“Pinchas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the Priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion [zealousness] for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion [zealousness, jealously]. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My covenant of peace.'”
This section of the Torah is difficult. Pinchas commits a brutal murder and is rewarded by God. Pinchas is made a Priest and is granted a covenant of peace. In this situation, what does a covenant of peace imply?
Rabbi Steinsaltz asks,
The nature of the priesthood, then, is characterized by contradiction. On the one hand, there is zealous passion, bloodshed, and war; and on the other hand, there is something very different — a character that is entirely one of blessing. What, then, is the true character of the Priest?
In other words, how do we understand this joining of bloodshed and peace in Pinchas? Rabbi Steinsaltz explains that Pinchas’ act of murder was motivated by a zealous love of God.
His zealousness stems from the attribute of love, not from the attribute of stern judgment, and this explains the dual identity of the Priests.
Pinchas’ actions come from total commitment to his love for God. I find this idea incredibly disturbing. Love of God, in this case, is totalitarian, allowing for brutal violence in the name of exclusivity.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence) writes,
Never say, I hate, I kill, because my religion says so. Every text needs interpretation. Every interpretation needs wisdom. Every wisdom needs careful negotiation between the timeless and time.
He goes on to explain that in Judaism there was a historical transformation from earlier militant texts to a view of violence as necessary for self-defense but not “a positive value.” During this transformation, the interpretation of texts shifted, sometimes reversing the apparent meaning of the texts.
Here is one delightful example. The book of Numbers contains a cryptic verse: ‘Therefore the Book of the Wars of the Lord speaks of Waheb in Suphah.’ By a verbal play, the sages read the last phrase as ‘love in the end’ (ahavah ba-sof) and explained it thus:
Even father and son, or master and disciple, who study Torah at the same gate [=academy], become enemies of each other, yet they do not stir from there until they come to love each other, as it is written Waheb in Suphah, which is read as ‘love in the end.’
Rabbi Sacks summarizes:
The sacred literatures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain passages that, read literally, are capable of leading to violence and hate. We may and must reinterpret them. … Hard texts are a challenge to the religious imagination and to our capacity to engage in covenantal listening to God’s word as we seek to build a future that will honour the sacred legacy of the past.
The word, given in love, invites its interpretation in love.
In light of Rabbi Sacks perspective, what might Rabbi Steinsaltz be trying to say? How might Pinchas’ murder of Zimri and Kozbi be reinterpreted? Should we reinterpret it or clearly reject it?
photo: Part of a Torah Scroll in Kazerne Dossin , Mechelen , Belgium , August 18, 2016.
Image by Michel van der Burg – michelvanderburg.com https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thorarol.png