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The Pinchas story that comes at the start of our parashah actually began at the end of last week’s parashah, and in case you missed it, that story follows the Balaam story; right after we are told that Balaam returned home, we read the beginning of the Pinchas story.
The sages of the Talmud were terribly upset about how Pinchas appeared to take the law into his own hands; they objected to his deed of zealotry in killing the Israelite and Midianite couple. They showed their disapproval in the Torah in two ways. First, their disfavor became embedded in a Torah-writing tradition that displays their negative view of Pinchas’ action. The Torah itself obviously can’t display this disapproval overtly; it shows up in what you might call a passive-aggressive display.
How does the Torah show this? Actually, very subtlety; it’s all in the calligraphy. First, Pinchas’ name, where it first appears in today’s reading, is written with a tiny “yod.” The first letter of God’s name in the Tetragrammaton is a “yod” and the Torah here, by using a tiny version of this letter, is symbolically removing God’s name from Pinchas. Then, in verse 12, where God says he will grant Pinchas a “covenant of peace,” the “vav” in the word “shalom,” peace, is written defectively—it’s the only letter in the Torah that is malformed, here it’s written with a broken stem. The idea is that any peace that’s achieved through impulsive, unchecked violence is a faulty peace.
Second, the strong animosity of the sages toward Pinchas’ zealotry is most clearly shown by how this story, basically a very short one, is broken up between two weekly readings, with the result that Pinchas’ reward does not immediately follow his violent act—his impalement of the cohabitating couple—but has to wait until the following week’s Torah reading. The Torah states quite directly that God approved of Pinchas; this approval was very troubling for the sages of the Talmud so they simply delayed the reporting of God’s acknowledgment of the deed and its reward until the following week. After all, why break up the continuity of a very short story like that? Why end the Balak parashah on such a negative note—a negative ending like this is unique in the Torah?
The rabbis felt so strongly about Pinchas that the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanh. 27b) states that Moses and the tribal elders would have excommunicated Pinchas were it not for the divine decree declaring that he had acted on God’s behalf.
That’s why we had to wait until this week to read of God’s reward to Pinchas and his descendants, the reward of God’s “covenant of peace” and the assigning of the permanent priesthood to Pinchas’ descendants.
There could be another reason for splitting the Balak/Pinchas parshiyot in such a strange fashion; perhaps it could be to link the sin of the Israelites at Ba’al-Peor with Balaam in some overt way—the text doesn’t explicitly do it, so by keeping the Ba’al-Peor incident close to the mention of Balaam in parashah Balak allows the link to be made by association rather than by an explicit description. It’s guilt by association, as they say. You may recall that the Torah does have an explicit statement that links Balaam to the Ba’al-Peor incident but it doesn’t appear until next week’s sidra. However, its mention then, quite distant in the text from the story itself, seems to be a kind of an afterthought or marginal note. The way it appears, out of context really, gives the strong impression that it was a scribal gloss and never part of the actual Balaam story.
Actually, there isn’t much in the whole Tanakh to link Balaam and Pinchas with the Ba’al-Peor incident; there are only four references to Peor outside of this story here in Numbers and none of the other statements connect Balaam with Peor while only one associates Pinchas with the Peor incident. Deuteronomy 4:3 recounts the annihilation of all the wicked at Ba’al-Peor, but that description could have been based on the claim that twenty-four thousand died in the plague. Next the incident is mentioned in Joshua 22:17, where the text only maintains that Israel is still capable of repeating the sin of Ba’al-Peor. There’s a mention in Hosea 9:10 that strongly implies that it was no one, other than the Israelites themselves, who was responsible for what Hosea calls that “shameful thing.” Finally, there’s a late Psalm, Psalm 106, that mentions Pinchas and his connection with ending the plague without any mention of his zealotry.
The names of the characters in Pinchas are interesting: Pinchas itself is an Egyptian name and similar names of Egyptian derivation appear elsewhere in the Bible, they are particularly prevalent in the tribe of Levi; Kozbi’s name—the Midianite woman—contains the root of the word kazav, to “lie” or “deceive.” Midian was a son of Abraham and his second wife, Keturah, and Midian is related to the word mah’don, meaning “strife” or “contention.”
So, returning to the text, God seems to approve of Pinchas’ actions (after all, God had killed 24,000 with a plague, so what’s the big deal about killing two more people?) and thus God grants Pinchas a covenant of peace, which Pinchas really needs, according to Abravanel, in order to prevent a blood revenge killing of Pinchas by the Simeonites since the man that Pinchas killed, Zimri, was a Simeonite prince.
Next, we have a recapitulation of the names of the tribal chiefs/clan names, including interesting editorial comments about some of them, and yet another census, and guess which tribe is the big loser? Simeon. Apparently their tribe was hardest hit by the plague that followed the Ba’al-Peor incident. Looks like Zimri wasn’t the only bad boy of that tribe; the implication is that the majority of the sinning Israelites were from Simeon.
Following this is the petition of the daughters of Zelophehad. These five women, who are uncharacteristically named—few women are named in the very androcentric text of the Torah—request holdings in the land since there is no male to carry on their father’s name. They are actually named not once—not twice—but a total of four times! Moses has to ask for God’s advice, which he gets. However, we won’t learn the full resolution of their appeal until next week, so you’ll need to come then to hear the final ruling on the women’s petition.
God then takes Moses to overlook the land, and Moses asks God to invest a successor with the powers of leadership. God appoints Joshua, and Moses does va’yis-mokh et-yadav, that is, s’mikha, the laying of hands, or ordination. This is the origin of the rabbinic practice of s’mikha.
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