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PHINEHAS (PERSON) [Heb pı̂nĕḥās (פִּינְחָס)]. Var. PHINEAS. The name most likely derives from Eg nḥsj which meant “southerner” (the preformative pʾ adds the definite article “the”). “The southerner” was a term which referred to those people from south of ancient Egypt, such as the Nubians, and hence it implied those of “dark skin.” The association of Phinehas #2 with Hophni, another name of Egyptian origin, supports the contention of the Egyptian origin of Phinehas.
1. Phinehas was the son of Eleazar and Putiel, the grandson of Aaron and a descendant of Levi (Exod 6:25; Num 25:7; Judg 20:28; 1 Chr 5:30—Eng 6:4; 1 Chr 6:35—Eng 6:50; Ezra 7:5; 4 Ezra 1:2b; Ps-Philo 28:1, 3). He was a priest (Num 25:7) and, as demonstrated by several passages, he was known for his strong and sometimes violent defense of the Israelite worship of Yahweh.
When the Israelites began to worship Baal-peor instead of Yahweh, Phinehas stood against them (Num 25:1–13; see also Ps 106:28–31; Sir 45:23–24; 1 Macc 2:26, 54; 4 Macc. 18:12; Hel. Syn. Pr. 8:4–5, where Phinehas’ actions are seen as exemplary). In particular, when an Israelite brought a Midianite woman into his family, Phinehas slew the man and woman with a spear (Num 25:6–8). Phinehas’ action brought forth four reactions by Yahweh: (1) Yahweh’s anger toward the people was tempered and, as a result, only 24,000 people died by a plague (Num 25:8–9); (2) Yahweh praised Phinehas for his action in abating the wrath of God against the people (Num 25:11); (3) Yahweh rewarded Phinehas with a “covenant of peace” (bĕrı̂t šālôm) (Num 25:12); and (4) Yahweh conferred on Phinehas and his descendants the “covenant of priesthood forever” (bĕrı̂t kêhunnat ʿôlām) (Num 25:13; 1 Macc 2:54). This last point refers to the fact that this passage is one in which the Israelite priesthood is established. Another such text is Exod 32:25–29, where the Levites “ordain” themselves to the service Yahweh as a result of their violent killing of the unfaithful; it is another account where militaristic actions lead to priesthood. A third passage is Exod 28:1, where Aaron and his descendants become priests; however in this instance it is not as a consequence of any violent action on their part (see also Num 1:47–54; 8:5–26; Deut 33:8–11).
A second incident where Phinehas was involved with the defense of the worship of Yahweh was in the holy war against Midian (Num 31:1–54). Phinehas, as priest, accompanied 12,000 people into battle at Peor (Num 31:6). The battle concluded with the slaying of all males and females, except the young women who were virgins (Num 31:17–18), and a long instruction, in part by Phinehas’ father, Eleazar, on the proper handling of the spoils of war (Num 31:21–54).
In Joshua 22, when the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh returned to the Transjordanian region, they built an altar near the Jordan River (Josh 22:10). The priest Phinehas and 10 leaders of Israel took offense at this construction, claiming it indicated a turning away from Yahweh (Josh 22:11–20). The situation was resolved only when the Reubenites, Gadites, and half-tribe of Manasseh asserted that the altar was an “altar of witness” (Josh 22:26–27) to remind their children of their relationship with the 10 tribes of Israel, not an altar of sacrifice (Josh 22:28). This story not only reflects the defense of the worship of Yahweh, but it also introduces and defends the concept of a single central sanctuary, as is advocated in Deuteronomy 12.
A fourth episode which indicates Phinehas’ defense of Yahweh is found in Judges 20. Here, the tribes of Israel are seeking revenge upon the Benjaminites in retaliation for their atrocities against the concubine of a Levite (Joshua 19). Just before the battle at Gibeah, Phinehas stood (ʿmd) before the ark of the covenant, consulting Yahweh and seeking his blessing prior to commencing the battle. Phinehas’ role is again to defend the mainline Israelite tradition against those who would violate or turn away from that tradition.
Finally, Phinehas appears in the midst of a genealogy in 1 Chronicles 9. In this late genealogy, various priests, Levites, and temple servants are mentioned, and in the list of Levites who were gatekeepers at the temple, Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, is named as the one who rules over these gatekeepers (1 Chr 9:20). This relationship indicates the tension and rivalry between the Aaronite priesthood represented by Phinehas and the Levitical priesthood represented by the gatekeepers. Furthermore, these gatekeepers act as guards for the temple and temple treasury (1 Chr 9:26–27) which again reflects the military nature of the priesthood.
Three factors of significance can be derived from examining the activities of this Phinehas. Yahweh bestows the priesthood on Phinehas and his descendants, and all priestly factions (Aaronites, Levites, and Zadokites) must somehow be related to Phinehas. Secondly, Phinehas is a priest of Yahweh whose zealous defense of Yahweh becomes a model for subsequent generations. Finally, Phinehas’ defense of Yahweh, like that of other priests and priestly groups, clearly takes on militaristic characteristics.
The descendants of Phinehas are prominently mentioned among those who returned from Exile at the time of Zerubbabel and Ezra (Ezra 8:2; 1 Esdr 5:5). In 1 Esdr 8:29, the RSV form is Phineas (Gk Phinees), though the same Greek spelling appears throughout the LXX for Phinehas, including the parallel passage in Ezra 8:2.
2. Phinehas was the brother of Hophni, the son of Eli the priest (1 Samuel 1). These priestly brothers began as good priests, but they quickly turned into bad priests who abused their sacred trust (1 Sam 2:12–17). This deterioration is in sharp contrast to Samuel who was portrayed as a model priest. These incidents in 1 Samuel 1–4 thus provide reason for the later elimination of the Elide priesthood (see 1 Kgs 2:27). The story also asserts that ritual cleanliness was essential for participation in holy war. See HOPHNI for a more detailed discussion of the brothers Hophni and Phinehas.
At the end of 1 Samuel 4, Phinehas’ wife had a child (1 Sam 4:19). She named the child Ichabod (“no glory”) since Eli, Hophni, and her husband Phinehas were dead and the ark of the covenant was in the hands of the Philistines (1 Sam 4:21–22). She died almost immediately after naming her son (1 Sam 4:20).
According to 1 Sam 14:3, Phinehas had a brother, Ahitub, whose son was Ahijah the priest. Abiathar, the priest Solomon banished when he assumed the throne, is apparently the son of Ahimelech, who was the brother of Ahijah (1 Sam 22:20). Thus, the genealogical connection between Phinehas and Abiathar is established, the guilt of Phinehas and Hophni was visited upon Abiathar, and the line of Eli was at an end (1 Kgs 2:27).
3. Phinehas was the father of Eleazar (Ezra 8:33; 1 Esdr 8:63). Eleazar was one of the people, along with Meremoth the priest and Jozabad and Noadiah the Levites, who received the temple vessels and gold when they were returned from their captivity in Babylon. See ELEAZAR #5.
JOHN R. SPENCER
Spencer, J. R. (1992). Phinehas (Person). In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5, pp. 346–347). New York: Doubleday.
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