Old Testament Exegesis: Numbers 25

PhinehasThis post contains my exegesis paper for my Old Testament Interpretations 1 class with Dr. John J. Collins submitted on 19 November 2014.  This was my first time writing a paper of this sort and I am really proud how it came out.  It isn’t perfect, but I am proud nonetheless.  What do you think about this passage, the story of Phinehas?  Leave a comment and let me know what you think!  Please note, this paper originally had footnotes, but when copied here it translated to endnotes.  My bibliography is also included in this post 

The Hittite treaty form is one element of the Ancient Near East that influenced the Israelite community. The typical pattern of the Hittite Treaty consisted of six parts, one of which was known as the stipulations. The stipulations are the terms of the treaty that often consisted of highly personal terms.[1] The “Hittite treaties demand that the subjects ‘protect the Sun [the Hittite king] as a friend’ and report any ‘unfriendly’ words that they hear about him. An Assyrian king, Esarhaddon, demands loyalty to his son . . . It is essential to these treaties that the vassal ‘recognize no other lord.’”[2] This absolute loyalty to the lord became a strong influence to the formation of Israel and their relationship with God. In fact, “the prohibition [found in the first commandment to worship no other God but YHWH] is directly analogous to the requirement in the treaty texts that the vassals serve no other overlord.”[3] This loyalty to God is well established throughout Holy Scripture, in both the Old Testament and New Testament (Ex. 20:5; Ex. 34:15; Ps. 106:28-28; Deut. 4:3; 1 Cor. 10:8; Rev. 2:14, etc.). One such example of this loyalty to God – loyalty that transcends all else – is the story of Phinehas (Numbers 25).

Phinehas’ actions of killing the Israelite and the Midianite woman are in many ways justified, not only by the similar experiences elsewhere in Scripture but also by the demands for purity for the people of Israel and the incredible jealous nature of God. In this incredibly violent act, he is fulfilling his priestly duties – something he would ultimately be rewarded for. This pericope foreshadows further violence in the text, gives witness to the intense nature of being in relationship with God, and how to honor the aforementioned relationship by being in the world and not of the world.

Before looking at the nature Phinehas’ actions and what it means to be loyal to God, it is necessary to examine the source of this narrative. Numbers 25:1-18 is a combination of two different sources: the JE source in verses 1-5 and the P source in verses 6-19.[4] Some commentaries break this down further by splitting verses 6-18 into the priestly source (v. 6-15) and the priestly editor (v. 16-18).[5] This further breakdown brings clarity to the concluding verses of this pericope, as verses 16-18 seem to be an edition that justifies later action of the Israelites against the Midianites.

The P narrative is easy to identity in this story through both the establishment of Phinehas’ line to the priesthood and great concern for the purity of Israel. These elements provide important information for the narrative that justify Phinehas’ actions (the important of purity and the reward for his actions).

While there are inconsistencies that pose problems within the narrative, these inconsistencies have led scholars (primarily source critics) to believe that there are multiple sources at work to bring this story together. For example, there is little connection between verses four and five: “The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and impale them in the sun before the Lord, in order that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you shall kill any of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.” (v.4-5, NRSV). God gives a particular command to Moses and, in the next verse, without context or conversation, Moses instructs the judges with a different command than the one found in verse 4. If the J and E sources have been combined to form a single JE source in these verses, it provides a convincing rationale – for source critics – to Moses’ seeming disobedience to God. These verses serve as the justification for Phinehas’ actions. Without the command of God and the instructions of Moses, it seems that Phinehas is just acting out of a violent rage, as opposed to fulfilling his priestly responsibilities.

In addition to the source material, the cultural context is crucial in order to understand Phinehas’ actions. One of the central themes of this passage are the external threats to Israel; specifically, threats that contend with Israel’s relationship with God. This passage shows very clearly the threat of Israel’s “active participation in worshiping other gods and in mixed marriages.”[6] Through sexual relationships and marriage the Israelites have bound themselves to the Baal of Peor. The language here is very important. They have not lost a battle and are not forced into servitude and mandated to worship this other god; rather, they have taken this on by choice. The NRSV translates v. 3 as, “Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor.” But the word that is translated “yoke” here might not be the best translation of the Hebrew word. The Tanakh translates v. 3 as, “Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-peor.” The Hebrew word used does not indicate oppression or coercion, nor is covenantal language used. The word “yoke,” “attach,” or in the NIV “joined” all have the connotation of voluntary behavior.[7] [8]

It is important to note that this is not the first time Israel has voluntarily begun worshipping other gods. One of the parallel texts for Numbers 25 is Exodus 32, the story of the golden calf. Both stories begin with the worship of a god other than YHWH.

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mould, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.’ They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel. (Exodus 32:1-6, NRSV).

