Rachel Held Evans is discussing the way that Christians pick and choose the portions of scripture which they follow. She asks, “What are some other troubling/ strange/forgotten passages of Scripture that rarely make it to our desk calendars or sermon outlines?”

There are many troubling portions of the Bible, but the one that occurs to me first is the first story of Phineas (AKA Phinehas and some other variant spellings) found in Numbers 25:1-13. Philip Jenkins uses this as a his prime example in Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses.

While Israel dwelt in Shittim the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Ba’al of Pe’or. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel; and the LORD said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the LORD, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Every one of you slay his men who have yoked themselves to Ba’al of Pe’or.”

And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Mid’ianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting.

When Phin’ehas the son of Elea’zar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation, and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the inner room, and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body. Thus the plague was stayed from the people of Israel.

Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.

And the LORD said to Moses, “Phin’ehas the son of Elea’zar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, `Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace; and it shall be to him, and to his descendants after him, the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the people of Israel.’”

So Phineas kills a man and his wife for the sin of miscegenation. This was obviously written during one of the xenophobic periods of Jewish history.

There are some ridiculous elements to it. The supposed “crime” was marrying a Midianite, and the text makes a big deal out of the fact that this was brazenly done in front of Moses. But Moses himself likely had a Midianite wife, from the period after he fled Egypt. Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, Jethro, seems to be a fairly important character in Exodus.

Also notice that God stays his hand and grants a covenant of peace, “only” killing 24,000 people. This is what people mean when they complain about the God of the Old Testament. Also note that Phineas’ zealotry earns him and his descendants the plum position in the priesthood.

To me, this passage represents the troubling undercurrent of ethnic purity that runs through some of the Hebrew Testament. All of these sections, found particularly in books like Ezra and Nehemiah, are ignored by most mainstream Christians. Thankfully. But there are a few groups, like the Christian Identity group the Phineas Priesthood, who use this passage as a justification for their racism.

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  • Andrew Hall

    What’s amazing is that this incident isn’t some aberration in the OT either. There are plenty of times that the slaughter of innocent people is sanctioned by the Almighty.

  • Wazza

    anyone else snicker at “shittim”?

    • ScottW

      Yes. ^^

      • Schaden Freud


  • Stony

    I may be mixing up my OT, but not only did the plague “only” take 24,000, but didn’t Phineas’ line lose their priesthood a few chapters later? And please forgive this ignorant question, but the bible population counts always seem a little inflated to me…..were there that many people alive in that area at that time?

    BTW, my favorite never preached on, never discussed, never answered verse is gen 6:4, about the “giants in the earth”. I have asked about that verse since I was a kid and have never gotten a reasonable response.

  • Trond Reitan

    Curious character, this Phinheas. He appears in “prominence” in the section of Numbers you mentioned. Then he appears again in the Book of Judges in chapter 20, even though it’s stated earlier in the same text that at least 300 years had gone by since the exodus. (It’s the same guy, because he’s described as “the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron”.) So, long-lived guy!

    There’s at least one good thing about the atrocities in the first bible texts, namely that there’s probably very little historicity in them. But that still doesn’t make it okay that a religious text actually describes this (probably fictional) character as a shining example to others.

  • John C

    Respectfully intended, that passage is not about anything you surmised it might be about, Vorjack. These ‘sons’ represent re-generations of out-growth, spiritual development, etc and depict allegorically in the seen, historical context, spiritual courses of action in the unseen tied to inheriting the promises of God, ie the march UP to the promised land, the conquest of Canaan (the subduing of the flesh nature in man that opposes God’s inward reign which results in our peace and is mankind’s problem today, ie he thinks himself to be an independent self who only answers to himself). It has nothing to do with ethnic cleansing since its not even in the natural (physical/bodily) realm as Israel is representative of the people of God, spiritually speaking and God IS Spirit, (Jn 4:24). All my best.

