Naomi Graetz

‘Disproportionate Force’ — The Case of Pinchas

Two days ago, Ami Eshed the police chief of Tel Aviv resigned from his position saying that he was forced out for political reasons because he refused to use violence against protestors. He said:

“I could have easily used disproportionate force and filled Ichilov’s hospital emergency room at the end of every demonstration in Tel Aviv. We could have cleared the Ayalon Highway within minutes at the terrible cost of cracking heads and breaking bones and at the cost of breaking the pact between police and the citizenry.  For the first time in my three decades of service, I was met with the bizarre reality in which calm and order were not the desired goal, but rather the contrary was the case.”


In last week’s parsha, Pinchas, Moses’s grand-nephew acted with “Disproportionate Force” when he saw the Israelites whoring with the daughters of Moab, and sacrificing to their god (baal peor).  God told Moses to impale all the chiefs of Israel so that God’s wrath would turn away from Israel. Moses, like Ami Eshed, told the judges of Israel to kill only the men who were actually worshipping the foreign Gods. But before this could happen, an Israelite man suddenly appeared and bought a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the entire community. Their reaction to weep at the entrance of the Tent of the Meeting, like bystanders, not knowing what to do, if anything:

When Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he arose from the assembly and took a spear in his hand, and followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through her belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked (Numbers 25:7-8).


In this week’s parsha, Pinchas is rewarded by God and He tells Moses:

 “Pinchas son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest turned away My wrath from the Israelites by acting zealously for My zealotry in their midst, so that I did not wipe out the Israelites through my zeal. Therefore say: ‘I hereby grant him My Covenant of Peace. And it shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of Eternal Priesthood because of his acting zealously for his God and atoning for the Israelites” (Numbers 25: 11-13).

We now find out that the Israelite man was Zimri, the son of a chieftain from the house of Simeon. And the Midianite woman was Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite chieftain. Not only did God reward Pinchas with the covenant of peace and perpetual priesthood, but God told Moses that from now on the Midianites would be the enemy and pre-emptive attacks on them would be allowed because:

they have been foes to you through their wiles that they practiced upon you in the matter of Peor and in the matter of Cozbi daughter of the chieftain of Midian, their kinswoman, who was struck down on the day of the scourge over the matter of Peor” (Numbers 25:18).

There is some irony is this story. If we recall Moses, married Tziporah who was the daughter of Yitro, a Midianite priest who has a whole parsha named for him. Not only was he NOT a Baal worshipper, but Yitro spoke positively of the monotheistic God of Israel.

In the period, towards the end of wandering in the wilderness, when the reality of the imminent entry into the land of Canaan is in the background, leadership has changed and with it perhaps a new ideology which involves hatred of neighbors and fear of the other and their Gods. The new generation who runs things (with God’s approval) praise zealotry in the name of God and get rewarded for violent acts. Surely this ancient “new” reality is similar to what we are facing in modern day Israel.


It is well known that the Maccabees famous cry, “all those who are zealous for the Torah and keeping the covenant, should, follow me”  כל המקנא לתורה העומד בברית ילך אחרי was inspired by Pinchas (see 1 Maccabees 2:24-28). It is also similar to what Moses said in the aftermath of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32: 26): מי לה’ אלי “Who is for God, follow me”, and then with his fellow Levites proceeded to kill 3,000 people, all of those whom were guilty of worshipping another God.

Rabbinic literature has mixed feelings about Pinchas’s act, despite God’s approval. His act is not thought out, he just jumps in, when he sees injustice. He does not warn the couple, he just acts out of passion (zealotry). Actually, there is some precedent for this (besides the Golden Calf), if we recall Moses’s killing of the Egyptian taskmaster beating the Israelite slave. But at least Moses looked around before striking, and when he saw there was no one to intervene, he struck the Egyptian. He knew he did something wrong and buried the Egyptian (Exodus 2:12).

Assuming that Moses should be a role model, is that how God’s chosen leader should resolve problems, by killing another human being? Our tradition usually praises him for this action; it’s a mitzvah to kill someone in order to preserve another’s live, that is, the poor slave who was being beaten up by the brutal taskmaster. But God did not whitewash his action and eventually Moses had to flee. Despite rabbinic praise of Moses’s action, there are those sages who argue that this is why Moses was denied entry to Canaan. In a midrash about Moses’ death, there are hints that killing is not the only way. In this midrash God rebukes Moses:

When toward the end of his life Moses tried to stave off death, God said to him: ‘Did I tell you to slay the Egyptian?’ Moses answered: ‘You slew all the first-born in Egypt.’ Then God silenced him by saying: ‘Can you liken yourself to Me? I cause death, but I also revive the dead’ (Midrash Petirat Moshe — dating to between 7th and 11th centuries),

Clearly it is this murderous act according to the sages that kept Moses from entering the promised land. The Midrash comments that this is acceptable for the Almighty but not for a human being. In a passage with echoes of the Moses story, Isaiah says:

“The Lord looked, and it was evil in His eyes that there was no justice. He saw there was no man (eyn ish) and was astonished that no-one intervened, so His own arm brought salvation” (Isa 59:15-16).