In Exodus, the Israelites worshiped the golden calf and in this pericope from Numbers they worship Baal-Peor. However, there seems to be something more profound about the betrayal in Numbers compared to that of the golden calf. The yoking and attaching of Israel to Baal-Peor is done through sexual acts. Not only are they worshipping another god but they do it by polluting themselves with non-Israelites. Purity was very important for the Israelites, and more importantly for YHWH. Elsewhere is the Hebrew Bible we hear prohibitions against inter-marriage (for example Exodus 34:12-16). Not only did they worship another god, a false god, they did so with their bodies that which is created in the sight of God. It is no wonder why God’s wrath was kindled against them. According to Raymond Brown, “it [the joining of Israel to Baal-Peor] went down in Israelite history as one of their worst acts of idolatrous behavior, an ugly stain impossible to obliterate from their corporate memory.”[9]

Another layer of the importance of the cultural setting – of the Israelites being in relationship with non-Israelites – is the fact that God is a very jealous God (cr. Exodus 20:5). This jealousy, over Israel yoking themselves to another god, leads to an intense rage and an indiscriminate wrath. Here marks another connection of this story to that of the Golden Calf: “and the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel.” (Num 25:3b, NRSV) and “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them.” (Ex 32:10a, NRSV). This rage turns into unsystematic wrath. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Take all the chiefs of the people and impale them in the sun before the Lord, in order that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.’”(Numbers 25:4, NRSV).[10]

God has witnessed God’s chosen people Israel, binding themselves through sexual encounters to another God and God is fervent in God’s anger. Innocent or guilty does not matter: God calls for the public execution of all the leaders of the people. They are to bear the sins of the people and be executed in a time and manner where everyone can see. God is calling for them to be example for the rest of the Israelites. The New Interpreter’s Bible describes the jealousy and wrath of God in the following manner:

Jealousy is about divine passion. It stresses that Yahweh is not indifferent to Israel or to their relationships with the world. It conveys strong imagery of intolerance for any allegiance outside the relationship to God. Commentators tend to water down the violent and suspicious characteristics that accompany a description of God as being jealous. But the content of the stories in Numbers 25 suggest just the opposite. God is fanatical in demanding exclusive allegiance – so fanatical, in fact, that punishment is enacted indiscriminately.[11]

It is easy to water down or all together ignore God’s jealous wrath. But, this commentary highlights something critical about God’s relationship with Israel. God’s jealousy comes form a place of incredible love and passion for God’s chosen people. As will be discussed later, this has implications for modern day readers. God is so angry at what is going on as Israel approaches the Promised Land, because God cares deeply for them and their relationship with God. As a result of this relationship, God demands loyalty that mimics the loyalty required in the Hittite Treaties: God requires absolute loyalty. When that loyalty is broken, the punishment is fierce, as the aforementioned verse makes clear.

Moses does not follow the indiscriminate command of God (verses 4-5) as previously mentioned. Moses does not instruct the judges to carry out the punishment God demands; he does not follow the call for punishment regardless of guilt. Moses declares that only the guilty be punished. In disobeying God’s command in the previous verse, Moses actually carries out previous decrees made by God. Just a few chapters earlier in the Book of Numbers, God instructs that punishment is only for the guilty (14:11-25). There are potentially interesting implications for this decision on Moses’ part. If Moses can mitigate the command of God in this instance, what is preventing him from mitigating God in others? Does this mean that leaders of Israel can use their judgment as opposed to God’s? Luckily for Moses, Phinehas steps in and his actions change the course of the story.

In verse 6, the narrative takes a turn and the character of Phinehas is introduced:

Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman into his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the Israelites, while they were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up and left the congregation. Taking a spear in his hand, he went after the Israelite man into the tent, and pierced the two of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. So the plague was stopped among the people of Israel. Nevertheless, those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand. (Numbers 25:6-9, NRSV).

As a result of Phinehas killing the Israelite and the Midianite woman, Moses’ instructions to the judges are moot. In some ways, this resolves the conflict between verses 4 and 5. Phinehas killing this one guilty person, not all the leaders nor all the guilty, pleases the Lord and the plague stops.[12] Phinehas has redeemed Israel in the sight of the Lord, his zeal has proven his loyalty to God and in return God’s wrath has ended.

There is another component to Phinehas’ actions that has important implications for this narrative and the Biblical text in general. Phinehas commits a very violent act, and it is an act that he is praised for. The reality is, the violence of Phinehas’ action is not commented on. When Phinehas is introduced, it is made clear that he is a priest. Priesthood is a very particular role with particular responsibilities: the chief among them being protecting the holiness of Israel. “He is therefore under special obligation to preserve the holiness of Israel’s sanctuary, which symbolizes the holiness of Israel, a people set aside for God.”[13] His violent act is not condemned because it is required. For fulfilling his duties faithfully, he is rewarded, “Therefore say, “I hereby grant him my covenant of peace. It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites.”” (Numbers 25:12-13, NRSV). Phinehas, by virtue of living into his priestly calling, has shown loyalty to God – loyalty to God that surpasses all else even human life.