    Luke 8:10

    • trj

      Yeah, every time people are massacred by Old Testament God it’s really a metaphor for spiritual growth. Plagues, famines, floods, droughts, fires, wars, genocides, hangings, stonings, killing the unborn, or just plain smiting – whenever God does it or commands it it’s a positive spiritual metaphor.

      Savage destruction as a metaphor for growth. It’s so obvious.

      • Brian K

        It’s good that there are those with the secret knowledge like John C who can enlighten us to the true meaning of all the smiting.

        I repeat myself, but John C is not a Christian in any orthodox sense. This is Gnostic mystic religion in a nutshell.

        John, I’m surprised the Demiurge hasn’t smote you yet. Your lucky you weren’t alive during the Cathar Crusades…the Inquisition would have LOVED your interpretation of things.

        • John C

          I get your tongue in cheek here, Brian but anyone can know since ‘He is no respecter of persons’ (Acts 10:34). There is only One require-meAnt, and that is that one must first be One again with Him (John Ch 17:21-24) as we were ‘in the beginning’ (Gen 1:1) or ‘Bereshit’ in Hebrew means ‘in the Head’, in the mind of God.

          So, as Jesus said we ‘must’ be re-born again, from ‘above’ meaning the true, spiritual realm otherwise, as He said, we cannot ‘see’ (perceive) the kingdom of God (within us, Luke 17:21).

          All the best, Brian.

          • Johan

            And you came to this conclusion after years of drug abuse.

      • Len

        whenever God does it or commands it it’s a positive spiritual metaphor

        And in this case it’s soooo positive because only 24,000 people actually died. That’s wonderful.

        • trj

          No no no, those 24,000 were an allegory for people who spiritually transcended their human flesh into holy communion with the indwelling god-head or some heavy shit like that. We can only regret the number wasn’t higher.

  • Igor

    For FSM’s sake, somebody give John C some punctuation marks! Even a period or two might help. The man takes the run-on sentence to new heights!

    • John C

      Guilty as charged. Love me some run-on sentences, ha. Please 4give! :)

  • alnitak

    Bible verse you don’t hear from the pulpit:
    Matthew 24:28
    Jesus says
    “Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.”

    • Mogg

      Heard that one in lots of sermons, along with the scene in Genesis where Abram makes an offering and has to keep birds of prey off the carcasses until God shows up. It even got turned into a song, although somehow the vultures got turned into eagles searching for a home. There was some John C-class metaphorical thinking going on.

  • Steve

    Personally, I don’t give two shits whether the violent verses in the Bible are meant to be taken literally or metaphorically, although I think it’s pretty damn clear that they are intended to be taken literally. The vast majority of the Old Testament is basically the Jews creating a history for themselves…from my studies it would have happened after they became Babylonian captives. So, no, none of these things really ever happened, at least not according to any Biblical Scholar. But most of today’s Christians and most, if not all evangelical scholars do. But it doesn’t fucking matter. The fact is, the Bible is a book pieced together by different men with different opinions on the nature of God. It is contradictory and confusing. There is absolutely no evidence for the Christian God and I refuse to take Kierkegaard’s proverbial leap of faith. But I agree that the Old Testament is absolutely fucked up. It’s not a product of a god, it’s a product of the times.

    • vasaroti

      Yep, situational ethics at its finest.

  • Schaden Freud

    The problem I have with interpreting this stuff as a metaphor is that it’s still a fucking disturbing metaphor. The other problem, of course, is that fundamentalist xtians don’t always have a good grasp of concepts like “metaphor”.

    • Thin-ice

      . . . or “satire”, or “subtlety”, or “nuance”, or “rationality”, or “common sense” or . . .

    • Jus

      According to Paul of Tarsus, that’s not a metaphor. Or at least, if it is a metaphor, it’s based on actual events in history. The reason those things were written down is for instruction to the Israel of God. (Though he did say the rock of Exodus 17 was a metaphor of Christ).

      Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did… these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 1 Corinthians 10:6,11-12

      What’s funny is, he seems to get the number wrong, of those who died. He said “twenty-three thousand fell in a single day”, while in Numbers it says “those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand”.
      - Where did the 1000 go?
      - Did they die later, just not on the same day?

