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Break Your Bible: Numbers 25 and the Zeal of Phinehas

In this series of posts I want to use selected texts from the Bible to illuminate and challenge the way we read and interpret the whole collection. By saying “Break Your Bible” I’m not advocating that we reject, redact, or revise the contents of the biblical canon, but rather that we allow difficult components of the canon to stretch and complicate the things we think we know and believe about how it all fits together. This first post will focus on a story from the Hebrew Bible that defies simplistic interpretation, the second will examine a prophetic text that complicates our reading of the Torah, and last we’ll look at a Greek passage that raises similar issues in the New Testament.

The Myth of Phinehas

Numbers 25:6-13 is a brief account tucked away among the lengthy annals and genealogies of the Torah, but it resonates throughout the Bible. It’s a mythic story, which is a comment on its function, not its veracity. This is an interpretive re-telling of an ancient crisis. In the story, Israel is devastated by a mysterious plague that kills thousands, and a man named Phinehas takes matters into his own hands. When he discovers that an Israelite man has taken a wife from among the Midianites (their pagan enemies), Phinehas runs his spear through the couple, murdering them. The plague subsides, and God is so impressed with the “zeal” of Phinehas that he honors him, granting him an “everlasting priesthood.” The myth succinctly describes a problem (sinful marriage) and its solution (summary execution), leaving no question in the mind of the reader that this is the way the world works; our problems emanate from an angry God who can be appeased by acts of ritual violence.

The problems with this myth and its native interpretation are many and obvious, I hope. Most of us today, even Christians, do not believe in the theology that this story presents. In fact, those who do appeal to this kind of thinking usually end up making public apologies. We don’t believe that diseases and natural disasters are sent by God to punish us for our sins, and we don’t believe that assuaging God’s wrath is a matter of identifying and murdering the right sinners. We recognize that this type of “zeal” reflects an archaic and dangerous way of thinking about God and other people.

But It’s In the Bible!

At the same time, Christians who appeal to the Bible as a perfect and inspired authority must find a way to fit this story and others like it into the grand narrative of “what the Bible says.” That would probably go something like, “God hates sin, and this is how He dealt with it in ancient times.” And that might give way to, “But now we have Jesus, so God has dealt with sin in a better way!” This appeal to an “old covenant/new covenant” upgrade is a common way for Christians to interpret unsavory passages from the Hebrew Scriptures without having to judge them or disagree with them. This approach might have some merit when suggesting, for example, that the old system of animal sacrifice has been fulfilled and supplanted by the self-sacrifice of Jesus (an idea we will scrutinize in the next post). But it’s quite another to suggest that killing human infidels in God’s name used to be OK “back then.”

Attempts to gloss over a Bible story like this one are motivated by ignorance and/or fear. Either we haven’t bothered to look this kind of ugly “zeal” fully in the face, or we’re afraid to do so. If it doesn’t bother us, there is something deeply wrong. If it troubles us, we need to respond. The “zeal of Phinehas” makes an excellent test case for our ability to discern and address different traditions and voices in the Bible. It demands that we do what most Christians seem to fear the most, to make a personal judgment about something we read in the Bible.

The Zeal Tradition

The “zeal” modeled by Phinehas was idealized and lauded by later generations as reflected by a text like Psalm 106. The poem, reflecting on Numbers 25, says that Phinehas’ bloody deed was “counted to him as righteousness,” a strong statement echoing a famous reference to Abraham in Genesis 15:6. So bold and righteous was Phinehas that he is placed on a pedestal next to Abraham, the great father of the faith. Eventually “zeal” evolves into a code word for religious violence. “Zeal for the LORD” and “zeal for the Law” mean fierce allegiance to God and Torah, by the sword if necessary. By the time of Jesus an entire Jewish sect known as “Zealots” had dedicated themselves to liberating Judea by making war against Rome.

Religious zealotry was not some artifact of ancient life that fulfilled its purpose and became obsolete when Jesus arrived on the scene. It was, had always been, and continues to be a toxic and insidious element wherever religion is practiced. In the Bible, it’s not just relegated to the “Old Testament.” It pervades the entire library. The question is, are there other voices represented in the canon which offer an alternative vision of God and a counterpoint to the zeal of Phinehas? What an excellent question.

Jesus and Holy Violence

The same Bible that celebrates Phinehas also gives voice to Jesus, who was first and foremost a Jewish prophet and heir to the traditions of the Hebrew Bible (not a Christian critiquing them from the outside). Not only did Jesus’ message center around peace, nonviolence, and enemy love (Matt 5-7), he unequivocally refuted the theological assumptions at the heart of the Phinehas myth. Jesus rejected the idea that victims of violence and sickness were “sinners” who deserved their fate (Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-3). He rebuked his followers when they suggested that God should smite those who reject his message (Luke 9:51-56). And he forbade Peter from defending him with a sword (Matt 26:52-56). In fact, his chief prophetic critique of his beloved Jerusalem was her addiction to retribution and violence (Luke 19:41-44).

