Mattot-Massay: Pagiel, War-Priest Pinchas’s Recording Secretary, on Co-Existence with the Midianites

Scene: A storage-tent, full of bags of gold and silver, vessels of copper, iron tools and weapons, tin gimcracks, leaden vessels — “any vessel that can withstand fire” (Num. 31:21-23). These items of booty are waiting to be “passed through fire” and thereby ritually purified of their pagan connections, while other items — fine glass, coated pottery, enamelwork — lie, carefully stacked, in an opposite corner, to be “passed through water.” These will, afterwards, be declared hekdesh, “dedicated to God’s holy service in the Mishkan/Sanctuary,” or divided “equally between those who went forth to war, and the rest of the community” (Num. 31:27).

Off to one side, sitting cross-legged on a prayer rug, is Pagiel (Pah-GHEE-el) ben Machli ha-Levi, secretary-recorder-accountant to Pinchas ben Eleazar ben Aaron Ha-Kohen, Avenger of God against the sinning Israelites in Baal-Pe’or, Wielder of the Lance Against Zimri and Kozbi, and Official War-Kohen-Priest against the Midianites, who tempted the Israelites to sin there, and who were, therefore, attacked and conquered by the Israelites at God’s Command (Num. 31).

It was Pinchas who, we may assume, led the Levites who carried the Holy Ark into battle to boost the morale and give courage to the triumphant Israelites, as they defeated the Midianite troops, whom they afterwards decimated, by God’s command. As the dawn sun lights up the contents of the tent so that it shimmers and shines, Pagiel, who has been napping over his papyrus-sheet, suddenly jerks awake, dropping his stylus.

H’m? I am Poor Brother Pagiel, by your leave! You need not thrust your weapon in my face (waving his hand at the loot, still fuddled at being suddenly awakened by You, Reader, the Intruder) — there’s booty here — I mean, hekdesh, that which is sanctified to the Lord God above, Blessed Be His Name!, and will be apportioned out to Ourselves Below, as well — and counting, reckoning, and recording it’s my job — and all alone, mind you. Not much coin in the Accountant’s Fund, apparently — well — I better move along, and get to it —

What? Battle? Where? Oh, the killing-fields: poor Midianites, they never stood a chance (he drops his voice) for when you’ve got the Lord God Almighty on your side, the Thunderer Who moves both heaven and earth, there’s none can stand before you — Oh, pardon me, Friend —

(He grunts, rises, stretches)

— But I must be about my work. That Pinchas — Kohen Pinchas, All-Holy-Priestly-Prophetic-Pinchas, if you please — he’s not the patientest fellow to work for, I can tell you — but battle? Well, let me tell you — I was there, right in the thick of it, holding on to the Holy Ark, brought it right into the middle of the combat, me holding tight onto the left-hand carrying pole, rearward there, giving morale and buck-up-courage to Our Boys, just hacking, hacking at those Midianites — Ohoo, the blood that was spilt!

We caught them off their guard, there: don’t you see? They thought they’d hidden all their weapons away, but we knew where they were; some Midianite secret-agent had told our spy, who told another spy, and Hey Presto! There we were, and there were they; poor devils! We surrounded them, drew our swords, and they — well, it was Katie-bar-the-door-there: those Midianites never stood a chance.

Prisoners? Humph! Can’t take prisoners. By order of the God-Most-High, don’t-cha-know: they’re all pagan-folk; can’t help themselves. (whispering) Oh, I suppose a wench or two might slip by his Pinchas-ness, but doubtful, considering the way he skewered Old Zimri ben Salu, that Simeonite prince, there, and that Midianitish girl of his, that Cozbi bat Tsur — but, consider! They were asking for it, they were, just rolling about in the dirt, there, in front of the Holy One’s Holiest Shrine — damnfool behavior, I call it; Zimri ought to’ve known better, him being a prince, and all —

