Phinehas: Hero or Vigilante?

By Steinberg, Paul | Jewish Bible Quarterly, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Phinehas: Hero or Vigilante?


Steinberg, Paul, Jewish Bible Quarterly


Aside from a genealogical reference (Ex. 6:25), Numbers 25 is the introduction to Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron. Of all of the introductions to a person in the Torah, the introduction of Phinehas is possibly the most memorable. In Phinehas' brief story we are given a scenario that is startling, shocking, gruesome, and, perhaps, heroic. There really is no delicate way to put it: Phinehas skewered a man and a woman with a spike-like weapon while the couple was apparently engaged in sexual congress.

Just after completing the story of Israel's encounter with the non-Israelite prophet Balaam and his glowing prediction of Israel's glory, the reader is jarred with the contrasting scene of the Israelites engaging in idolatrous sexual activity with Moabite women. Quickly, we are then told that God asks Moses to impale the ringleaders, which will result in turning away God's wrath. Subsequently, Moses instructs Israel's officials to kill anyone attached to the idolatrous activity.

The story shifts abruptly with the following turn of events: An Israelite man takes a Midianite (not Moabite) woman home [vayakrev el echav ... el hakubah] in everyone's sight. Phinehas, after leaving an assembly at the Tent of Meeting where people are weeping, (1) stabs them both. A plague that killed 24,000 people ends. Then we learn that it is because of Phinehas that not only were the Israelites saved but also that he and his descendants are to be rewarded for all time with the priesthood.

This story of Phinehas is a fascinating one, especially given the fact that it usually induces some sort of reaction, whether it is in the form of emotion or perplexity. Some are uncertain as to exactly how these events unfolded, how to feel about Phinehas--whether he is a "good guy" or a "bad guy" and how to feel about God (that is, God's morality; how God metes out justice). Undoubtedly, many questions emerge from just these 18 verses, ranging from theological, to ethical, to sociological. Without examining the critical theories of authorship, this paper will examine three theological and ethical questions, which it is hoped will help to bring greater understanding of this curious story.

WHAT IS THE FUNCTION OF GOD'S PUNISHMENT(S)?

First, it is clear that Israel committed a grave sin involving idolatry, improper sexual conduct, and intermarriage. (2) What is unclear is what Israel's punishment is for this sin. It is certain that God demands that the ringleaders [roshei ha-am--lit.: heads of the people] be impaled as expiation of that sin. However, we are also told that there is a plague. It seems that the plague is considered part of the punishment for this sin, because once Phinehas acts out of violent zeal the plague is subdued. This is odd, for even if one wants to say that Phinehas' act to slay ringleaders was clearly the observance of God's command, and that he is the exactor of the punishment, what is to account for the 24,000 dead from the plague? Thus, there is now a question accentuated by this slight confusion over the punishment: What does God want exactly when these people sin? In other words, what makes God happy again, once they have transgressed?

In his commentary to this chapter of the Torah, Samson Raphael Hirsch contrasts the 24,000 people who die from this plague with the 3,000 who die after worshipping the Golden Calf. This simple comparison highlights the fact that the punishment here is much more severe than that for the sin of the Golden Calf, which is often understood to be the greatest known idolatrous transgression. Moreover, it is more plausible that the entire 3,000 killed because of the Golden Calf were in some way responsible for the mass transgression, whereas in this story it seems unlikely that the entire 24,000 were involved with the particular sins of idolatry, improper sex, and intermarriage. Another relevant question is underscored by this comparison: How does the potential death of thousands of innocent people make expiation for God? …

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