Jesus does NOT say, “Well, I’m going to die on the cross so religious violence won’t be a necessary evil anymore!” No. His message is ethical as much as it is theological. Holy violence is wrong and it has always been wrong. God was never like that, and we must repent of having ever believed it was so.

The Zeal of Paul

The apostle Paul has a more direct confrontation with the “zeal” tradition. In fact, it’s part of his own story. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul lays out his credentials as a Jew and says the following: “…as to the law [I was] a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church…” (Philippians 3:5-6). Paul followed the zeal tradition vigorously, and it led him to orchestrate the violent persecution (in some cases the execution) of Christians. But Paul reports that he counts his old identity as “trash” since he became a follower of Jesus. Paul is converted from the way of violent zeal to the way of peace and “the surpassing worth of knowing King Jesus my Lord” (3:8).

Break Your Bible Open

This is not as simple as “Old Testament” versus “New Testament.” The Hebrew scriptures offer countless visions of the beauty of God and prophetic rejections of religious violence, while the bloody legacy of zeal continues beyond Jesus into the New Testament and even in our own day. There is no easy formula, we cannot avoid the hard work of interacting with each unique voice we encounter in the pages of scripture.

This exercise is meant to challenge and complicate the way we navigate the texts of the Bible. Why would we want to do that? Because it affords us the opportunity to wrestle with real and challenging questions instead of conducting a scavenger hunt of our own assumptions and predetermined beliefs. It puts us at risk of genuine shock, revulsion, illumination, and revelation. The familiar old approach, which presumes that the Bible is flat and univocal and must always agree with itself, leaves us deaf to the diverse claims, counterclaims, and arguments of the collected traditions. It dulls the edges of the Bible’s words so they cannot cut into our hearts.

The myth of zeal says that law keeping is more important than human lives. Jesus says that love for other humans is law keeping. This is what the Bible says. What next?

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Repent of Bad Religion, Part 4: Sin and Forgiveness

In this series of posts I’m applying Jesus’ call to repentance (i.e. radical rethinking) to the central ideas of the Christian religion as it is typically formulated and practiced in the modern West. In previous posts we revisited “the gospel,” salvation, and repentance itself. Today I want to look at our concept of sin and forgiveness. For many Christians this is the very heart of the faith, and ideas this integral and pervasive often evolve into unexamined assumptions.

The question of sin and forgiveness is ultimately the question of obligation, guilt, and hope in relation to human failure. What are the causes and nature of our misdeeds, and what is the remedy? Religion has traditionally understood this to be a purely vertical phenomenon, a technical matter strictly between individuals and God. I’ll contend that the bible itself presents a much more organic and human way of conceptualizing sin, one that is as horizontal as it is vertical.

The Problem: A Strictly Legal Framework

The default mode of thinking and talking about sin and forgiveness in the Western church has been the legal or “lawcourt” framework, wherein “sin” constitutes a technical infraction against an established law, and forgiveness is a mechanism for clearing the record of guilt. And to be sure, biblical authors sometimes employ this language in their discussions of sin and forgiveness.  Paul, the author of Hebrews, and even Jesus himself according to the gospel authors occasionally appealed to the lawcourt metaphor. If you commit a trespass, it is counted against you and you stand in violation until you can procure forgiveness to wipe the slate clean.

This language, when it is used, is helpful in illustrating certain dimensions of obligation and consequence. But it’s just one way of talking about sin, and like all metaphors it can only shed a certain color of light onto a complex reality. Absolutizing one metaphor can be dangerous as it oversimplifies our thinking and eclipses other important dimensions of a thing. I believe this has happened with our concept of sin. By absolutizing this metaphor – the legal framework of sin and forgiveness – we’ve trapped ourselves (and God) inside a small, incomplete, and ultimately unhelpful paradigm. We have imagined that we actually live inside a giant courtroom, a rigid grid or a game board, instead of a living and breathing universe.

The major shortcoming of this paradigm is the way it conceptualizes (or fails to conceptualize) relationships. Just as legal structures in human society, necessary as we might consider them to be, tend to emphasize law and letter over humanity and circumstance, so the legal concept of sin has little room for context or experience. It turns the “sinner” into an isolated agent and God into a judge and record-keeper. Surely we bear responsibility and guilt for our misdeeds, but we are also products of history, society, family, genetics, etc. Surely God (as envisioned/revealed in scripture) is holy and just and omniscient. But he’s also a “Father” and our loving creator and friend. Absolutized lawcourt language (ironically) does not do justice to either reality.

The worst implication of all of this, however, has less to do with our concept of God and more to do with the horizontal axis, with human relationships. Legal “sin” is such because it is a technical violation of a rule or prohibition, not because of the damage it wreaks in the interconnected lives of the sinner and his human neighbors. It sees sin as “against God,” but not against brother or sister. As a result, we focus on “sins” that are easy to see – obvious violations, behaviors, or things in others that make us uncomfortable – but we are prone to overlook insidious corporate and systemic sins that do more far-reaching damage. We collude with harmful and poisonous ideas and programs, but they don’t fit our definition of “sin” so it’s easy to ignore them. This is the heart of the problem. And this is where the bible itself can actually help to open our eyes.

