Violence As Atonement

This is an extended comment I made in a Facebook discussion in June and July of 2013. The people whose names are occasionally mentioned were the other participants in the discussion. It appears here for future reference since I deleted my Facebook account in April of 2018.

The Violence of Phinehas Called An Atonement by God

Evidence exists that Jesus praised and commended the violent act of Phinehas. That is a serious statement, one which may bring forth from Christians the familiar defense, namely that it is taken “out of context.” First, for context’s sake, please note the following.

  • It is not controversial that Jesus was the God of the Old Testament, the Law-Giver of the Exodus. The gospel of John reinforces this constantly (John 1:1-14, Jesus is the Creator of Genesis), and Paul’s writings confirm that the One following Israel around and tending to all their spiritual needs “was Christ” (not the Father God, as popularly misunderstood, 1 Corinthians 10:1-4). 
  • Therefore, whatever “the LORD” said to or about Phinehas which is directly quoted in the Old Testament is actually what Jesus said about him. This is the reason that the evidence is placed at Jesus’ feet, not at the feet of some more vague reference to “God,” who is just as likely to be interpreted as the Father or the Son, or to Trinitarians, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 
  • Jesus is the main actor and agent in all 66 books of the Bible, and each book endeavors to tell something important about Jesus, even the Old Testament books, and even in those books which aren’t so obviously about him. That is the context of Jesus to Phinehas.

Now regarding the violent act of Phinehas, the story appears in Numbers, an Old Testament book focused on the early history of Israel. As part of the Pentateuch, it continues the story of God’s people after their deliverance from Egypt and travels to Mt. Sinai to receive the Law of God. It covers the history of their wilderness wanderings, which lasted roughly forty years, up to the time they were preparing to enter Canaan, their Promised Land. Numbers 25:1-13 is the passage in question (

Note: This event was important enough that Paul mentioned it as an example of how God’s people should be careful about their own behavior (1 Corinthians 10:8, Reasoning from the manner in which Paul in the New Testament references this story from Israel’s ancient history, we can be certain it is intended stand out as an important illustration of God’s character. Paul uses it as such as he admonishes his fellow Christians in the church at Corinth.

That is the context of Phinehas to the violent event in question.

Now examine the event itself, from the Bible. The leaders of God’s people had been led astray by the Moabite cultic prostitutes, and one particular leader named Zimri was flaunting his misbehavior by bringing one of these religious prostitutes (a woman named Cozbi) into a tent, in plain view of Moses and all the people of Israel, with the obvious intent of having sex with her. Phinehas had already heard God’s command that the guilty leaders should be executed publicly, hung up for all of Israel to see. He had already seen a plague sent by God beginning to spread, killing off his friends and fellow Israelites by the tens of thousands. He noticed this leader’s brazen act of rebellion in the midst of a punishing plague. So Phinehas grabbed a javelin, found the Israelite man and the Midianite woman inside a tent, and caught them in the act. By plunging that javelin through both of them, a gruesome kind of public execution (publicly at least in the sense of “before God” and later in this tale retold enough to make it into both Old and New Testaments), Phinehas gained recognition from God:

When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up from among the assembly, took a javelin in his hand, and went after the Israelite man into the tent and thrust through the Israelite man and into the woman’s abdomen. So the plague was stopped from the Israelites. Those that died in the plague were 24,000.

The Lord spoke to Moses: ‘Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites, when he manifested such zeal for my sake among them, so that I did not consume the Israelites in my zeal. Therefore, announce: “I am going to give to him my covenant of peace. So it will be to him and his descendants after him a covenant of a permanent priesthood, because he has been zealous for his God, and has made atonement for the Israelites.”‘ 

Now the name of the Israelite who was stabbed—the one who was stabbed with the Midianite woman—was Zimri son of Salu, a leader of a clan of the Simeonites. The name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi daughter of Zur. He was a leader over the people of a clan of Midian. 

Then the Lord spoke to Moses: ‘Bring trouble to the Midianites, and destroy them, because they bring trouble to you by their treachery with which they have deceived you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of a prince of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague that happened as a result of Peor.’

Numbers 25:7-18,

Now here is a summary of the plain reading of this Biblical event, in my own words:

A funny thing happened on the way to the Promised Land; as Jesus was leading His people out of slavery in Egypt and across the wilderness, the men took notice of a perverted sexual religious cult not far from camp. They should have known better, but they went after that cult’s priestess-prostitutes, and found themselves so seduced by them, they were in effect also participating in the cult’s crazy sexual worship services. In doing these things, they were going after other gods besides the God who was leading them to Canaan. Since leadership is important, as is accountability, and reverence and obedience, too, Jesus ordered his friend and main man, Moses, to deliver this command: hang ’em high! that is, any man who had threatened the integrity of Israel by openly rebelling and sinning so blatantly, kill them publicly and painfully as a lesson to all.

