Pinchas’ Legal Precedent
Towards the end of this week’s parsha, we see Israel’s apostasy at Ba’al Pe’or – “Israel became attached to Baal Peor, and the anger of the Lord flared against Israel” (Bemidbar 25:3).
Moshe and his followers seem to be paralyzed with inactivity- “Then an Israelite man came… before the eyes of Moses and before the eyes of the entire congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping…” (ibid 6).
However, one man took action: “Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen saw this, arose from the congregation, and took a spear in his hand” (ibid 7) and saved the day.
The rabbis debate the legality of Pincha’s actions, nevertheless Rashi says that that Pinchas’ actions were legal. On the words “Pinchas…saw”, Rashi states: “He saw the deed and reminded himself of the law. He said to Moses, “I learned from you, ‘If someone cohabits with an Aramean [heathen] woman, zealots have a right to strike him [dead].’ ”
Based upon this law, Pinchas takes his spear and executes the cohabiting couple.
Nevertheless, this law does not appear anywhere within the Bible, Mishna or other Jewish legal texts. On what legal basis could Pinchas have executed the sinful couple in this manner?.
It is possible that Rashi bases his ruling on a legal precedent from the episode of the Golden Calf. Moshe had called upon zealous men to act upon the rebellion saying: “So said the Lord, the God of Israel: 'Let every man place his sword upon his thigh and pass back and forth from one gate to the other in the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his friend, every man his kinsman (Shemot 32:27).
The apostasy at Ba’al Pe’or has parallels with the apostasy of the Golden Calf. To begin with, both incidents recall Israel’s worship of other gods. Furthermore, both incidents included adulterous fertility rites (see Rashi on ibid 6).
Moshe also treated the people in a similar fashion to the woman suspected of adultery for “he took the calf they had made, burned it in fire, ground it to fine powder, scattered [it] upon the surface of the water, and gave [it to] the children of Israel to drink” (ibid 20).
Indeed, the Bible often compares idol worship to that of adultery – Israel’s unfaithfulness by being with other gods is comparable to someone’s infidelity with another partner. Additionally, some opinions consider the purpose of the Two Tablets of the Covenant to compare the first five statements of the Ten Commandments to the second five. The second commandment on the first tablet forbade idol worship, while the second commandment on the second tablet forbade adultery.
Therefore, the adulterous cohabitation of the Israelite and the Moabite at Ba’al Peor was comparable to the apostasy at the Golden Calf. In that instance, Moshe ordered the summary execution of the guilty. Based on that legal precedent, Pinchas reacted, making his extra-judicial act legal.
Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Balak, entitled: "Balak's Fear” appears at http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2006_07_01_archive.html.