views updated May 23 2018


PHINEHAS (Heb. פִּנְחָס), name of three biblical figures:

(1) Son of *Eleazar, son of *Aaron the priest (Ex. 6:25; cf. genealogies in Ezra 7:1–5; i Chron. 5:28–41; 6:35–38). When the Israelites suffered a plague in punishment for indulging in the orgiastic Baal-Peor cult, Phinehas slew Zimri son of Salu and Cozbi daughter of Zur, a prince of Midian, and thereby stopped the plague. By virtue of this act, Phinehas and his descendants were granted "a pact of priesthood for all time" (Num. 25:1–18). The memory of this event is reflected even in later sources (e.g., Ps. 106:30–31; Ecclus. 45:23–24; i Macc. 2:26, 53). Phinehas is encountered next in the war against the Midianites when, equipped with sacred utensils, he was sent by Moses to act as priest in the campaign (Num. 31:1–6). At the period of the Conquest, Phinehas, together with ten of the princes of the tribes that had settled west of the Jordan, formed a delegation to Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh who had erected an altar on the east bank of the Jordan. There had been some suspicion that these tribes had defected from the Lord (Josh. 22:9–34). Phinehas appears to have been selected for this task because of his battle against the cult of Baal-Peor. At any rate, the issue was settled amicably. In the story of the Israelite war against the tribe of Benjamin over the incident of the concubine in Gibeah, it is stated that Phinehas served before the ark in Beth-El, and that through him the Israelites received an affirmative answer from God to their question as to whether to continue the war (Judg. 20:27–28). Many scholars believe these verses not to be part of the body of the narrative but additions by a later editor. It is related of Phinehas that he had been superintendent of the gatekeepers (i Chron 9:20). This is probably to be understood as indicating that Phinehas was considered to have been their patron. Phinehas' death and burial place are not recorded, though Joshua 24:33 does state that "Eleazar the son of Aaron died, and they buried him in the hill of his son Phinehas… in Mount Ephraim." This passage may have been reworked by a later editor. The formula is surprising since the usual statement about the dead is that he was buried "with his fathers." E. Auerbach believes that originally the site was known as the grave of Phinehas, and that Eleazar's name was attached to it as a result of a later tradition. Indeed, according to both Jewish and Samaritan tradition, Phinehas is also buried at this hill. Eusebius (Onom. 2:14) identified the location as being 5 mi. (8 km.) from Gophna on the way to Shechem (see *Aaron for genealogy of the house of Aaron). A family of priests named Gershom, directly related to Phinehas, existed as late as the time of Ezra, returning with him from the Exile (Ezra 8:2; cf. *Gershom). According to i Esdras (5:5), the priests Jeshua son of Jehozedek and Joiakim son of Jeshua were associated with the house of Phinehas.

(2) A priest, one of the sons of Eli, at Shiloh, brother of Hophni (e.g., i Sam. 2:34). See *Hophni and Phinehas.

(3) The father of Eleazar, who was one of the assistants of Meremoth son of Uriah the priest. This priest weighed the sacred vessels brought by those who returned with Ezra from the Exile (Ezra 8:33; cf. i Esd. 8:62).

The name Phinehas derives from the Egyptian panhśj, meaning "the Nubian," which was also employed as a proper name in Egypt, especially for residents of Nubia.

[Ephraim Stern]

Phinehas (1) in the Aggadah

Because of the major problems arising out of occasional cases of apostasy (tj, Hag. 2:1) or fornication with pagan women (Sanh. 9:6; Sanh. 82a), Phinehas is, for the most part, highly praised in rabbinical literature for the "zeal" which he displayed in slaying Zimri and the Midianite woman whom he had caught in the act (cf. Num. 25:6ff.). While Moses, who had himself married a Midianite woman (albeit before the Sinai covenant), was humiliated and unable to cope with the situation (Sanh. 82a; Gen. R. 96:3; Num. R. 20:24, et al.), Phinehas remembered the halakhah that "he who cohabits with a gentile woman is struck down by zealots" (Sanh. 9:6). Seeing that even the most warlike tribes refused to punish the transgressor, Phinehas resolved to take the law into his own hands (Sif. Num. 131; tj, Sanh. 10:2, 28d). The rabbis could not agree whether Phinehas had acted with or without Moses' permission – the issue at stake being whether a disciple could, in an emergency, decide a case without reference to his master (Sanh. 82a). In view of the unequivocal biblical approval of Phinehas' deed (Num. 25:10ff.), the legitimacy of the act could not be seriously questioned. Indeed, no less than 12 miracles were said to have been wrought in aid of Phinehas – otherwise he could not have successfully accomplished his mission (Sif. Num. 131). The rabbis, moreover, interpreted Psalms 106:30 in the sense that Phinehas had argued with God concerning the injustice of inflicting a plague on Israel which carried off 24,000 people (cf. Num. 25:9). When the angels wanted to push Phinehas away, God defended him: "Let him be; he is a zealot and the descendant of a zealot" (viz. Levi; cf. Gen. 34:25ff.). The Almighty also bestowed high praise on Phinehas when the tribes of Israel, especially Simeon, tried to cast aspersions on him, taunting him with his descent from Jethro (through Putiel; cf. Ex. 6:25) who had "fattened calves for idolatry" (Sanh. 82b; Sif. ibid.).