Rethinking Sin: Relationship Not Rule-Breaking

Even in the world of Ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible, where they believed that God had given them an actual, written law, their understanding of sin was more organic and human (more horizontal) than ours often is. To demonstrate this we need look no further than the very first “sin” recorded in the pages of the Torah. No, according to the Hebrew text, Eve and Adam committed no “sin”; the word is first used to describe Cain’s murder of his brother Abel in Genesis Chapter 4.

Granted the allegorical function of this story (it’s not important to our discussion that this is actually, literally the first occasion of human sin), there is great insight in this short text about the nature of sin and guilt. (I speak about Cain and Abel at length in this podcast, but what follows is a quick summary.) This story does not present sin and guilt in a legal framework, but as the messy and tragically natural byproduct of broken human relationships. Cain’s act is not premeditated, it is the punctuation on his confusion and pain. We get the sense that it surprises him as much as it does Abel. Three major causes/effects of sin are dramatized:

  1. Victimization/Abuse of the Other - Cain’s internal resentment of his brother manifests as physical violence. “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”
  2. Isolation/Alienation of the Self - “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain’s self-conception as isolated and disconnected from his brother is tragically realized.
  3. Invitation to Retribution - Cain must be protected by God (not penalized!) lest he become the subject of victimization and violence from others. Sin spreads like yeast throughout dough.

Note that each of these is fundamentally relational, and specifically undermines a view of the “sinner” as an autonomous individual.

Confronted by his deed, Cain exclaims, “my aven is too much for me to bear!,” and here’s the thing: this Hebrew word means “sin,” “guilt,” and “punishment” all at the same time. Heaven heaps no burden of guilt or penance upon him – there is no need. He is trapped in a hell of his own making. God comes along to guide and protect, not to punish (more on that in a moment). In this framework sin is not about measurable, technical breaches of law. The bible story invites us to become aware of ourselves as interconnected beings, and of our decisions and deeds as opportunities to either victimize or to bless. The “sinful” act is only a symptom of a deeper sickness, the sickness that makes us think we’re on our own in this world. Sin is a posture, an attitude, a hidden personal pain, long before it spills out into our behavior. Do we really want to suggest that none of this matters, as long as we stay within the lines and manage not to break any specific rules?

Rethinking Forgiveness: Acceptance Not Acquittal

How then should we think about forgiveness? The traditional paradigm (informed by the legal framework) says: the technical guilt of our legal infractions hangs over us and compromises our status before God. We must confess our sins to obtain forgiveness so our account can be balanced and we can regain a positive status. In this arrangement, forgiveness is a scarce and precious substance that is withheld from the sinner and can only be procured through a religious mechanism (faith in Jesus, confession, baptism).

And at a glance, scripture seems to uphold this model. Jesus announced the “forgiveness of sins” to those who repent, and the refrain of the apostolic writings is “confess your sins and be forgiven!” The legal framework knows exactly what to do with these words. But how do these same proclamations look through the relational lens, the Cain and Abel framework?

As we’ve seen again and again in these posts, Jesus’ message of repentance is not about contrition or penance. It’s not about technical guilt and technical acquittal, it’s about abandoning dead-end agendas, policies, and programs and embracing the life of the kingdom, the Way of peace and selfless love. Those who confront their own bad ideas (who repent), will discover to their horror that they are like Cain: consumed by hate, prone to victimizing others, burdened by guilt and fear of retribution. When you face this disturbing reality, says Jesus, you will discover to your relief and amazement that God’s posture toward you is not the expected condemnation or retribution, it is acceptance and blessing. It is forgiveness. And it doesn’t need to be purchased or earned, it is already there.

Jesus declared forgiveness as a sign of the kingdom, not as the object of it. He even carelessly handed out forgiveness of sins to random individuals, like the paralytic man in Matthew 8, who wasn’t even seeking it (he just wanted to walk!). Many Jews in the first century believed that the curse of Exile was still upon Israel, and that pagan empires would continue to rule over them until the curse was broken. According to prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, this wouldn’t happen until her national sins were forgiven. Jesus’ bold claim was that this had already happened.

Forgiveness isn’t the prize at the end of the race, it’s the pistol shot at the start.

Conclusion: Posture Not Performance

I’m not advocating that we completely abandon the legal framework. It has a place in our understanding of sin and forgiveness. But I am eager that we should not over-emphasize or privilege it, and that we might seek a bigger, wider, and deeper way of thinking. Lawcourt language imagines sin guilt a technical status to be managed, while the relational model leaves us with all the consequences of sin, but the assurance of God’s love despite our failure.

In scripture we discover that “sin” is a posture, an orientation toward selfish living, exploitation, and isolation. More so than any legal understanding of sin, this model cuts us to the heart. It is a brutal and damning prognosis. But in those same pages we discover the amazing revelation: that God has a posture too, and it’s one of hope and salvation, of reckless forgiveness and blessing. Jesus invites us not only to discover this divine orientation, or to simply believe in it, he calls us to live inside it, and to make it our own.