At the end of last week’s parasha, God calls to Moses and tells him just how disappointed God is in the Children of Israel. God is jealous and angry for they have turned away and begun worshipping other gods, sleeping with Midianite women – possibly cultic prostitutes – and God has had enough. God demands that those who are responsible be impaled and then causes a plague to infect all those who were led astray. Just as Moses is explaining what is happening to the people, another tragedy occurs. The Torah tells us that Moses is speaking and all around him people are weeping and crying in torment over the loss of their loved ones in the plague and the punishment that God seems intent on inflicting on them. Their lament is ascending to the heavens but God remains impervious to the pleas. In the midst of this scene walks Zimri, an Israelite, who has on his arm, Cozbi, a Midianite priestess. He parades in front of the weeping masses and heads to his tent for an afternoon of pleasure with her, a flagrant disobedience of the law Moses is trying to enforce. This is all too much for Pinchas, one of Aaron’s grandsons, and a priest, so he takes his spear and impales the two of them upon it, spearing them through the genitals as they lay together. At that moment the plague against the Israelites stops and 24,000 people have died.
This week’s parasha begins with the fate of Pinchas, the zealot who carried out an act of violence in God’s name. We read: “God spoke to Moses saying: Pinchas…has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his zeal for Me so that I did not wipe out the people of Israeli in My zeal…therefore I grant him my covenant of peace. It shall be for him and his descendants after him, a pact of priesthood for all time because he took zealous action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.” Numbers 24:10–13
This is not the response we would have imagined. It appears that God has given the stamp of approval for Pinchas’ actions: the plague stopped, he receives the priesthood and a covenant of peace for all time. That someone should receive a reward for taking the law into his own hands, for killing in his zeal in the name of God is troubling and greatly disturbing. But Rabbi Arthur Waskow offers a different explanation and interpretation. He suggests that God was behaving much like Pinchas. God brought a plague upon the people because God was jealous and zealous. It was an extreme reaction of righteous anger, immediate and disproportionate to the cause. However it was not until Pinchas strode into the tent of Zimri and imitated his God, that God saw the error of God’s ways.
Rabbi Waskow writes: “In a blind rage, consumed with jealousy and zealotry, I began killing My people with the plague. Then Pinchas imitated Me; he turned his hand to zealous killing. His zealous act opened My eyes, I saw him as a mirror of Myself. He shocked me into shame at what I was doing. That is why I stopped the plague, that is why I made my covenant of peace. I said to him, if you stop, I’ll stop. Both of us must be bound by this covenant of peace.”
In this reading, the story takes on an entirely different message. It says: zealous killing in the name of God is never ok, not by humans, not by God. And that is why God gives Pinchas the covenant of peace. They made a deal; neither would destroy nor bring about death again for impure motives. It was only once Pinchas agreed to work for peace, goodness and life that he merited the priesthood. Leaders must be calm and rational, interpreting laws with kindness and justice, compassion and peace. Pinchas did not do that in last week’s portion, but he, like God, repented and together they looked to a different future with the potential for calm and peace. May that be our future too.