Pinchas is Eliyahu—and So Much More

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

The Midrash famously comments on the eponymous subject of this week’s parasha that “Pinchas is Eliyahu” (Yalkut Shimoni I, 771). This statement is echoed throughout rabbinic texts and, with minor exceptions, all agree that Pinchas and Eliyahu were one and the same person. There are many reasons for this. With Pinchas, we read that God gave him a blessing of peace and “eternal priesthood”, suggesting that Pinchas would forever be a kohen. We go on to read how Pinchas was the kohen gadol for centuries, throughout the period of Judges, and the Tanakh never records his death. Meanwhile, Eliyahu appears in the Tanakh quite suddenly without any background information, genealogy, or patronymic. He goes on to avoid death and be taken up to Heaven in a fiery chariot.

Most tellingly, we find a unique Scriptural statement used in relation to these two figures, and no one else. Pinchas is described as having stood up zealously for God (בקנאו את קנאתי, Numbers 25:11), and Eliyahu uses the same words when speaking to God, saying he was zealous for God (קנא קנאתי, I Kings 19:10). The Sages conclude that they must be one and the same zealot! If that’s the case, why and how did Pinchas become Eliyahu?

The ancient Targum Yonatan translates and comments on Numbers 25:12 that when God gave Pinchas briti shalom, He said: “I will turn him into an angel so that he will live forever and will proclaim the Final Redemption in the End of Days.” What is the connection here? Why should it be Pinchas who ushers in the Redemption? The Midrash (ibid.) explains that just as Pinchas made peace between God and Israel at this instance with the Midianites, so too will he be the one that makes peace between God and Israel in the End of Days, as it is written: “Behold, I will send to you Elijah the Prophet before the Great and Awesome Day of the Lord, and he will restore the hearts of parents to their children and children to their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction…” (Malachi 3:23-24) Just as Pinchas was the one to quell God’s rage and end the destructive plague in the Wilderness, so too will he return, as Eliyahu, to quell God’s rage again in the End of Days.

If that’s the case, why the name change? Well, once Pinchas transfigured into an angel, he needed a new, angelic name. There are two figures in the Torah that became angels: first Enoch, and then Pinchas (see Ba’al haTurim on Genesis 5:22). To designate their status as God’s servants, angels typically carry “El” (אל) in their name, as in the famous angels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. Enoch took on the name “Yehoel”, יהואל, though he is generally referred to as “Metatron” (as explored in depth here). Following Enoch’s precedent, the next man-turned-angel, Pinchas, took the same elements for his new name, just switching around the two to form “Eliyahu”, אליהו.

Interestingly, we already see evidence for Pinchas becoming angelic shortly after the Midianite episode in this week’s parasha. Just months later, after Moses passed away and Joshua took over as the new leader, he sent a pair of spies to scout the Holy Land in preparation for conquest. The two spies were Caleb (who had previously proven himself to be a worthy spy) and Pinchas. As the famous story goes, Caleb and Pinchas hid in the home of Rahav. The Tanakh tells us that “the woman had taken the two men and hidden them” (Joshua 2:4), yet the Hebrew literally states “hidden him” (וַֽתִּצְפְּנ֑וֹ). She took both men, but only hid one! Why? Rashi comments that Pinchas was already an angel, and could make himself invisible, like any good angel can.

As the Tanakh continues, we see Pinchas play prominent roles for centuries to come. Why does his priesthood end? The key incidence took place with the judge Yiftach (see Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 32). To help him in battle, Yiftach made a vow to sacrifice whatever he sees first upon his return from victory. When he returned, it was his daughter whom he saw first, putting him in a terrible bind. What he should have done was go to Pinchas, the high priest, and have his vow annulled. Unfortunately, his ego was too great and he did not want to humble himself before the kohen. Pinchas, meanwhile, should have taken the initiative to go to Yiftach in order to spare the daughter. He, too, held onto his pride, leaving the innocent daughter to suffer. For this, Pinchas lost his ruach hakodesh and was demoted from the priesthood (Beresheet Rabbah 60:3).

I think the Midrash here actually holds the key to linking Pinchas and Eliyahu, because it makes a point to note how Yiftach was buried in the land of Gilead (Judges 12:7). Meanwhile, Eliyahu is introduced in the Tanakh as coming specifically from Gilead (I Kings 17:1). The implication is that after his failure, Pinchas retired to the land of Gilead to atone for his mistake with Yiftach, who was buried in Gilead. The Tanakh later reintroduces Pinchas as Eliyahu “from Gilead” to remind us that the last time we saw Pinchas was in the Gileadean episode. He returns centuries later, no longer as Pinchas (for who would believe that?) but as the angel-prophet Eliyahu. He knows all along that he is immortal and will not die, which is why Eliyahu tries really hard to shake off his disciple Elisha and prevent him from seeing Eliyahu’s “passing” (II Kings 1).

