Our second son is named John Phinehas Markham. There are a number of people called Phinehas in the Bible, including one of the two sons of Eli in the book of Samuel, the pair of whom “were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord.” Clearly not an example to be commended! But John is named after an earlier Phinehas, one story about whom is recounted in the book of Numbers, chapter 25. His actions in that case, it has been suggested, are also far from commendable.
Numbers 25 begins with the Israelites in the wilderness. While they were there, “the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods.” (The Moabites and the Midianites were neighbouring people groups who were closely associated with each other.) Because of this, the Lord was angry, and sent a plague. While the Israelites were wondering what to do, an Israelite man called Zimri brought a Midianite woman “into his tent” in front of the whole assembly. Phinehas, a priest, “left the assembly, took a spear in his hand and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear into both of them, right through the Israelite man and into the woman’s stomach.” It's fairly clear what they would have to have been doing for that to be possible.
This action, and therefore this choice of name, has not met with universal approval. “[Why can't you] find many examples of Christian love which do not involve murdering people who might disagree with you?”, wrote one correspondent on hearing of our naming decision. They summed it up by saying “Jesus is love. Phinehas is hate.”
Is that a fair assessment? I'm not convinced it is. Let's look a little closer.
The story in Numbers 25 is about idolatry - the worship of anything other than the one true God - which, in today's world, can be money, fame, one's good name or reputation, as well as more traditional 'gods' and statues associated with false religions.
The context for the story is that the Lord graciously brought his people out of slavery in Egypt, and promised to give them a beautiful land. But he also said, in the 10 Commandments, "you shall have no other gods before me." The specific intent of the people of Moab/Midian was to lead the Israelites astray by persuading them to worship the false god Baal. And that's what was happening when this man brought the Midianite woman into the camp to sleep with her; it was part of the false worship. God was rightly angry about this. As our creator, he has a rightful claim on our exclusive worship, loyalty and love.
When Phinehas took the drastic action he did, God stopped the plague. And he said “Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honour among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honour of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”
This is high praise. God approves of Phinehas' actions, and so makes a covenant with - that is, a promise to - him and his descendants that they will be priests forever. This story is also remembered, and the commendation repeated, in Psalm 106. God even calls it a “covenant of peace” - peace, not between the Israelites and the Moabites, but between the Israelites and God. God's anger at the Israelites' sin was turned away by Phinehas' anger at the Israelite's sin.
Still, that was then and this is now. Are the actions of Phinehas in keeping with the lessons that Jesus taught about loving your enemies? Isn't he an example of a more wrathful “Old Testament” paradigm which is at odds with the more modern, “New Testament” attitude?
In John 5, Jesus says to some religious people, about the Old Testament: "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life."
In other words, he said that lots of stuff in the Old Testament was actually about him, and he commended it to our reading. When you read it, you keep finding "pre-echoes" of Jesus and what he did, in the characters and their actions. Far from being opposed to Jesus and what he stood for, Phinehas is, in fact, one example of this.
Phinehas was zealous for the honour of God. God is dishonoured when the people he created turn away from him and worship other gods. In obedience to God's command, Phinehas diverted God's wrath away from the people by punishing sin. In verse 13, it says that he "made atonement" for the Israelites.
Jesus was also zealous for the honour of God, and he did the same thing in diverting God's wrath away from us - but in his case, instead of punishing sinners, he took the punishment on himself, once for all. "The atonement" is also a way people describe what Jesus did on the cross. The word 'atonement' was coined, or perhaps popularised, in the translation of the Bible done by William Tyndale, after whom our first son William is named. It means an action which restores the relationship between man and God. So, in this and other ways, what Phinehas did is a "pre-echo" of what Jesus did.
That's why today, when people are worshipping other gods or abusing God's good gift of sexual relations, we call them to repent and believe in Jesus, rather than running them through with spears. Only in Jesus can our sin and rebellion against God be atoned for.
Some may think Phinehas' actions were shocking. But it's a vivid demonstration of our tendency to sin, God's righteous wrath against it, and the need for a drastic solution in the form of a Saviour. So, while we will not be teaching our Phinehas to spear idolaters, we hope that he will be as zealous for the Lord's honour, and have as great a desire to turn people away from idolatry and sexual immorality and towards the Lord, as his namesake. In a world which widely promotes and commends both those categories of sin, such men are much needed.