Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Four Readings of a Difficult Story: Pinchas

Ever since it came up in the cycle of Torah readings two weeks ago, I've been thinking about the strange and difficult story of Pinchas (Numbers 25). After Balak the king of Moab calls on Balaam the prophet to curse the people of Israel, and God prevents Balaam from cursing them and ends up blessing them instead, we find this story:

While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their gods. The people partook of them and worshiped that god. Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and the Lord was incensed with Israel. The Lord said to Moses, "Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before the Lord, so that the Lord's wrath may turn away from Israel." So Moses said to Israel's officials, "Each of you slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baal-peor."

Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. When Phinehas [or Pinchas], son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them. the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked. Those who died of the plague numbered twenty-four thousand.

The Lord spoke to Moses saying, "Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in my passion. Say, therefore, 'I grant him my pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.'" (Etz Hayim, pp. 907-908 and 918-919)

I don't need to point out what's troubling about this story for modern readers. How should we react to the story of Pinchas?

Over my lifetime, I have seen people respond to difficult stories in the Torah in four different ways.
  1. Acceptance: Some people believe that whatever in the Torah is a model for us to follow. If we have trouble with the model, it is we who need to readjust our thinking.
  2. Rejection: A second reaction is that a story like this cannot possibly have anything to teach us. It reflects the barbaric beliefs of our distant ancestors. We should try to separate the uplifting teachings of the Torah from the culture in which they first appeared.
  3. Interpretation: Both the stance of acceptance and the stance of rejection assume that the Torah offers us models to follow straightforwardly--they only differ on whether or not we should accept the offer. There is a third way. Some people look beyond the obvious reading of the text to find a different meaning for us in our time. This is actually the most traditional approach. The rabbis called it midrash, the searching and probing investigation of the words of the Torah.
  4. Asking a different question: Sometimes we get unacceptable answers from the Torah because we are asking the wrong questions. In the case of Pinchas, we might stop asking "What kind of action is this for a nice Jewish boy?" (not to mention a benevolent God), and we might start asking, "In this story, what is the situation the Jews face? When are we in similar situations? What can we learn from the story that's either a direction to follow or a wrong turn to avoid?"
I believe that ALL FOUR approaches can make the difficult story of Pinchas say something useful to us today. Let me start with #4, in my next post.

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