  • Stony

    No, I don’t take it as metaphor. Or if it is metaphor, which parts? Which is literal? And who gets to decide? I’ve been taught that the book of Job is just an allegory for the general state of man, which makes sense, otherwise the literal interpretation of that book is fucking disturbing. Do I also get to take the Jesus stories…plural…as allegory? No, I’m condemned to hell if I don’t take it literally? Again, who decides these things?

    At this point I’m down to “love thy neighbor”, and the rest is just colorful literature that I ignore.

  • Thin-ice

    OK, I’ll assume the role in my previous life as an evangelical. Moses’ wife was Midianite, but the difference between her and her family, and the Midianite woman that was speared through by Phineas, is obvious: Moses’ wife came from a Midianite family that didn’t worship those evil foreign Midianite gods, so she was acceptable, while Phineas’ victim was not acceptable in God’s sight.

    Such are the made-up excuses that Christians use to explain any contradiction in the Bible. Just make up shit. It doesn’t have to be spelled out in the Bible, but just as John C above proves, all you have to be is a true believer, and it becomes obvious. Lying, prevarication, deception are all justified if you say “the Holy Spirit told me”.

    • John C

      I don’t make anything up that I don’t yet have light (revelation knowledge) on Thin-Ice and there is still plenty that I don’t see in to with the full light of day (Prov 4:18). That Phineas passage however, is easy. His written words are the same as He is, ie Spirit and therefore, as He says in 1 Cor 2:14, must also be spiritually apprehended and this ‘apprehension’ of the kingdom mysteries (Luke 8:10) is the ‘birthright’ of every spiritually re-born ‘son’ who is intent on climbing the ladder of (spiritual) ascent (understanding/enlightenment).

      And that’s what Genesis 1 is all about, contrary to popular belief. We are that ‘earth’ that was ‘formless and void’ with ‘darkness covering over the surface of the deep’, while the Spirit of God hovered over the waters poised to command the ‘light to be made manifest’ (in us) and that light (Light) is Christ Himself (John 1:4). The challenge you guys have, being previous ‘church-goer’s etc is that you have come to see or deny ‘God’ through the foggy lens of your past religious/churchy experiences but that is not Him (didn’t you ever read His words/sentiments toward those same ‘religious/churchy’ types in the NT?).

      Revelation Light is still mankind’s greatest need because revelation always brings about transformation and this world could sure benefit from some serious Transform-Nation-All changes, amen? Let there be Light.

      • Kodie

        Your puns suck ass.

        • Igor

          Word blah (God) ‘Spirit” mumble,, “(Light’) (John 12)Love blahblah ‘Jesus’ (God) savior life (meaning) (whatever) ‘extra meaniningless punctuation’ (exodus) ‘Moses, (more commas and marks),Truth to duty ‘God spirit’ (No-Doz)

          Makes as much sense as John C.

          • Kodie

            Revelation Light is still mankind’s greatest need because revelation always brings about transformation and this world could sure benefit from some serious Transform-Nation-All changes, amen?

            This sentence is not only awful, but completely retarded. It implies there’s something god can do, but he can only do it if people let him inside themselves, and their resistance to revelation is what’s causing all the problems of the world or causing them not to be fixed. Aside from that dreaminess without substantial awareness outside of his own thoughts, it includes this wordplay that suggests John sees literal connections between words that sound similar or tries to get two meanings for one, which is horrible in a post in a thread where he recognizes biblical genocide as a metaphor. Upthread, he also challenges us with the gem, “require-meAnt”. I might be alright to read the blah blah blah if it weren’t also peppered with attempts to be clever and compound what he’s asserting by trying to make it mean twice as much.


            • John C

              Geez, Kodie, and I was hoping you’d be my Valentine, was just about to ask you to the big dance tomorrow night, :(

              Ha, actually I already have a Valentine sweetie…she’s my precious little 4.5 year old granddaughter that’s staying with me this weekend and we’re gonna have a blast together, ha (but ur first on my list for next year, k? ;). Happy V-day Ms. Kodie! (uh its 2mrw, I know…ugh, happy V-day anyway!)