In the larger biblical context, this story sets the stage for the thirty-first chapter of Numbers and the war that will break out between the Israelites and the Midianites:

The Lord said to Moses, 17‘Harass the Midianites, and defeat them; 18for they have harassed you by the trickery with which they deceived you in the affair of Peor, and in the affair of Cozbi, the daughter of a leader of Midian, their sister; she was killed on the day of the plague that resulted from Peor.’ (Numbers 25:16-18, NRSV).

In this passage, God commands Moses that he and the Israelites should defeat the Midianites for the role that they played in the apostasy of Baal. The Midianites led the people of Israel away from God and therefore must be punished and destroyed. Phinehas’ actions foreshadow this by not only killing the Israelite, but by killing the Midianite as well. According to the commentary of the Jewish Study Bible, this links the half sentence verse 19 with chapter 31, “God’s command that Israel take vengeance on the Midianites for their part in the apostasy of Baal-peor is realized in the continuation of this account in ch[apter] 31, where v. 1 completes the v[erse] fragment of 25.19.”[14] Verse 19 in the Jewish Study Bible is the same as 26:1a in the NRSV (the translation that has been used throughout this exegetical commentary).

This is an intricate and fascinating story about what it means to by loyal to God. The place of Israel as the chosen people of God has particular implications, chiefly this fierce loyalty to God. This loyalty is not only something demanded of the Israelites, but of all those who follow God today. Being in relationship with God means to be in a relationship of deep and profound passion. This is seen in this story, and all examples of God’s jealously, as well as in the Christian context. If it were not for God’s passion towards us, the incarnation would not be a reality. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16, NRSV). In the incarnation God did something radical – God took on human flesh, became fully human and fully divine, to bring humanity back into relationship with God. God did all of this out of pure unending love and desire for us.

This is not a call to murder anyone who defiles the holiness of a people, but rather to make the point that what faithful people are called to do – more often than not – leads to actions that are not supported by the secular and cultural norms. There is a rather famous saying about Christianity, “Christians are not meant to be of the world, but in the world.” This is yet another way that this passage speaks to the contemporary Christian context. The Israelites are struggling with the tension of what it means to live in the world and follow God. What it means to follow God’s commands and still interact with those from other tribes around them. The Christian life, just as is true with the Israelites, is filled with this tension. We are called to follow God no matter what, even when living out our priestly duties – the duties of all the Baptized – seem to be far beyond what the world would deem appropriate.

Just like the Israelites, God has a fervent and radical passion for us. Our call as Christians is to be mindful that we live into the covenant and not follow the ways of this world. When we fall short, we must work even harder to still God’s wrath, end the plague, and inherit our place with God. This is exactly what Phinehas has done. He follows his call, stays true to his priestly vows, lives into the commands given to him and he is rewarded with a covenant of perpetual priesthood for him and all his descents to come.


[1] John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Deutero-Canonical Books, Second ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 126.

[2] Ibid., 126.

[3] Ibid., 131.

[4] Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible, Second ed. (Oxford University Press, 2014), 318.

[5] Charles M. Laymon, ed., The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible: Introduction and Commentary for Each Book of the Bible Including the Apocrypha, With General Articles (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1971), 96.

[6] Ibid., 197.

[7] Ibid., 198.

[8] Jacob Milgrom, Numbers : The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New Jewish Publication Society Translation, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990), 212.

[9] Raymond Brown, The Message of Numbers: Journey to the Promised Land (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 2002), 230.

[10] Note: See Exodus 32:27-28 for comparison in the golden calf story.

[11] Dozeman et al., The Book of Numbers, 201.

[12] Note: this is the only time the plague is mentioned in this story and is another possible example of various sources coming together to form this one story.

[13] Waldemar Janzen, Old Testament Ethics: A Paradigmatic Approach (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 13.

[14] Berlin and Brettler, The Jewish Study Bible, 319.



Berlin, Adele, and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible. Second ed. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Brown, Raymond. The Message of Numbers: Journey to the Promised Land. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 2002.

Collins, John J. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Deutero-Canonical Books. Second ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.

Dozeman, Thomas B., R. E. Clements, Peter D. Quinn-Miscall, Robert B. Coote, Dennis L. Olson, Kathleen A. Robertson. Farmer, and Bruce C. Birch. The Book of Numbers, the Book of Deuteronomy, Introduction to Narrative Literature, the Book of Joshua, the Book of Judges, the Book of Ruth, the First and Second Books of Samuel. Vol. 2. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1998.

Gray, George Buchanan. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Numbers. The International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956.

Janzen, Waldemar. Old Testament Ethics: A Paradigmatic Approach. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

Laymon, Charles M., ed. The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible: Introduction and Commentary for Each Book of the Bible Including the Apocrypha, With General Articles. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1971.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers : The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New Jewish Publication Society Translation. JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990.

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