We are uncomfortable with Pinchas.
He is an example of zealotry that is rewarded and we are uncomfortable with zealotry, the violent kind in particular.
If we don’t see the Torah purely as the word of God or history, it’s even more disturbing because we are left with the idea that this story has something to teach us and the most simplistic moral to the story seems to be that zealotry is good. How can we view Pinchas as an example of how to behave?
Short answer: We can’t.
The Torah alludes and the rabbis conclude that this was a ‘one and done’ kind of event.
Or, to paraphrase Mark Twain: The sins of the fathers aren’t the sins of the sons but they rhyme!
There is a hint of sexual deviance in the act at the Golden Calf. But the sin that defines the slave generation is the lack of confidence in God’s ability to win the land. The children of freedom don’t seem to have this problem. They are winning battles right and left. Where they slip is in the sexual arena -- while God is busy saving them from being cursed by a Midianite prophet hired by a Moabite king, they are busy cavorting with the Moabite and Midianite daughters and, by extension, their Moabite and Midianite idols.
At this moment, with the Israelites so close to the promised land, primed for military action, blessed and confident, all it would take is a generational act of defiant idolatry to send God over the edge and destroy them all as almost occurred in the cases of the Golden Calf, the Scouts Report and the Rebellion of Korach. Moses ran interference for the Israelites in those cases, arguing that God would look bad to the nations surrounding and be in violation of the divine promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob if that holy anger were left to destroy Israel unchecked.
Where is Moses now?
Too tired? Lacking incentive considering he won’t be enjoying the promised land with his people? Or simply too slow to react to the flagrant deviance of God’s honor?
This one time only act of vengeance for the flagrant and public humiliation of God is rewarded not with a new sword collection but with a covenant of peace.
There is a larger lesson here.
The hero of one era is not the hero of all.
To paraphrase Ecclesiastes:
A time for reaction and time for reflection.
A time for acting up and time for owning up.
A time to be in the know and a time to upset the status quo.
A time to let God act for us and a time for us to act for God.
A time to act for existential survival and a time to own what was necessary to survive.