The first time I heard the name Phineas, I was in tenth grade. Mrs. Duerkop assigned A Separate Peace as outside reading over winter break, and I remember begrudgingly slogging through what at the time I considered the most boring book ever. I wasn’t impressed with free-spirited Finny, nor the book as a whole. Over ten years later I came across the name a second time while teaching a pre-school Sunday School class. Three year old Phineas was much more endearing to me as he raced in each week, eager to don the Buzz Lightyear costume hanging in the back of the classroom. This little boy was precious, and a big part of that preciousness was his name. Phineas. I began to love it.
I loved it even more after looking up its meaning. It’s a Hebrew name meaning “oracle,” but one of the sites I found gave its definition as “loud mouth.” David and I had been dating awhile at this point, long enough that I felt comfortable talking future baby name ideas with him, and I was pumped to share this information. His initial reaction, however, was more akin to my first impression of the name back in tenth grade. “I just don’t think I can name a kid Phineas …” Okay, gotcha. Too out there. Oh well.
About a week later he came to pick me up for a date with a huge grin on his face.
“I think I can be on board with the name Phinehas*, but on one condition.”
“Okay … what condition?”
“That his middle name be Malachi.”
See, Malachi is also Hebrew and means, “my messenger.” Phinehas Malachi … My loud-mouthed messenger.
“Deal,” I said.
It’s the first name we agreed on, and the second name we got to use.
*You may notice we chose an unconventional spelling for Phinehas. Given that the name is of Hebrew origin, (not to mention the fact that we met in a Biblical Exegesis program) we wanted to use the biblical spelling. There are actually two Phinehases (Phinehi? 😉 ) mentioned in Scripture, and neither are very prominent. I mean, David and Sarah are pretty big Bible names, but Phinehas? Who are these guys?
The characters are actually a bit scandalous. Phinehas #2 was not a good guy. He and his brother are described as “scoundrels who had no respect for the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:12). Neglecting their priestly duties, they stole meat for themselves from the offerings people brought to God and seduced young women who worked at the entrance of the Tabernacle. They were later killed in battle as a result of their sins.
If that were the only Phinehas, we might have had a hard time giving our son that name. However, Phinheas #1 is described as being “zealous for the honor of his God,” a stark contrast to the Phinehas of 1 Samuel. Phinehas #1 is first mentioned in a passing genealogy found in Exodus where we learn he is the grandson of Aaron, the priest and brother of Moses. In Numbers 25 we are then told an unsettling story of immorality, idolatry, and violence. At this point in Israel’s history the Israelites are wandering in the desert and working out what it means to follow God as his covenant people. There are cycles of rebellion and repentance, this story encompassing both.
The chapter begins in a sad state, with men engaging in sexual immorality that ultimately leads to an embracing of foreign gods. “… Israel joined in the worship of Baal of Peor, causing the LORD’s anger to blaze against his people” (Numbers 25:3, NLT). God commands the idolaters be put to death, and about this time a man blatantly flaunts his rebellion in front of Moses and the people. Phinehas #1 is outraged at the audacity and proceeds to spear him (and the woman he’s with) in the act (!) in response to God’s command. The passage explains that Phinehas’ action here is what stops the plague against the Israelites.
Okay, so that’s a terrible story. As a modern reader, I am honestly more bothered by the spearing than the illicit sex. It makes me really uncomfortable, so much so that I almost ended this blog about five paragraphs ago. Religious violence is verboten, an anathema to our modern sensibilities. Why would God command that, even way back then?
The answer to that question is beyond the scope of this post although I do think the passage tells us something about the serious nature of sin and its effects on people created in God’s image. Idolatry is no joke. God later says to Moses that the idol worshipers had “assaulted you with deceit …” (v. 18, NLT). Anything that draws us away from who God has created us to be is like an assault on God’s children, and as a parent, he takes that seriously. But I digress … back to Phinehas.
After the spearing, God says to Moses, “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 honor 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 honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites” (v. 11-13, NIV).
A few things to note. 1) Phinehas hasn’t gone rogue. His action, as difficult as it may be for modern readers to swallow, is an act of obedience to God’s command. 2) Phinehas isn’t zealous just to be zealous. He is moved by his love for God and his honor. 3) God praises him for his initiative and obedience. 4) People are saved because of his action.
Phinehas #1 shows up again later in another fairly obscure passage in Joshua 22. Here he serves as a mediator between tribes in order to resolve a conflict over the building of a second altar. We get to see another side of Phinehas, contrasted to his earlier zeal. He listens and then acts not in a hot-headed way, but rather in accordance with God’s commands and always in a way that encourages faithfulness to the Lord.
The last mention of Phinehas #1 is found in Psalm 106, which is an artistic retelling of the Exodus and wilderness wandering stories. Phinehas gets a shout out in verses 28-31: “Then our ancestors joined in the worship of Baal at Peor; they even ate sacrifices offered to the dead! They angered the LORD with all these things, so a plague broke out among them. But Phinehas had the courage to intervene, and the plague was stopped. So he has been regarded as a righteous man ever since that time” (NLT).
So, Phinehas Malachi, my loud-mouthed messenger, while your context and canon are quite different in 2019, I pray that you too will be regarded as a righteous man. I pray you will love God passionately. I pray you will listen well and seek to discern the will of the LORD. I pray that you will be a man of action, quick to obey and follow in the way of Jesus. Amen.
“Praise the LORD! Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. Who can list the glorious miracles of the LORD? Who can ever praise him enough? There is joy for those who deal justly with others and always do what is right.” (Psalm 106:1-3, NLT)