Really the incident that brought Phineas (we call him Phineas) fame took place at the end of last week’s reading. Balaam is recorded as returning home and immediately the Moabite women set about seducing the Israelites. Not a military solution of course but then Balak has already thought out of the box already. Why not try this? And it succeeded.
“And Israel was encamped at Shittim and they began to be seduced by the daughters of Moab and began to worship their gods.” I just find it incredible that despite all the ‘miracles,’ all the things that had happened to Korah and his supporters, they could so easily be seduced. Despite Moses’s best efforts one of the Israelites took his woman and publicly defied Moses. He was dumbstruck. Phineas decided to act on his own. Stepped up and killed them both.
This week’s Parsha has God defending Phineas. And the names of the two are mentioned. Zimri Ben Salu of Shimon. Kozbi Bat Tsur of Midian. Zima is a Hebrew word for corruption and Kozbi is the Hebrew word for lie.
Why did God have to intervene? The rabbis say that the princes of the tribes were furious that Phineas dared to kill a tribal leader regardless of the crime. Was it the arrogance and indeed pagan law that commoners could not kill aristocrats? Perhaps it was Phineas’ decision to ignore due process. And Phineas as a priest would be automatically banned from the priesthood for murdering someone.
God intervenes to praise him and give him a covenant of priesthood nevertheless. The message I take from this is that as a rule, taking the law into one’s own hands is wrong. But in extreme conditions and when the leadership is failing to act, there is room for exceptional action. And this was it. Not approval of zealotry in general, but rather that exceptional circumstances call for exceptional action. God is saying that if the danger is that any Tom, Dick or Harry might take zealous action it would not be acceptable. But here, because the motive was peace and the zealot an honorable man, God gave exceptional approval.