Pinchas’ Extrajudicial Execution of Zimri and Cozbi
The Baal Peor Episode
According to Numbers 25, the Israelites, stopping at Shittim, are seduced by Moabite women into serving their gods, specifically Baal Peor. God is angered and instructs Moses to punish the transgressors, and at the same time, sends a plague into the Israelite camp. Before Moses and his appointees take action, an Israelite man brings a Midianite woman into the camp, apparently to be intimate with her. Pinchas sees this and takes action:
במדבר כה:ז וַיַּרְא פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן וַיָּקָם מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה וַיִּקַּח רֹמַח בְּיָדוֹ. כה:ח וַיָּבֹא אַחַר אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל הַקֻּבָּה וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת שְׁנֵיהֶם אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת הָאִשָּׁה אֶל קֳבָתָהּ וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 25:7 When Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he arose from the assembly and took a spear in his hand, 25:8 and followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through her belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked.
The tale climaxes with God’s declaration, via Moses, of a reward to Pinchas. God’s speech makes use of קנא (“zealous”) as a Leitwort, i.e., a repeating term that highlights the message of the pericope:
במדבר כה:יא פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם וְלֹא כִלִּיתִי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקִנְאָתִי. כה:יב לָכֵן אֱמֹר הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם.כה:יג וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו וַיְכַפֵּר עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 25:11 Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by acting zealously for My zealotry, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My zealotry. 25:12 Say, therefore, “I grant him My Covenant of Peace. 25:13 It shall be for him and his descendants after him a Covenant of Eternal Priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and atoned for the Israelites.”
As a result of Pinchas’ actions on God’s behalf, God suppressed his own zealotry, and thus did not kill more Israelites.
Pinchas in Psalm 106
The Bible refers to Pinchas’ act during the Baal Peor scandal one additional time, but there, the nature of the action is not specified:
תהלים קו:כח וַיִּצָּמְדוּ לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר
וַיֹּאכְלוּ זִבְחֵי מֵתִים.
קו:כט וַיַּכְעִיסוּ בְּמַעַלְלֵיהֶם
וַתִּפְרָץ בָּם מַגֵּפָה.
קו:ל וַיַּעֲמֹד פִּינְחָס וַיְפַלֵּל
קו:לא וַתֵּחָשֶׁב לוֹ לִצְדָקָה
לְדֹר וָדֹר עַד עוֹלָם.
Ps 106:28 They attached themselves to Baal Peor,
ate sacrifices offered to the dead.
106:29 They provoked anger by their deeds,
and a plague broke out among them.
106:30 Pinchas stepped forth and intervened,
and the plague ceased.
106:31 It was reckoned to his merit
for all generations, to eternity.
This psalm does not refer to Moabite or Midianite women and never specifies what Pinchas did to stop the plague, merely using the word וַיְפַלֵּל, “he intervened.” The psalm is either working with a different version of the story or, alternatively, if Psalms knows the Torah’s story, it is purposely softening Pinchas’ act. But not all ancient readers of the story felt this need.
Early Jewish Exegetical Tradition
Because of our narrative, and its Leitworter, Pinchas is held up among early Jewish exegetes as the first religious Zealot. As such, Pinchas’ key role in the tale, and his zealotry in general, elicited a range of responses among early Jewish tradents. For example, 1 Maccabees foregrounds Pinchas’ zealotry, and treats him as the “poster boy” for the Hasmonean program, and the inspiration for Mattathias’ action that catalyzes their rebellion (1 Macc 2:24-28).
Josephus admires Pinchas’ character and resolve but omits any mention of zealotry in the Antiquities version of Baal Peor (Ant. 4:131-155). This excision is a function of Josephus’ general polemic against the Jewish zealots to whom he assigns culpability for the sack of Jerusalem by his Flavian patrons. The Rabbis demonstrate a high degree of ambivalence toward Pinchas and his zealotry as compared to the abovementioned sources.
Rabbinic Reading of Pinchas
The biblical passages about Pinchas in Numbers and Psalms lend themselves to examination through a legal prism, especially because the language of Num 25:4-5 has a decidedly juridical cast. God enjoins Moses to impale (הוֹקַע) the ringleaders, something often done to the bodies of criminals (compare Deut. 21:22-23; Josh. 10:26; 1 Sam. 21:6-13), and Moses summons Israel’s Judges (שֹׁפְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל) to carry out the edict.
