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B'Midbar/Numbers 25:6 And behold: a man from the sons of Israel came and brought to his brothers the Midianite [woman] before the eyes of Moshe and before the eyes of the whole assembly of the Children of Israel
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At a fraught time for the Israelites - during the episode of idolatry and sexual immorality at Shittim in the Plains of Moab, plague having broken out among the people costing over twenty thousand lives - a man and a woman are summarily and very publicly killed, without any due process, by the grandson of Aharon, the High Priest; and the plague stops. This grandson - Pinchas by name - is then, despite the later grave disapprobation of the Sages, rewarded for his actions byHaShem with a covenant of eternal peace and priesthood because "he took impassioned action for his G-d, thus making expiation for the Israelites" (B'Midbar 25:13, JPS). The question has to be: what had this man - who we are later to discover was "Zimri son of Salu, chieftain of a Simeonite ancestral house" (v. 14, JPS) - done to deserve that?
Targum Pseudo Jonathan contends that Zimri brought the daughter of a Midianite nobleman to his family's tent to marry her publicly. The verb - the 3ms Hif'il form of the root , to draw or come near, so here "he brought" might be quite properly used. He brought her to , his brothers or perhaps "his kinsmen"; he could have been bringing her for their approval and blessing. The Midianites are not one of the seven tribes of the Land, with whom marriage was forbidden at Sinai - "You must not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for they will lust after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and invite you, and you will eat of their sacrifices. And when you take wives from among their daughters for your sons, their daughters will lust after their gods and will cause your sons to lust after their gods" (Shemot 34:15-16, JPS) - neither are they Ammonites or Moabites, who are later to be forbidden in marriage: "No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the L-RD; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the L-RD, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you" (D'varim 23:4-5, JPS). Marriage would appear to be a legitimate option and marriage with other people groups appears to be permitted in some contexts: "When you take the field against your enemies, and the L-RD your G-d delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife ..." (21:10-11, JPS).
So what did the poor Israelite boy do wrong? He brings a girl home to show to his family and even makes sure that Moshe and the elders see, so that there can be no suggestion of anything being done underhand or in secret. Moshe surely cannot object for, after all, he is himself married to Zipporah, a Midianite woman, the daughter of Jethro, the priest of the Midianites.
The commentators are unanimous in condemning Zimri's behaviour.Chizkuni, explaining that the root can refer to a sexual encounter - as it is used in "Now Abimelech had not approached her" (B'resheet 20:4, ESV) and "So I approached the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son>" (Isaiah 8:3, NASB) - proposing that "while other Israelites engaged in sexual relations and idol worship outside the camp, Zimri intended to do so openly inside the encampment before all the Israelites, perhaps to incite them to join him in debasing sexual activity." The Rashbam sees an even worse scenario: "Literally, he 'brought her near' them - to prostitute her. Compare 'None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness' (Vayikra 18:6)". The Septuagint translation seem to suggest that idea was current in Yeshua's time, by rotating the words in the text to say that Zimri "bought his brother to the Midianite woman" thereby getting others to join him and aggravating the sexual offence (Milgrom).
Given the consensus that although technically different tribes, the Midianites were working together with the Moabites to follow the advice of Balaam who "induced the Israelites to trespass against the L-RD in the matter of Peor, so that the L-RD's community was struck by the plague" (B'Midbar 31:16, JPS), RabbiHirsch sees in our text a deliberate intention to flaunt, and to deride Moshe and the elders. While we will hear a few verses later in 25:14-15 who the man and woman are, their individual identities at the point of our text are not important. Hirsch insists that "it was the 'Jewish man' who, with the 'Midianite woman', derided G-d and His Torah and Israel."
Why do people give the impression of doing the right thing, all the while actually and knowingly doing exactly the opposite? In the case of Hushai, the friend of King David, he offered advice to David's son Absalom when he rebelled against his father, contrary to that of Ahithopel because, "the L-RD had decreed that Ahithophel's sound advice be nullified, in order that the L-RD might bring ruin upon Absalom" (2 Samuel 17:14, JPS).
It was the responsibility of the priests and scribes to protect Israel from teachers who would lead Israel astray; they came up to Yeshua while He was teaching in the Temple and asked, "By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?" (Matthew 21:23, ESV). They were looking for the name of His teachers, or who had ordained Him so that He had authority to speak. If they knew that, they would be able to verify who He was, whether His teaching was 'approved', what sort of training He had been given and so on - His credentials would be established. Alternatively, if He couldn't give them an acceptable answer, they would know He was acting on His own, unauthorised and possibly a charlatan. But were they really interested in protecting the people, or rather to find a way of shutting Yeshua down and getting rid of Him?
A little later, they try again, asking Him for a halachic ruling, "Teacher, we know that You are true and do not care about anyone's opinion. For You are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of G-d. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?" (Mark 12:14, ESV). The bystanders and people listening might have been taken in by the apparently serious approach, but Mark makes sure that the readers of his gospel are not: "They sent to Him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap Him in His talk" (v. 13, ESV). They appear innocent and righteous, doing the right thing, but are actually being deceitful and dishonest, trying to trap Him into saying something for which they can accuse Him and get the Romans to remove Him.
We must be aware of these practices in our own lives. Firstly, we must be sure that we always speak and act with integrity, giving honest advice and counsel, answering questions truthfully and not misleading people. As believers in Messiah, we must be known for always being faithful and open, displaying the same grace as Yeshua Himself. This can be a challenge in many areas of life - business, family and congregation - on subjects as diverse as money, hospitality and relationships. We must strive to be consistent and gracious, so that "by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people" (1 Peter 2:15, ESV).
Secondly, we must always be appropriately aware of what others say to us and correctly discern their motives and reasons for asking questions or challenging our behaviour. Yeshua told the disciples that He was sending them out "as sheep in the midst of wolves," so that they needed to be as "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16, ESV). Other people will try to trick us, to take advantage of us and to misrepresent us. We have to be able to think carefully about what is being said and asserted, and respond appropriately. Some people will be hurting and confused; they need care and compassion - but compassion should not blind us to their real needs: we are not there simply to make soothing noises and apparently approve or condone bad choices and wrong behaviour. Often it is more merciful to speak the truth about the way things really are and to offer godly solutions than to simply offer empathy and bland support. We must take care to speak clearly and gently, in a way that cannot be misunderstood, and in a way that blesses others if they can receive it.
Further Study: D'varim 29:19-21; Romans 16:17-20
Application: Have you ever given the appearance of doing the right thing, while actually either doing something else or nothing at all? It's easily done, but we are called to higher standards: to both say and do the right thing all the time.
© Jonathan Allen, 2017
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