1. Pinchas Introduction - Today we continue with the troubling tale that closed out the unbelievably lovely message of the blessings in the last portion. We can’t help but continue to wonder at how this apostasy could have happened. Are the people - especiallyin this new generation - that earned those stunning blessings that were inspired and directed by God also vulnerable to pagan allurements, as were their predecessors? And,if so, what are they to do about it? What are we to do about it?
I. Read 25:10-13. A. Pinchas killed an Israelite man and a Midianite woman because of their flagrant and public immoral, blasphemous, and offensive profanation of God’s name and way. Here God blesses Pinchas, which we’ll discuss in a moment.
But first let’s address a serious problem many moderns (and others) have with this tale. How would or could we distinguish this behavior from any of a number of instances about which we’re very familiar in which a zealot “took the law” in his own hands and killed in the name of God? Should Pinchas have warned Zimri or “taken him to court” instead, or taken other action? (1. Some commentators - even of old - had problems here. Some saw fanaticism and that a dangerous precedent was being set. The Talmud tells a negative story about this behavior. Some look to letters in the words in these verses in the scroll and find concern. For example, the yod in Pinchas’ name in verse 11 is shorter than usual, perhaps suggesting that there’s a little less of God when we do violence, even when justified; also there’s a break in the vav in the word shalom (peace) in verse 12. Let’s also keep in mind that the Bible has that top layer that fits the times in which it was first revealed. And, as we know from other contexts, the notion of killing had a different meaning then than it does to us today, as does the reality of the plague that afflicted the people fortheir sin. How much so and in what ways - we’ll leave to discuss another day, but we should keep our awareness of this difference in mind.
2. Yet, there’s approval of his action as well. These views begin with the core idea that God approves! The argument goes further to see this corrective action as necessaryto defend God’s ways when the pagan wildness and straying didn’t seem particularly susceptible to conversation and convincing or a judicial process. Nor was Pinchas, a respectable and mild sort, much typical of a deranged or criminal character who masks lawless action in the name of God (e.g., by ISIS or other fanatics who objectivelydo so, regardless of what they say is in their head or mouth).
A strong case can be made that this is action needed to stem powerful and destructive behavior on the other side that, if not stopped,destroys God’s ways and people. (Hirsch and the Hatam Sofer)
Recall the man and the woman who were Pinchas’ target are major figures - a chieftain of one of the tribes and a daughter of one of the Midianite tribal chiefs.
Whether, when, and under what circumstances we would support vigorous opposition of this sort, don’t we need to understand at least that a weakness toward, or an acquiescence with, godlessness and a flaunting of God and God’s ways can only abet it and ultimately and severely endanger God’s way in the world? The physical and spiritual future of the people is precarious if these threats against God, through zealous and dangerous practice, can succeed. Thoughts?
B. In the text itself describing God’s positive reaction to what Pinchas has done, what is meant by the idea of “a passion for Me” that “turns back My wrath” for the Israelites and generates “a pact of friendship” with him and his descendants?”
(God rewards passion and action on behalf of true Divine will. As we have seen, misplaced action or action outside the bounds (for example, that of Aaron’s sons) is to be severely punished. So, the person who acts at substantial risk on behalf of God presumably must understand that it’s not all up to them or what’s in their heads. There are substantial consequences one way or the other, depending on whether the action truly serves God or is rationalized behavior outside of Divine desire.
Some see Pinchas’ role as a part of a new needed balance in the leadership. Moses was strong to the more pacific Aaron; Pinchas’ passion will balance the more moderate Joshua.
Others who are not so keen on what he did see the peace given Pinchas in a limited, very different way, really only as a sort of an immunity from liability to the law or the Angel of Death for what he did, making it more excusable than justifiable.)
II. As is often the case in the Bible, as we have seen so many times, we must look for God’s teaching as to cultic, religious, spiritual, and social lessons that can nourish the community and individuals in ways that are enduring and sustainable. This is especially important when there has been a story involving the proneness within humanity to stray. It’s as if God wants to give us lessons to avoid the temptation or deal with it and stem it and its consequences. In other words, God is constantly teaching us, especiallyin those distressing times in which such instruction is most apt and needed. Let’s see what the teaching is that accompanies this narrative.
A. Read 26:1-4.
1. Why would God want another counting here, a census of the numbers? (It may be to get a sense again of those able to bear arms as they likely approach battle. It may be to see numbers for organizing and assuming position and land assignments in the land. It may be to see numbers after the losses of the plague, to see the numbers of the true followers at this point. It may be to connote the number of those now truly ready. In any event, it goes to the point we discussedbefore: we must know who we are, that we count, and that we will matter in so many ways to God and our community.)