Moreover, the Psalmist’s choice of the verb וַיְפַלֵּל also belongs to the juridical sphere. While וַיְפַלֵּל here is often rendered as “intervene,” the clause could also be legitimately translated as “Pinchas stood and judged,” following the use of the root פ.ל.ל in various other biblical texts (Exod 21:22; Deut 32:31; 1 Sam 2:25; Isa 16:3, 28:7; Ezek 16:52; Job 31:11, 28).
Nevertheless, Pinchas’ act is not judicial in character— he acts impulsively based on what he sees, with no mention of judges or a verdict. This bothers the rabbis, who view Pinchas’ deed through the lens of their own system of ethics concerning crime and punishment. His precipitous, unilateral, extrajudicial execution of Zimri and Cozbi contravenes basic Rabbinic principles of justice, especially as applied to capital matters, since the rabbis were very strict in matters of evidence and procedure when it came to the laws of capital punishment.
The Rabbis and Capital Punishment
The fourth chapter of Mishnah Sanhedrin begins by listing differences between monetary and capital cases; these are all aimed at making it more difficult to convict people of capital crimes. In fact, other rabbinic texts make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to sustain a conviction for a death penalty offense. For instance, Tosefta Sanhedrin describes the following requirements for conviction (11:1-2):
ושאר חייבי מיתות בית דין אין מחייבין אותן אלא על פי עדים והתראה ועד שיודיעוהו שחייב מיתה בבית דין ר’ יוסי בר’ יהודה אומ’ עד שיודיעוהו באיזו מיתה הוא מת…
All other violators of capital offenses can only be convicted based on witnesses, who warned him before the act, and told him that it was a death penalty offense. R. Yossi son of R. Yehudah says: “They must specify the type of death penalty.”…
The text continues with a debate about whether each witness must warn him or if only one is enough, and then moves on to its most extreme requirement:
מתרין בו ושותק מתרין בו ומרכין את ראשו אף על פי שאמר יודע אני פטור עד שיאמר יודע אני ועל מנת כן אני עושה:
If they warned him and he remained silent or if they warned him and he nodded his head, or even if he said “I know,” he is exempt [from execution] unless he says, “I know, and I am doing it despite that fact.”
The Rabbinic protections for capital defendants, which, in some respect, enshrine their discomfort with capital punishment, are encapsulated by the first dictum in Mishnah Avot(1:1), “Be deliberate in judgment” (הוו מתונים בדין). It is this deliberation that make it nigh impossible to convict someone of, and execute them for, a capital crime.
Extrajudicial Execution: Mishnah
In contrast to this judicial stance, Mishnah Sanhedrin 9:6 articulates four scenarios when judicial procedure is bypassed, and the person is executed on the spot without trial or conviction:
הַגּוֹנֵב אֶת הַקַּסְוָה וְהַמְקַלֵּל בַּקּוֹסֵם וְהַבּוֹעֵל אֲרַמִּית, קַנָּאִין פּוֹגְעִין בּוֹ.
Whoever steals the cult vessel, curses [God’s name] by spell, or has intercourse with an Aramean [i.e., foreign] woman—zealots may dispatch him.
כֹּהֵן שֶׁשִּׁמֵּשׁ בְּטֻמְאָה, אֵין אֶחָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים מְבִיאִין אוֹתוֹ לְבֵית דִּין, אֶלָּא פִרְחֵי כְהֻנָּה מוֹצִיאִין אוֹתוֹ חוּץ לָעֲזָרָה וּמַפְצִיעִין אֶת מֹחוֹ בִּגְזִירִין.
A priest who served while ritually impure, his fellow priests do not bring him to the court. Rather, the young priests take him outside the Temple courtyard, and split his skull with logs.
According to this Mishnah, anyone who violates one of these laws may be killed outright by a zealot. The third of these laws, sex with a non-Israelite woman, is exactly what Zimri violated; Pinchas, of course, was the zealot. Thus, in essence, the Mishnah turns Zimri’s spontaneous act of zealous justice into a legal category called “zealous dispatching,” listing this together with other cases in which this kind of summary execution by a bystander is, in fact, the law.
Pinchas Convened a Sanhedrin
Other Rabbinic texts, however, suggest that Pinchas did indeed convict Zimri in court. For example, Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:2, picking up on the language of Num 25:7, “and he [Pinchas] arose from the midst of the community” (וַיָּקָם מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה) states:
עמד פינחס מתוך סנהדרין שלו
He arose from his sanhedrin…
This statement is also paralleled in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to the same phrase (Num 25:7):
וקם מגו סנהדרין דילי…
And he around from his sanhedrin…
Numbers Rabbah evinces a similar comment on the same verse:
מהיכן עמד אלא שהיו נושאין ונותנין בדבר אם הוא חייב מיתה אם לאו
From where did he rise? They were debating the matter, whether he [Zimri] was liable for the death penalty or not.
