A Frightful Example
Pinchas פִּנְחָס ("Dark-Skinned") Numbers 25:10-30:1
The parasha for this Shabbat is entitled Pinchas, covers Numbers 25-29, and is named after a man some might suggest "took the law into his own hands". In the previous chapters, on which David did an outstanding job last Shabbat teaching, we found the king of Moab attempting to hire Balaam to curse Israel– something God was not prepared to allow, since He had already blessed Israel. In fact, over four hundred years earlier, in a covenant made with Abraham God promised to bless those who bless our people and to curse those who curse us. You might say Balak and Balaam formed a "non-prophet" venture doomed to failure. But Balaam had another idea. We find out later in the Scripturesthat he had suggested to Balak that the people of Israel would bring God's curse on themselves if they could somehow be enticed to worship other gods – an act of disloyalty and betrayal. So here in Numbers 25 we read that some beautiful Moabite women were sent to allure the Israeli men to join them in a local sacrifice to the Ba'al at Peor. Canaanite religious ceremonies were highly sexual in nature, and many of our men joined them in the ritual, infuriating the God who had so recently delivered us from four centuries of Egyptian bondage. God commanded Moses to slay the leaders of the rebellion, and sent a plague among the people. 24,000 men in all died that day. It was a lamentable, grievous day in Israel. Yet, as though it meant nothing, one brazen, hard-hearted, shameless Israeli man brought a Midianite woman into his tent right in front of the whole assembly who had gathered at the Tent of Meeting to mourn. That was the last straw! Aaron's grandson, Pinchas (Phineas) picked up a spear, went into that tent and pierced them both through (presumably while they were engaged in the illicit activity). By our laws today, Pinchas would have been imprisoned for murder, having killed the two people, despite their moral filth. What was God's response? He praised Pinchas for having been as zealous for God's honor as was God Himself. Pinchas turned away God's wrath and saved our people. In return, God established a perpetual priesthood for Pinchas' family line. In fact, he is remembered forever with honor in Psalm 106:28-31. Chapter 26 tells of the taking of a second census of Israel, and the number is almost the same: 601,730 men of eligible fighting age. In chapter 27, the daughters of Zelophehad press their case for land allotment, since no sons were born to their father; God answers that their case is just – setting a precedent that in the absence of sons, daughters receive inheritance, and in the absence of no children, brothers receive inheritance. At that time God commands Moses to publicly commission Joshua as his successor, and Moses complies. Chapters 28 and 29 include a reiteration and exhortation to observe the festivals, and there is special emphasis placed on the Feast of Tabernacles. But let me conclude with a few thoughts about the tragedy at Peor, and Pinchas' actions.
- The moral failure of Israelin this incident is yet another in a series of our failures as recorded in BaMidbar – the Book of Numbers. You have to appreciate the honesty of the Scriptures. We may come off looking very bad at times, but this is the stuff that separates history from mythology, and I for one am grateful even for the bad examples God saw fit to include for our warning and instruction. But by all means, let us learn from this painful chapter in our history never to betray God or Messiah Yeshua, no matter how enticing the temptation. No compromise with the world.
- Pinchas' zeal was with knowledge. Yet zeal without knowledge is an all too familiar phenomenon among religious people. When tempted to become angry, we need to ask ourselves this question: Exactly whose honor we are defending: God's or our own? On the one hand we have Paul attesting that the Orthodox Jews of his day had "zeal, but not according to knowledge" (Romans 10:2) and at times that zeal resulted in violent outbursts, such as in the stoning to death of Stephen. But on the other hand, in Luke 9:51-56 we have James and John wanting to call fire down from Heaven to destroy Samariabecause the Samaritans wouldn't make accommodations for their Rabbi. Yeshua rebuked His disciples for this vengeful attitude. I don't doubt for a moment that there are those among the ultra-orthodox who view Pinchas as the justification for their violence against Messianic Jews. Yes, Pinchas was a hero among our people, but this particular story needs to be told with caution, lest sinful men use it to justify unwarranted actions of violence against those with whom they have a disagreement. Good intentions do not justify bad actions.
Note: Each Torah portion is named from the first word or first few words of the portion of scripture. This portion is called Pinchas פִּנְחָס. Other transliterations: Phinehas or Phineas