I would not die like Socrates
for all the fuss of Plato.
Nor would I with Leonidas
nor yet would I with Cato.
The zealots of the Church and State
shall ne’er my mortal foes be,
but let me have bold Zimri’s fate
within the arms of Cozbi!
Robert Burns “I Murder Hate”
Our story today takes place in the year 1450 BCE in the land of Shittim. The people there were called the Moabites, and they worshiped a number of gods. Among these was Baal Peor, a mountain god. Now, according to rabbinic literature, worship of this particular god included “exposing that part of the body which all persons usually take the utmost care to conceal,” which is a hilarious mental image. Other sources just surmise that Peor worship was particularly licentious.
At this time, the Israelite’s wandering had brought them to the land of Shittim, where they were understandably drawn to the sexy stylings of Peor worship. The God of the Israelites, being a jealous God, was angered by this and told Moses to have the people cut that shit out. Moses, accordingly, told the judges: “Each of you must put to death those of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”
In His anger, God also sent a plague to the Israelites, to punish them for their transgressions. Thousands were sick and dying, and those that were well enough to do so would gather daily at the Tent of Meeting to pray for those that were suffering and mourn for those the plague had taken.
Picture the scene: a crowd of hundreds, weeping and prostrating themselves in the dirt outside the city proper, wailing for the tragedy their collective sins had wrought. Into this, with timing so terrible it can only be blamed on all the blood rushing from his head to other parts of his body, walks Zimri, an Israelite soldier. His arm is draped around Cozbi, a Midianite and the daughter of one of the chiefs there. They are perhaps giggling and whispering together, walking happily to Zimri’s tent.
Pinchas, a descendant of Aron, sees this and is infuriated. Without hesitation, he grabs a spear from a nearby soldier and follows the lovers to Zimri’s tent, where he surprises them in the act of coitus. He stabs the Midianite woman so that the spear travels through her back and pierces Zimri’s gut. They die together, skewered like a pornographic shish kabob.
According to the text, this stops the plague, but not before twenty-four thousand people lost their lives. In true Biblical fashion, this is more or less where the story ends, leaving us to wonder what, exactly, we’re to take from this. Post-Biblical sources are ambivalent, with some praising Pinchas’ zealotry, and others troubled by his apparent failure to follow accepted juridical procedures.
For myself, I enjoy how much this story packs into so few verses. We have forbidden sex, death, destruction, disease, and a comically gruesome conclusion. It’s the Bible at its best–messy and mysterious and human–and the version that we get far too rarely.