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Fall 2005 · Vol. 34 No. 2 · pp. 170–80 

Phinehas and the Pharisees: Identity and Tolerance in Biblical Perspective

Ryan Schellenberg and Tim Geddert

Identity and tolerance are not static concepts. Identities change over time, as do levels of tolerance. In the past, tolerance was often a rare commodity. Distinctive identities were staunchly defended and nonconformity was punished with exclusion. Not anymore. Western societies have become heterogeneous and many churches have as well.

The telos of the OT’s emphasis on holiness is not purity itself but a sustainable community within which forgiveness and mercy can be practiced. . . . The conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel can be envisioned as a conflict between two opposing views of holiness.

A hundred years ago most Mennonites were farmers, adhering to similar values while working and living in similar ways. There were countless unwritten rules defining—if not explicitly regulating—the “right way to do things.” Ethical values were shared: Everyone knew that selling a cow that was sick as though it were healthy was wrong. Adding water to the milk or gravel to the grain was unacceptable. Everyone knew that colorful clothes just were not worn to celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. If one married a non-Mennonite (eine Englische), one faced the disapproval of the church. And, because of this uniformity, non-Mennonites knew what to expect from us. On the one hand, we were simply a curious oddity: we were outsiders in the mainstream culture, and we shunned its “worldly amusements.” On the other hand, we were admired for some honorable characteristics: we were excellent farmers (and teachers and nurses); we were honest business partners. Our identity was pretty clear, both to us and to the world.

All that has changed. It has become far more difficult to specify common norms and values, guidelines for how we live as church members, and common convictions we confess before the watching world. How can Mennonite churches in this situation still maintain a clear identity? Can we still stand for something together? And how can we bear witness to our distinct identity as we rub shoulders with friends, colleagues, and business partners and yet do so without appearing intolerant and exclusionary?

And since our slogan once was—and often still is—“back to the Scriptures,” it seems appropriate to probe what the Bible has to say about identity and tolerance. What constitutes a biblical understanding of communal identity? And what do the Scriptures say about the appropriate means of guarding identity? How tolerant can we be and still maintain our distinctive Christian identity? Is tolerance itself perhaps a key component of that identity? And what must we refuse to tolerate? We will examine two texts, one from each Testament, in order to gain insight on issues relating to the identity and the tolerance-boundaries of the people of God.


Israel is presented in the Old Testament (OT) as the people of God. As one of the gôyim (nations, people-groups), Israel had an ethnic, cultural, and later a national identity. Yet Israel was called by God to be a unique ‘am (people-group), a people of God’s own choosing (Exod. 19:4-6). Israel was a community that transcended ethnicity, that was formed and preserved through mutual covenanting with God and with each other. God called Israel to be a holy people (Deut. 28:9), a people set apart.

The unique identity of Israel was preserved by remembering and celebrating God’s past acts of deliverance (Exod. 12:1-27; Ps. 106), by organizing life around the covenant stipulations (Ps. 119), by hearing God’s Word (Neh. 8:1-12), by longing together for the fulfillment of God’s promises (Isa. 51:9-11; Ps. 79), and last but not least, by taking seriously the special calling God had placed on Israel to be a contrast-society in the world, a social experiment in which God’s justice and shalom were to be visibly present (Exod. 22:21-27; Lev. 23:22; 25:35-38; Deut. 24:10-22; Ps. 82:1-4; Isa. 58).

But this is perhaps a one-sided and idealistic account of Israel’s identity. From reading the stories of the OT, one might easily conclude that the identity of Israel was preserved by an oppressive system of purity codes (Deut. 23:1-2), by strict legalism and harsh punishment for offenders (Deut. 22:20-24), by military conquest (Josh. 11:14-20), by forbidding intermarriage (Ezra 10:10-44; Neh. 9:2; 13:3), and by attributing this xenophobia to God.


The church of Jesus Christ emerges in the New Testament (NT) as the people of God, gathered around Jesus, given life and guidance by God’s Spirit. As the extension of God’s covenant people, the church ultimately burst the boundaries of ethnicity and nationalism—broke down barriers between “Jew . . . Greek . . . slave . . . free . . . male and female” (Gal. 3:28 NRSV). The church is not defined ethnically, culturally, or nationally but rather by the mutual incorporation of all its members into the body of Christ, the family of God.

But again, this idealistic account is one-sided. In fact the church has often preserved its identity by amputating other parts of the body of Christ, by launching crusades against those outside the church’s boundaries, and by simply turning its back on “the world” (1 John 2:15). In many places those gathering for worship on Sunday mornings are considerably more resistant to racial integration, the breaking down of social barriers, and gender equality than are most secular clubs and other social configurations. To preserve our identity we consciously or unconsciously build barriers between ourselves and those who think and act differently than we do.

Is it necessary to become intolerant and narrow in order to preserve identity? A brief examination of two Bible stories may help us gain some perspective on this question.


