Phineas February 9, 2012

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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