Sedition at Moab: Josephus’ Reading of the Phinehas Story
The Violence of Phinehas
In Numbers 25:1, following the intrusion of the Balaam Pericope, the wilderness narrative resumes where it left off (Num 22:1), with the Israelites encamped in the Transjordan opposite Moab. There they are said to sin with Moabite women and take up the worship of Baal Peor (Num 25:1–3). The matter comes to a head when Zimri ben Salu, the chief of the tribe of Simeon, brings his Midianite lover—a princess named Cozbi bat Zur—into what some interpreters argue was a sacred precinct (Num 25:6, 14).
Witnessing this, Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron the priest, picks up his spear, runs into the tent, and stabs both of them, thereby calming God’s wrath and ending the plague with which God had been ravaging the Israelites (Num 25:7–8). The story concludes with God expressing his approval of Phinehas’ actions and appointing him and his descendants as priests for all time.
Although Phinehas is a somewhat marginal biblical figure, this episode spawns significant interest among Jewish interpreters from the Second Temple period onward. One of the earliest such treatments appears in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, where we encounter subtle, yet significant changes to the biblical story.
A Guided Reading of Josephus’ Retelling of the Phinehas Story
Josephus begins by interweaving the Balaam Pericope with the Phinehas episode. He portrays the gentile prophet, Balaam, as hatching a successful subterfuge to lead Israelite men astray with Midianite seductresses (131–139).
Josephus adds extensive dialogue between the Midianite women and their Israelite suitors. The women argue that the men should worship their gods in order to demonstrate the depth of their love:
Antiquities 4:139 Owing to their passion for these women, believing that these words were most beautifully spoken, and surrendering themselves to what they called upon them to do, they [the men] transgressed their ancestral laws. Believing that gods were numerous, and making up their minds to sacrifice to them in accordance with the law indigenous to those who had established it, they rejoiced in strange foods, and they continued unceasingly to do everything for the pleasure of the women in a manner opposed to what their laws commanded.
This lengthy extrabiblical narrative, which in its full details is evocative of the celibacy ruse in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, is an exemplar of the Hellenistic convention of “pathetic” historiography. This style of writing, in which women often play a prominent role, “seeks to present facts in tragic or dramatic terms, even to the detriment of their veracity, in order to impress the reader and arouse particular psychological reactions.”
A Military Mutiny
Josephus then describes the transgression overtaking the “army” of young men, and giving way to “sedition”:
4:140 Consequently, the lawlessness of the young men soon pervaded the entire army (στρατοῦ) and a sedition (στάσιν) far worse than the previous one and a danger of total destruction of their particular practices came upon them. For the young, having once tasted of strange practices, indulged in them insatiably; and some of the principal men, who were conspicuous because of the virtues of their fathers, were corrupted along with them.
This description sets the groundwork for a military response. Van Unnik underscores Josephus’ usage of stasis (the Greek word for sedition), noting that this was the “term for ruin threatening the welfare of the state in Greek political thinking,” particularly in the writings of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides.
Indeed, Josephus employs stasis as thematic throughout his War, and he famously implicates stasis as the reason for the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (War 1.10). He thereby characterizes the people’s flirtation with pagan practices not as a religious offense, but as a military mutiny—a threat to the welfare of the Israelite ranks. (The reason for this reinterpretation will be explored later.)
The Philosophical Speeches of Moses and Zimri
As the story continues, Josephus omits God’s command to Moses to exact punishment from the chieftains (Num 25:4), as well as Moses’ discordant command to the shoftim (judges or chieftains) to exact punishment from the sinners (Num 25:5). Instead, he moves directly to the account of Zimri (Zambrias in Greek) consorting (συνὼν) with Cozbi (141).
Whereas at this point in the biblical narrative Phinehas springs into action and Moses’ absence is pronounced, Josephus has Moses “gather the people into an assembly” in efforts to prevent the Israelite camp from deteriorating any further (142). Moses does not accuse anyone by name, and stops well short of a full-throated condemnation of the Israelites, telling them instead, in Greek philosophical style, to abjure pleasure:
4:143–144 [H]e said that they were doing things unworthy either of themselves or of their fathers in preferring pleasure to God and to the life in accord with Him, and that it was befitting for them, while things still went well for themselves, reckoning that courage consisted not in violating the laws but in not yielding to the passions, to change their conduct. In addition to this, he kept asserting that it was not reasonable for them, who had been self-controlled in the wilderness, to live dissolutely now in their prosperity and to lose on account of their wealth what had been acquired through their poverty.
