Murderous God & Priest, Covenanting Peace

This week, we read the biblical story of a Priest who becomes a murderer in support of a murderous God -- and thereby turns them both around, calls his God and himself into peacemaking.

In our own generation, the passage has been cited as justification for zealous murders -- for example, the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Rabin. So many peaceable folk of today respond, "Disgusting! One more good reason not to bother with Torah!"

But I see the story in a different light --- in which exactly Disgust inside the story  turns both God and Priest from zealous murder to self-reflective making-peace. 

In the ancient story, the spur to murderous rage is that two peoples meet. There is risk in their meeting. Perhaps there is also a possible blessing. But among at least one of the peoples, the leadership is frightened and forbids all contact.

But there is contact anyway. Some of it is literal, physical contact: sexual relationships. But there is danger: In each long-separated people, a lethal malady might have arisen and then genetically winnowed those most mortally susceptible, leaving the disease troublesome but rarely deadly in that community. 

But that disease had never been known by the other people, and so was still lethal when boundaries between the two communities collapsed. So Reality Itself, the very Winds of Change, may bring on a plague of death.

In the ancient story, YHWH, the Breath of Life, the Hurricane of Change, blows on Its wings a plague, a pestilence. People begin to die -- thousands of them.

Is this just uncanny, a miracle?  In a much more recent story, just 500 years ago, we hear of a canny, scientifically explicable, disaster that bears marks of similarity: When the age-old barriers of Ocean were torn apart in the 16th century, two cultures came together that had never met. 

One theory is that the meeting brought about a “double plague”:  measles decimated the Native Americans; syphilis, the Europeans. 

Was this because their intimate connection was in itself a "sin"? Or was it because the rush of new connection outran the care necessary to make the connection holy?

And what if the plague is perhaps even worse than a viral or bacteriall disease? What if it is a plague of arrogance and dominance? -- on one side, cannons; on the other, spears.  As we see in our own lives, governmental power ruthlessly applied for the private gain of wealth or power by those who already have great power can make even a plague of disease much worse.

When the Sea splits or ghetto walls fall, best make sure: As the boundaries dissolve that had been sharp and high between you, do not rush suddently to embrace. Make new kinds of boundaries -- fuzzy, tentative. Society-wide versions of sacred tzitzit -- conscious fuzzy fringes --  to mark the contact points. Take care!

But what if we fail to take sufficient care?

The Torah's story of Pinchas is one of our sharpest tests. The Israelites made friends with the people of Moab, joining with them sexually and celebrating their gods. God  --  that is, Reality Itself --  sent a plague upon them. Our Name for this Reality is "YHWH."  Pronounce it with no vowels and you get the sound of breath and wind, for YHWH is the Zealous Breath of Life, the Wind of Change, the Hurricane of Transformation.

The peoples met each other unprepared. The Wind of Change blew across their unprepared and unprotected boundaries, blowing into them a plague, a pestilence.

Then Pinchas, a priest and one of Aaron's sons, sees an Israelite and a Midianite having sex. In rage he flings his lance at them, transfixes and kills them both. The plague of violence ends the plague of sickness. And the Torah continues (Num. 25: 10-13):


"YHWH so-worded it through Moses, saying:

" Pinchas has turned back my hot wrath from upon the Children of Israel by expressing-zealously My zeal [b'kano et-kinati] amidst them. And so I did not finish off the Children of Israel in My zealotry [b'kinati].

" Therefore I say: Here! I give him my Covenant of Shalom; it shall be for him and his seed after him a covenant of priesthood forever, because of/ replacing [tachat] his zealotry for his God, through which he made-atonement for the Children of Israel. "

Many readers have taken this to mean that God was pleased with Pinchas the Murderer. But try reading God's words this way:   

"In a blind rage, consumed with jealousy/zealotry, I began killing My people with the plague. Then Pinchas imitated Me: in his own blind and jealous rage, he turned his hand to killing.

"I saw his murder of the sexual couple with horror and disgust. His jealous/ zealous act shocked me into shame at what I Myself was doing. I said to him, 'I will stop, and you must stop!' That is why I stopped the plague; that is why I made with Pinchas my covenant of shalom/ peace."

In this reading, God does a turn-around, a "tshuvah." God grows. The God Who begins by bringing a plague upon the people ends by making a covenant of peace. The God Who is horrified by Pinchas also sees in Pinchas' face one facet of God's Own Face.