Knowing that bad leadership influences followers quickly and indiscriminately, Jesus made a plague that killed anyone in Israel quickly and indiscriminately, men, women, and children, as a lesson to all. By the time it ended, 24,000 had died of it, the dwindling number of survivors learning the lesson as quickly as possible. With all of this death and punishment taking place, a zealous believer named Phinehas witnessed a blatant example of one particular man of God being seduced by one particular Midianite woman, and when he killed them spectacularly with a single heroic thrust of his javelin, Jesus celebrated the zeal of His follower, Phinehas. He rewarded him generously, and called his violent act an act of “atonement,” a term which Jesus Himself would later make even more meaningful through His death on the cross.

Fast-forward to now, an era when Christianity flourishes through multitudes of denominations all working globally, including in the United States, where religious liberty and the separation of church and state have created a society in which the rule of laws made by human beings supersede the religious laws of any particular faith. Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Catholics, Protestants and Scientologists, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, together with non-believers like secular humanists and agnostics, and everyone else of any or no particular persuasion ALL stand side by side and pledge allegiance to one secular constitution, and one secular flag. Christians do tend to wield a particularly strong influence in the creation and modification of the nation’s laws, compared to those in all the other religions. However, a system of rule of law supersedes any laws which they may in their hearts honor above their nations’, such as the Ten Commandments.

So now, in this time and place– this context– it is ethically wrong and illegal to execute a person based on religious laws, no matter how much you believe they are damaging the cause of your supreme being or your prophet. Phinehas’ act of violence, committed today, would be classified alongside the terrorist bombings of Boston and London, and similarly condemned by the international community and American citizens. People would decry the trauma everyone suffers when fanatical fundamentalists like Phinehas commit their misguided crimes against humanity. Many Christians would come forward to call for Phinehas’ punishment, even to the extreme of capital punishment, to clear the reputation of their religion in the public eye.

Some questions remain in my mind:

Jesus gets away with mass murder. Why didn’t Jesus care about crimes against humanity back when His people could “get away with it,” since He was backing them up and defending them with divine force if necessary?

Violence as a pattern of Jesus’ behavior. Why is this kind of divine violence “God’s strange act” or some kind of mystery in the eyes of believers who read about the violence of Jesus? Is that a defense mechanism against having to admit that their God wasn’t always as peace-loving as His New Testament incarnation? How often does violent, aggressive, and terrifying behavior have to be committed before these acts are no longer “strange acts,” but rather “standard operating procedure?” (Wondering how much cruelty and violence is actually in the Bible? Here’s a list of over 1,300 incidents, with links to the Bible verses referenced:

Jesus behaving like a fundamentalist fanatic. The violence of Phinehas established obedience through the use of terror. The plague Jesus sent to His people and His command for public executions resulted in a coerced, terror-driven obedience. To argue that the people experiencing this plague and witnessing the executions did not feel fear is to argue that human beings have fundamentally changed since then, for which there exists no evidence. The word “fear” (as in “fear of God,”) isn’t clear or forceful enough to capture what certainly must have existed in the hearts of all who not only witnessed first-hand these terrifying acts of violence, but who, as the children of succeeding generations of Israelites, were instructed about God’s power and holiness and vengeance using these stories. Why was terror okay as a tool in the hand of the Biblical Jesus, but is wrong in the hand of the fundamentalist fanatic today?

Jesus excused for collateral damage. How is it possible that today we know the difference between innocent civilian women and children on the one hand, and their husbands & fathers who perpetuate violent wars and terrorist states and general thuggery on the other, but back in Bible times Jesus counted all as guilty participants in the sins of the few who actually committed the rebellion or treason or idolatry, etc? Why is it clearly wrong for our U.S military to target civilians in all our wars, just and unjust, and also somehow okay that Jesus targeted everyone down to the last child and even sometimes animal when He got wrathful enough about Sodom and the other four Cities of the Plain, or the firstborns during the Passover in Egypt, or the tribes in Canaan who unluckily lived on the land Jesus Promised to His old friend Abraham, or the entire population of Earth minus eight (Noah & Family) when the particularly cruel torture (water-boarding!) of death by drowning seemed the appropriate way for Jesus to deal with these faulty human beings (and animals) He had created?

Jesus hides behind his faithful, co-dependent followers. And finally, why are so many Christians, who claim to believe that the Bible is inspired, willing to justify these violent, angry acts of a God they claim is perfect in character and omniscient in knowledge? By what possible misuse of the term ‘perfect’ could their God possibly measure up to such a high standard? Are they afraid to question their jealous, zealous God? Do the violent aspects of his nature make them cower at their own doubts, and silence their own misgivings? Why are they willing to believe that God unconditionally loves their souls when He so obviously is willing to violently torture and kill them if they ever get in the way of His wrathful punishments? Can’t they just admit that they love an imperfect dysfunctional God, the same way they freely love their imperfect, dysfunctional human fathers and mothers and families?

I know, I know, these questions have been asked many times before by “Sophisticated Theologians™” much more intelligent than I am. But I’ve seen many of the answers given to those previous questioners, and even used to be the one repeating those answers because I used to count myself as a believer and a teacher of God’s people. I didn’t like the answers even then when I was giving them out and believing them myself. And I like them even less now, as I’m taking another look back at the faith I once taught others from the perspective of “fellow believer.” I seek better answers if any are to be had. I have always been a truth-seeker, I think. And in the spirit of seeking the truth about the God of the Christian Bible, I humbly submit these questions, which are my own now, and no one else’s.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.