Michael Carasik

Pinchas: What’s in a Name?

Amazingly, only five of the 54 Torah portions are named after people — add a sixth if you want to count חיי שרה ‘The Life of Sarah’ — yet in the last four weeks, this is the third one to fall in that category, after Korach and Balak. So I’m going to use this column to offer some thoughts on biblical names. In fact, our focus this week is on names that appear twice.

Why does that subject come up this week? For one thing, Numbers 26 gives the results of a census, starting with v. 5 and running right through v. 51. Like so much in the book of Numbers, it is organized according to tribes identified by their descent from Jacob’s 12 sons. (Remember that in Numbers Joseph is represented by his two sons and Levi seems to have said “Include me out.”) Not only the tribes but the clans that make up each tribe are also listed.

Those of us who have been taught that the Torah writes very tersely are in for a surprise. Let’s jump in at v. 5, which names Reuben and then lists the Reubenite clans:

5 Reuben, Israel’s first-born. Descendants of Reuben: of Enoch, the clan of the Enochites; of Pallu, the clan of the Palluites; 6 of Hezron, the clan of the Hezronites; of Carmi, the clan of the Carmites. 7 Those are the clans of the Reubenites. The persons enrolled came to 43,730. [NJPS translation]

The same happens for every tribe. Okay, Reuben had a son named Pallu, and the clan descended from him are the Palluites. Doesn’t the Torah think I am bright enough to figure that out on my own? “Who is the ancestor of the Hezronites?” is not a very much harder question than “What color is the Beatles’ White Album?”

The answer must be that “the Torah speaks in human language.” In a passage of Torah like this one, we’re not going to learn any profound moral lessons. This is a list of names. To remember a list like this, you need redundancy. The purpose of the repetition is specifically to repeat the name several times so that we will remember it.

Everyone understands that repetition that creates legal significance is appropriate in the legal parts of the Torah. In a section like this, even the Torah’s divine purpose is presumably for the Israelites to remember their ancestry. For that, what you need is a memory aid, the kind of redundancy that our chapter provides. It’s a totally human communication, not a profound theological one.

And now for something completely different. It might seem like a bit of lagniappe, but it also strikes me as a much harder puzzle to solve – a name that appears twice in Num 25:14–18. Let me introduce it with this brief excerpt from the old Car Talk radio show:

– Hello, you’re on Car Talk.

– Hello, this is Kozebi. I’m calling from [redacted], Maryland.

– Cosby? With a C?

– No, it’s Kozebi. It’s actually a biblical name.

– All right, who was Kozebi?

– Unfortunately, she was a lady of the evening.

– So your parents chose that name for you. Very interesting. Can we talk to your father? [Laughter]

– I think they were rebelling from my grandparents but they never will admit it.

– “Oh, we chose a biblical name for our daughter.” “Naomi?” “No, not exactly.” “Rebecca? “No, Kozebi!” I like it!

All right, I have to admit I like it too. She’ll never be at a loss for conversation when she goes to a party. You can hear in her voice that she really wants some advice about her car, not to spell K-O-Z-E-B-I for the 10,000th time. So I’m taking over the call:

– Hello, you’re on Bible Talk.

– Hello. Why is Kozebi mentioned twice in the Bible when we’re never told the names of some decent women?

– Like who?

– Samson’s mother, for one. See Judges 13.

Tough question, no? In case you don’t remember, let me jog your memory about Kozebi. She was not “a lady of the evening” but a woman of broad daylight, a daughter of Zur, a tribal chief of Midian (per Numbers 25) or one of its five kings (per Numbers 31). She was having sex with Zimri son of Salu at the end of last week’s episode when Pinchas, who gave his name to this week’s episode, stabbed the two of them to death.

Hard to imagine this one is about communicative redundancy. Why would it be so tremendously essential to remember this woman’s name? It’s not as if there’s some risk we might run into her again. So I have to wonder why the Torah found it so important to repeat her name.

Next week, we will have names galore as we check off the stops on the Israelites’ desert itinerary. Many of them are mentioned twice as well, first when they camp there at the end of one verse and again when they set out from that place at the beginning of the next verse. Those names, at least theoretically, will let us follow their trip through the wilderness. Why Kozebi and Pallu and the gang are mentioned twice remains a mystery.

About the Author
Michael Carasik has a Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of the Commentators’ Bible and has been a congregational Torah reader, blogger, and podcaster about the Bible. You can read a longer version of this essay at and follow Michael's close reading of Genesis at
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