Overzealous in religion is being irreligious[1]



Chapter 25 of the book of Numbers narrates the story of Aaron’s grandson Pinchas’ zealous behavior. When the Israelites settled in Shittim, during their forty-year stay in the desert under the rule of Moses, many of them disobeyed God’s command. They accepted the cunning invitation of the Moabites and Midianites who had invited them to participate in their feasts and sexual escapades. The non-Israelites were certain that this event would lead Moses’ people to idol worship; and it did.


The Bible states that God reacted by launching a devastating plague and by instructing Moses to round up the leaders of the rebellion and hang them. Before the command could be implemented, one of the Israelite rebels, a tribal leader, in shocking and brazen disregard of God and Moses, carried a Midianite woman to the sacred Tent of Meeting and arrogantly had sex with her in public view.


While Moses and other Israelites looked on, immobilized by shock, Pinchas rose, grasped a spear and pierced the Israelite man and the Midianite woman, killing them both. Pinchas’ act halted the plague, which had killed twenty-four thousand Israelites.


God spoke again to Moses, mentioned zealotry three times, and said, Pinchas “turned my wrath from the Israelites when he zealously avenged my zealousness among them, so I did not consume the Israelites in my zealousness.”


God’s wrath and zealousness are anthropopathisms:

Metaphors ascribing human emotions to God

God, of course, is not human and has no human emotions. The term “my wrath” is not referring to God, who does not become angry, but to the plague. God is stating that Pinchas’ act stopped the plague.


Overzealousness is wrong

The American patriarch Benjamin Franklin insisted that to be overzealous in religion is to be irreligious. Ambrose Bierce, in his humorous but perceptive The Devil’s Dictionary agreed. He considered zealousness an immature reaction of an inexperienced person who lacks judgment to act properly. He defined “zeal” as: “A certain nervous disorder affecting the young and inexperienced; a passion that goes before a fall.” Jim Coople agreed. God, he wrote, disapproves of such behavior because its after-effect is destruction.


There are all too many “religious” zealots in this world. More deaths have resulted from overly-zealous people and groups than any other cause. Yet, blind to this fact, and perceiving over-zealousness as piety, the number of overzealous today numbers in the millions.


Was Pinchas overzealous?

The ancient Jewish commentators differed on whether Pinchas acted correctly. Certainly the Israelite leader was wrong in performing a sex act before the Tent of Meeting and should have been stopped. But should he have been speared without a warning and trial? Did the non-Israelite woman deserve to be killed? Both acts are contrary to Jewish law which requires a trial.


The Talmud recognized this problem. The fourth century Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 9:7, states that he acted improperly: he transgressed the will of the sages of his time. The ninth century Aramaic translation of the bible called Pseudo-Jonathan also recognized the problem but solved it by rewriting the story and stating the opposite: Pinchas consulted with the court before acting.


Some commentators took a somewhat ambiguous approach to the problem. Scripture states that God awarded Pinchas with “my covenant of peace.” The rationalistic Bible commentator ibn Ezra (1089–1164) – perhaps questioning the merit of Pinchas’ action – down-played the reward by explaining that this means that God is assuring Pinchas that he will not be avenged by the family of the man that he killed.[2] The book of Psalms 106:28–31 retells the story of Pinchas and praises him, but the psalmist is careful not to call him a “zealot.”


Some commentators felt that Pinchas acted correctly. Rashi (1040–1105) is an example. God also handed Pinchas “a covenant of eternal priesthood,” which Rashi states means that although Pinchas was not selected to be a priest when his grandfather Aaron was raised to that position, he was now rewarded by being elevated to be a priest.


But other ancient rabbinical sources were unequivocally critical. In the early thirteenth century Midrash Numbers Rabbah 21:3 and the late third century Genesis Rabbah 21:5 and in many other sources, the rabbis identified Pinchas with the later overzealous prophet Elijah because God’s negative reaction to Elijah was clear. The Midrashim state that Pinchas lived a long life and in later centuries adopted the name Elijah. Elijah exhibited strong emotional zealous outbursts against the Israelites when he saw them ignoring God’s commands. The sixth century Babylonian Talmud, Baba Mezia 85b, relates that Elijah was punished for his zeal with sixty flaming lashes. God told Elijah that God speaks in a “still small voice,” meaning quietly, persuading, without emotional zeal. Then, seeing that Elijah would not be able to carry out his role properly, the Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah 1:6 (probably begun in the first half of the first millennium) states that God dismissed him and replaced him with a successor, the prophet Elisha. God took Elijah away “in a fiery chariot.”



Pinchas, the grandson of Moses’ brother Aaron and, according to tradition, the future third high priest of Israel, saw an Israelite leader publicly and arrogantly rejecting God by committing a sexual act at the Tent of Meeting. He reacted with “zealousness” and publically killed the offender. God expressed seeming approval and apparently rewards Pinchas. Yet the ancient rabbis questioned whether Pinchas acted properly. True, he stopped an offense, but, they asked, couldn’t he have done so without killing the perpetrators? Wasn’t he overzealous, and, therefore, wrong?


Robert E. Thompson described proper zeal: “All true zeal for God is zeal for love, mercy, and goodness.” Any other reason is wrong. “Nothing spoils human nature more than false zeal,” wrote Benjamin Whichcote. And he continued: “The good nature of a heathen is more God-like than the furious zeal of a supposedly religious zealot.”



[1] A version of this essay is in my book “A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary,” published by Urim Press.

[2] It should be noted and understood that all the commentaries are ideas that the commentators supposed occurred, and are not acts or feelings explicit in the Bible. It should also be understood, as Maimonides explained, that the ideas in the Midrashim – whether contained in books of Midrashim, the Talmuds, or translations, are imaginative ideas that should not be taken literally; they were composed by the rabbis as parables to teach various lessons.