This is another attempt by the sages to make Pinchas’ act judicial and not extrajudicial. “Of course,” the Sages argue, “Pinchas would have acting upon the verdict of a court and would not have done this based on a mere feeling of zealousness.”
Pinchas Remembered the Law Moses Forgot
Some rabbis even explicitly attribute the origin of Pinchas’ act to Moses’ teaching. For example, b. Sanhedrin 82a presents a cerebral dialogue between Pinchas and Moses taking place before Pinchas kills Zimri and Cozbi:
וכתיב, וירא פנחס בן אלעזר, מה ראה? – אמר רב: ראה מעשה, ונזכר הלכה. אמר לו: אחי אבי אבא, לא כך לימדתני ברדתך מהר סיני: הבועל את הנכרית קנאין פוגעין בו! – אמר לו: קריינא דאיגרתא איהו ליהוי פרוונקא.
It says: “And Pinchas the son of Elazar saw” – what did he see? Rav said: “He saw the act and remembered the halakha.” He said [to Moses]: “Oh paternal great uncle, didn’t you teach me (as part of the oral Torah) when you came down from Mount Sinai: ‘One who has intercourse with an Aramean woman is to be dispatched by a zealot’?” [Moses] said to him: “The reader of the letter should be the executer of the task.”
The dialogue envisioned here recasts Pinchas’ behavior as conscious and dispassionate, and in consultation with Moses. The act itself is a halakha from God to Moses on Sinai, and the only reason Pinchas carried it out rather than Moses was because Moses forgot and then granted his pupil the “honors” since he remembered.
Limiting the Zealous Dispatchers Law (Talmud)
While these sources justify Pinchas’ vigilante-style justice by turning it into legislation, other rabbinic voices—even in the same Talmudic pericope—are more equivocal (Sanhedrin 82a):
אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן: הבא לימלך – אין מורין לו.
Rabba bar bar Hanna said in the name of R. Yohanan: “If he seeks advice, we do not instruct him to do so.
ולא עוד אלא, שאם פירש זמרי והרגו פנחס – נהרג עליו.
Moreover, if Zimri were to stop [the act of coitus] and Pinchas were to kill him after that, Pinchas can be executed.
נהפך זמרי והרגו לפנחס – אין נהרג עליו, שהרי רודף הוא.
[Also,] if Zimri were to kill Pinchas [in self-defense], he would not be executed for that, since [Pinchas] is a pursuer.”
The first statement, which this same passage also brings in the name of Rav Hisda, is an odd compromise: technically, the zealot has a right to act, but it is not the proper course of action. The next statements add even more disincentive to this act of zealotry by making the act dangerous—the zealot may end up committing a capital crime and the person attacked by the zealot may defend himself. All of this seems aimed at discouraging zealots from carrying out this “law.”
The Killing Did Not Atone
Another set of rabbinic texts reject the notion that Pinchas’ act had the effect of atoning for the collective apostasy of the people. For example, exploiting a syntactic subtlety in Num 25:13, “because he acted zealously for his God and atoned for Israel” (תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו וַיְכַפֵּר עַל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל). In biblical Hebrew, the vav of וַיְכַפֵּר can be a separate action or part of the same action, and Sifre Num. 131 reads it as the latter:
לכפר לא נאמר אלא ויכפר
It does not say “to atone” rather “and he atoned.”
Sifre here effectively decouples Pinchas’ execution of Zimri and Cozbi from the act of atonement by suggesting that the text expresses two actions, the killing, and then the atonement.
The Sages in Pinchas’ Day Would Have Opposed to His Act
Perhaps the most negative of all the rabbinic treatments of Pinchas appears in YerushalmiSanhedrin 9:7:
תני שלא ברצון חכמים ופינחס שלא ברצון חכמים אמר ר יודה בר פזי בקשו לנדותו אלולי שקפצה עליו רוח הקודש ואמרה וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַֽחֲרָיו בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם וגו’
It is taught: This was not met with the approval of the Sages. And could Pinchas have acted against the approval of the Sages? Rabbi Yudah bar Pazi said: “They sought to excommunicate him had not the Holy Spirit alighted upon him and said ‘And he and his seed after him will possess a covenant of eternal priesthood etc…’”
This Yerushalmi comes as close to outright condemnation of Pinchas as possible and is quite explicit about the tension inherent in the rabbis’ interpretive process when weighing whether Pinchas’ actions should be evaluated positively or negatively. On one hand, Pinchas is a hero, the covenantal Father of the Priesthood, and his actions are given unqualified divine approval. Still, Pinchas’ behavior does fly in the face of the Sages’ own norms and standards.
