Written by Rimona Frank. Posted in Hebrew Insights.

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Pinchas – Bamidbar (Numbers) 25:10 – 29:40

The issue we encounter at the beginning of Parashat Pinchas has already been introduced to us at the end of last week’s Parashat Balak. Pinchas, A’haron’s grandson who is his son’s El’azar’s firstborn, observed the sinful act committed by an Israelite, a leader of the tribe of Shim’on (Simeon) with a Midianite woman, and slew both of them. He thus “made atonement” (25:13) for the sons of Yisrael and brought to an end the plague that stuck them. The word used here for “made atonement” is none other than “(vay)cha’per,” of the root k.f.r, which we know as “kippur,” or “covering.” Pinchas’ action, along with the penalty paid for by the two sinners, had propitiated for Yisrael’s iniquity of “clinging to Ba’al Pe’or” (ref. 25:3). T’hilim (Psalms) 106 also refers to this episode: “They also were joined to Baal-Peor, and ate the sacrifices of the dead; and provoked Him with their deeds; and a plague broke out among them. Then Phinehas stood and intervened, and the plague was stayed” (vs 28-30). In this latter reference Pinchas’ act is describes as – (vay)fa’lel (p/f.l.l, pey/fey, lamed, lamed) – which is interposing, intervening, mediating, as well as judging and pleading. It is from this root that the word “t’fila,” prayer, originates. I fact, as we will find out, Pinchas’ action was multi-facetted. In the second half of this article, His atoning act and its judicial aspects and parallelism to Yeshua’s, will be elaborated on.

The two persons involved in the said episode were, Zimri the son of Salu, one of the leaders of the tribe of Shim’on, and Cozbi a Midianite woman, who, likewise was a daughter of a “head of the people of a father's house in Midian” (25:15). Leading Yisrael astray definitely ranked high on the list of priorities of the Mo’av-Midian coalition. The protagonists’ names in this Parasha, are also of interest. Thus, Pinchas appears to be an Egyptian name, having typical characteristics such as the name of the town of Tach’pan ’ches (Jeremiah 44:1) and that of Tach’peh’ nis , the Egyptian wife of Hadad the Edomite (1 Kings 11:19, 20). But even more intriguing is the name of the Midianite princess Cozbi, which is made up of the letters kaf, zayin, bet, yod. The first three of these, that is c.z.b, constitute the root for the word “cazav” (or, phonetically, “kazav”), which means to “lie, deceive, lying, deception.” Last week we read in Bamidbar 23:19: “Elohim is not a man that He should lie...” The verb rendered there as “lie” is “(vay)cha’zev,” which refers particularly to “being unfaithful or untrue to one’s commitment or promise.” In a land thirsty for water as Yisrael is, riverbeds hold a promise of being filled during the winter. However, in the dry season such riverbeds become waterless. Hence a stream of water which dries up after the rainy season may be used as imagery for that which lets one down: “You surely are to me like deceitful – ach’zav - waters which cannot be trusted,” complains Yirmiyahu to his Creator in a moment of dark despair (Jer. 15:18). Cozbi, too, was nothing but a bait of deception and enticement to the people of Yisrael (cf. Prov. 5), and especially to leaders like Zimri. Walking in the paths of temptation, away from He Who is the Way the Truth and the Life, leads not only to disappointment, but far worse… and in the case before us, to destruction and death, which was experienced by 24,000 souls in Yisrael’s camp (ref. Num. 25:9).

As noted above, Cozbi was a Midianite. Midian was a son of Avraham by his wife K’turah (see Gen. 25:2). The name stems from the verb “din” (dalet, yod, noon), meaning primarily to “judge or mete justice,” referring to all aspects of government. It is the root for the word “medina” – province. However, this particular form – “Midian” – may also be related to “mah’don,” which albeit of the same root (as “judgment”) means “strife or contention” (e.g. Prov. 15:18; Jer. 15:10; Hab. 1:3 etc.). Thus, far from being a people of judgment (that is of justice and righteousness), the Midianites’ affairs were handled by resorting to magic and witchcraft and all forms of deception, as was so evident in the character of Bil’am. The fact that they were not wholly unaware of the Elohim of Yisrael and of His ways (as illustrated by Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law and even by Bil’am), only made the “din” (‘judgment’) pronounced upon them by Yisrael’s Elohim more severe. Hence, YHVH says to Moshe: "Harass the Midianites, and attack them; for they harassed you with their schemes by which they seduced you in the matter of Peor and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of a leader of Midian, their sister, who was killed in the day of the plague because of Peor” ( Num. 25:17-18).

