The story of the apostasy at Baal Peor, where Israel sinned with women from Moav and Midian, and committed idolatry, the subsequent plague, the reaction of Pinchas and his reward is spread evenly between Parashat Balak and Parashat Pinchas – nine verses each (from Bamidbar 25). It is all part of the same small story – why isn’t it included in the same parasha?
One suggested answer is that the verses were so divided, as to separate the act of Pinchas from his reward. This is based on the understanding that Pinchas’s act was one of extreme zealotry, without official sanction. In the verses in Parashat Balak, the identities of Pinchas’s targets was not revealed:
“Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions […] When Phinehas, 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.” (Bamidbar 25:6-8)
Their names are only mentioned a few verses later, in Parashat Pinchas:
“The name of the Israelite who was killed, the one who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri son of Salu, chieftain of a Simeonite ancestral house. The name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi daughter of Zur; he was the tribal head of an ancestral house in Midian.” (Bamidbar 25:14-15)
This theory, therefore, claims that Pinchas, while indeed acting zealously, wasn’t motivated by any personal animus or interest, but only by a concern for the desecration of God’s name. It didn’t matter to him who the culprits were at all.
The problem with this approach is that while it does have support in midrashim, it doesn’t seem to fit the plain meaning of the text.
If we look carefully at the verses, we’ll see that Pinchas’s act was not one of vigilance, but rather a fulfillment of God’s command, and the identity of the sinners was central to his decision.
After Israel begins to sin with the Moabite women, God commands Moshe:
“Take the people’s leaders, and impale them publicly before God. This will reverse God’s display of anger against Israel.” (Bamidbar 25:4)
Moshe, however, delivers a different message:
“So Moses said to Israel’s officials, ‘Each of you slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baal-peor’ “ (Bamidbar 25:5)
There are two significant differences between God’s command and Moshe’s instruction. God had ordered that the leaders be killed (see the opinion of R. Yehuda in Bamidbar Rabbah 20:23), and Moshe directed that the “men” who were involved in the idolatry be slain. And God gave the task to Moshe, whereas Moshe gave the task to the officials.
The verses don’t mention that either God or Moshe’s instructions were carried out. In fact, the situation got worse, when the Midianite woman was taken, and Moshe and the people could only cry in reaction.
Pinchas, however, fulfilled God’s command: he impaled a leader of Israel, Zimri, and just as God promised, “the plague that had struck the Israelites was arrested.” (Bamidbar 25:8). Pinchas was no zealous vigilante – he had executed God’s command!
So if so, why did the Sages decide to split the story in two?
Nechama Leibowitz (in her Studies on Parashat Matot) asked a related question. Why does the Torah only tell us in Bamidbar 31:16 that it was Bilaam who persuaded the Midiaintes to seduce the Israelites at Baal Peor? Her answer is that in Parashat Balak, when we read that “the people profaned themselves” (Bamidbar 25:1) our focus should be on the responsibility of the people, not on who incited them. The same answer could be applied to the division between Parashat Balak and Pinchas. In Parashat Pinchas we read that Israel must attack Midian “for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you” (Bamidbar 25:18). That may have been so, but first we need to emphasize the responsibility that Israel had for giving into that sin.
R. Elchanan Samet gives an additional explanation. He points out that because of the unusual structure of Bamidbar 26:1 (a chapter break in the middle of a verse), part or all of the Baal Peor story had to be included in Parashat Pinchas. But by including the opening half of the story in Parashat Balak, we can already begin to understand Bilaam’s involvement in planning the enticement. While Israel may be protected from the curses of a foreign prophet, and God can even provide them protection from military threats, they must be exceedingly wary of sliding into immoral debauchery, for God will not easily forgive such betrayal.