The thrust of the Yerushalmi’s rhetoric is that the Pinchas case is anomalous, because of the unique circumstances of the Baal Peor sin, and due to God’s clear validation of Pinchas’ act of violent zealotry. Yet the Yerushalmi wants to make it clear that Pinchas should not be treated as a role model, nor should his actions frame any legitimate moral precedent. Quite the contrary!
The Rabbinic ambivalence toward Pinchas comes into stark relief when we see that the Sages actually justify, and even praise, other extrajudicial executions carried out by important Biblical figures. The prime example is Moses’ killing of the Egyptian Taskmaster.
Moses and the Egyptian Taskmaster: Another Zealotry Story?
Pinchas is not the only biblical hero to kill someone based on his own judgment and without judicial process; Moses does this to an Egyptian taskmaster:
שמות ב:יא וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו. ב:יב וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ בַּחוֹל.
Exod 2:11 He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. 2:12 He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.
That Moses is acting as the proverbial “judge, jury, and executioner” is emphasized by the Torah in the very next story:
שמות ב:יג וַיֵּצֵא בַּיּוֹם הַשֵּׁנִי וְהִנֵּה שְׁנֵי אֲנָשִׁים עִבְרִים נִצִּים וַיֹּאמֶר לָרָשָׁע לָמָּה תַכֶּה רֵעֶךָ. ב:יד וַיֹּאמֶר מִי שָׂמְךָ לְאִישׁ שַׂר וְשֹׁפֵט עָלֵינוּ הַלְהָרְגֵנִי אַתָּה אֹמֵר כַּאֲשֶׁר הָרַגְתָּ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי…
Exod 2:13 When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, “Why do you strike your fellow?” 2:14 He retorted, “Who made you chief and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
Moses performs a unilateral, extrajudicial, execution for a crime, beating; to make matters worse, this crime would not even warrant the death penalty. The Sages in Exodus Rabbah1:28 justify Moses’ act by developing an extensive and fanciful “back story” according to which the Egyptian had tricked the Hebrew slave’s wife into sex by pretending to be her husband. When the Hebrew man realized what happened, the Egyptian started beating him with the intention of killing him so no one would know about his trick. Moses, therefore, was acting preemptively, to save the Hebrew from being murdered.
The midrash reads the phrase “And he [Moses] turned there and there and saw that there was no one” in a way reminiscent of the Pinchas story, suggesting that it understood the two stories to be related:
ר’ יהודה אומר: ראה כי אין איש שיקנא להקב”ה ויהרגהו.
R. Yehudah says: ““He saw that there was no one around to be zealous for The Holy Blessed One, so he [Moses] killed him [the Egyptian].”
Although the midrash is meant to recast Moses in Pinchas’ image, it is ironic that Pinchas himself is treated much less generously by the Rabbis themselves.
Distinguishing between Moses and Pinchas
It is fair to say that Rabbinic narrative and Biblical exegesis can be understood as a rhetorical means to assert authority and construct foundational myths. To that extent, it is not hard to imagine why Pinchas’ precipitous and unilateral actions could have been viewed by the Sages as a threat to their carefully constructed social order and notions of communal and judicial authority. We have seen, therefore, how the Rabbis’ dissonance led to a range of responses.
Still, the fact remains that the Sages had the ability, and propensity, to excuse offenses or challenges similar to Pinchas’ on the part of other key Biblical notables such as Moses. How do we reconcile the less than restrained condemnation of Pinchas with the positive reinterpretation of Moses’ act? One possible answer is connected to what group each of these men represented to the rabbis.
Moses, called Rabbeinu, is a sage and scholar himself, therefore “one of them;” on the other hand, Pinchas has the inherited mantle of the Priesthood, a leadership category that is often denigrated in Rabbinic writings. In the same vein, there is no love lost between the Sages and the Hasmoneans or the Sicarii of the 1st Revolt. With Pinchas the Biblical exemplar for both movements, it would be Rabbinic imperative to sully rather than magnify his image, and extinguish any impulses to violent zealotry, on a personal or communal level, that could otherwise have been justified through an appeal to Torah.
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July 4, 2018
September 19, 2019
Dr. David Bernat is executive director of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts and a lecturer in Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Heholds a Ph.D. in biblical interpretation from Brandeis University, is the author of Sign of the Covenant: Circumcision in the Priestly Traditions, and the co–editor of Religion and Violence: The Biblical Heritage.
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