The words “it was reckoned to him as righteousness” are used of two people in the Old Testament: Phineas and Abraham (Psalm 106:30 and Gen 15:6). Paul and James both quote these words of Abraham as a model of the way of faith (Romans 4:3, 22, Galatians 3:6, James 2:23) , but Phineas doesn’t get a mention in the New Testament. Nonetheless, he casts a dark shadow over the life of Paul prior to his Damascus Road experience.
Who was Phineas? He was a devout priest in Moses’ day, Aaron’s grandson. In his zeal for God, he resorted to violence to rid Israel of someone who brought an outsider into the camp. The whole horrifying story can be read in Numbers 25. His reward for zealously defending God’s honour and the people’s purity was a ‘covenant of peace’ and a perpetual priesthood. This is celebrated in Psalm 106 with these words:
“Then [the Israelites] attached themselves to the Baal of Peor and ate sacrifices offered to the dead; they provoked the Lord to anger with their deeds and a plague broke out among them. Then Phinehas stood up and interceded, and the plague was stopped. And that has been reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever.” (vv 29-30)
I will sidestep for now the issue of God being implicated in the violence in Numbers (an issue I’m still wrestling with, and to which I will return in later posts) to focus on the model of righteousness that this encapsulates. Phineas is emblematic of the belief that God is worth killing for, that truth is so important that it must be defended at all costs, even with violence. This describes St Paul before he was encountered by the Risen Christ. In his own words, the old Paul was: “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Phil 3:6) Interesting that he uses the word zeal, a key word in the Numbers 25 account.
The old Paul was not a religious person who, unfortunately and unrelatedly, also had anger management issues; his violence was a direct expression of his devotion to God and commitment to truth. Paul didn’t persecute the church because he hated religions different from his own. He grew up as a Diaspora Jew, after all, surrounded by pagan religions which he may have looked down on, but wouldn’t have tried to stamp out. He persecuted Christians because the followers of Jesus were a movement within first century Judaism which also included Gentiles, outsiders. The early Christians were, in his eyes, transgressing the boundaries which separated God’s people from the unclean outsiders. Like the Israelite who brought the Midianite women into the camp in Numbers 25, they were violating the purity of the People of God.
Paul’s Damascus road experience forced him to re-interpret the scandal of the cross, to recognise in the disgraced, crucified Jesus the crazy foolishness that is the wisdom of God: the power that absorbs instead of inflicts violence, the justice that reaches out to and reconciles the enemy and the outsider instead of annihilating them. No longer would Phineas’s radical zeal be the model of faithfulness to God for Paul.
This violent zeal is still playing out in many places in the world where people harm and kill in the name of God. It also exists in more subtle forms, wherever people hate in the name of devotion to God. When St Paul was encountered by Jesus Christ he discovered that truth is worth dying for, but not killing for. Big difference.