This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Bible: Channeling the zeal of Phinehas

There may be nothing more unsettling to the (post)­mod­ern mind than zeal. Faith’s OK, many suppose, so long as it’s small and well-behaved, trotted out on a short leash at the odd moments — like birth and death — when blood elides into mystery.

Brad Roth

No doubt this is one reason so many readers of Scripture dismiss the Old Testament, writing off its doughty holiness with broad strokes. Too often we read the Old Testament like we’re skipping stones, skimming from Psalm 23 to Micah 6:8 and glancing off a few safe snatches of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

Then there’s Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson, that young priest willing to stand up, willing to interrupt idolatry, willing even to kill for his God. In the Orthodox Church, Phinehas is regarded as a saint, commemorated in feasts and painted in icons.

But many of us are more likely to see Phinehas as an anti-example, an icon of terrifying patriarchal violence lifted from more barbarous days when people killed men for picking up sticks on the Sabbath and captured women as war booty and impaled idolaters under the sun (Num. 15:32-36; 31:17-18; 25:4).

Can we learn anything redeeming from Phinehas’ zeal?

The story of Phinehas is part of the larger saga of Balaam (Numbers 22-24). When Balaam’s mercenary curses fail, rebounding in blessing on God’s people, Balaam seems to have counseled a different tack: send in beguiling Moabite and Midianite women (see Num. 25:1-5; 31:1-12).

It turns out that the only curse that can fall on God’s people is the one willingly embraced — a consensual curse. Phinehas does the horrific, slipping away from the worshiping, weeping assembly with his spear to murder an Israelite man and Midianite woman as they entwine (Numb. 25:6-8).

His violent zeal sends a shiver of holy courage along Israel’s collective spine. The people come to their senses and launch a counterattack (Num. 31:1-12). Because of Phinehas’ zeal, God promises him a perpetual “covenant of peace” (Num. 25:12-13).

A dose of that zeal would have served well Phinehas’ namesake, the son of Eli, and his brother Hophni, as they jabbed out the prohibited fine cuts of sacrificial meat for their plates and chased female shrine attendants for their beds (1 Sam. 2:12-17, 22, 34).

Eli could have used a bit of that zeal too. Maybe it would have given him the courage to stand up and properly correct his sons rather than just slap their wrists (1 Sam. 2:22-25). After all, it’s the standing up that counts, as Psalm 106:30 puts it in a panegyric to heroes of the faith.

What set Phinehas apart was not his willingness to resort to violence. It was the fact that he stood up for God and God’s people.

While Jesus channeled the zeal of Phinehas into his cruciform grace and truth, he didn’t tame it. Zeal for his Father’s house consumed him (John 2:17). Phinehas’ zeal pointed to Jesus’ zeal.

Jesus is the one who faced down a crowd bent on stoning and overturned the moneychangers’ tables and set the hearts of his disciples alight (John 8:1-11; John 2:13-17; Luke 24:32). It was zeal that gave Jesus the courage to stand up to Caiaphas and speak fearlessly to Pilate and go to the cross willingly (Matt. 26:64; John 18:33-38; John 10:18).

What of us? I suspect there can be no living and active faith without a salting of zeal. Faith worth believing is faith worth believing wholeheartedly.

Of course, it’s easy to get zeal wrong. We confuse zeal with its troll-nosed cousins: outrage and umbrage and violent rampage. But this is to have what the apostle Paul called “misdirected zeal” (Rom. 10:2, NLT).
Zeal on Christ’s terms is love turned inside-out. It’s hinged on the cross. True zeal doesn’t need an other to demonize. It’s not ad hominem but rather for God and for God’s people.

Our zeal will require a calm head and grounded feet. Mastery of parliamentary procedure wouldn’t hurt.

The new covenant God promised through Jeremiah anticipated that the law would be written on the people’s hearts, that they would know the Lord and that God would remember their sins no more (Jer. 31:31-34). Jesus embodied that covenant, and in his life, death and resurrection brought forth a people who would live that covenant out with a mighty, loving zeal.

Brad Roth is pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Mound­ridge, Kan. He blogs at His book, God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church, was recently released by Herald Press.

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