Biblical Terrorism: The Story of Phinehas

(Credit: Phillip Medhurst Bible Pictures / Flickr)
(Credit: Phillip Medhurst Bible Pictures / Flickr)

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Part I: The Bible on Apostasy

From Chapter 2: Freethought I: Criticism of Religion

Biblical Terrorism: The Story of Phinehas

The story of Phinehas is told in the book of Numbers (25:1-18). Numbers 25 is dedicated to Ba’al worship at Peor. As the feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether (1936- ) writes: “In the Hebrew Scriptures the chief rival of Yaweh is Ba’al. Yaweh seeks to supplant the worship of Ba’al, taking over from Ba’al the functions of providing rain and fertility.”[132] While Israel lived in Shittim, the people of Israel began “to whore with the daughters of Moab,” the Bible informs us. They invited the Israelites to the sacrifices of their gods, and those “daughters of Moab” apparently had considerable success with their invitations because the Israelites “bowed down to their gods” (Numbers 25:2). The Bible spells out what this means: “So Israel yoked himself to Ba’al of Peor.”

This made the Lord angry. He addressed himself to Moses and said: “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.”

Moses took action and said to the judges of Israel: “Each of you kill those of the men who have yoked themselves to Ba’al of Peor.”[133]

It is not so clear whether Moses’ last command is identical to what the Lord commanded. The Lord seemed to exact the killing and punishment of all the chiefs. Moses, though, seems to have built in a proviso: he ordered the killing only of those who had actually yielded to the temptation of the daughters of Moab. So for Moses a precondition for punishment was personal guilt (mens rea).[134] From a modern perspective this seems almost self-evident, but not everybody in the community was satisfied with the way Moses handled the matter. There was a certain Phinehas who defied Moses’ authority and took the law into his own hands. The immediate occasion for this was the following.

Phinehas saw how one of the men of Israel brought a Midianite woman to his tent (Numbers 25:6). When Phinehas saw this, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear. He “went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly” (Numbers 25:8).

So far, we only have an exciting, although gruesome, story. What makes the story interesting, however, is the Lord’s reaction. What did God say about Phinehas slaying the people who, according to modern standards, were perfectly justified in revering the gods of their own choosing (protected by the freedom of religion, after all)? The Lord sided with Phinehas and Moses’ authority was clearly defied on the basis of the subsequent events. The Lord said to Moses: “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel” (Numbers 25:10). Phinehas was even rewarded for the man and woman’s public execution without trial. The Lord said: “Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel” (Numbers 25:13).

So those who flout the legitimate authority of the temporal leaders of the people (Moses) are rewarded by God. Apparently, Phinehas’ religious zeal is more appreciated by God than Moses’ cautious way of dealing with the matter.

This stance can have (and is likely to have) grave consequences. It can be seen as substantial encouragement to those who claim special knowledge of God’s will and are prepared to perpetrate violence in defiance of the traditional political leaders of the state. Why is this so important? The answer is: Phinehas can be seen as the archetypical religious terrorist.[135] Phinehas is prepared, on religious grounds (“I know what God wants”) to use violence against citizens of the state, thereby violating the law of the state and defying legitimate authority. That is the essence of the religious terrorist. As terrorism expert Amos Guiora (1957- ) rightly states: “terrorism is the conflict between nation-states and non-state entities.”[136] Phinehas was such a non-state entity. Yigal Amir (1970- ) was another. When Yigal Amir killed Yitzak Rabin in 1995 on the basis of religious considerations or when contemporary Islamist terrorists kill or intimidate people because their victims are accused of “blasphemy” (cf. the Danish cartoonists or the Dutch writer Theo van Gogh) this all adheres to the same pattern. The religious terrorist wants to “punish” or intimidate the blasphemer and instill fear into the hearts of the citizenry.

What makes the story both interesting and disconcerting at the same time is the fact that Phinehas’ ruthless behavior wins the Lord’s approval in a way that Moses’ handling of the matter does not. After all, Phinehas brought the people of Israel back on the right track, the Bible tells us. The people of Israel are expected to serve one God and one God only: the Lord. In the Ten Commandments this is put thus: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

It is clear that this attitude and the whole worldview connected with it is hard to reconcile with modern freedom of religion, freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, free inquiry and other fundamental rights ingrained in the concept of liberal democracy. It is, of course, possible to acknowledge the prohibition on venerating strange gods as a private religious command (as a modern interpretation would perhaps advocate), but the state cannot act upon this political morality without violating modern human rights.

The story of Phinehas teaches us another lesson though. Since the 1960s and 1970s there has been a tendency to regard organized religion as a danger to civil liberties and freedom in general. Prominent philosopher and public intellectual Richard Rorty (1931-2007), for instance, calls himself an “anticlericalist” because he sees religion in its institutionalized forms as a menace to liberal democratic society.[137] Ecclesiastical institutions, he says, “despite all the good they do – despite all the comfort they provide to those in need or in despair – are dangerous to the health of democratic societies, so dangerous that it would be best for them eventually to wither away.”[138]

What the story of Phinehas and the contemporary manifestations of religious terrorism teach us is that not only organized but also unorganized religion poses challenges we have to meet.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.

Part III: Biblical Violence and Modern Legal Practice


[132] Ruether, “The Politics of God in the Christian Tradition,” p. 331.

[133] Apparently there were other gods as well. Valentin Nikiprowetzky writes: “Moses’ religion cannot be considered as anything other than monolatry, or the cult of a national god. But it was a monolatry that was remarkable in certain ways, for Yahweh was not a narrow, tribal god in the fashion of the god of the Patriarchs.” “Ethical Monotheism,” Daedalus, 104, no. 2 1975, pp. 69-89, p. 78.

[134] Slapper, Gary, and Kelly, David, The English Legal System, 7th ed., Cavendish, London 2004 (1994), p. 206.

[135] See on this: Selengut, Sacred Fury; Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God; and Griffith, Lee, The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI 2002.

[136] Guiora, Amos N., Fundamentals of Counterterrorism, Wolters Kluwer, Austin, TX 2008, p. 4.

[137] See: Rorty, Richard, “Religion as Conversation-Stopper,” 1994, in: Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, Penguin Books, London 1999, pp. 168-174. For Rorty’s views on religion, see also: Rorty, Richard, and Vattimo, Gianni, The Future of Religion, ed. Santiago Zabala, Columbia University Press, New York 2005.

[138] See: Rorty, “Religion as a Conversation-Stopper”, and also: Rorty, Richard, “Religion in the Public Sphere: A Reconsideration,” Journal of Religious Ethics, 31, no. 1 2003, pp. 141-149; and Wolterstorff, Nicholas, “An Engagement with Rorty,” Journal of Religious Ethics, 31, no. 1 2003, pp. 129-139, p. 131.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

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