Pinchas: Religion & Change

Pinchas: Religion & Change
drawing of an ancient Assyrian warrior with shield and spear, perhaps like the one Pinchas used

I’ve got a question about Parshat Pinchas (Num 25:10-30:1). Specifically about the last section. The one we read in this third year of the triennial cycle.

It’s a simple question, and it’s one word long. Why?


Why do we need to hear a detailed list of the holiday offerings in the mishkan? Didn’t we already get all those details in the book of Leviticus, in Parshat Emor (Lev 21:1-24:23)?

Yes. Yes, we did.

And if we think of the Torah as a collection of stories and teachings, it’s hard to understand why we need this one again.

But if we think of the Torah as also telling a continuous story, then it’s easy to see why we need this one again.

The first list of the holiday offerings was Moses’ system. It’s true that Aaron held the high priest title. But Moses was clearly the boss. He consulted with God and he wrote the priestly manual.

Now, Aaron is dead and Moses is on the way out. The Torah’s about to review the route of the 40 year wilderness journey, and give out land grants. (That’s the end of the book of Numbers, next week’s reading.) After that, all that’s left is a long speech by Moses, and his dramatic death scene. (That’s the book of Deuteronomy.)

Already, a new team is waiting in the wings to take over. According to the book of Joshua, the team is Joshua and Pinchas.


It’s also helpful to think of the Torah as a movie. One where the writers know there is going to be a sequel. And they have the broad outlines. So they plant little seeds of the new story. And they give the future lead characters small but significant roles.

In this case, imagine the screen writers know that the sequel—the book of Joshua—is going to be a wartime story. And they know that Joshua and Pinchas will be important characters. So they leave little “easter eggs”—can I use that slang in a shul? They leave little easter eggs foreshadowing their roles.


Joshua gets exactly two spoken lines in the Torah. He speaks the first one when he and Moses are up on Mt. Sinai, downloading the details of the Torah. Down in the valley, the people are partying around the golden calf. Joshua says, “There’s a sound of war in the camp!” And Moses says, “No, it’s not the sound of war, it’s the sound of people singing.”

Joshua speaks his second line shortly after God gives 70 elders the gift of ecstatic prophecy. They’re supposed to get ecstatic around the Tent of Meeting, but two of them get ecstatic in the camp. Joshua learns about it, and he says, “Lock them up!” And Moses says, “No. If only God’s spirit could rest on everyone!”

So you see Joshua’s character. “There’s a sound of war!” and “Lock them up!” No wonder he grows up to be a wartime leader!


Pinchas doesn’t get any lines in the Torah, but he does get a great action scene. Things are clearly falling apart in the Israelite community. It’s a time of change. People are anxious about leadership, food, water, fairness, war, public health, inter-religious marriage—everything we’ve been reading about for the last 7 weeks. Pinchas, grandson of Aaron the priest, decides to do something about it all. So, when he sees an Israelite man with a Midianite woman, he grabs a spear, and stabs them both in the belly.

Then, God tells Moses, “Pinchas is a zealot. He’s zealous for me! That’s why I’m making a covenant of peace with him. A covenant of eternal priesthood for him and his family.”

Now you see the character of Pinchas. For him, violence is good political and religious speech. No wonder he grows up to be a wartime priest!

And if you want to take a deeper look into this little easter egg, notice who Pinchas kills. It’s a couple who remind him of Moses and Zipporah: an Israelite man and a Midianite woman. No wonder he grows up to replace Moses. And no wonder he has to establish his own order of ritual offerings.


Parshat Pinchas reminds us: religious ritual isn’t born in a purely spiritual lab. Neither is religious leadership. Instead, both of them arise in a social context. And our context is a lot like the one Pinchas sees. Things are changing, not all for the better. People are anxious about leadership, food, water, fairness, war, public health, inter-religious marriage, and more. Future leaders with wildly different visions are waiting in the wings to take over.

In this context, what do we want our religious and spiritual life to look like? How overtly political should we be? Which prayers should we change up? Who should we welcome into our community and how? What sorts of community alliances should we form? How should we use our traditions of spiritual reflection to center ourselves in the storm?

Thanks to Yonatan S. Miller for his article, “Phinehas’ Priestly Zeal and the Violence of Contested Identities.”

Adapted from a dvar Torah I offered at Congregation Beth Israel, Vancouver.

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