Exposing Narrative Fissures
As a guest columnist for the New York Times this past Friday, Judith Warner shared that her nine–year–old daughter “was terrified of narrative tension — cliffhanger pauses, unanswered questions, any sense of foreboding or even strong anticipation.” To cope with the anxiety of swinging plots, they developed a set of rules: “1. If something bad happens, things will get better; 2. If there are challenges, the hero will rise above them; 3. Harry Potter will never die.” The fallibility of number three is too overwhelming to contemplate, but this week, to cope with Parashat Pinehas, I relied heavily on one and two.
The cycle of the Torah readings was designed to prevent narrative flux. This week is an extreme exception. Our protagonist for this week rages onto the scene in the last chapter of Parashat Balak, seemingly added as a postscript,. After Balak’s mission has failed, Balaam sets off to return home — a descriptive scene that is simply missing rolling credits. Instead of the natural break in the parashah, though, chapter 25 is tacked on.
Encamped near the western side of the Jordan, steps from the Promised Land, the Israelites somehow forget what brought them to this point, and they begin profaning themselves with foreign women and worshiping the god Baal. Rightly so, God becomes “incensed.” To subdue God’s wrath, Moses instructs his leadership to kill those who had engaged in the profanity. As a striking indictment of the meekness of Moses’ leadership, an Israelite willfully and purposefully continues the sacrilege.
Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 25:6).
Without missing a beat, Pinehas, Aaron’s grandson, follows the couple into their tent and impales both of them. With a final verse recounting the end of a plague that killed 24,000, Parashat Balak fades to black. No scenes from next week. We are left with a jarring cliffhanger. How will the people react? How will God respond?
We are perplexed by the punishment meted out by Pinehas. Although Moses makes the decree that the perpetrators should be rebuked, Pinhas acts without consult, warning, trial, or defense. The Jerusalem Talmud in Sanhedrin posits that the sages who witnessed his act thought it inconsistent with God’s will. That is until Rabbi Yuda bar Pazi stated that God gave a stamp of approval by securing perpetual priesthood for Pinehas. The zealotry we have witnessed is difficult to empathize with, but the biblical text seems to support Pinehas:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion” (Numbers 25:10–11).
Beyond divine commendation, Pinehas is rewarded, as the Jerusalem Talmud states, with a pact of priesthood and with God’s pact of friendship. Applying Judith Warner’s rules, our “hero” seems to have risen above his challenges and whatever “bad” was present at the end of Parashat Balak has subsided.
With Warner’s rules in my tallis bag, Pinehas was a hero. But this week dénouement is beyond my reach. The gap in the narrative provided by the cycle of Torah reading must have intention. The break in parshiyot compels us to question motive. I believe the text provides three hints that the zealotry Pinhas wields is not the preferred religious expression.
Our first hint is that the book of Numbers is singular in that there are three parshiyot named after individuals: Korah, Balak, and Pinehas. For a review, Korah was swallowed by the earth for challenging Moses’ divine election, and Balak sought to destroy the children of Israel. While both Genesis and Exodus have parshiyot named after individuals as well, Numbers is singular in that Korah and Balak sought harm — the naming is not honorific. We are the company we keep.
A second hint is the plague that subsides after Pinhas’ zealous act. Seforno questions the relationship of Pinehas to the plague and states: “[This is the plague] God had previously decreed by saying: Neither shall any of them that angered me see it “(Numbers 25:8). When the spies returned from their mission to scout the land earlier in the book of Numbers, their report sent the people into a frightened frenzy. God wanted to destroy the people, but Moses and Aaron interceded. There are always casualties of divine fury, though. God condemned all those alive to death — only a new generation who did not doubt would enter the Promised Land. Seforno comments that the plague here in chapter 25 disposes of the last of that generation. His textual proof is from the census that immediately follows the Pinehas narrative and concludes with: “Among these there was not one of those enrolled by Moses and Aaron the priest when they recorded the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai. For the Lord had said of them, ‘ They shall die in the wilderness'” (Numbers 26:64–65).
Finally, Pinehas is granted a “pact of friendship” as the Jewish Publication Society renders it. The Hebrew translates literally as “my pact of peace.” Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin sees this not as protection against enemies or the relatives of those Pinehas murdered, but as an emotional and psychological peace that God granted Pinehas to subdue his zeal (Ha–emek Ha–Davar).
The initial approval our parashah seems to bestow on Pinhas is suspect. Zealotry is not granted absolute acceptance, an important lesson in today’s age of religious fundamentalism. Zeal commonly appears to bear the imprimatur of religion. Our challenge is to expose the fissures in the story.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.