Pinchas by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Pinchas: Survival and Prophecy

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark


“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Attack and afflict the Midianites and smite them utterly—for they afflicted you by the trickery they practiced against you, because of the matter of Baal Peor, where the Israelites engaged in promiscuity with the Daughters of Midian, and because of the matter of Cozbi bat Tsur, daughter of a Midianite chieftain.’”

–Numbers 25:16-18


Scene: The Command Tent of the Israelite Defense Force. Seated on a low stool, studying handmade charts and maps of the Midianite Army, is General-in-Chief Joshua ben Nun. On his right hand sits Brigadier General Calev ben Yefunneh, Joshua’s aide-de-camp and closest confidante. Also present are Col. Peretz of the Tribe of Judah, and Lt. Col. Ahiram of the Tribe of Benjamin. These two do not like each other, and often glance sideways to keep a close eye on their rival.


Calev (to Joshua): General, that was a very impressive ceremony at the Shrine of God, when Elazar the Priest commissioned you as successor of Moses. I especially enjoyed when Elazar, wearing the Urimv’Tumim, the twelve precious and semi-precious stones on his priestly breastplate, asked the Lord, “Will this one, Joshua ben Nun, succeed Your prophet, rabbi, and leader of Israel, Moses ben Amram?” For, then—

Ahiram: And then, not to interrupt you, Brigadier Calev, but the precious stones—

Peretz: –lit up! A wonder, truly.

(Calev and the two rivals for leadership speak all at once, their words overlapping one another’s.)

Joshua (raising a hand): Silence! Will you two officers be still, or must I clear the tent? And you, Brigadier, will you behave like a schoolboy, in this time of crisis?

(The three quiet down, gradually)

Joshua (continuing): We have not yet accomplished that which we set out to do, here in our Council of War: that is, to inflict serious hurt upon the Midianites, rout their forces, steal their cattle, and abduct any women worthy of our attention, to make wives for our bachelors. Thus will we add to the Congregation of the Lord!

Calev: If it please you, General, should we not spare the women? After all, the Lord is displeased with them—they took a leading role in seducing our menfolk, and seem to be most effective at turning our weaker-minded fellow Israelites away from the worship of the One True God.

Joshua (Sighing; he feels the burden of leadership all too keenly): Well, Calev, what would you have me do? We must bloody them, to teach them that one does not attack us. In addition, a military defeat and abduction of their women will also teach the hostile tribes that camp all around us, that one does not attack Israel, the People of God, with impunity. (Turning to the colonels) What think you, my colonels? Shall we practice against the Midianites as they did to us?

Ahiram (puzzled): I agree that we should put their crops and homes to the torch, Milord Joshua, but do not understand how we can reciprocate against the Midianite women as they treated us. It is not in the nature of our faith to practice orgies—would you have our women seduce Midianite men, as their women did to ours?

Joshua (as Calev shakes his head vigorously): God forbid! No: I mean to abduct the women, so that they help to increase our numbers, by pairing with our men.

Peretz: I support the suggestion—or is it an order?—of General Joshua.

Joshua: Then, we agree (All shout out, “Aye! Aye! That we do!” But suddenly, the tent-flap parts, and Serah bat Asher enters.). Oh, Mother Serach: what brings you to our Council of War? Women do not generally attend to these matters….

Serah: Joshua! I, Serah, knew you when your father Nun dandled you upon his knee. True, you are grown now, and Moses did well to appoint you his successor; but that does not put you beyond the advice of a Tribal Elder, and I am senior of all in that respect. What is this I hear, of your planning an abduction of Midianite women?

Joshua (smiling; he is humoring the old woman): Old Mother, how did you manage to hear our discussions? We were not speaking so loudly.

Serah: When one is a prophet, one can hear even eagle’s-eggs hatching, high up in her mountain nest. And your plans trouble me, Joshua.

Ahiram (interrupting):Who is this gray-haired termagant, and what gives her the right to interfere in our plans? Do you wield a sword and shield, Madame? Have you ever taken the field against the enemies of Israel? Why, you should depart, instantly—

Serah (pointing a long, bony finger at Ahiram): Be silent, Upstart! I guided Moses to retrieve the bones of Vice-Pharaoh Joseph from the depths of the Nile. I counseled Father Jacob when his several sons hesitated to inform him that Joseph was yet alive. I did all this, long before your great-great-grandfather was born! Do not presume, Young Man, to tell me my business.

Joshua (holding up a hand for silence): Col. Ahiram, apologize to Madame Serah. You have never met her, but she is our foremost and eldest prophet. She went down to Egypt with the Brothers, and lived to join the Exodus.

Serah: I will also enter the Land of Israel, for such is the prophecy. But that is not my affair, today. Joshua! I have orders for you to follow.

Calev: Begging your pardon, Madame Serah, but do they derive from the Lord, God of Israel?

Serah: Of course. Joshua! You are to attack and destroy the property of the Midianites—that is the practice of war, though I loathe it—but spare all the women and children. Not one Midianite woman will be abducted or assaulted by our Israelite men.

Peretz: Why, what a calumny is this! Am I not to have my Midianite sweetheart, Milord Joshua?

Serah (turning a gimlet eye on the young man): You, Peretz, will be lesser than your descendant, our most magnificent king of Israel, but also greater. (Turning to Ahiram) And you, Upstart, will have a future king of Israel go down from you—but he will be both mighty and weak. Heed what I say, and do not question. (She sweeps her cloak over her shoulders majestically, and leaves the tent.) 

Calev: Why, that was an impertinent visit! Will you not arrest and judge her, General Joshua?

(Joshua looks thoughtfully at the tent-flap through which Serah departed, and shakes his head, slowly.)

Joshua: She speaks truth. (He sighs.) Brothers, let us resume our planning—but for vengeful war on Midian only, and no planned assaults on their women or children. It is the will of Serah, and the Lord.

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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