There is a remarkable discrepancy between the scriptural view of Pinhas and the Rabbinic. The Torah tells us that Pinhas is a hero who deserves the priesthood forever (Numbers 25:12) for taking the initiative and summarily executing Zimri and Kozbi (Numbers 25:8, 14). To the Rabbis, however, Pinhas represented the worst kind of zealotry. The extrajudicial punishment of the accused is vigilantism, not justice. Hence, had Zimri defended himself and killed Pinhas first, he would be exempt from any liability (Sanhedrin 82a). Even the angels wanted to prevent Pinhas from taking the law into his own hands (San. 82a). The Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7) goes so far as to say that had Pinhas been alive in their time, the Rabbis would have placed him under the ban.
Professor Louis Finkelstein argued that Rabbinic powerlessness in the face of Roman oppression led to a Rabbinic aversion to any action outside of the legal system. If this is true, then the Rabbinic objections to Pinhas’ actions are clear. But what remains unclear is how the Rabbis could ignore what scripture insists is laudable.
However, there is a way of reading the text that support Rabbinic unhappiness with Pinhas yet concurrently remaining true to the text. Consider that the Torah describes Pinhas’ actions as following the plague that wiped out 24,000 Israelites who had illicit sexual relations with Moabite women at Ba’al Pe’or. Rabbi Mordechai Ha-Kohen cites a Hasidic rebbe who notes that had Pinhas intervened sooner and killed the leaders of this lascivious breach of Israelite morals, perhaps fewer would have died. In other words, the text itself leaves room for the Rabbis to decry Pinhas’ actions, but not because he intervened but that he took too long to do so! He would have been entirely justified in striking at the moment the violations took place, not afterwards.
If this insight applies, then the message to be learned is that timing is everything in life. It is the difference between success and failure and it is the difference between approbation and condemnation.