            • Custador

              I think that may have come across as somewhat more creepy than you planned, John…

      • vasaroti

        Do you post your light-filled interpretations of the Bible on conventional religious blogs or preach to actual church members? Just curious.

        • John C

          No, I’m not a ‘preacher/pastor’ in that sense (not my thing) but yes, I do teach, lead, share in my little non-denom fellowship and to the small group that meets in my home on Mon nights. No, I do not have a blog, yet anyway.

          T/c, Vasaroti

          • Ty

            John C is the gnostic christian version of Gene Ray.

        • Igor

          Yeah, John C, I kinda feel like we went from Jesus to Chris Hanson and “To Catch a Predator” there. Ick.

          Dial it back, fella – stay in the land of ‘mumble-God-SPIRIT’ (John 23) whatever…’ you really went to creepy-land there.

          • John C

            I have no idea what you mean by ‘creepy land’. I am simply looking forward to spending time with my granddaughter this weekend, plain and simple. Anything anyone read into that simple statement just means you really need to renew your minds, come up and out of the gutter guys, ugh.

  • Michael

    This gives better context to Ruth, which pretty much turned this ancient racism on its head.

  • Robster

    There’s a place called Shittim? Is it famous for defecating? Has it got a really big WC museum? Does it have a hotel connected to the sewer? If it has, that would be rare in the advanced Middle East.

  • Rob Jase

    All this jabber and yet no one has mentioned that Phineas T. Whoopie is the greatest!

  • Jus

    Vorjack, this is awesome! This is one of the reasons why I keep coming back to UF. A Bible study at an atheist site! How cool is that?!

    There are some ridiculous elements to it.
    Totally. There are many ridiculous and funny sides to this story, even though it’s so tragic. (Well I guess, most of the stories in the Bible are like that.)

    One strange and funny thing is the fact that Phinehas followed them “into the inner room, and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body.”
    - Did he impale them both at the same time? in one thrust, with one stick?
    - While they were having sex? in “the inner room”?
    - Did he wait until they got into the action and then ambushed them? How long did he wait?
    - Or were they already in the heat of foreplay even as they passed the people?
    - Is that why it was pointed out that they passed “in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation”?
    - Or did he impale them one at a time? Before they had a chance to mix genes?

    Another funny/tragic thing is that Israel was “playing the harlot” with Moabite girls, yet the girl mentioned was Midianite.
    - How unlucky that she came into the camp on that day, at that time?
    - Why did God later tell Moses to strike down the Midianites, if the people “whored” with the Moabites?

    This is just a couple verses down from what you quoted:

    And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Harass the Midianites and strike them down, for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.” Numbers 25:16-18

    Another strange and funny is when they went to attack the Midianites a few chapters later.

    And Moses sent them to the war, a thousand from each tribe, together with Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, with the vessels of the sanctuary and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand. Numbers 31:6

    - “the vessels of the sanctuary”? Aren’t those the plates and cups and forks, etc?
    - Phinehas was carrying silverware to war?

  • David Tomlin

    Shittim is mentioned frequently in the OT. It is east of the Jordan River, and was the base from which Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan to attack Jericho.

  • David Tomlin


    Good spotting, but you missed the biggest clue. Killing the couple stopped the plague, but there’s no mention of the plague beginning.

    This is a rare example of the redactor making a single story out of two incomplete ones, from different sources. In the first one the Israelites were led astray by Moabite women, and Yahveh ordered a massacre as punishment. In the second one something may have been happening with Midianite women, and Yahveh did the punishing himself with a plague.

    The beginning of the second story is obviously missing. The end of the first one probably is too. Typically the massacre itself would be described, not left to the imagination.

    The first story is from the Yahvist source; the second is Priestly.

  • Jimmy Slate

    I haven’t checked in here for some time because I thought it was getting boring, but the last few posts are really good quality so I guess I’ll add you back to my daily bloglist. You deserve it my friend. insurance guides