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  • Stephen HRM

Phineas: Being A Zealot According To The Bible

Being a Zealot according to the Bible

Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

There is good reason to believe that Pinchas was to be the successor of Moses. As Israel is about to enter the Holy Land, Pinchas, this man of great zeal and courage, bursts into the narrative and saves Israel by killing Zimri and Cozbi, who threatened the sanctity of the most Holy place in the Tabernacle.

But Moses does not appoint Pinchas to lead Israel, and instead, as we know, Joshua takes the place of Moses. The sages account for this with a midrash -

Three sages are debating what one line from the Torah entirely captures its essence. One Rabbi states it is the first line of the Shema - Hear O Israel the Lord is God, the Lord is one. The second Rabbi says no, it is "You shall love your neighbour as yourself". The third Rabbi says, no, it is, "The one lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight". A fourth rabbi, who had been listening to the three then stood up and proclaimed that the third Rabbi was correct.

It is an interesting choice given the prominence placed on the Shema and the Torah’s emphasis on inter-personal relationships. The midrash though drew a link between the appointing of Joshua in Chapter 27 and, immediately after in Chapter 28, the Lord outlining the sacrifice mentioned by the third Rabbi. It was this sacrifice, the eternal sacrifice, that provided an insight into the character of Joshua, someone willing to sacrifice eternally for God, and so, someone who was worthy of taking Israel into the Holy Land and succeeding Moses.

It would seem then that, while Pinchas was justified in killing Zimri and Cozbi by God, and rewarded for his actions with an eternal covenant of peace, they did not warrant him the leadership over Israel. It is not that Pinchas was explicitly disqualified, but that Joshua had qualities more suited, or perhaps better said, more preferred, by God.

It is an interesting proposition given that Pinchas's zeal for God is portrayed as a moral virtue, and one would be hard pressed to justify why zeal for God is not a moral characteristic to possess. However, positioning Pinchas zealotry within the broader spirit of the Torah has been the cause of much ethical struggle for many Rabbi’s and Sages.

Without going into their readings on this topic in great detail, the Sages and Rabbi’s were concerned that such outbursts, despite their good intention, risked immoral acts being committed in the name of God - religious fundamentalism throughout history has demonstrated just how dangerous unconstrained emotions can be in the service of God. As the Sages explained, had Pinchas been killed by either one, they could have rightfully claimed self-defence as Pinchas was the pursuer, if Pinchas had killed them a moment after their intimate act, he would have been guilty of murder, and if Pinchas had requested permission to kill them, he would have been rejected and a court of law would have been convened.

The Sages therefore were morally ambivalent to his actions, and by extension, to anyone who sought to take the law into his own hands. This is perhaps the foundation of what bothered the Sages - that Pinchas, in a burst of passion, took the mantle of God upon himself. While Pinchas was a hero and saved Israel, granting Israel the right to take the law into their own hands would run contrary to the Torah, and any such endorsement would have led Israel down a dangerous and chaotic path. When asked why Pinchas was not named as Moses's successor, Rabbi Mendel explained that a zealot cannot be a leader as a leader requires patience, forbearance and respect for due process, something Pinchas did not seem interested in granting.

Pinchas and Elijah are the only two people in the Bible to be described as "to be zealous". Elijah's zealousness is perhaps best put on display in his confrontation with the priests of Baal. When God brings down fire after the failure of Baal's priests to do so, Elijah has them rounded up and killed.

What makes this episode interesting is what happens after when Elijah took refuge in the cave. Whilst there, God asks Elijah, "Why are you here, Elijah", and Elijah answers, "I am moved by zeal for the Lord, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life." Upon answering this way, God tells Elijah to come out of the cave "and stand on the mountain before the Lord". The story continues, "And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind - an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake - fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire - a soft murmuring sound. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice addressed him: "Why are you here Elijah?". Elijah again answered as he had just done, "I am moved by zeal for the Lord, the God of Hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down your altars, and have put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life". The story then proceeds, Elijah is to anoint Hazael as king of Aram, Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel and Elisha to succeed him as prophet.

Elijah, full of zeal, was ultimately blinded by it and he did not hear God in the "soft murmuring sound". God sought to teach Elijah that one must not search for God exclusively in violent confrontation or awesome displays of power, that God also resides in the soft, small voice, as Rabbi Sacks described it. It is for this reason that God then commanded Elijah to appoint Elisha, his successor, just as God granted Pinchas His eternal covenant of peace, hence removing any future opportunity for Pinchas to play the part of the Zealot and teaching the two zealots that while there was a time and a place for violent confrontations and awesome displays of power, God preferred to meet his people in the soft, still wind.

One who is overcome by zeal is often led to engage in confrontations that lead to accusations, an all-too-common reality amongst believers. Both Pinchas and Elijah were quick to accuse their brothers and sisters, when instead of condemning them, they perhaps should have defended them before God. While their zeal was never punished, and they were both rewarded for it, nevertheless, God in both instances removed from their life opportunities for their zeal to manifest, perhaps as a gentle rebuke. In the world we find ourselves in, a hostile and angry world, it is appealing, and maybe even easier, to want to take down the prophets of Baal and slay the idolater, but such zealousness is tempered in the Bible - Elijah and Pinchas are heroes, but God curtailed their passions.

There is a lesson in the Kabbala that connects Pinchas to the daughters of Tzelafchad and provides further insight into the role of zeal in the service of God. According to Kabbala, every soul has a "portion of the land" that God has charged to sanctify. As is real and taught in Judaism, the material world is resistant and hostile to God, and so, the "conquest of the land", that is, conquest of the material world and our physical selves, is often a violent and confrontational affair - something associated with masculine characteristics. But the Talmud notes that not everyone is a warrior, and that this fact does not negate one’s responsibility to sanctify the land and that there is an equally important feminine way to sanctify the Holy Land. This is the essence of the story of the daughters of Tzelafchad, who in our portion, approached Moses on a matter of Torah to ensure that they would be entitled to an allotment of land given that their father had no sons when he died. Moses took their matter to God, and God granted the daughters their wish, and doing so, showing that that while the invasion of the land would be a violent affair, its sanctification required both the masculine and the feminine working in unity – both the ability to be zealous but also the ability to hear God in the soft wind.

Rabbi Sacks noted that, "Nothing in religious life is more risk-laden than zeal, and nothing more compelling than the truth God taught Elijah, that God is not to be found in the use of force but in the still, small voice that turns the sinner from sins. As for vengeance, that belongs to God alone".

Steve HRM


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