Zimri then steps forward and delivers a scathing critique of both Moses and the Israelite religion, the dictates of which he calls “tyrannical” and “harsher to the Hebrews than the Egyptians”:
4:146–147 But you will not get me to be a follower of the orders which you give tyrannically. For up until now you have wickedly done no other thing than to contrive slavery for us and headship for yourself under the pretense of laws and of God, removing from us sweetness and the self-determination in life, which belongs to men who are free and who do not have a master. In this way you will become harsher to the Hebrews than the Egyptians, in claiming to punish according to the laws the wish of each person to do what is agreeable to himself.
Zimri then proudly cites his marriage with a “foreign wife,” which is his right as a “free person,” (148), and to his engaging in sacrifice to other gods “to whom, according to my thinking, it is proper to sacrifice” (149).
The people do not respond to Zimri (150), nor does Moses. Instead, he dismisses the assembly for fear that they would become “imitators of the shamelessness of [Zimri’s] words” and perhaps be emboldened by Moses’ own failure to respond (151).
Phinehas’ Killing: A Military Matter
At this point Phinehas intervenes,
4:152 Phinees, a man better than the younger men in other respects and superior to his contemporaries by virtue of the prestige of his father—for he was the son of the high priest Eleazar and the son of the son of Moyses’ brother—became very indignant at what had been done by Zambrias (Zimri). He determined, before his [Zimri’s] insolence should become stronger through impunity, to exact the judgment upon him by action, and to prevent the lawlessness (παρανομίαν) from going further if those who started it were not punished.
Josephus then narrates Phinehas’ slaying of Zimri and Cozbi, beginning with a description of Phinehas’ boldness, and continuing with the same terse, animated language as the biblical narrative:
4:153 Being superior in both daring of soul and courage of body, to such a degree that if he should be involved in any danger, he did not leave until he had prevailed and obtained victory (νίκην) in it, he went to the tent of Zambrias. Striking him and Chosbia with his broad sword, he killed them.
In contrast to the Bible, Josephus does not envision Phinehas acting at the spur of the moment and simply killing the two lovers in flagrante delicto. Instead, Josephus characterizes Phinehas’ act as a “heroic” military operation in reaction to the sedition and lawlessness in the camp and with which Phinehas can be described as “victorious” over his foe. Phinehas, in Josephus’ conception, was acting in a tactical capacity –– not with spontaneous zeal for God.
In fact, Josephus leaves out any language that would color Phinehas’ violent deed as enacting God’s zeal, in stark contrast to the description in Numbers 25 which repeats the root ק.נ.א (“to be zealous, jealous”) four times. Martin Hengel and other scholars have ascribed this “conscious suppression” to Josephus’ strong distaste for the violent Zealots (ζηλωτής) of his own era, but Josephus elsewhere has no compunctions associating zeal and violence.
The Aftermath of Phinehas’ Killing of Zimri
Phinehas’ military strike against a ringleader of the sedition has its desired effect:
4:154 All the young men who put forward a claim for virtue and a striving for honor, imitating the boldness of Phinees, did away with those who had been accused of crimes similar to that of Zambrias. Consequently, through the brave action of these men, many of those who had transgressed the law perished from the ranks (τάξεων).
The action of Phinehas and his followers stops the plague, and Moses next decides to attack the Midianites as a punishment for the trouble they caused, with Josephus skipping ahead to a retelling of Numbers 31. He further appoints Phinehas to be the general (στρατηγὸν) leading the army. This contrasts with the biblical description of Phinehas’ ritual role in Numbers 31:6, which was to hold the sacred vessels and trumpets. By jumping directly to this later story, Josephus surprisingly omits the pinnacle of the biblical narrative—the twofold reward of eternal priesthood and the covenant of peace bestowed by God upon Phinehas (Num 25:12–13). This is a striking omission.
Distancing Violence from Priesthood
Josephus famously states at the outset of his Antiquities (1.17) that he would “set forth the precise details in the Scriptures, neither adding nor omitting anything,” yet here he decided to leave out a key part of the narrative. This is especially significant considering the fact that Josephus was himself a priest (a fact which he highlights generously in his writings),and would have had a personal interest in a story that glorified his ancestors.