What did Pinchas do in those centuries when he was in hiding, before returning as Eliyahu? Aside from his need to atone and regain ruach hakodesh, he did play a hidden role in the events that transpired. We see an example of this in the birth of Samson. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 1:1) intriguingly suggests that the angel who heralded the miraculous birth of Samson was Pinchas! (Note that Samson was the next great judge after Yiftach—in between them were the minor Judges Ivtzan, Elon, and Avdon, who each served for a relatively short amount of time and are only described briefly in several verses.)

The Joseph Connection

We find an interesting parallel between Pinchas-Eliyahu and Joseph. These figures are all paragons of Yesod and shemirat habrit, sexual purity and “preservation of the Covenant”. Pinchas ended the Midianite orgy, and later as Eliyahu helped to end the immorality in the Kingdom of Israel. Because of the latter, Eliyahu was tasked with appearing at every brit milah (as explained in the past here). When we talk about the “Seven Shepherds of Israel”, they are always listed as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David, corresponding to the Sefirot of Chessed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod, and Malkhut. Yet, in the continuation of the Midrash of Pinchas cited above (Yalkut Shimoni I, 772) we read:

Seven forefathers forged a covenant [with God], and they are: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Pinchas, and David. With Abraham it is written, “On that day God made a covenant with Abraham…” [Genesis 15:18] With Isaac it is written, “And My covenant I will uphold with Isaac…” [Genesis 17:21] With Jacob it is written, “Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob…” [Leviticus 26:42] With Moses it is written, “I have made a covenant with you…” [Exodus 34:27] With Aaron it is written, “My covenant was with him…” [Malachi 2:5] With Pinchas it is written, “It shall be for him and for his descendants after him an eternal covenant…” [Numbers 25:13] With David it is written, “I have made a covenant with My chosen one…” [Psalms 89:4]

We would have surely expected Joseph to be named in place of Pinchas here. The explanation for the apparent switch is that Joseph’s soul was in Pinchas (see Kol HaTor, ch. 2). Before he passed away, Joseph asked to be part of the future Exodus. We know that his sarcophagus was indeed found and taken by the Israelites. However, it wasn’t just his bones and physical remains that came along—God made sure that Joseph’s soul, too, would be part of the Exodus. It came back in Pinchas, which is really why Pinchas had such zeal for God and was so connected to Yesod, the Sefirah of Joseph. The proof is in the numbers: Pinchas’ past was with Joseph, and his future in Eliyahu, so it is most fitting that the sum of “Yosef” and “Eliyahu” (יוסף + אליהו) is 208, equal to “Pinchas” (פינחס)!

The Temple Connection

There is one more fascinating connection worth exploring. Pinchas and Eliyahu were called “zealots”, kana’im. This same label was used by a group of Jews at the end of the Second Temple era, known in rabbinic texts as kana’im or biryonim, extremists who believing in fighting off the Romans even to the point of martyrdom. Among them were a distinct group of assassins called sikarikim, “Sicarii”, after their weapon of choice: a small, concealed dagger.

The Zealots believed that the messianic era was at hand. They saw the war with the Romans as the prophesied Gog u’Magog of the End of Days. This is why they were willing to die for the cause, knowing that the Resurrection was imminent anyway. As the Talmud (Gittin 56a) describes, they went so far as to burn down all the granaries of Jerusalem to force the Jews to fight the Romans to the death. They took matters into their own hands and no longer listened to the rabbis or the Sanhedrin.

The leading sage at the time was Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. His nephew was “Abba Sikkara”, leader of the Zealots. Rabban Yochanan met with his nephew in secret and told him: “How much longer will you do this? Until everyone is dead…?” Abba Sikkara replied that he no longer has control of his own fanatical warriors, and if he would try to restrain them, they would brand him a traitorous sellout and kill him! This is where we read of the famous story about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai feigning death and escaping Jerusalem’s walls in a coffin. This was actually Abba Sikkara’s idea! His suspicious Zealots wanted to pierce Rabban Yochanan’s body just to make sure he was dead, but Abba Sikkara stopped them.

While this was going on, we know from historical sources (namely Josephus) that the Zealots took over the priesthood and appointed a new kohen gadol of their own. His name? Pinchas ben Shmuel of Aphthia. The Talmud (Tosefta Yoma 1:6) actually notes this episode briefly as well, calling him “Pinchas ish Habata”, who was an unworthy candidate. Joseph adds that he was originally a farmer and knew little of priesthood (Wars of the Jews 4:155). The Zealots put him in charge and proclaimed: Pinchas hu Eliyahu! They believed him to be the prophesied return of Elijah in the End of Days! Incredibly, it is quite possible that this statement which we find countless times in Rabbinic texts actually originated with the Zealot Pinchas in the final months of the Second Temple.