But if we mean by "God" not an white-bearded old man in the sky but rather the Breath of Life Whose Name we hear if we try to pronounce the "YHWH" with no vowels at all; if we mean that God Who is within us, among us, beyond us --  then what does it mean for that God to do tshuvah?

What do we mean when we say "God" brought on the plague and halted it, ordered a genocide and made a covenant of peace?

We mean that the deep processes of the universe, the Very Breath of Life Itself, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, God's Name that means "I Will Be Who I Will Be," the Name that is a spiral process of Becoming  -- those processes themselves act in subterranean ways to bring on genocides and plagues, and also to call forth human intervention to prevent, to soften, and to heal them.

How do we do this? First our government refuses to reduce the heat-trapping gases that broil and boil our planet. The heat precepitates a hurricane of rain. A city drowns. Citzens who had voted for an oblivious government are struck with pity, compassion, even awe. They gather to rebuild the city and remake the laws. 

Their gathering will be the common ceremony, the common task, we can weave onto the corners of our peoplehoods and species so as to create a Covenant of Peace.

To become true priests of the Breath of Life.

Tzelophad's Daughters & Anti-woman Theology

This week’s Torah portion includes one of only two passages of Torah in which a group of women –- in this case, five sisters –- consciously band together to challenge a male-domination rule  -– and win. YHWH, Breath of Life, says they are entitled to inherit their father's land, at least when there are no brothers in their generation.  (The other case is Shifra and Puah, the two midwives who stood fast against Pharaoh's order to commit genocide. YHWH affirms and rewards them, too.) 


The sisters win a limited victory -- power remains in the hands of a male Lawgiver -- but it speaks to us today when many male leaders of two major American religious communities are denying women and some women-supporting men the moral agency to make their own conscientious decisions about their own lives.

Often the press reduces this to a matter of whether abortion is a constitutional right or an abominable murder, but a statement of the head of the all-male US Conference of Catholic Bishops makes clear that what is at stake is much larger:

 “Shortly after Mr. Biden’s election in November, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced the unusual creation of a working group to address conflicts that could arise between his administration’s policies and church teaching.

“On Inauguration Day, Archbishop Gomez issued a statement criticizing Mr. Biden for policies “that would advance moral evils” especially “in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.” (Emphasis added.)

                                   (See the NY Times article at )

What is really at stake is a theology of sex, especially impressed on Christianity by the sex-obsessed Augustine of Hippo (I will not call him a saint) who died in the year 430 CE. What is this sin? It is clear to me that what sin we see in the Eden story depends on what struggles we are facing in our selves. Augustine of Hippo was obsessed with the attractions of sex. His sexual nerves were strung so tight as to thrum at the barest touch. He could not bear to be so lured, and so turned to revulsion. He saw the Bible’s vision of the earliest moments of human history through the eyes of that revulsion. 

 Augustine powerfully affected many leaders of the Christianity of his time. They must have shared much of his tightened strum of tension. Ever since, Christian thought –at least until the Protestant rebellion, and even in some Protestant churches – has suggested that the mistake of Eden was sexual. According to this sexual hysteria, the sin has entered into all future humans because Adam and Eve passed it to their children through intercourse and procreation – like a permanent genetic defect carried not in the genes but by the very act of passing on the genes. Since then, most Christian dogma has seen intense pleasure in the sexual act as not only the bearer of Adam’s sin but the nature of the sin itself.

And Augustine’s “original” sin was original not only because it was the first, but because it was intimately involved in the origin of the human species and in the origin of every specific human being. It was and is indelibly imprinted in the human condition.  It was and is the “sin of all,” of the entire world. Since sex was necessary to keep the species alive, the dogma became that sex was acceptable if it led to procreation (though not as holy as chastity). So abortion, contraception, homosexuality, masturbation – all became sins. Hence Archbishop Gomez’ warning.

Since in this theology these sins taint us all from birth to death, nothing we can do can cancel them. Except one thing, and that comes from outside ourselves, from God. This original sin can be dissolved only through belief in Jesus as the Christ who by coming into the world and submitting to the Crucifixion took all sin upon God’s shoulders – and redeemed believers from it.  “Believers” meaning those who had accepted the definition of the deadliest of sins and how to be redeemed.