Instead, Josephus erases the very explicit linkage in Numbers 25 between priesthood and violence reflected in the twofold covenant God makes with Phinehas at the end of the story. We thus may speculate that, in contrast to the Priestly authors of the biblical story who were eager to have Phinehas’ act of vigilante justice as a foundational narrative, Josephus was unwilling to anchor the priesthood in an episode marked by violence, even if revised.
Indeed, a similar motive can be ascribed to Josephus’ omission from his Antiquities of the entirety of the Golden Calf narrative, which is a mirror image of Numbers 25, in which the Moses-led Levites are the violent zealots. In fact, Josephus elsewhere in his Antiquities omits a number of biblical episodes featuring violence. And yet, he does not omit Phinehas’ violence altogether, or his status as a priest, nor does he condemn the action. Instead, he reinterprets it by rewriting the story as one of military action as opposed to vigilante zealotry.
The controlled and socially acceptable nature of military action was far preferable to ascribe to a heroic character such as Phinehas, in Josephus’ eyes, especially since Josephus was himself a military commander in his early life. In fact, the personae of Josephus and Phinehas have such strong parallels that David Bernat goes so far as to say that “Josephus’ portrayal of Phinehas is not only an example of scriptural exegesis, but a masterful piece of autobiography.”
Between Second Temple and Rabbinic Interpretation
Josephus’ discomfort with the Phinehas story contrasts with a far more laudatory approach which pervades Jewish literature of the Second Temple period. Works such as Ben Sira, 1 Maccabees, Jubilees, the Testament of Levi, and the writings of Philo of Alexandria depict reverence for Phinehas––both explicit and implicit. Indeed, Philo was so enamored of Phinehas, and praise of extrajudicial violence so pervades his writings, that a mass of scholarship treating Jewish violence in antiquity rests solely on the Philonic corpus.
Josephus, however, shares his discomfort with the later rabbinic tradition, which expresses uneasiness with Phinehas’ vigilante violence. Indeed, the carefully crafted rabbinic legal system claims comprehensive jurisdiction over civil, criminal, and ritual law. Although the rabbis on occasion retrojected their legal framework back onto biblical texts, Phinehas seemingly acted in contravention of the rabbinic dictate that all capital cases be tried before a panel of twenty-three judges (m. Sanhedrin 1:4). It therefore comes as no surprise that some rabbinic texts critique the vigilante nature of the act, with the Jerusalem Talmud going so far as to claim that Phinehas acted שלא ברצון חכמים “against the will of the Sages” (San. 9:7).
Instead of criticizing Phinehas, Josephus recasts Phinehas’ actions as a reaction to a military sedition, thereby removing his violence from the priestly realm and the legal realm at the same time. In Josephus’ account, Phinehas’ slaying of Zimri and Cozbi was an act of warfare which was perpetrated under the extenuating circumstances of mass sedition. This allows Josephus to skirt the need to contend with the legal propriety of Phinehas’ killing, a problem which would later preoccupy the rabbis.
From Religious Zealot to Wartime Official
From a legal-rhetorical standpoint, Josephus has transformed the offenders from “criminals” into “enemies.” In the words of legal scholar Paul Kahn, even though they may be perpetrating identical acts, “everything about the criminal is defined by law . . . [while] the enemy . . . is not a juridical figure at all.”
Thus for Josephus, Zimri was slain not for his litany of infractions against the Law, but for fomenting sedition and thereby becoming an enemy of the Israelites. For Josephus, Phinehas’ “tactical strike” should not be confused for a vigilante act fueled by religious zeal. It was merely the first act of the subsequent war against the Midianites in which Phinehas served as general.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
July 25, 2019
July 13, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Yonatan S. Miller is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Center for Religious Understanding at the University of Toledo, in Toledo, Ohio. He earned his PhD in Jewish Studies from Harvard University, where he also served as a Harry Starr Fellow in Judaica. He has published articles in Jewish Studies Quarterly and in the Journal of Ancient Judaism and is currently at work on a monograph entitled Sacred Slaughter: Violence and the Israelite-Jewish Priesthood.
Essays on Related Topics: