7/15/2008

Pinchas’ Spear

NOTE: This Dvar Torah contains strong sexual imagery, may not be what you are used to from a Dvar Torah, and will certainly not be appropriate for the Shabbos table. I also apologize for the length.

As I was reading a dvar Torah on Pinchas, the following thought occurred to me, which I promptly pushed out of my mind: The spear of Pinchas is a phallic symbol.

However, I kept coming back to this idea, not necessarily because the text bears it out, but because Chazal seem to pick up on this theme, especially in the Midrash Rabbah.

The Pinchas narrative is retold in nearly every collection of Midrashim. They all recount how Pinchas, hid his spear in order to gain access to the tent where Zimri and Cozbi were in flagrante delicto, on the pretense that he, too, wanted to “do his needs”. He hid the spear by detaching the blade from the shaft. He used the shaft as a walking stick and placed the blade “in his lap” (be-cheiko – some versions say “under his robes”). If the image is not yet strong enough, note that the same word “cheik” has a sexual connotation throughout TaNaCh (“eishet cheiko” and the like).

The Midrash then enumerates twelve miracles (other versions have only six miracles) that took place when Pinchas killed the pair. Among the miracles:

a. The spear stabbed through Zimri’s genitals and on through Cozbi’s. So miraculous was Pinchas’ aim, that the shaft of the spear was completely enclosed by Zimri’s genitalia, so that all could see exactly what Zimri and Cozbi were doing when Pinchas speared them. In other words, according to the Midrash, the spear penetrated Cozbi.

b. The spear elongated (so that it could continue on through Cozbi).

c. The spear hardened (so that it would not break when Pinchas lifted them up on it for all to see)

Several other linguistic phenomena point in this direction:

1. The fact that kin’a can be seen as either zeal or jealousy. One Midrash (Sifrei) says that upon seeing the act, he immediately “became jealous/ zealous” and ran to grab a spear. There’s a certain ambiguity there which derives from the very ambivalence of the Hebrew term.

2. The Midrashim and Gemara on this episode frequently use the generic word for “weapon” in addition to the word for spear. The word for weapon, as is obvious to anyone with even the most basic knowledge of Modern Hebrew, has clearly phallic connotations.

None of this should be terribly shocking, since this episode is possibly the most sexually explicit in the entire Chumash – certainly in its narrative sections. The Midrash spares no details in the color that it adds to this narrative (though the Gemara tones it down a bit).

The question, then, is why. What does this symbolism contribute to our understanding of the story ,and what were Chazal driving at?

It would be easy – almost too easy – to relate to Pinchas’ deed as a reaction formation of repressed sexuality. Indeed, there is a fine line between being jealous and being zealous (the line between them is blurry or non-existent in Hebrew). Pinchas would then come close to his fellow priest, Claude Frollo of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in his sick inversion of jealous lust into hatred.

Perhaps this is the explanation of Pinchas’ behavior that the Midrash attributes to the Simeonites, who called attention to Pinchas’ less-than-stellar background. Perhaps they were insinuating that Pinchas was “no better than anyone else”, a crusader against exogamy who was himself its product, a lustful man who transformed his lust into a violent form of zealous piety.

The fact that the Torah defends Pinchas’ actions would recommend against such a reading. However, what, then are we left with? He was not a Claude Frollo, but then we’re back to square one regarding our understanding of the Midrash.

The issue with Parshat Pinchas is identity. Exogamy carries the risk of dilution of a core group identity, and the murder of Zimri and Cozbi was Pinchas’ way of using a shock tactic to shore up the boundaries of the Jewish nation.

Ken Wilbur, at the beginning of A Brief History of Everything, relates how the male hormone testosterone induces men to divide the world in to two basic categories: Things that are objects of sex, and things that are objects of violence. Testosterone drives both male violence and male sexuality (the Hebrew word for “weapon” expresses that nicely).

Read in this way, Pinchas’ actions was not about his individual reaction or repression, but about the manner in which the Israelites of that generation had to relate to “others”. Some, Zimri included, were willing to include others into the “objects of sex” category. Pinchas, for the sake of the integrity of the Israelite nation, boldly demonstrated that no blurring of the lines or fusion between the two categories could be tolerated.

The phallic symbolism employed by the Midrashic expansion on the Pinchas narrative refers not to repressed sexuality, but to the violence that represents sexuality’s flip-side. Zimri and Pinchas may have been fueled by the same primal drive (as perhaps their respective grandfathers, Shimon and Levi, were in their struggle against exogamy), but Pinchas had sublimated and assimilated it into a broader concern for group identity.

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