Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1) and the haftarah is 1 Kings 18:46-19:20.
My god is better than your god.
Holding this opinion (even when your “god” is atheism) is human nature. The trouble begins when someone with religious zeal (great energy and enthusiasm) becomes a zealot (fanatical and uncompromising). When two zealots oppose one another, no compromise is possible; one of them must quit or die.
This week both the Torah portion and the haftarah include a clash between a zealot for the God of Israel and a zealot for the gods of another religion.
The Torah portion, Pinchas, opens with God’s declaration:
Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the High Priest, turned back My hot wrath from the Israelites through his kina among them, kina for Me, so I did not finish off the Israelites through My kina. Therefore say: Here I am, giving him my covenant of peace. And it will be for him and for his seed after him a covenant of priesthood forever… (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:11-13)
kina (קְנְאָ) = zeal, fervor, passion, jealousy.
God has afflicted the Israelites with a plague because many of them started worshiping the local god, Ba-al of Pe-or. While the Israelites are weeping, an Israelite man brings a local woman into a chamber of a tent (possibly God’s Tent of Meeting). Pinchas follows them in and impales them—and God’s plague stops. The Torah uses the same word, kubah (קֻבָּה) for both the tent chamber and the woman’s inner “chamber” where Pinchas’s spear skewers them both. (See my post Balak: Wide Open.)
This week’s Torah portion names the impaled couple: Zimri, a leader in the tribe of Shimon, and Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite chieftain of Moab.
Why would either of these people walk in front of Moses and engage in sex right in or next God’s Tent of Meeting—in the middle of a plague? Tikva Frymer-Kensky suggests in Reading the Women of the Bible that Cozbi is a priestess, a role often given to the daughter of a king, and that Zimri brings her over to conduct a religious ritual to end the plague.
Frymer-Kensky imagines Cozbi might even perform her ritual in the name of the God of Israel. But I imagine Cozbi as so zealous for Ba-al that she wants to save her new neighbors, the Israelites, from their plague-inflicting god by bringing in some positive energy from Ba-al. She does not ask for permission to practice her religion in the Israelite’s holy place; she just does it, in an act of passionate conviction.
In this clash between two zealots, Pinchas wins and Cozbi dies. God (the God character in the Torah) admits to being carried away by zeal, as well, and rewards Pinchas for stopping God from destroying the Israelites.
The haftarah from the first book of Kings tells a different story about two zealots: the battle between the queen of Israel and Israel’s foremost prophet.
King Ahab’s queen and primary wife is Jezebel (Izevel in Hebrew), daughter of the Phoenician King Etba-al of Tyre. It is a good political alliance; but both books of Kings revile Jezebel because of her zeal for her native religion. As soon as Ahab marries Jezebel, according to 1 Kings, he builds a temple to Ba-al and bows down to that god. He also erects a cultic post for the goddess Ashtart.
Jezebel not only persuades her husband to worship her gods, but also tries to stamp out worship of the God of Israel by “exterminating the prophets of God” (1 Kings 18:4).
Furthermore, she uses her personal wealth to maintain 450 prophets of Ba-al (god of fertility, war, and weather) and 400 prophets of Ashtart (goddess of fertility, war, and seafaring).
Meanwhile Elijah, the most powerful prophet of the God of Israel, comes to King Ahab at his capital city, Samaria, and says:
As God lives, the god of Israel on whom I stand in attendance, there will be no dew or rain these years except by the word of my mouth. (1 Kings 17:1)
After three years, the famine in Samaria is severe. Jezebel’s weather god, Ba-al, does nothing. So King Ahab institutes a search for Elijah.
Elijah orders King Ahab to summon “all Israel”, the 450 prophets of Ba-al, and the 400 prophets of Ashtart to Mount Carmel for a contest. The first book of Kings does not mention the prophets of Ashtart again, but the prophets of Ba-al and the Israelite witnesses show up on Mount Carmel, where there are two altars: one for Ba-al and one for the God of Israel. Against impressive odds, the God of Israel wins the contest. (See my post Pinchas & 1 Kings: The Sound of God.) The people of Israel fall on their faces and declare their allegiance to God, and under Elijah’s orders they kill all the prophets of Ba-al.
Then it finally rains.
Jezebel is not present at Mount Carmel, but Ahab comes home and tells her about the contest and that Elijah killed all the prophets of Ba-al by the sword.
Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah saying: Thus may the gods do and more if by this time tomorrow I have not made your life like the life of one of them. And he was afraid, and he got up and went to [save] his life… (1 Kings 19:2-3)
He reaches Beer-sheva in the kingdom of Judah, then walks for a day into the wilderness and lies down to die. Although he won the contest on Mount Carmel and moved the Israelites to kill 450 Ba-al worshippers, a zealot’s job is never done. His victory seems empty as long as Queen Jezebel, his zealous opponent, is still in power, still supporting the religion of Ba-al and Ashtart, and still determined to kill every one of God’s prophets.
God sends an angel to urge Elijah to eat and keep walking. He ends up on Mount Chorev (also called Mount Sinai) where God asks him:
Why are you here, Elijah? And he said: I was very kina for God, the God of Armies, because the Israelites had abandoned Your covenant and pulled down Your altars and killed Your prophets by the sword. And only I was left, and they tried to take my life. (1 Kings 19:9-10)
He declares he is a zealot for God, and admits that he has failed to exterminate Jezebel’s religion. God responds with a demonstration.
And hey! God was passing by, and a big and strong wind was tearing off mountains of rocks in front of God; but God was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a faint sound of quietness. And when Elijah heard, he wrapped his face with his robe, and he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave; and hey!—a voice [came] to him, and it said: Why are you here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:11-13)
And Elijah gives the same reply, word for word. He did not pick up on God’s hint that true service to the divine lies in quietness. So God, instead of rewarding him, tells him he must anoint a young man named Elisha to be a prophet in his place.
In the book of Numbers, Pinchas’s zeal, kina, leads him to kill the Ba-al worshiper Cozbi and her Israelite assistant Zimri. God declares that this murder stopped God’s own kina from killing all the Israelites in a plague, and makes Pinchas a priest. In next week’s Torah portion, Mattot, Pinchas is the priest who goes with the raiding party to kill all the inhabitants of Pe-or. One zealot wins hands-down; the other zealot dies.
Did the good guys win? Read my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent before you decide.
In the first book of Kings, Elijah’s kina leads him to stage a contest between gods and kill 450 Ba-al worshipers on the losing side. God cooperates by sending the dramatic manifestation of fire that Elijah requests on Mount Carmel. But Elijah’s real opponent is the zealot Jezebel, who remains in power.
When two zealots oppose one another, one of them must quit or die. God’s demonstration at Mount Chorev implies that Elijah must quit being a zealot, take a quieter approach to religion and perhaps spend the rest of his life in hiding. But Elijah despairs because he cannot imagine living without fighting for his cause. And God appoints another prophet.
Did the good guys win? No; Jezebel is just as zealous and just as willing to murder for the sake of religion as Elijah is. But God as portrayed in the first book of Kings is now wiser and more mature than the God in the book of Numbers. This god still wants exclusive worship, but recognizes that kina, the passion of the zealot, is not the best approach.
Our world today is full of zealots. It is easy to revile a zealot willing to kill for the sake of a religion or another cause—when that zealot is not on your side. May we all learn to recognize uncompromising zeal in people we agree with, and even in ourselves. May we all learn to restrain ourselves, and listen to the faint sound of quietness.