Is Isaiah who clearly knew our passage, hinting that there was no person to intervene and so God is the only one whose arm can bring justice to the world? Had Moses followed an alternative course of action, perhaps he would have deserved to go into the Promised Land, instead of being banished from it.

Thus, one could argue that Pinchas is following in Moses’s footsteps, especially since now by crying with the people Moses has been sidelined, paralyzed by what he sees and unable to act. There is however, one major difference in the two acts. Moses acts furtively; there is no one around, he looks both ways before he acts; he hesitates. But Pinchas doesn’t think; the whole nation is watching, he acts reflexively; violence comes naturally to this Levite. Moses is on his way out and there is a new type of leadership, one approved by God.


One can argue that God as well is guilty of disproportionate force? After all, in the chapter it says that after all of this happened “the plague was held back” (vs. 8). But meanwhile 24 thousand people died. This despite the fact that there was no earlier mention of a “plague”, only God’s orders to kill the Israelite chiefs. God makes clear that had Pinchas not intervened, God would have wiped out the Israelite people. Throughout the Tanakh God uses disproportionate force (think Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, ten plagues) both against the Deity’s enemies as well as the sinning people of Israel.  God’s “flaring wrath” (vs. 4) was evident as well in the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 31:18-32:35) which also included a threat by God to let his anger destroy the people (32:10) and God’s sending “a plague upon the people for what they did with the calf” (32: 35). So, we can see that God is guilty of acting disproportionately in response to the Israelites worship of idols and foreign gods. Thus it should come to us as no surprise to us when God grants the Noble Peace prize to Pinchas for his act of zealotry and violence. That’s because this is how how God’s responds to what displeases God.


Should God be our role model? Should we approve of “Disproportionate Force” because God chooses it as his modus vivendi?

Let’s return to Moses. Perhaps Moses understood that it was time to step down and not go along with God’s zeal in prosecuting actions which are offensive to him. Perhaps Ami Eshed the police chief of Tel Aviv who refused to follow orders and use violence understands too that one should not agree to use excessive violence just because his Boss orders him to. Violence is too easy. Compassion and reason are much harder when under pressure. There is a wonderful (long) midrash which explains why God chose Moses. It was not the killing of the Egyptian, but rather Moses’s compassion for others which endeared him to God:

AND IT CAME TO PASS IN THOSE DAYS, WHEN MOSES WAS GROWN UP (Exodus 2: 11). Moses was twenty years old at the time; some say forty. ‘ When Moses was grown up.’ Does not everyone grow up? Only to teach you that he was abnormal in his growth. AND HE WENT OUT UNTO HIS BRETHREN. This righteous man went out on two occasions and God recorded them one after the other. And he went out on the second day (ib. 3)- these were the two occasions. AND HE LOOKED ON THEIR BURDENS (ibid vs. 11). What is the meaning of AND HE LOOKED? He looked upon their burdens and wept, saying: ‘Woe is me for you; would that I could die for you.’ There is no labor more strenuous than that of handling clay, and he used to shoulder the burdens and help each one. R. Eleazar, son of R. Jose the Galilean, said: He saw great burdens put upon small people and light burdens upon big people, and a man’s burden upon a woman and a woman’s burden upon a man, and the burden which an old man could carry on a youth, and of a youth on an old man. So, he left his suite and rearranged their burdens, pretending all the time to be helping Pharaoh. God then said to him: ‘Thou hast put aside thy work and hast gone to share the sorrow of Israel, behaving to them like a brother; well, I will also leave those on high and below and only speak with thee.’ Hence it is written: And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see (Exodus 3, 4); because God saw that Moses turned aside from his duties to look upon their burdens, He called unto him out of the midst of the bush (Exodus Rabbah 1:27).

The dilemma we are still left with, is who takes the place of the compassionate leaders like Moses and Ami Eshed? Is it to be the Pinchases among us? Underlying our reality is the dangerous assumption that today’s Pinchases have: they believe they have God’s approval for their violent acts. And with this quandry, I leave you with wishes for shabbat shalom.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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