Highlighted in this passage is the cunning posture and frame of mind of the Midianites, illustrated so typically by Cozbi. The order from on High here is “to harass and attack” the Midianites, since they “harassed you.” “harassing” in this case is “tza’ror” (tz.r.r - tzadi, resh, resh), meaning, “showing hostility,” while “tzorer” is an “enemy or adversary.” In Parashat Balak, we heard Bil’am say of Yisrael: “he shall eat up the nations that are his foes – tza’rav” (Num. 24:8 italics added). In Bamidbar (Numbers) 33:55 a condition will be placed before Yisrael: “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall be that those whom you let remain shall be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass– (ve)tza’ra’ru - you in the land where you dwell”. Haman, the Jews’ cruel adversary, was named in Esther 3:10; 8:1, “tzorer ha-Yehudim,” the “foe of the Jews.” Haman the Agagite was a descendent of the royal house of Amalek, about whom it was said, “Amalek threatened the body of the people [of Yisrael], whilst Midian threatened its soul.” [1]

The opening section of the Parasha presents two words that are used several times within a few verses. The first one is repeated four times in 25:11-13, and it is “jealous,” “zealous,” or “jealousy.” The root of “jealousy/zealousness” is kano (root k.n.a. kof, noon, alef), originating in the “color produced in the face by deep emotion” [2]. It is especially related to marriage relationship, and as “God is depicted as Israel ’s husband; he is [therefore] a jealous God… Phinehas [too] played the faithful lover by killing a man and his foreign wife, and thus stayed the wrath of divine jealousy”. [3] The other word that occurs five times in verses 14-18 is “smite or smitten” and “strike” (in other translations “slay and slain”). In all these instances the verb “nako” (n.k.h, noon, kaf, hey) is used in a variety of conjugations. N.k.h (or its derivation “hakot”) is a very common root and may be used in many different ways, describing fall and defeat, punishment, being beaten, smitten or hurt for a variety of reasons. In our case, it relates to the punishment of death.

However, because of the emphatic repetition of “jealousy/ zealousness” - kano - just before the reiteration of “nako,” it would appear that our text is underscoring a situation in which YHVH’s “jealousy” has been provoked, resulting in a “smiting unto death.” Clearly, a cause-and-effect ‘word picture’ is being conveyed here, aided by a (subtle) play on words.

Chapter 26 is devoted to the census of the leaders of the tribes and of all those who were twenty-year old and above; that is, those eligible for army service. It is according to their relative number that the land of Yisrael is to be apportioned to them: “To the many you shall increase their inheritance; and to the few you shall diminish their inheritance” (v. 54 emphases added). On the other hand, in verse 62 we read that the census of the Levites applied to “all males from a month old and upward,” but it goes on to say that they were not counted among the sons of Israel, because there was no inheritance given them among the sons of Israel” (emphasis added). “Inheritance” here is “nachala,” the root of (noon, chet, lamed) is also a stream, and therefore connotes a downward flow, meaning “a permanent possession inherited by succession” (the Levites were told by YHVH that He was their portion – “nachala,” Num. 18:20). A different conjugation transforms to “manchil,” which is “to cause to possess” such as is seen in Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 32:8: “When the Most High gave – “hinchil” - each nation its heritage, when he set apart the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the people of Israel .” And just as the Land of Yisrael was divvied out according to the size of each household, so was the rest of the world divided up by YHVH, who knew that His people would be scattered among the nations, according to the ‘quota’ of Israelites in their midst. In chapter 27 of our Parasha, we meet Tzlofchad’s daughters who demand their possession saying: “Our father died in the wilderness… and had no son. Why is our father's name taken away from the midst of his family because there is no son to him? Give us an inheritance among our father's brothers” (vs. 3, 4 emphasis added). Inheritance in this case is “achuza,” of the verb achoz (root alef, chet, zayin), meaning to “grasp or hold” and hence to “possess and possession.” The stronger word for “possession,” used here by these daughters was intended to underscore their claim.

