stood up and intervened so the plague was stopped. It was credited to him as righteousness, from generation to generation, forever” (Ps. 106:30). Good insights, from all.
That Pinchas and his progeny are granted a perpetual High Priesthood says something to me. His enthusiasm, reckless though it may seem to be, is held to be worthy of merit and worthy of remembering. I began this brief journey with a story. How can I launch a ministry? was the student’s question. Odd though the professor’s response may be, know that I think all successful life-launches come on the heels of great enthusiasms that reside within the hearts and minds of life’s primary advocates. Coming to terms with those interior passions, and with our own selves in relation to them, is a great starting point to build a successful life. The word “vocation”—as in “my vocation is a rabbi, reverend, housewife, plumber or policeman”—comes from the Latin “vocatio,” or “voice.” The point is: people hear something within them personally beckoning them toward a particular life-task. Because the calling is intrinsic to them, i.e., interwoven into the fabric of their being, it is lived out with more resolve, with more enthusiasm. In the case at hand, Pinchas had a particular zeal for God’s wills and ways, one that was adjudged to be particularly meritorious. Pinchas made a point.
Rabbis and reverends are forever called upon to be what constituents want them to be. Hard as it is to find a friend and a dollar, we often succumb to the temptation, given that our livelihoods are predicated upon garnering others’ appreciation. Under the guise of “being all things to all men—and women” we bend to the wills of others to be what they want, hoping to get what we want out of the deal. While granting the need to make concessions, I’d here remind that success in life—and not just ministry life—is predicated upon us acting in accordance with our own passions; not others’. The Rabbi from Tarsus once said: “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19). May we be able to say the same, and have our lives undergirded with the same enthusiasm and thus the staying power of Pinchas and Paul. Get the point?