We do not have long to wait for the Torah to tell us. In next week’s sidra, Mattot, we hear that there was a war with the Midianites, and Pinchas went with the Israelite forces as their army chaplain. The campaign was waged by “a thousand from every tribe, and Pinchas the son of Elazar the priest” (Num. 31:6).
Pinchas, says Rashi, echoing the sages (Sotah 43a), was meshu’ach milchamah – “the priest anointed for battle” (see Deut. 20:2).
This phrase illustrates the paradox that has haunted military chaplaincy throughout history: for how can religion, which believes that swords should be beaten into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:2-4, Micah 4:1-4), condone warfare to such an extent that it consciously anoints a priest to go with the armies?
The answer is that war is sometimes a tragic necessity, defence preparedness is essential to a nation, and a defence force needs a religious advisory arm to watch over the morality of its policies and the morale of its troops.
In Biblical times, the priest anointed for battle had the role of sustaining the spirits of the army, who, as the rabbis explained, fearing the cruelty of the enemy and the noise of the military machine, were in danger of losing their nerve and unable to concentrate out of worry about what was happening at home.
All this means that Pinchas not only has a place in the history of Israel but was the very first chaplain in military history.