This past week has seen Jews in Israel and around the world seeking answers and engaging in much soul searching following the brutal murder of Palestinian teen Muhammad Abu Khdeir by a group of Jewish men. Outrage over the murder has been matched by an outpouring of condolences: from the uncle of Israeli teen Naftali Frenkel, who was kidnapped and murdered along with two classmates just weeks earlier, to busloads of activists visiting Abu Khdeir’s family.
It is thus perhaps somewhere between irony and serendipity that Jews will fill the synagogue pews this Saturday morning, perhaps seeking spiritual uplift, only to be regaled with the story of Phinehas, the most celebrated vigilante in the Torah.
The narrative of Phinehas picks up in the wake of the Israelite victory over the Amorites. Taking a pause in their desert sojourn and making camp in Moab, we find the Israelites engaging in sexual impropriety with Moabite women, and ultimately worshiping the Moabite deities. The narrative then zooms in on a deliberate, public spectacle before Moses and the Israelites, as an Israelite man, Zimri, is said to have “brought near” a Midianite woman, Cozbi. (The exact nature of Zimri’s wrongdoing is never specified, though the near universal interpretation among commentators is that it was an illicit sexual encounter.) Phinehas, a grandson of Aaron, observes the event and springs into action. Narrated with a series of vivid verbs, Phinehas proceeds to follow the pair and spear them both, killing them.
In the verses that follow, with which this week’s Torah portion open, Phinehas is lauded by God for his zeal. He is blessed–somewhat ironically–with a “covenant of peace,” and owing to his zeal for God, his bloodline is chosen for the covenant of eternal priesthood. The Israelite wrongdoing is wiped away.
This episode is understandably problematic. Phinehas is described here as acting spontaneously and without any official directive or executive authority. He seemingly bypasses the law, and yet, not only are his actions approved by God—they are doubly lauded.
At first glance, Phinehas appears to be a model of exemplary behavior. He witnesses what appears to be an egregious and flagrant violation of the law, and so he punishes the wrongdoers. A closer look, however, reveals that this famed story is not meant to set an example, as it is not a legal narrative. Nowhere is the legal infraction specified, and nowhere is Phinehas said to have set a legal precedent to be enshrined in biblical law. If it has no legal value, why is this story included in the biblical narrative?
The answer is politics. While we generally think of the hereditary Jewish priesthood as as exclusive to the descendants of Aaron, scholars of the Hebrew Bible identify a much more fluid system that was at play in ancient Israel. In fact, one of the major driving forces in biblical narrative, according to Bible critics, is conflict between competing priestly groups. Locked in a power struggle and struggling for legitimacy were the Aaronids–who claimed descent from Aaron–and the Mushites–priests who claimed descent from Aaron’s brother Moses. The Levites, too, competed for leadership.
Jockeying for power and control of Israel’s most sacred (and lucrative) institutions, these groups engaged in battle. They went to war against each other, and their battlefield, their jousting ground, was the text of the Torah. I’m not just talking about insults. The competing bloodlines authored competing narratives of violence, which offer a stylized and highly charged venue for creating new realities and power structures; they are, in the words of one scholar, “a kind of theater, where we collaborate in reinventing ourselves and authorizing notions, both individual and collective, of who we are.”
It is no accident that the narrative contains no prescriptive call to violence—it’s not a legal text. It’s a text about ancient power dynamics that simply don’t translate into contemporary society. Phinehas unleashes his vigilante zeal on this narrative battlefield, and the story is transmitted as part of the cultural memory of the Aaronid priesthood. Notice how in addition to the covenant of peace, Phinehas, whose lineage–he’s the son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron the Priest–the text makes clear is blessed, is rewarded for his actions with a “covenant of eternal priesthood.” For a priestly clan fighting for leadership, that’s the ultimate prize.
Moreover, the narrative is spun in such a way that besmirches Moses—and by extension, his bloodline’s claims to the priesthood. Moses failed to act as Zimri, an Israelite man, consorted with Cozbi, a Midianite woman. It was Phinehas who acted.
Read through this critical lens, the violence in the Phinehas narrative takes a backseat to the claim of priestly authority it facilitates. It is an unfortunate fact that there is a close association between violence and the Israelite priesthood; the Phinehas narrative is but one of many examples. But we don’t often consider the violence inherent in the ancient Israelite sacrificial rites: slaughter, butchering, blood manipulations.
Just as in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is all too easy to point to “violence” and to lay blame without understanding its root causes. Phinehas is said to have acted violently and his vigilante violence is commended. These facts make me uncomfortable, even if the violence is limited to the textual world in which it was preserved. Nevertheless, violence calls for understanding; it calls for introspection. If only today’s battleground was limited to the written word.
Yonatan Miller is a PhD candidate in Jewish Studies at Harvard University. His dissertation, “Vigilante Justice: The Rhetoric of Extra-Judicial Violence in Biblical and Ancient Jewish Literature,” engages in a literary and legal-theoretical exploration of texts that empower or glorify those who take the law into their own hands.