Parashat Pinchas, Shabbat 11 July 2020/19 Tammuz 5780

Texts and beliefs By Nahum Gordon 09th Jul 2020

God told Moses, “Behold, I give him (Pinchas) My covenant of peace and it will be a covenant of an everlasting priesthood to him and to his offspring after him….” [Num. 25:12-13].  Why did Pinchas deserve two divine gifts?

We have to understand his place in Israelite society. Pinchas was the only son of Eleazar the High Priest. His father, Eleazar, became High Priest when Aaron, Pinchas’ grandfather, died on the east side of the River Jordan. Eleazar’s elevation to High Priest was fortuitous or meritorious, depending on your outlook. Aaron’s successor should have been his eldest son, Nadav, but if he had pre-deceased Aaron, then the responsibility would have fallen on the shoulders of Aaron’s second oldest son, Avihu. But God dispensed with their services when both, possibly intoxicated, entered the Sanctuary and offered “strange fire” [Lev.10]. So, Eleazar, the third son, got the job and he entered the Promised Land.

Our Tenach is very fond of undermining primogeniture, the birthright, the automatic right of the oldest (male) to inherit the mantle of leadership. Invariably, the youngest or a younger sibling prevails. Isaac, not Ishmael. Jacob, not Esau. Judah, Joseph and Benjamin, not Reuben and Simeon. Moses, not Aaron or Miriam. David, not any of his seven older brothers. Solomon, not Amnon or Absalom. You get the picture. There is an air of inevitability. Why? Because behind all these eventualities is God pulling the strings, as he explains to Samuel when choosing David to succeed Saul: “Do not look at his appearance or the height of his stature…, it is not what man sees…, but the Lord sees into the heart” [1 Sam.16:7].

Pinchas earned God’s approval by executing Zimri, a prince of Simeon and Cozbi, a princess of Midian, who were enjoying themselves, apparently inside the Sanctuary. This intercession of justice [Ps. 106:30] on behalf of God also stopped a plague which killed 24,000 Israelites for worshipping the gods of Moab. As Eleazar’s only son, Pinchas succeeded him as High Priest, but God promised him an eternal (High?) priesthood, a hereditary dynasty which outlasted David’s descendants. This materialised through Zadok, Solomon’s preference, and the last true Cohen Gadol was Onias III who was murdered by one of his brothers in 170 BCE. The Maccabees never invited Onias IV back from Egypt and filled the vacuum themselves.

And the covenant of peace? Ironic for such a violent individual. His tribe, Levi, had a track record – the massacre of all the men in Shechem and 3,000 people killed on Moses’ orders because of the Golden Calf. So, was such a covenant really appropriate for a man with blood on his hands? Some suspect that it afforded him divine protection against vendettas by Zimri’s and Cozbi’s relatives. Others think it was an everlasting pact of friendship or fellowship. God only entered into four other covenants – the promise to Noah that humanity would not be destroyed, the promise of children and land to Abraham, the Torah to Moses and Israel, and a hereditary dynasty for David. 

Pinchas’ covenant was significant but surely he’s not a role model today? 12 years ago, I attended a Haredi wedding at which, in his speech, the best man urged guests to be as zealous as Pinchas and defeat the Reform movement. So much for Klal Yisrael. 

Nahum is a co-founder of Kol Nefesh Masorti and founder of Torah Chat

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