Many moderns find the story of Pinchas, Zimri, and Kozbi1 “disturbing.” On a cursory reading, it seems that while Zimri and Kozbi were, to be delicate, merely enjoying each other’s company, Pinchas came into their tent and murdered them in cold blood, for no reason. This is what religious fanaticism leads to, they say. Then to make things worse, when later in the chapter, God praises Pinchas for his zeal and gives him a Covenant of Peace, God looks unjust.
I do not think that A Closer Look at the text will support this reading. Some have advised me not to take what is written in the Bible too literally. But before we can decide whether we believe what is written literally, we must first read what is literally written, and not read 21st century culture into an ancient book.
First, some background setup. Torah tells us not to worship YHVH in the ways that the Gentiles worship their gods.2 One of the ways the ancient worshipped their gods was with sacred prostitution. They believed that the fertility of the Earth was the result of gods and goddesses mating. What inspired the gods to mate was watching humans mating. We are not meant to worship YHVH that way. Throughout the Torah and Prophets, idolatry is compared with adultery. Some idolatrous practices are accomplished with literal adultery.
Torah also commands that no unauthorized person may enter the Tabernacle.3 The Mishkan is like Area 51, deadly force is authorized against trespassers. Priests and Levites who are not on sacrifice duty provide security among their tasks. This would help explain why Pinchas had his spear handy.
In the immediate context of the story, the Moabites had tried to seduce the Israelites to worship Baal-Peor by sending their sacred zonot, prostitutes, to entice the People to worship Baal through their fertility rituals. Some Israelites joined in their worship. Torah commands that we stone people, no matter how close they are to us, who try to get us to worship foreign gods. We are commanded to “have no other gods” before YHVH.4 A literal translation of the verse would be: “Not there-will-be to-you gods-others in-my-face.”
In this incident, Moses commanded that the ringleaders of defection be executed, those who were joined to Baal-Peor. A plague had broken out as a result of their idolatry. The people were gathered in front of the Tabernacle repenting with tears.
At this point, a chieftain in Israel, Zimri, led a Moabite princess, Kozbi, into the camp “in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel.” Pinchas follows them, “into the tent,” which is Al ha-kubah, in Hebrew. Kubah occurs only here in the Tanakh, making it problematic to translate. Some versions say tent, some say pavilion. It is apparently more important a tent than someone’s private dwelling.
In the Kubah, Pinchas runs his spear through both Zimri and Kozbi, in their bellies, apparently in a single thrust. It is not difficult to infer what they were doing at the time. This story is difficult to tell in a delicate manner appropriate to a family friendly website.
I want to draw an analogy to American infantry doctrine. In battle, if a soldier panics and runs away from the enemy, his own sergeant is supposed to shoot him before his contagious panic can spread. One deserter can turn an otherwise certain victory into a rout. There is not time for the due process of a court martial. Dealing with panic immediately saves countless lives, albeit with the cost of the one. Similarly, Zimri’s defiance had to be dealt with immediately.
Reading the story in its immediate and remote contexts, I think the “disturbing” interpretation is not supported by the text.
How I see it, since Balaam had not been able to curse Israel while they were faithful and obedient, he counselled the Moabites to seduce them away from YHVH through sacred prostitution.5 If we think like men suffering from testosterone poisoning and with little Torah education, how would you rather worship: with a holy barbecue led by Aaron the Priest, or with fertility rituals led by the sacred prostitutes of Moab?
As the People repented of their idolatry, weeping before the Tabernacle, Zimri defiantly brought Kozbi into The Tent, the Tabernacle, not his own private dwelling. There, they worshipped a foreign god in ways forbidden to Israel’s worship, in God’s face, trespassing in God’s Tent, in full view of God’s people. In bypassing American notions of due process, just this one time, Pinchas stopped the plague saving countless lives. Extraordinary dangers sometimes require extraordinary actions. In giving Pinchas His “Covenant of Peace,” God is not encouraging fanaticism nor vigilantism. Summary execution is an extraordinary remedy, not to become usual or customary.
If we keep in mind the textual context of the story, both immediate and remote, and the social and historical contexts, both God and Pinchas seem more just and rational than the “disturbing” interpretation would suggest. When we find an event in Tanakh disturbing, it is better that we take A Closer Look, than jump to the conclusion that the “Judge of all the earth” will not “do right.”6
1 Num 25.
2 Deu 12:30.
3 Num 1:51, 3:38.
4 Ex 20:3.
5 Num 31:6.
6 Cf. Gen 18:25.