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Light from the Sidra

Pinchas (Phineas) 12 July 2014. 14 Tammuz 5774.

Torah: Numbers 25:10-30:1. Haftarah: 1 Kings.18:46-19:21.

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

Killing 'the beast with two backs'

Many years ago, an advert appeared in our local paper announcing the opening of a ‘Christian Spiritualist Church’. The public was invited to attend, said the advert, and there would be time for members of the public to ask questions. Believing that the labels ‘Christian’ and ‘spiritualist’ were self-contradictory I had a lot of questions, so I decided to go along to the meeting. I expected to find myself sitting around a table in a darkened room with a group of elderly spinsters but the room was brightly lit and there were about a hundred people, mostly middle aged. To cut a long story short, my questions ruined their evening and the congregation queued up after the meeting to inform me that I was the rudest and most disagreeable person they had ever met. The last person to approach me was a man who angrily declared: ‘Listen. I’m Jewish, and I come here!’

‘Then you should be ashamed of yourself,’ I told him.

He looked puzzled so I elaborated: ‘You belong to the most blessed nation in the world. The Creator of the universe has entered into a covenant with you and has given you his truth to you in the Torah and the Prophets. By consulting a medium, you’ve forsaken your God and turned to lies and falsehood.”

In his book 26 Reasons Why Jews Don’t Believe in Jesus, Asher Norman rightly condemns idolatry as a sin for Jews but, paradoxically, he maintains that idolatry is not a sin for Gentiles. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, however, the only deity anyone should worship is the one true God (Psalms 97:7; 115:2-8; 135:15, etc). Nevertheless, idolatry is a particularly serious sin for a Jew.

Balaam had been restrained by God from cursing Israel; indeed, God turned his curses into blessings. However, it seems that the soothsayer was reluctant to return home empty-handed and so, according to Number 31:16, it seems he advised Balak about how he could turn God against them.

The women of Moab invited the Israelite men to a religious feast in honour of the Canaanite fertility god Baal. The Canaanites thought a good harvest was the result of their gods and goddesses copulating so Baal worshippers put on an orgy hoping that the show they put on would excite Baal and Asherah into being fertile. Israel’s worship of the Baal of Pe’or involved not merely physical fornication; idolatry for Israel was first and foremost spiritual adultery and so, once again, the anger of Israel’s God was roused against his people and once more the people were in mortal danger.  

To turn away the wrath of God, the heads of the people – the ringleaders of the rebellion – were to be hung or ‘impaled’, and the people themselves were to kill everyone they knew who had been involved in the orgy. Comparatively few Israelites had responded to the invitation to the orgy but no Israelite was an ‘island, entire of self’. The rebellion of one man (Genesis 3) brought judgement on the whole creation; and the sin of one Israelite resulted in disaster for all Israel (Joshua 7).

The lowest point of Israel’s rebellion was when Zimri ben Salu slipped into his tent with Kozbi, the daughter of the Midianite nobleman Tzur while the rest of the people wept in penitence in front of the tabernacle. Pinchas the priest, who saw what was happening, burst into the tent and plunged a spear through Zimri and Kozbi as they were engaging in a bit of unarmed combat. Pinchas’ zeal for HASHEM was rewarded with ‘covenant of shalom’, a covenant of ‘everlasting priesthood’. By killing the guilty couple, Pinchas effected atonement for the Israelites.

The Haftarah is 1 Kings 18:46–19:21, the account of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal, which provides an interesting parallel. But a more appropriate Haftarah choice might have been 2 Samuel 21:1-14.

According to Jewish anti-missionaries, there are no examples in the Tanakh of atonement through the shedding of human blood. A plague that killed 24,000 Israelites was halted only because the ringleaders of the rebellion were hung (the Hebrew word yaqa is better translated ‘impaled’, as were Zimri and Kozbi. Their deaths were an atonement (kaphar) for the people.

In 2 Samuel 21, the hanging of seven descendants of Saul was accepted by God as an atonement for Saul’s slaughter of the Gibeonites. God accepted the atonement and stopped the famine that had come on Israel as a result of Saul’s sin.

Atonement by the shedding of human blood occurs in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is not a ‘Christian’ concept.

Once again, we see the Messianic hope alive and well even in one of Israel’s darkest periods. We are reminded of the promise given by God in Gan Eden that ‘the seed of the woman’ would defeat the serpent but at the expense of being bitten on the heel by the serpent. The Messiah would redeem Israel through suffering; by the bite of a venomous snake bite, so to speak. Uncomfortable as that thought might be, God has provided no other way to redeem Israel and the world.


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