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Parshas Pinchas: When Is Vigilantism Justified?

Note: I am not advocating vigilantism.

If you recall last week’s discussion (about the double portion Chukat-Balak), we covered a lot of ground, including seemingly inexplicable commandments and the Jews’ tendency to constantly rebel.

However, we did not talk about the incident with Pinchas, who we (Jewish people) call “Pinchas the zealot.”

Let’s review what happened there, because it provides the starting point for this week’s portion, which is named in his honor.

If you want to bookmark some sources (Hebrew and English), please see below – all free.
Recap, end of last week’s portion:
  • The Jews are trying to get to Israel, & the surrounding nations are massing against them
  • The Moabite king Balak gets a prophet-for-hire to curse the Jews
  • God reverses the plot & causes him to predict the redemption.
In a disturbing plot twist:
  • The Moabites (allied with the Midianites), who were unsuccessful with the hired gun, try another tactic and succeed – they send their women to seduce the Jews.
  •  The seductive women lead the Jews to worship Peor, aka Moloch.
In response:
  • God commands Moses to hang the idol worshipers.
  • Moses in turn commands the Judges to do so, and so it happens.
Even after this horrible scene, and as the Jews are mourning the dead, there is further rebellion.
  • A notable from the tribe of Simeon (Zimri) takes a princess from the Midianites (Cozbi) into the Jewish camp adding oil to the burning flames of anger, rebellion, and outright treason by the people.
  • (Numbers 25:6) Zimri takes Cozbi before the people, flaunting her sexually, making a display of the fact that they are going into a tent to have relations.
  • The righteous Pinchas, grandson of Aaron the high priest, follows them into the tent and spears the both of them, the woman through her belly (this is emphasized), ending the disgrace.
It should be clear, if it is not already, that the entire goal of the Moabite and Midianite infiltration was to destroy the relationship between the Jews and God.

The only way to do that, they realized, is to tempt the Jews into Satanism. (Satanism here is defined as the attempt to use the properties of this created world for your own benefit, while rebelling against God.)

Since a direct appeal to Satanism would not work, the nations used the women (“honeypots”) to lure men into intimate relationships.

But the focus was not on the women. The women were only a tool, albeit a powerful one.

We see this in the text itself. Num. 25:1-3: 
“The people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of the Moabites. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods….Israel became attached to Baal Peor, & the anger of the Lord flared against Israel.”
Anger about Baal Peor.

The Bible is very clear that the Jewish forefathers married women at times who were not Israelites.
  • Moses himself married Tziporah, who was a Midianite princess. Her father was the righteous Jethro, an adviser to Moses.
  • Joshua, who succeeded Moses, married Rahab, who had been a prostitute — so repentance and changing your life to more wholesome ways is also part of our belief system.
No, the issue here is very clearly worshiping idols, meaning NOT worshiping God, and trying to get power from sources other than faith in Him, and hard work to enable blessing to flow through the faith channel.

Num. 25:4 — judgment is coming:
“The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and hang them before the Lord, facing the sun, and then the flaring anger of the Lord will be removed from Israel.
Capital punishment for the people who turned away from God and cleaved to Baal Peor (they were “attached”) was not vigilantism. It was necessary.

Num. 25:6 – AFTER all this, after the executions:
“*Then* an Israelite man came and brought the Midianite woman to his brethren, before the eyes of Moses and before the eyes of the entire congregation of the children of Israel.”
It was DELIBERATE. This man was guilty, but somehow had not been killed.
  • “before the eyes of the entire congregation of the children of Israel” – a PUBLIC act of treason.
  • “while they were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” – while they were GRIEVING at the HOLIEST place they had
  • “and brought the Midianite woman to his brethren” — The sinner displayed before the people his intention to further engage in the sin that God had decreed capital punishment for.
In this context, Pinchas’ behavior (“kanai,” in Hebrew, “zealotry” in English”) is considered “praiseworthy.”

For Pinchas not only enforced one law, but demonstrated the existence of another.

Rambam: A Jewish man who takes a non-Jewish woman, for intercourse in public (married or not) should be killed. He’s not HONORING her but DEGRADING the act of coupling.

Another approach is to look at the Midianite princess as a marriage partner. Zimri was going to marry an idol-worshiping woman; another “humiliation” to God’s immediate prior punishment.

As the Jews mourned.

Parshas Pinchas begins (and we can ask why the story breaks over two Torah portions – or continues one into the other – perhaps something to be addressed later) with Pinchas being praised for his actions.

And obviously the portion is named for him, which is an eternal honor.

Pinchas the vigilante did not make up the law, but he did take the law into his own hands, when the judicial system and the leaders and the people were in a weakened state and could not do so themselves.

Again, note: I am not endorsing vigilantism.

Numbers 25:12 – God says regarding Pinchas:

“I hereby give him My covenant of peace.”


By Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author’s own. Public domain. Photo of “Phinehas slaying Zimri and Kozbi the Midianite by Joos van Winghe” via Wikipedia.

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