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?