Pinechas Impales Zimri and Kozbi in Art
The two engravings shown here, one by Johann Christoph Weigel1 and one by Jan Luyken2 both depict Pinechas' killing of Zimri and Kozbi as discussed in Bemidbar 25. At first glance, the two images look fairly similar, with both portraying the offenders being impaled in a tent in the midst of their illicit act. Many of the details, though, differ and a comparison of the images raises important questions regarding both the nature of Zimri's sin and the extent of the nation's punishment.
Weigel's engraving is divided on a diagonal into two scenes. In the right foreground, Pinechas is portrayed stabbing Zimri and Kozbi at the entrance to their open tent. On the left, a group of Israelites dance with tambourines around a large idol, while others sit on the floor, socializing with the Moabite women who hold smaller figurines. In the distance there is another, more opulent tent, perhaps the temple of Baal Peor.
Luyken's woodcut also portrays Pinechas killing the couple in their tent with a long spear. The setting of the scene, though, is very different. In the background, the Israelites are not merrily mingling with the Moabites, but lie dead on the floor, or hanging from stakes in the ground. Several other tents are pitched behind that of Zimri, and at the top left, a more permanent edifice, likely the idolatrous temple, stands on a cliff.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
The Sin of Zimri
In Weigel's image, Zimri and Kozbi cohabit near fellow Moabite-Israelite couples and not far from the site where others are worshiping Baal Peor. In Luyken's engraving, in contrast, the temple of Baal Peor and its worshipers are far off in the distance. The different depictions relate to a question which emerges from the Biblical text: How did Zimri's sin relate to that of the nation? Was his coupling also connected to the worship of Baal Peor,3 or was he merely engaging in relations with a Midianite but not as part of a pagan ritual?4 See Pinechas – Action and Reward for elaboration.
The starkest contrast between the two images relates to the artists' portrayals of the nation at large. While Weigel depicts them as dancing and socializing with the Moabites, Luyken has them fallen dead or hanging from wooden stokes.5 This relates to an important question about this episode: When Pinechas killed Zimri, had the other Israelites already been punished via a Divine plague or at the hands of human judges?
The verses themselves are ambiguous. Although the text relays Moshe's command to kill the coupling worshippers, it never states whether the command was fulfilled. Similarly, while the text records the end of the plague, it never mentions when it began. These questions are important for properly understanding Pinechas' action – was he the only one brave enough to kill the sinners,6 or was he one of many who heeded the call to punish the evildoers?7 If the latter, what distinguished his act and enabled it to bring about an end to the plague and a personal reward?
"הַקֻּבָּה" – Tent or Shrine?
Luyken portrays Zimri's tent amidst a row of other tents, whereas Weigel depicts it nearby to the idolatrous temple. The difference relates to the nature of the tent in which Zimri and Kozbi coupled. Was Zimri simply taking Kozbi into his private dwelling within the Israelite camp, or was this tent a more public place that did not belong to him personally, but was somehow related to the worship of Baal Peor?
Bemidbar 25:8 states that Pinechas followed Zimri into "הַקֻּבָּה". While Rashi, Rashbam, and many others maintain that the word simply means tent8 and refers to Zimri's personal dwelling, others suggest that it refers specifically to a brothel.9 More modern scholars10 have suggested that it refers to a movable shrine. These different opinions have ramifications for understanding whether Zimri's sin was one of idolatry or illicit sexual activity, as discussed above.
While Luyken suggests that the tent in which Zimri and Kozbi cohabited was in the Israelite camp (close to the dead Israelite bodies), Weigel's image suggests that it was closer to the Moabite-Midiante dwellings. Most readers of the text might naturally agree with Luyken, since Bemidbar 25:6 states that Zimri brought Kozbi to those gathered around the Tent of Meeting. Shadal, though, suggests that Zimri then returned to Kozbi's tent and that was where Pinechas found them.
The disagreement relates, in part, to the meaning of the ambiguous phrase, "וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת שְׁנֵיהֶם... אֶל קֳבָתָהּ". Shadal explains it to mean "her קֻבָּה", or her tent,11 while others say it refers to a body part, related to the word "קֵבָה".12 The difference also relates to an evaluation of Pinechas' deed – was it an impetuous act, performed on the spot in a moment of zeal, or a much more calculated action which required considerable planning and bravery?13