When YHVH reminds Moshe that his day of departure is close at hand, the latter expresses his concern regarding the future: “Let YHVH, the Elohim of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who may go out before them, and who may go in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in, so that the congregation of YHVH may not be as sheep to whom there is no shepherd” (27:16, 17 italics added). Evidently, Moshe understands the integrated composition of man, being both flesh and spirit while at the same time also recognizing that YHVH knows his creatures through and through. In describing the need for a leader, Moshe highlights “going out before (the people)… going in before (them)… leading out… and bringing in…” Is Moshe subtly making reference to the possible fate of the next leader, lest it be similar to his own (that is, staying behind and not entering the land with the rest of the people)? Whether that is the case or not, Moshe displays no bitterness when told to “take Joshua, a man in whom is the spirit” (v. 18), echoing the “Elohim of the spirits” mentioned in verse 16 above. YHVH instructs Moshe how to ordain his successor, which Moshe follows implicitly; “as YHVH commanded” (v. 23), in spite of what was no doubt a grave disappointment to him. However, since Moshe had not been deceived or embittered, his disappointment is not like the description found in Ee’yov (Job) 41:9: “Behold, your expectation is false [nich’zeva, of the root k.z.v examined above].” Neither was Moshe’s experience like that of the faithless ones from among the people of Yisrael who sought gratification in the wrong places and from that which was not able to satisfy.

In Parashat Balak (and Pinchas) we encounter the Israelites’ harlotry and idolatry instigated by the daughters of Moab and Midian (ref. 25:1-6). This act included sacrifices with the worshippers prostrating in front of idols, as well as sexual immorality. It is no wonder, therefore, that scripture terms it clinging/adhering/sticking to Baal Pe’or” (v. 3), who was the local deity. YHVH’s anger burned against Yisrael, and so a little later a plague broke out among them (25:8-9). YHVH addressed Moshe in no uncertain terms, commanding him to “take all the leaders of the people and hang them before YHVH, out in the sun, that the fierce anger of YHVH may turn away from Israel” (25:4 literal translation, emphasis added). YHVH held all the leaders responsible for these abominable acts, and His response was to have them hang in broad daylight and in view of all Israel in order to appease His righteous indignation.

Moshe, however, did not obey this very specific order accurately. Instead, He spoke to the nation’s judges, telling them to kill (not specifying how): “each man his men who were joined to Baal of Peor" (25:5). This time Moshe’s delegation of power to his subordinates was not according to YHVH’s judicial order. That being the case, the plague continued and additionally a leader from the tribe of Shim’on, as we noted, dared to defy and blatantly rebel against YHVH by fornicating in the sight of all the congregation of Israel with a Midianite princess in front of the Mishkan. It was only after the two offenders were pierced to death that the plague (which took a substantial toll on the people – 24,000) came to a halt.

As we noted above, it was said about Pinchas that, in his jealousness and zeal for YHVH he atoned for the Sons of YIsrael, resulting in a covenant of peace, as well as in a covenant of an everlasting priesthood for him and for his seed (25:12, 13). As we have already seen, Psalm 106:30-31 adds a couple more terms regarding the scene at hand: “Then Phinehas stood up and intervened/ mediated/interjected, and the plague was stopped. And that was accounted to him for righteousness to all generations forevermore” (italics added).

Thus, in order to appease YHVH, according to His specifications, in the case of this most horrendous act of sin and transgression there were several requirements and legalities. First, the leaders had to be held accountable with the consequential requirement of being hung in broad daylight. When that order was not followed implicitly, and another brazen act of defilement was performed in public, it took the piercing to death of the offenders to restore righteousness, interpose, atone, and propitiate for all YIsrael, who without that would have all perished (by the plague).

