Here’s the story: The people of Israel settle in Shittim (which I picture as something like the playa at Burning Man), where the men “commit harlotry” with the daughters of Moab. The Moabite women invite the Israelites to join them in a sacrificial feast, and — next thing you know — “Israel joined himself to Baal Peor.”
God, enraged and “jealous,” orders Moses to “hang the chiefs of the people against the sun,” so that God’s anger may turn away from Israel; but just as Moses calls upon the judges to slay the sinners, an Israelite brings a Midianite woman to his tent before the eyes of Moses and the congregation.
When Pinchas, after whom our parashah is named, saw this spectacle, “he rose and took a spear in his hand. And he went after the man of Israel into the chamber, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.” For this, God praises Pinchas and awards him a “covenant of peace.”
There’s something here for every taste: sinners, fornicators and idol-worshippers, righteous believers, zealots and fundamentalists. In much of the prophetic literature, sexual sins are metaphors for religious transgressions, and sexual betrayal is the way God and the prophets view Israel’s lust for idolatry. But at Shittim, these transgressions come together explosively, and the metaphor of a “jealous” God and his “jealous” advocates turns out to be no metaphor at all.
There are fascinations enough in this story, with its public sex, the spectacle of an ineffective leader (God tells Moses to kill; Moses calls a special committee), the demonstrativeness of Pinchas’ zealotry. As if this wasn’t graphic enough, the rabbis fill in some details: Baal Peor, we learn, is worshipped by baring one’s buttocks to the deity. Pinchas stabs the Israelite-Midianite couple through their conjoined genitals. Children, stop your ears.
What fascinates me about this story (aside from the sex, and pagan feasts, and pierced bodies) is the way it undermines itself as a grand morality tale, a stark drama of the hero coming to the rescue. There are, first of all, the complicated family relationships. The Midianite woman brought to the tent of the Israelite man might be a cousin to the woman Moses took as a wife. The Midrash tells us that the shenanigans begin with the Moabite women reminding the Israelites of their shared family background.
But more striking is how the punishment so closely mirrors the sin, with Pinchas’ spear the grotesque pivot by which copulation and execution are made to rhyme. Is this poetic justice, a way to fit crime to its consequence, or a suggestion that the lascivious sinner and righteous punisher are less different than we imagine? Could there be a covert recognition that sex and violence, impious transgression and righteous rage are kissing cousins, drawn from the same cauldron of erotic and religious feeling?
I’m reminded of the disturbing turn of events in some Israeli neighborhoods, where a frenzy of sexual segregation has taken hold. In Beit Shemesh last year, a man spat on a preteen girl for being “immodestly dressed” (he should have seen the front row at the last bat mitzvah I attended), taking on the role of Pinchas, if only in his own mind. His aggression, and maybe also the larger rage to segregate men from women on buses and sidewalks and stores, also cover a sexual impulse, twisted by rage and jealousy and the sense of the rightness of one’s battle for God.
Nor does the circle of sexual violence stop there. In my own horror and fascination with the details of the Moabite orgy, in the way I troll the Internet for stories about men spitting at girls, there is an echo of those righteous defenders of a jealous God. In what my friend calls “my daily dose of rage,” is there not that same aggression, that same fascination, that same potent brew of religion and sex? Me too, Pinchas, c’est moi.
Naomi Seidman is the Koret Professor of Jewish Culture and director of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.