Baal Peor and Zimri
Bemidbar 25 opens with the Children of Israel's fornication with Moabite women which leads to their idolatrous worship of Baal Peor and the ensuing Divine wrath. At Hashem's behest, Moshe then commands the Israelite judges to kill all of the worshipers of Baal Peor, and the reader waits apprehensively to see what will transpire:
(א) וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּשִּׁטִּים וַיָּחֶל הָעָם לִזְנוֹת אֶל בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב. (ב) וַתִּקְרֶאןָ לָעָם לְזִבְחֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶן וַיֹּאכַל הָעָם וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶן. (ג) וַיִּצָּמֶד יִשְׂרָאֵל לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר וַיִּחַר אַף ה' בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל. (ד) וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה קַח אֶת כׇּל רָאשֵׁי הָעָם וְהוֹקַע אוֹתָם לַה' נֶגֶד הַשָּׁמֶשׁ וְיָשֹׁב חֲרוֹן אַף ה' מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל. (ה) וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל שֹׁפְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הִרְגוּ אִישׁ אֲנָשָׁיו הַנִּצְמָדִים לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר.
(1) And Israel camped in Shittim and the nation began to fornicate with the daughters of Moav. (2) And they called the nation to the sacrifices of their gods, and the nation ate and bowed down to their gods. (3) And Israel joined himself to Baal Peor, and Hashem was angry with Israel. (4) And Hashem said to Moshe, take all the heads of the nation and hang them for Hashem against the sun, and Hashem's anger will turn away from Israel. (5) And Moshe said to the judges of Israel, "Kill everyone who has joined themselves to Baal Peor".
Suddenly, though, the Torah shifts gears. Without telling us whether the judges fulfilled their mandate, the Torah instead recounts that a man (later identified as Zimri) brought a Midianite woman before the eyes of Moshe and the nation, that both of them were stabbed to death by Pinechas, and that Hashem's fury subsided as a result:
(ו) וְהִנֵּה אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּא וַיַּקְרֵב אֶל אֶחָיו אֶת הַמִּדְיָנִית לְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה וּלְעֵינֵי כׇּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. (ז) וַיַּרְא פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן וַיָּקׇם מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה וַיִּקַּח רֹמַח בְּיָדוֹ. (ח) וַיָּבֹא אַחַר אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל הַקֻּבָּה וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת שְׁנֵיהֶם אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת הָאִשָּׁה אֶל קֳבָתָהּ וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
(6) And behold, a man from the Children of Israel came and brought to his brothers a Midianite, before the eyes of Moshe and before the eyes of the whole congregation of the Children of Israel, and they were crying in front of tent of meeting. (7) And Pinechas the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the priest, saw it, and he got up from among the congregation and he took a spear in his hand. (8) And he went after the man of Israel into the tent and thrust both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly, and the plague was stopped among the Children of Israel.
What, though, is the relationship between Zimri's sin with the Midianite woman and the original sin of the people with the Moabite women and their worship of Baal Peor? Was Zimri's act of a completely distinct character, or did it also constitute ritual harlotry?1 Why did Pinechas get involved? Was he one of the original judges tasked by Moshe with administering capital punishment, or did he act of his own initiative? And how exactly did Pinechas's action allay Hashem's anger and halt the plague which had begun because of the original sin of Peor?
Covenant with Pinechas
Pinechas's deed not only succeeds in sparing the nation from further catastrophe, but also earns him special status and Divine favor:
(י) וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. (יא) פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם וְלֹא כִלִּיתִי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקִנְאָתִי. (יב) לָכֵן אֱמֹר הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם. (יג) וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו וַיְכַפֵּר עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
(10) And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: (11) Pinechas the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the priest, has turned My wrath away from the Children of Israel by his being zealous with My zeal among them, and I have not consumed the Children of Israel in My zeal. (12) Therefore say, "I am giving him My covenant of peace". (13) And it should be for him and his descendants after him a covenant of everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God and made atonement for the Children of Israel.
These verses raise additional questions:
- What was so uniquely praiseworthy about Pinechas's violent act that it merited eternal covenants of peace and priesthood?
- If Pinechas was simply following the laws of the Torah, why did he deserve such an exceptional reward? And if not, what gave him the right to take the law into his own hands, let alone be recompensed for his bloodshed?
- Furthermore, what did these Divine promises add that Pinechas did not already possess by virtue of his priestly lineage?