Torah Portion of the Week: God as Jealous Husband

Parashat Pinchas.

'Moses Views the Land of Israel,' a woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld from the 1860 'Bible in Pictures.'
Wikimedia Commons

The story that began last week in Parashat Balak, and continues this Shabbat in Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1), deals with the complex connection between religion, sex and zealotry. The Israelites, journeying to the Promised Land, worship Baal of Peor, the Canaanite deity who resides in a place called Peor. In his book, “The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel,” Benjamin D. Sommer explains that, in Ancient Near Eastern religions, gods could “divide” their selves, materializing in several places simultaneously – as was the case with Baal of Peor.

Moses orders Israel’s leaders to kill the idolatrous sinners, after which an event occurs that amazes everyone: “And, behold, one of the Children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the Children of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the Tent of Meeting” (Numbers 25:6). The precise nature of being “brought unto his brethren” is unclear; however, biblical commentators attribute a clearly sexual connotation to this act. Only later do we come to understand that the actors involved are not ordinary people: They are a prominent Israelite and the daughter of a Midianite leader.

In describing a rapid flow of events, the text does not pause to provide those details, perhaps because we see the man and woman initially through the eyes of Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson. Like all zealots, Pinchas considers them not as individuals but as representatives of communities: not as Cozbi and Zimri, but as Midianite and Israelite. Seeing the powerlessness of Israel’s veteran leaders, Moses and Aaron, young Pinchas grabs a spear and kills the two of them.

This is where Parashat Pinchas begins. Speaking to Moses, God praises Pinchas for this act: “Pinchas … hath turned my wrath away from the Children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for my sake among them, so that I consumed not the Children of Israel in my jealousy. Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace; and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the Children of Israel” (Num. 25:11-13).

In his article (in Hebrew), “God’s Mate and the Birth of Religious Zealotry,” biblical studies scholar Israel Knohl explains: “Pinchas is the executor of divine jealousy – ‘in that he was very jealous for my sake among them’ – and he thereby ‘saves’ God from destroying Israel in the wrath of his jealousy.” As a reward for his act, God promises Pinchas a tranquil life, granting him and his descendants a central role in the Temple.

Knohl places this story in the broad context of the relationship between sexuality and religious zealotry as portrayed in the Bible. We can connect this point to Yehuda Liebes’ research on Jewish theology: Liebes opposes the opinion that prevailed in Jewish studies during previous generations that argued that the principal aim of the Bible was liberation from from the Near East’s mythological world and creation of a rational, moral monotheism. According to Liebes, the Bible, and in its wake also midrashic and kabbalistic literature throughout the ages, have as much mythological power as the early tales of the gods, but instead focus on one god. The Bible does not advocate the acquisition of philosophical knowledge about the unity of the Creator of the Universe, but does demand total loyalty to Israel’s God.

For his part, Knohl considers the marriage metaphor – which appears implicitly in the Torah and explicitly in the Prophets – ideally suited to express this loyalty, monotheism’s hallmark: The biblical God has no divine mate per se; Israel is perceived as his mate. But this is not an egalitarian marriage: Israel must be absolutely loyal to God, but the obligation of loyalty does not apply equally: The husband can marry several wives. Jealousy is also associated to the marriage metaphor: Elsewhere in the Torah, jealousy appears in connection with a man who suspects his wife of infidelity. God acts toward Israel like a jealous husband, and idolatry is often described in the Bible as adultery or harlotry.

However, the sexual context here is not just metaphorical: Idolatry is often linked to deviant sexual activity and to Israel’s relations with other nations. The prohibition on such ties applies to the men, not the women: When the men violate the prohibition, they are branded adulterers who arouse God’s jealousy. Knohl explains this gender reversal thus: “It is ironically the men who arouse God’s jealousy when they ‘cheat’ on him. In this sense, they play the woman’s role in the relationship with God.”

The blending of metaphor with reality is expressed in the characters of Zimri and Pinchas: Zimri, the man, is the woman arousing the jealousy of God, who is implicitly portrayed as a jealous, violent husband. Pinchas assumes that husband’s role, thus saving himself and all Israel, in the role of wife, from God’s jealousy.

Classical rabbinic authorities apparently searched for evidence that the Bible condemned Pinchas’ actions, although God ostensibly endorses them unreservedly. The sages found that condemnation elsewhere in the Bible – in the identification, through homiletic means, of Pinchas with another biblical zealot: Elijah the Prophet. Perhaps that is why a passage from 1 Kings (18:46-19:21) was chosen as this Sabbath’s haftarah. The background to the haftarah’s narrative is the incident on Mount Carmel when Elijah seeks to prove God’s superiority over the god Baal publicly, and kills hundreds of Baal’s prophets. Elijah must then flee the wrath of the regime, which had supported Baal. Distraught, Elijah complains to God about Israel’s infidelity.

God’s answer constitutes a unique divine revelation, apparently intended to clarify to Elijah that the Almighty reveals himself not just in wind, thunderous sounds and fire, but also by way of “a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). God tries to restrain Elijah’s zeal, but does not succeed: The prophet repeats his complaint verbatim. In response and in a move that is unusual for the Bible, God notifies Elijah that his role as prophet is over. Thus, whereas God promotes Pinchas for his zealotry, he fires Elijah for the same thing. God’s words in Parashat Pinchas speak for themselves; no one censors them. However, besides reading the text and attempting to interpret it, the reader must decide which text to juxtapose with it.