2. Note the big decline from the first counting in the number associated with Simeon and the big increase in Manasseh. We’ll talk about Manasseh in a moment, but why the drop in Simeon? (This is the tribe of the son seen by Jacob as impulsive and inclined to violence. This is the tribe from which the ringleader Pinchas killed came. Perhaps they suffered lossesas well in the plague.)
B. Read 27:1-7
1. What’s happened, and what does it teach us? (The daughters are naturally concerned here. The attention of the community is drawn to land allocation during the census, and they have a problem which they bring to Moses,and he brings it to God.
God responds with mitzvoth in response to an appeal brought by good people seeking ethical answers. This is a special honor since virtually all of the mitzvoth were revealed at Sinai. Just the idea that God answers is important. But that we ask is, too, and that we make a case grounded in justice and principles of the good for the community is as well. The result of this encounter is rules (here as to the dispositionof propertyon the occasionof death) that create order and predictability, fosterpeace, reduce opportunities for division, tension, and war, preserve clan identity, and spur fairness and good as to the community’s welfare.)
2. We,also, take note that the tribe of Manasseh from which these daughters come has grown the most in the counting. Any takeaway lessons of a moral nature in the results of the counting that we’ve noticed, at least with respect to the tribes of Simeon and Manasseh?
(Living in God’s way is favored!)
C. Read 27:12,13, 15-20.
What strikes you here?
(1. Once again Moses responds to his own fate (and pain in it) with word and deed based on his duty to God and the people. He is shown the land, and his (at least outward) gesture is to want to assure that the people have the effective leadership they require. Even more, he envisions and expresseswhat that leadership ought to be. His view includes skills and traits that characterized a lot of what he gave, but it is not about him. It’s that the new leader must be someone who is visionary and strong enough to go and come ahead of them and take them out and bring them in.
2. This is akin to being a shepherd to a flock, as God is to the people. In what ways?
(Caring. Leading. There’s a notion of the reality of “followship” in the people. And, there’s a need for the leader to be able to handle on an aimlessness on their part, or, more appropriately, a tendency to waywardness, with a need for guidance and prodding.
3. God answers the call. The imagery is lovely: hands on, investiture of authority that can be delegated, to Joshua. And we see how it happens. Powerful, poignant, moving.
Moses’ death is foreshadowed here but won’t come until later.)
4. Lookat verses 15 and 16 again. Read them. We saw this appellation by Moses for God earlier in this book. Source of the breath of all flesh- is that your translation? The Hebrew word is ruach, really, spirit.
Now read 18. Joshua is described how? An inspired man? Actually the Hebrew again is ruach. What do you make of the use of this word in both instances?
(God is the source of spirit. And the new leader, above all else,should be of this same spirit. You may recall that Josephwas full of this spirit. You may also recall Moses’sharing of spirit with the elders. It links the leader with God, and the people with each other and with God. Presumably it’s a quality these “shepherds” require together in leading the “flocks.”)
D. Read 28:1-2.
1. The next two chapters delve once again into the offeringsdue God.We have discussed these mitzvoth a few times already. We won’t go into the details here. But I feel compelledby their appearance here, and at some considerable length, to ask you to answer a question we have indeed explored before: why does God bring these up again, and specifically here?
(God’s call to draw near through offerings is a central motif in Torah. It was, is, and will always be important. We were taught it and are reminded of it, taught it and re-taught it, both to be sure we know, remember, consider again and again how and why we are to honor God, serve God,and fulfill this blessing that God bestows on us.
2. Recall our several discussions of the many ways in which we can respond to this call through offerings that fit our times, our needs, and, mostly, God’s expectations of us. What ways have we discussed in past classes might correspond in our own modern times to these sacrifices. Do you remember? Describe some.
(Keep those ideas in mind - worship, prayer, meditation, time offered to God and in support of sacred space,offerings to celebrate community, to acknowledge our straying and commit to return back to God and God’s expectations.)
3. There is a fundamental idea each time these are raised, including here, that this regime creates order and binds us and God in covenant. Its features help sustain relationship with God and the community. It fosters peace and piety and discourages waywardness. It pushes back on the instincts that led to the apostasy that occurred at the end of the last portion and that evoked the radical response by Pinchas we discussed at the beginning of this portion.
These offerings - really the nearness with God which they help effect- support our being true and straight, and returning when we veer. They’re for ordinary time, special time, and time all the time.
We know from our study of the prophets, as you will recall, these offerings are never to be rote or cannot substitute for the love, the mercy, the compassion, the loving kindness, and the righteousness and justice we owe God and our fellows. But nor are we to ignore God’s call to draw near the Divine and our doing so. This is the balance with which we are to approach this text.
4. Why is it here?
(Two thoughts come to mind: 1) God reminds us of this avenue which, if we’ll take it, keeps us away from the path to Peor and all the horror that that way lies, and 2) the new generation ought to hear the blessing of nearness fresh, especially as they prepare to enter the land.)