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What To Do About Violent Biblical Texts?

Before attacking Islam, Christians and Jews need to think carefully about one name in particular, which is that of Phinehas, the patron saint of hate crime.
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Every few weeks, it seems, Islam makes headlines in the U.S., whether the topic is a television show like All-American Muslim, a state prohibiting Sharia law, or just a grandstanding platform statement in a primary. No less predictable are the basic arguments: Islam is evil, violent and repressive in its basic nature, and not because of the attitudes or political decisions of particular Muslims. Islam owes these evils to its fundamental scriptures, and above all in the Quran that a faithful Muslim believes to be the revealed word of God. If the founding scriptures are so vicious and so abhorrent, it literally is not possible to reform the religion founded on those sinister foundations. Although these arguments are common enough, they should be strictly off-limits to anyone who claims religious roots in the Bible, which of course has more than its fair share of extraordinarily violent texts. But in the whole catalogue of biblical horror stories, one tale in particular cries out for attention as a driving force in contemporary violence and bigotry. Before attacking Islam, Christians and Jews need to think carefully about one name in particular, which is that of Phinehas, the patron saint of hate crime.

Most modern Christians are never likely to hear his name in church, as the text containing his mighty deeds (Numbers 25) is simply not included in the cycle of readings used by virtually all mainstream congregations. But it is quite a story. The children of Israel have intermarried with Moabite women, so that the two peoples begin to share in worship. God furiously commands that the chiefs of Israel be impaled in the sun as a means of quenching his anger; Moses commands his subordinates to kill anyone who has married a pagan; a plague kills 24,000 Hebrews. Fortunately, Phinehas, grandson of Aaron, takes decisive action to preempt the worst of the catastrophe. He slaughters a mixed-­race couple, the Hebrew man Zimri, who had married a Midianite woman. Mollified, God ends the plague and grants Phinehas a "covenant of peace."

An obvious reading of that sacred text is that if your neighbors are doing something that egregiously violates God's law, you can and must take up arms and launch a vigilante action against them, to the point of murder, and that God will bless the crime. Such implications gave nightmares to early rabbinic commentators, who tried to adjust and soften the story. Perhaps, they suggested, Phinehas was just coming out of a special tribunal who commanded his act, so a kind of due process had been operating; or perhaps his action was so horrific that it traumatized him to the point of losing his reason? But the naked text stood, and through the centuries, it has been used in its obvious sense, as a vigilante's charter.

Some 3,000 years after the original murder, Phinehas is a deeply troubling name in the modern state of Israel. He has become a hero and exemplar to the extremist haredim, the Jewish ultra-Orthodox whose high birth rates make them a significant and growing power-bloc. The haredim engage in intimidation and mob actions against secular Jews, stoning cars being driven on the Sabbath and beating their drivers. Extremists try to force women to take their proper places of subordination in public places, and to dress in what they consider modest fashions, and they enforce their will by physical assault and spitting. Repeatedly, when they are asked how they justify these acts, they cite the example of Phinehas, who likewise intervened directly and spontaneously to suppress public sin. When Israelis organize a gay pride parade, haredim posters on the streets proclaim "This is an abomination! We are all Phinehas!" If Israel's secular or liberal Jews can read such words without feeling threatened, they are not paying attention.

Such ideas extend beyond the strict haredim. Some years ago, Israel's Sephardic chief rabbi denounced Reform Jews for their departures from orthodoxy. He cited Zimri, the victim of Phinehas's righteous wrath: "Zimri was the first Reform Jew who contended it was possible to assimilate the People of Israel through conversion [of non ­Jews]." While the rabbi denied advocating violence, he fully endorsed Phinehas's acts: "As a result of Zimri's actions, there was a plague on Israel. It is written that Phinehas understood drastic steps were needed to stop the plague."

Through history too, Phinehas has inspired Christians to fight for what they think of as God's cause, even when that means going outside the law, or defying overwhelming majority opinion. Reformation-era prophets and theologians called for modern successors to Phinehas who would assassinate Catholic monarchs. When England's Oliver Cromwell justified the execution King Charles I, an extreme act that drew international condemnation, he drew the obvious analogy: "Perhaps no other way was left. What if God accepted the zeal, as he did that of Phinehas, whose reason might have called for a jury!"

And if we think that nothing like that can happen in our own time, the experience of the American ultra-right tells a different story. In 1990, Richard Kelly Hoskins used the story as the basis for his manifesto Vigilantes of Christendom, which advocated a new order of militant white supremacists, the Phineas [sic] Priesthood. Over the next decade, a number of sects assumed this title, claiming Old Testament precedent for terrorist attacks on mixed­race couples and abortion clinics. Opinions vary as to whether Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh himself was a Phineas Priest, but he was close to the movement. While the Priesthood seems to be defunct today, no observer of the neo-Nazi scene would be amazed if the name reappeared in the near-future.

Like haredi vigilantes, Christian white supremacists represent only a tiny fringe of their respective religions, and we can learn nothing from their acts about the mindset of the vast majority of ordinary believers, who know nothing of Phinehas or his acts. But that ignorance is in itself an interesting comment on the role of scriptures in shaping religions. If the founding texts determine the whole later course of a faith, then it should be impossible for Christians and Jews to live their faith without the genocidal violence and racial segregation that so abounds in their holy book -- yet most believers do just that, and have done so in most eras of their history.

Yes, the bloody scriptures continue to exist, and in some circumstances, in certain conditions of social and political breakdown, extremists will cite them to provide a spiritual aura to violent and revolting acts that they were going to commit anyway. But that does not mean that we should hold the scriptures themselves responsible, or imagine that the faith as such is irrevocably tainted. Religions develop and mature over time, and it is lunatic to condemn a whole faith on the basis of its ancient horrors. That's true for Christians, Jews -- and Muslims.

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