Moreover, in the act of the fornication of the masses, as well as the single act of the Simeonite leader Zimri, there was not only a clinging/joining/adhering to the idol of Baal Peor, but also a joining and becoming one with the enticing harlots. Thus, Yisrael as YHVH’s bride was joined to another, becoming one with Baal and its priestesses. Hence the Jealous Husband (see Numbers 5:11-31) had every right to activate the “law of jealousy” against His bride. Pinchas, however, appeased that too, and so we read in Bamidbar 25:11 that he “has turned back My wrath from the children of Israel , because he was zealous with My zeal among them, so that I did not consume the children of Israel in My zeal.”

The above facts and especially the responses to the sin so flagrantly displayed, help shed light on the judicial aspects of Yeshua’s atoning act on His execution stake. YHVH, as the jealous husband, had to see to it that His bride’s inherent sinful condition by which she had been enticed to betray Him would be propitiated and atoned for. In the Baal Peor incident, it was also YHVH’s household that was defiled. Similarly, Yeshua responded to the peddling that took place in the Temple compound (see John 2:17), and the disciples associated it with T’hilim (Psalms) 69:9, which says: “…zeal for Your house has eaten me up…”

Above we referred to the reoccurrence of the verb n.k.h (smite, smitten, strike, stricken) at the beginning of the Parasha, which in Yisha’ya’hu (Isaiah) 53: in adverb form, is used to portray the One who was “smitten by Elohim” (mu’keh Elohim). Both Matthew (27:30) and Mark (15:19) give an account of how Yeshua was stuck/beaten/smitten on His head before being hung on the tree.

YHVH’s desired form of reckoning with the leaders of Yisrael, who had failed miserably, was to have them executed by hanging, so that the curse could be removed from the rest of the people, as it is written: “He who is hanged is accursed of Elohim” (Deuteronomy 21:23). This was fulfilled in Yeshua, who redeemed us from the curse of sin and of betraying Eloim, by hanging on a tree (ref. Gal. 3:13). 1Peter 2:24 says:Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree…” When the hanging did not take place in the Numbers 25 episode, and when further offense was committed, as we saw, Pinchas resorted to piercing the offenders with a javelin. Yeshua too was pierced, in that case, during His crucifixion (ref. John 19:34). In regards to the piercing, John adds, quoting Zechariah 12:10: "They shall look on Him whom they pierced" (John 19:37).

“…Elohim set forth as a propitiation by His [Yeshua’s] blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance Elohim had passed over the sins that were previously committed…” (Romans 3:25). With the requirement of blood in order to propitiate for the sins committed by the Israelites, for “without shedding of blood there is no remission” (Hebrews 9:22), Pinchas’ action fulfilled YHVH’s righteousness, or at least foreshadowed the ultimate act of righteousness that was to come.

Pinchas’ reward was a covenant of peace, and of everlasting priesthood (ref. Number 25:12,13). Later on, Yisrael too would be receiving the promise of a “covenant of peace” (Is. 54:10, Ez. 34:25, 37:26). Moreover, this covenant of peace was to be an everlasting one. It is no wonder, therefore, that the agent of propitiation, interposing and atoning (namely Pinchas) was also the recipient of this covenant. The greater covenant of peace comes into effect by the Prince of Peace (ref. Is. 9:6), who has promised, over and again, peace to His followers, has brought the Gospel of peace (ref. Eph. 2:17), and made peace through His blood (ref. Col. 1:20). And as to the everlasting priesthood… that same “agent” of righteousness was eligible for this kind of priesthood, as it says about Him: “…where the forerunner has entered for us, even Yeshua, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek… But He, because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood” (Hebrews 6:20 7:24).

Bamidbar (Numbers) 25, therefore, presents YHVH’s legal requirements for atonement in a most detailed and graphic way, both in what preceded Pinchas’ interposing act, and afterwards. Hence, when we gaze from this vantage point in Bamidbar further into the historical account, we see that Yeshua’s action and position met every requirement to the full and complete satisfaction of His Father.

[1] New Studies in Bamidbar, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.

[2] The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Francis Brown Hendrickson Publishers. Peabody, Mass. 1979.

3 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press, Chicago, 1980.

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