I should add that through the centuries, some Christian thought – today, a great deal of Christian thought -- and most Jewish thought, has refused to believe that the sin of Eden –whatever it was – made sex or sexual desire or sexual pleasure in itself sinful, or that the mistake of Adam and Eve delivered that sin into all human souls and bodies.

When Protestantism and Eastern-Christian Orthodoxy affirmed that the bearer of spiritual leadership and religious wisdom could be not a single celibate man but a family – a man, a woman, and their children – it was already in body, even if not in words, asserting that sex could live in the heart of religion, not merely in its less serious followers. By insisting on male celibacy for almost all its priests and prelates, the Catholic Church pursued a profoundly different worldview. But in the family theory of the other large male-dominant Christian community (and in much of Orthodox Judaism as well), sex could be celebrated and women could be present – but only if they were subordinate.

The conflict that in the time of the Protestant rebellion seemed to be about other issues seems now, in the context of Modernity, to center on the nature of sexuality and the nature of women. Changes in our answers to those questions have already become some of the major tremors in our world-wide earthquake.

If not sexuality itself, what then was the sin in the Eden parable?  If the mistake of Eden was not imposed upon all human beings simply by their birth from sexual conception, what do I mean when I say the mistake of Eden keeps recurring? And how do we turn away from it?

Like and unlike Augustine, I come, of course, with my own bias about what sin it is that threatens all humanity, and what blessing of Edenic abundance we instead could choose to share.

I am haunted by the Bomb and the Climate Crisis, and at the same time inspired by the vision of an ecologically delightful planet.  Perhaps my own understanding of the sin of Eden comes partly from the deep imprint still on me of 1968, of seeing Pharaoh in our own generation, and of the joyful alternative if we could only cross the Red Sea into the Promised Land, the milk-and-honey Garden. Indeed, it is precisely contemplating the possible death of human civilization and the torment that would mean for my grandchildren that brings me to look at the birth of humankind, and at this powerful mythic parable of our beginning.

So for me the real misdeed of Eden was that the Voice of the Breath of Life said the human race must restrain itself from gobbling up all the anundance of the Garden – and the human race, growing from childhood to adolescence – made an adolescent mistake by rejecting self-restraint, eating from the Tree that was off-limits. The result: the abundance vanishes, unremitting hard toil follows, and so does hierarchy: men will rule over women.

But these consequences are not commands: No one ever thought it would be sinful to invent a rake, a hoe, a plow to ease the work of growing food. And the subordination of women was also a disastrous consequence to be transcended, not “obeyed.” The Song of Songs is the Garden of Eden for a grown-up human race. Women and men are equal and loving, the Erotic and the Spiritual are the same energy, Earth and human earthlings love each other, we have internalized the ethic of love.

We have come a long way toward transcending that consequence. But a majority of the US Catholic bishops would like to subjugate not only Catholic women, not only all women, but also men like President Biden, a faithful Catholic who believes and acts that women have moral agency and the right to choose their lives.

What should we do? Like the daughters of Tzelophachad in this week’s Torah portion, we need to organize. We need to name and oppose the pernicious anti-sex, anti-woman theology that distorts the Bible and perverts human society. We need to say that the real dangers to the human species are the H-Bomb, the burning of fossil fuels, the over-population that takes over all living-space for humankind and crowds other species to extinction.

We need to look at the biblical passage that says, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill up the Earth, and subdue it,” and say ”DONE! Now what?”

Sacred Solidarity, Radical Hospitality: Women Priests & a Woman Rabbi

 Standing with the Sisters

[ By Rabbi SUSAN TALVE, founding Rabbi of Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis. ]

Two women asked us to house their ordination in our sanctuary. Their request  offered us another way of fulfilling our promise of radical hospitality.

But this act of “radical hospitality” was radical indeed. For the women were Roman Catholics, and they planned to be ordained as Roman Catholic priests.

The risk involved in ordaining these two women was that they – and therefore we – were challenging the Roman Catholic hierarchy in St Louis.

Plagues, Peace, and Pinchas The Priest: When meeting brings disaster -- and a cure

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow In the regular Jewish Torah reading for this week, we read the story of a Priest who becomes a murderer and calls a murderous God into reflective peacemaking. In our own gwneration, the passage has been cited as justification for zealous murders -- justification for blood shed today. In response, many peaceniks of today shrug off the story as just another bloody streak in the Biblical fabric. But I see the story in a different light - one that celebrates turning from zealous murder to self-reflective peace.
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