The Israelites and Midianite women: What really happened in the tent?

At the beginning of next week’s Torah portion, God steps forward and validates Pinhas for turning back His wrath from the Israelites, and is granted a covenant of peace and the pact of priesthood.

Tent in the desert, illustrative (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/YEOWATZUP)
Tent in the desert, illustrative
This week’s Torah portion, Balak, centers on the actions of the Moabite king Balak and the prophet Balaam. However, it ends with the misadventure of a group of Israelite men who have sexual encounters with local Moabite women and end up worshiping the local deity.
“And Israel dwelled in Shittim, and the people began to stray after Moabite women. And they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods; and the people ate, and they prostrated themselves before their gods.” (Numbers 25:1-1)
The Hebrew word – l’znot – began to stray – is associated with betrayal and transgression toward God and man. The ritual fringes of tzitzit commanded to be worn in Chapter 15 are meant to protect the nation from going astray in such a manner – but here, 10 chapters later, they have effectively abandoned the covenant.
The corruption permeated all levels of society and God instructs Moses to take the leaders of the people and impale them before Him to assuage His wrath. The Israelite community is weeping before the Tent of Meeting, either over the imminent bloodbath or perhaps for the plague which is raging unchecked through the camp, although we the readers do not yet know of its occurrence.
Into this scene steps an unnamed Israelite man with a Midianite woman, whom he is bringing to meet his brethren. He takes her into a tent, presumably to consummate the relationship. Pinhas, the grandson of Aaron, steps forward with a spear and throws it at the couple, impaling them horizontally in an act of unbridled zealotry. The plague which has been raging stops and 24,000 lie dead. It is an uncomfortable story that brings up moral questions about vigilante justice as well as an attempt to understand exactly what prompted such violence.
In the aftermath, at the beginning of next week’s Torah portion, God steps forward and validates Pinhas for turning back His wrath from the Israelites. He is then granted a covenant of peace and the pact of priesthood as reward.
We are now told the names of the slain couple: Zimri, son of Salu, chieftan of the tribe of Simeon, and Cozbi, daughter of Zur, tribal leader of Midian. Both Salu and Zur are presented not just as fathers of their immediate families, but are also linked to the larger structure of their ancestral homes. They are both leaders of their respective tribes. This seems to reinforce the likelihood that Zimri had been given Cozbi in marriage. The naming of her father reinforces her status as daughter (mentioned twice) which in turn reminds us that daughters were very much under the authority of their fathers before marrying.
Despite the ambiguity regarding the act that precipitated the zealous killing, God tells Moses that he must defeat Midian for the affair of Peor and that of Cozbi, “who was killed at the time of the plague which was on account of Peor.”
This is confusing for two reasons: the affair of Peor seems to be linked earlier to the daughters of Moab, and yet Moab is not held accountable. Cozbi was passive in the earlier narrative. It is Zimri who brings her forward and takes her into the tent. Yet here, God actively implicates her. Is this meant to reflect displeasure with intermarriage out of concern that women from idolatrous communities, even when taken in marriage, could potentially lead Israelite men to idolatry as warned in Exodus 34? It is left unclear.
The rabbinic approach struggles with the lack of judicial process on the part of Pinhas. His spontaneous, unilateral, extrajudicial execution of Zimri and Cozbi goes against basic rabbinic principles of justice, especially as applied to capital matters, since the rabbis were very strict in matters of evidence and procedure when it came to the laws of capital punishment. The Babylonian Talmud in Sanhedrin defends him by suggesting he remembered the oral law that one who has sexual relations with an Aramean woman is to be executed by a zealot. The Jerusalem Talmud in contrast, also in Sanhedrin, does not give Pinhas the benefit of the doubt. Rabbi Judah ben Pazi says they would have excommunicated him had not the word of God come to his defense.
A FEW chapters later, an often-overlooked passage toward the end of Numbers in Chapter 31 describes the Israelites waging war against the Midianites as instructed by God. Moses becomes angry at them for sparing the Midianite women and young boys. In this narrative, which adds information to our text, we discover that the Midianite women, in addition to the Moabite women, were the ones who carried out the bidding of Balaam and led the Israelites to stray against God at Peor. Moses now instructs them to kill the male children and adult women, sparing only virgin girls.
The inconsistency between the stories is startling. On the one hand, Cozbi together with Zimri are slain for what the midrash explains was a blatant violation of relations with foreign women. Here, several chapters later, Moses is essentially permitting intermarriage with virgin girls from Midian! It should not of course escape our notice that Moses is married to a Midianite woman, who is the daughter of a religious leader in Midian. Furthermore, earlier in Numbers, Chapter 12, we discovered criticism by Miriam for Moses’s taking a Cushite woman. She seems to have been someone other than Zippora, if we do not accept the midrashic interpretation that she was described as Cushite, even though she came from Midian.
As with other morally ambiguous narratives in Torah, we can never fully plumb the depths to come up with final answers. All we can do is what the sage Ben Bag-Bag teaches at the end of tractate Avot: Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.