Though his youth and education are not described in the Torah, he was presumably brought up in the family tradition to be a person who honoured peace above all things. In modern terms, we would say that he was a dove. But suddenly the dove became a hawk.
Zimri the son of Salu was flagrantly sinning with the Midianite woman Kozbi the daughter of Zur. Pinchas could not repress his indignation. On the spur of the moment he took the law into his own hands. He did not spare a thought for the procedures of the rule of law. He had to act.
What a frightening precedent! It could have been the end of his career.
The Talmud says that his contemporaries were aghast, and even the ministering angels wanted to excommunicate him. Yet God came to his defence and said, “Let him be,” adding a command to Moses, “Be the first to extend a greeting of peace to him” (Sanh. 82b).
This does not mean that murder, fanaticism or lynch law have Divine approval as a matter of course; God’s defence of Pinchas is unique.
As Nehama Leibowitz points out, Rav Kook offers a psychological explanation in his commentary to the passage in the prayer book, “For slanderers let there be no hope”. What a bitter, vengeful prayer this seems to be! Yet who wrote it? Shmuel HaKatan, who was known for his gentleness of character and spirit.
No-one, says Rav Kook, could have accused Shmuel of imagining he was a hero whom history would applaud for his deed. What he did was inspired by the purest of motives. His love of God was without the slightest self-pride, nor was he looking over his shoulder for anyone to congratulate him.
Similarly with Pinchas: the deed may have been terribly harsh, but his motive, as God’s vindication implies, was absolutely pure.