Pinchas — “Phinehas”

Portion for the week leading up to July 15, 2017

The Zeal of Phinehas

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The previous portion concluded with the end of a plague brought on by the Israelites' affair with the daughters of the Midianites and their idols. The plague was brought to a close when Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, drove a spear through an Israelite man and the Midianite girl he had just brought home. God rewards him for this act, which was done in zeal. But what is zeal, and what is its place in the life of a believer?

Because of Phinehas' boldness in carrying out God's command to take action against the leaders of the tribes of Israel (Numbers 25:4), God speaks to Moses about him: "Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath from the sons of Israel in that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I did not destroy the sons of Israel in My jealousy. Therefore say, 'Behold, I give him My covenant of peace; and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the sons of Israel'" (Numbers 25:11-12). Perhaps we might misunderstand his actions as being excessively violent, but God tells Moses that the action was done out of zeal and a desire to end the plague which had come upon the people of Israel because of their sin. It was not because he wanted to kill sinners, but rather he was acting in the spirit of his grandfather Aaron, who in Jewish tradition was well-known as a man who pursued peace among the people of Israel, and whose job it was to atone for their sins to bring peace between the people and God (Psalm 133:1-2).

The word translated in these verses as "jealousy" can also be translated as "zeal," and in fact Merriam-Webster supplies "zealous vigilance" as a definition of the word jealousy. So what is zeal? The word zeal indicates fervent support of a cause or group. Zeal is seen throughout Scripture, and it is used to describe both God and man. For example, Elijah the prophet is one who had zeal: "I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away" (1 Kings 19:10). The zeal of Elijah is especially evident in the previous chapter, where the showdown between himself and the prophets of Baal is recorded: "Then Elijah said to them, 'Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.' So they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there" (1 Kings 18:40). We also see zeal attributed to God: "He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head; and He put on garments of vengeance for clothing and wrapped Himself with zeal as a mantle" (Isaiah 59:17).

Yeshua (Jesus) acts with great zeal when he drives the moneychangers out of the temple courts: "And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, 'Take these things away; stop making My Father's house a place of business.' His disciples remembered that it was written, 'Zeal for your house will consume me'" (John 2:15-17). Even when the word "zeal" is not used to describe an action in Scripture, it is easy to pick out when one is acting with zeal, and we see many of Yeshua's deeds done out of zeal.

So what place does zeal have in the life of a believer? Paul tells us, "Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord" (Romans 12:11). We are all called to have zeal for God, although this may look different in each one of our lives on different levels. For each one of us, however, our love for God will manifest itself as zeal for Him. To love God is to obey Him and to seek the glorification of His Name. While in Scripture zeal is often manifested in strong outbursts of violence, this is not a requirement for expressing zeal. As Paul tells us in Titus 2:14, Yeshua "gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds." We should be passionate in our desire to obey God and to do good for others.

Zeal does not need to rest on violence, and on the contrary violence is in most every situation in our personal lives not the path toward peace. Zeal does, however, sometimes require one to act contrary to the established set of behaviors which are seen as normal or comfortable. In and of itself, zeal is not good or bad, but it depends solely on what one is zealous for and how pure and true their motives are. Therefore, let us be zealous in our love for God and for our fellowman, obeying Him and working fervently for Him as the day of Yeshua's return approaches.

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