The Zealots of that time thought they were carrying on the work of the Biblical zealot Pinchas. After all, Pinchas took matters into his own hands, and acted violently. He did not get permission from Moses, and the Sanhedrin at the time did not approve of Pinchas’ unilateral action. In fact, they initially wanted to excommunicate him for it, before God stepped in (see Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 48a). The Zealots, too, acted violently, unilaterally, without permission from the nasi of Israel or the Sanhedrin. This is probably why they called themselves “Zealots”, kana’im, after the ancient moniker of Pinchas. Did the Zealots know of the Midrashic connection between Pinchas and Eliyahu? Did they know the tradition that Pinchas would return as Elijah to usher in the Final Redemption? There is no doubt that they did, for the earliest known source to discuss this is Philo, who died before the Second Temple was destroyed, and wrote in his Biblical Antiquities (48.1):

…God said to [Pinchas]: “Behold you have passed the 120 years that have been established for every man. Now rise up and go from here and dwell in the desert on the mountain and dwell there many years. I will command my eagle, and he will nourish you there, and you will not come down again to mankind until the appointed time arrives and you will be tested at the appropriate time; and then you will shut up the heaven [from rain], and by your mouth it will be opened up. Afterward you will be raised up to the place where those who were before you were raised up, and you will be there until I remember the world…

Philo is referring to the first episode in the Eliyahu narrative, where he appears during a time of great famine in Israel, to bring back the rains. He makes it clear that Pinchas is Eliyahu. If Philo wrote this decades before the Temple’s destruction, there is little doubt that it was common knowledge, even back then, that Pinchas and Eliyahu were one and the same person. In that difficult time, many Jews were expecting the coming of the messiah. Eliyahu must come first, as prophesied, and Eliyahu is Pinchas. The Zealots found a little-known rural kohen who was named Pinchas, put him in the priesthood, and proclaimed him to be Elijah, the harbinger of Mashiach. Of course, their plot didn’t work, and the Temple was destroyed. The Zealots were suppressed, but not extinguished.

Sixty years later, the Zealot ideology returned with Shimon bar Kochva and his revolt. This time, they had the support of Rabbi Akiva. Bar Kochva’s Zealots fought valiantly, temporarily expelled the Romans, and even started rebuilding the Temple. These Zealots were righteous. However, this revolt ultimately failed as well, and among the many victims were 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s student-warriors. Here we come full circle:

The Torah tells us that 24,000 men lost their lives in the Midianite episode. These sinners were reincarnated in the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva. In his Sefer Gilgulei Neshamot (20:2), the great Rabbi Menachem Azariah de Fano (1548-1620), disciple of the Arizal, writes:

Cozbi is Jezebel, and her tikkun was the wife of Tinius Rufus, who became the wife of Rabbi Akiva. It is known that Jezebel pursued Eliyahu, who is Pinchas, for revenge. And Zimri is Rabbi Akiva, who is his tikkun… and the 24,000 that died from the tribe of Shimon in Shechem, they are the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva that died because “they did not honour each other”, alluding to the sin at Shittim, from which they were not purified until they died a second time.

Recall that Jezebel was the Phoenician princess who married Ahab, king of Israel and became the queen. She caused Israel to descend into horrendous idolatry and immorality. She obsessively pursued Eliyahu to eliminate him. Here we are told why: Jezebel was the reincarnation of Cozbi, the Midianite princess who caused Israel to descend into idolatry and immorality in the Wilderness. Pinchas killed her so now, as Jezebel, she was after him, as Eliyahu. Eliyahu prophesies her cruel death, and set the stage for her eventual demise.

Meanwhile, back in the Torah we read how following the abduction of Dinah, her brother Shimon had zealously killed 24,000 people in Shechem. He took advantage of their weakness from circumcision, when they had agreed to join Israel (Genesis 34). This rash action was incorrect and condemned by Jacob. The Shechemites had been circumcised and became Jews. So, they were reincarnated in the 24,000 people of the tribe of, fittingly, Shimon. Though now full-fledged Jews, a stain of Canaanite impurity remained within them and they succumbed to the Midianite sin. This only made them more impure.

Their final rectification came in being the righteous students of Rabbi Akiva. They participated in the Bar Kochva Revolt—this time with permission, and truly zealous for God—dying as righteous martyrs, thereby completing the spiritual cycle. Rabbi Akiva himself was a reincarnation of Zimri. This explains why Rabbi Akiva married a Roman noblewoman (previously the wife of Tinius Rufus, the wicked Roman general-governor) after the passing of his first wife Rachel. His second wife was a reincarnation of Cozbi! This time, she properly converted to Judaism, and was with Rabbi Akiva in a kosher manner. In this way, all the rectifications were fulfilled. Now we only await the return of Pinchas, as Eliyahu, to usher in the Final Redemption.