Share the land? With whom? The Midianites? The Amorites? You know, I’ve never really thought of that, we being all alone in this ungodly Wilderness, and all — nothing but enemies, all around, it seems — and besides, the Lord-God-He-Who-Is has promised it to us, and every inch! (Reaches down to a beautiful golden goblet, embossed with precious stones; holds it up and turns it, glinting in the morning light) As this gold cup I hold doth witness to me — I have set my eyes upon it; yes, I have, and told my Boss — my Pinchas, just this morning, so I did —

“This one’s for me, M’Lord Kohen, what d’ye’say? Hey?” I asked him, just to make it right and proper.

“Just keep accounts, Pagiel,” so he said, “we’ll settle up when all the fighting’s done.”

“We’re not done fighting?” so I asked him back, and he looked at me, distant, eyes-far-off, as though he were receiving Prophecy — the sort that Moses gets — poor Moses! He’s so old now, losing track, and no control o’er the People….

And Pinchas tells me,
“I know, Pagiel, that I will be the next, to lead this People. God has told me so, rewarding me for killing Zimri, that abject sinner and fornicator. God knows, it takes a warrior-priest to keep His flock in line. And once our purpose melds together with God’s — why, there’s no end to all the Good we can do!”

I moved away: there’s something strange to me — though I’m religious, make no doubt of that — when a man — be he priest, or something even more — tells me that God speaks clear only to him, so that, whatever he — this man, this mortal, this flesh-and-blood-being (same as I, and You, you understand) decides to speak, and do, even to the extent of killing people in cold blood, why, he’s doing it — in God’s Name!

I tell you, Friend, I am no Scholar, like the High Lord-Priest Pinchas, there — I’m just a Clerk, common as mud — but, somehow, it don’t sit well with me. I went, and sat, and ticked away accounts, ignoring him, his eyes closed, praying there, off in a corner of the Tent, lips moving silently, to his own God, alone. Receiving Personal Instructions, to go out and kill more pagan Midianites, no doubt. (Sighs) But isn’t our own Zipporah, Moses’s wife, a Midianite? Wasn’t Jethro, who advised Moses how to set up our system of judges? (To himself) Oh, never mind, Pagi; these things are too deep for you. Just count the gold pieces, here….

God knows that I’m no scholar, as I said, not learned in the Holy Scrolls, nor in talking, private-like, with He-Who-Is, our God, the Invisible One, but I do recall that when Our Boys, all armed, booted and belted, were rounding up the young girls and little, innocent, dirty-faced, crying, orphaned kids left over from the fight (Num. 31:17-18), all of them in a panic over their dead parents and burnt-down homes — I couldn’t help but feel so sorry for them.

Was it their fault, for listening to wicked leaders? Or were their leaders all that wicked, then? They were just kids. Just kids.

When all the tragic, bloody business is done — my God, will there ever be an end to all this fighting, all this bloodshed? — all I want’s a plot of land, a place to farm — perhaps a little house, a fence to lean upon — and a neighbor close enough to talk to, laugh with, no more foe — and why can’t he be Midianite? Why, what bloody difference would it make?

That’s all I’d like to know.

About the Author
David was born and raised on NYC's Lower East Side, and attended Hebrew Day School, Yeshiva Univ. HS, and Yeshiva Univ., where he learned English, Bible, and Jewish Education degrees. He attended the CUNY Graduate Center, and received both an MA and M.Phil. in English Literature, with a concentration in 17th Century, John Milton, and the Romantic Poets. David also received semicha/rabbinical ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion, Yonkers, NY. He has also attended the Hebrew College in Brookline, MA, where he received a Certificate in Advanced Hebrew School Administration. David serves Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach, FL; prior, he served pulpits in Warren, NJ, Fayetteville, NC, and Portsmouth, NH. He is married, with two grown children and a Shih Tzu. He recently published a book of his Torah stories, "The Torah Book: New Stories of Bible People & God."