There were, nevertheless, rabbis who had some legal reservations concerning the summary execution carried out by Phinehas. According to one view, Phinehas had acted "against the will of the Sages," who had therefore intended to put him under the ban but were restrained by "the holy spirit" which proclaimed "the covenant of a perpetual priesthood" (cf. Num. 25:13) for Phinehas and his descendants (tj, Sanh. 9:9, 27b). Both Palestinian and Babylonian rabbis stated explicitly that anyone consulting them about how to act in a similar situation would not be instructed to emulate Phinehas' example (Sanh. 82a). The implied disapproval is evident in the rabbinic speculations on hypothetical events which might have had an adverse effect on Phinehas' legal position: "If Zimri had separated (from his Midianite mistress) and Phinehas slain him, Phinehas would have incurred the death penalty, and if Zimri had turned upon Phinehas and slain him, he would not have been liable to the death penalty, since Phinehas was a pursuer [seeking to take his life]" (ibid.).

Notwithstanding the legal irregularities of Phinehas' unauthorized zeal, the rabbis accorded Phinehas a prominent place in Jewish history. He was chosen to accompany the Israelites in their campaign against Midian to complete the good deed he had begun by slaying the Midianite woman (Num. R. 22:4), and also to avenge his maternal grandfather Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by the Midianites (Sif. Num. 157; Sot. 43a; cf. Gen. 37:28, 36). It was Phinehas who miraculously slew Balaam (Sanh. 106b; cf. Num. 31:8 and Targ. Ps. Jon. ad loc.). He was also one of the two spies sent by Joshua to Jericho (cf. Josh. 21:1ff.), where he managed to make himself invisible like an angel; and he was in fact identical with the angel sent to the Israelites at Bochim (Num. R. 161:1; cf. Judg. 2:1ff.). This must probably be connected with the identification of Phinehas with Elijah (both having been distinguished for their "zeal and their peacemaking missions"; cf. Num. 25:11ff.; i Kings 19:10, 14; Mal. 3:23ff.), whose transformation into an angelic being is predicated in Malachi 3:1, 23 (pdre 47; Targ. Ps.-Jon. to Ex. 6:18; Num. 25:12; Num. R. 21:3, et al.). He is, accordingly, the forerunner of the Messiah (Targ. Ps.-Jon. to Num. 25:12, et al.). The criticism leveled against Phinehas for failing to annul Jephthah's fatal vow, thereby causing the death of Jephthah's daughter (Gen. R. 60:3; Lev. R. 37:4, et al.), in all probability reflects the rabbinic attitude to certain priests in the talmudic age and has no bearing on Phinehas' personality even as viewed through rabbinic eyes.

[Moses Aberbach]


North, Personennamen, 63; T. Melek, in: ajsll, 45 (1929), 165; K. Moehlenbrink, in: zaw, 52 (1934), 189, 217–9; C. Simpson, The Early Traditions of Israel (1948), 322. in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, 3 (1911), 383–9; 6 (1928), 137f.; 7 (1938), 37f. (index).


views updated Jun 08 2018


PHINEHAS , guardian of the Second Temple treasury in the last days of the Temple. Josephus (Wars, 6:387–91) relates that with the seizure of Jerusalem and the Temple (70 c.e.) Phinehas, taken prisoner, "disclosed the tunics and girdles worn by the priests, an abundance of purple and scarlet kept for necessary repairs to the veil of the Temple, a mass of cinammon and cassia, and a multitude of other spices mixed and burnt daily as incense to God. Many other treasures were also delivered up by him, with numerous sacred ornaments." Phinehas was not the sole Temple custodian to disclose the sacred treasures of the Sanctuary. He was joined by one of the priests, Joshua (Jesus) son of Thebuthi. Both officials were granted pardons by the Romans in reward for their services. The mishnaic list of officials in the Temple (Shek. 5:1) includes a Pinhas al ha-Malbush ("Phinehas, the guardian of the wardrobe"), who is probably the same person.


Graetz, in: mgwj, 34 (1885), 193–205; Schuerer, Gesch, 2 (1907), 332f.; Klausner, Bayit Sheni, 5 (19512), 272.

[Isaiah Gafni]