This text is not well-known. No wonder: It hardly seems suitable for reading in public worship or for Sunday school lessons. What are we to make of it? A man takes a foreign woman with him into his tent. Onlookers suspect (correctly, it turns out) that a sexual encounter is occurring. One of them, Phinehas, enters the tent and executes them both, by driving his spear right through the man and into the woman underneath, perhaps through the genitalia (the text is not quite clear on that point). For his zeal to defend the good and right, Phinehas becomes a hero, celebrated for centuries. 1

The Psalmist presents him as an intercessor with God (Ps. 106:30-31); intertestamental literature celebrates him as one who made atonement for Israel (Sir. 45:38); the Jewish historian, Josephus, considers him the greatest man of his age (Ant. 4.152). The Zealot movement in the first century took both its name and its inspiration from this “great Old Testament hero.” And according to Numbers 25:12-13, God declares that Phinehas and his descendants are guaranteed a perpetual priesthood, a covenant of peace, and a reward for atoning for Israel’s sin. Is Phinehas a model of how the identity of God’s people is preserved?


This is a more familiar and more frequently told story. A woman is caught in the act of adultery. The Pharisees have not only the law on their side, but the example of Phinehas as well. They come to Jesus and seek his confirmation that the death penalty should be administered. Jesus confronts the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, cleverly disqualifies them from their role as judges, and refuses to condemn the woman. Jesus’ inclusion of the outcasts and sinners, illustrated here and in numerous other texts, ultimately led to his atoning death on the cross.

Just like Phinehas—or should we say utterly unlike Phinehas—Jesus makes atonement for sin, is guaranteed a perpetual priesthood, and mediates a covenant of peace. What a contrast to the Phinehas story!


Any attempt to outline a biblical perspective on tolerance is immediately complicated by the apparent discrepancy between what the OT and the NT have to say about the topic. In the OT, so the popular perspective suggests, Yahweh is a jealous and intolerant God, striking down the impure and disgusted by human abominations. In the NT, Jesus’ Father is merciful and forgiving. Jesus is critical of hypocritical holier-than-thou attitudes. His basic maxim is “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt. 7:1 KJV).

The contrast between the very different yet strikingly parallel stories of Phinehas and of the woman caught in adultery by the scheming Pharisees allows us to confront the issue head on. Adultery within God’s holy people is at the forefront in both stories, but whereas Phinehas is highly praised for his zealous preservation of Israel’s holiness, Jesus rejects the violent punishment intended by the adulteress’s judges. Indeed, Jesus seems to reject the very idea of excluding the unholy from the community of God’s people.

There are two popular ways of resolving this tension, neither of which seems particularly satisfactory. “Conservative” Mennonites have often been accused of privileging the OT God of Holiness over the NT God of Compassion. Mennonite abuse of church discipline has become a particularly cogent symbol of our failure to take seriously Jesus’ critique of legalistic intolerance. 3 Instead of extending Jesus’ compassion, we have too often become moralistic communities of exclusion.

More “liberal” readings of Scripture self-consciously privilege Jesus’ apparent tolerance. Those texts in which Jesus demonstrates astonishing inclusivity are highlighted; those stories and exhortations that seem contrary to Jesus’ attitude and approach are subtly—or not so subtly—silenced. Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time well articulates this perspective. In Borg’s view, whereas the OT’s moral vision centered on the command to be holy as God is holy (Lev. 19:2), Jesus’ ethic is centered on the command to be compassionate as God is compassionate (Luke 6:36). 4 Holiness and compassion characterize two different and contradictory social visions: “Whereas purity divides and excludes, compassion unites and includes.” 5

Borg’s conclusion expresses a conviction common among those who decry the intolerant moralism that has infected the church:

In parts of the church there are groups that emphasize holiness and purity as the Christian way of life, and they draw their own sharp boundaries between the righteous and sinners. It is a sad irony that these groups, many of which are seeking to be faithful to Scripture, end up emphasizing those parts of Scripture that Jesus himself challenged and opposed. An interpretation of Scripture faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity. 6

Though certainly more palatable to our secular neighbors than judgmental moralism, it is questionable whether Borg’s easy tolerance is more faithful to Scripture than the emphasis on purity he is confronting. If we intend to take the entire biblical witness seriously, we will have to read the stories of Phinehas and the Pharisees more carefully. Perhaps neither of these stories is as one-dimensional as are our interpretations.


Superficial readings of these stories—and clearly the summaries provided above are examples—inevitably overlook the larger narrative movements of which they are a part. The Phinehas story is not only or even primarily about an illicit sexual act. Settling in a land populated by pagans, the Israelites were being drawn into a web of idolatrous practices represented and symbolized by cultic prostitution. Spiritual adultery, not merely physical adultery, is at the heart of this story. Moreover, the story is not primarily about the transgressions of individuals. The sexual liaison against which Phinehas reacted took place between Zimri, a tribal leader in Israel, and Cozbi, the daughter of an equally prominent Midianite clan leader (Num. 25:14-15). As the context makes clear, Zimri’s action was designed as part of a plot to draw Israel into the Midianite religious cult. 7 And this act of apostasy was not a covert affair. It was designed to provoke those who had gathered at the tent of meeting to mourn Israel’s deteriorating spiritual condition and the plague that had come as a consequence of it.

According to Waldemar Janzen, the story of Phinehas’s zeal is a model story for what he calls Israel’s priestly ethical paradigm, an ethical outlook ultimately concerned with maintaining holiness. By “preserving the holiness of Israel’s sanctuary, which symbolizes the holiness of Israel, . . . Phinehas has acted as an exemplary priest.” 8 As Janzen has shown, however, the priestly paradigm was not for Israel an end in itself. Israel was not to pursue purity for purity’s sake. Rather, the priestly ethic was ultimately “subordinate to and supportive of” another ethical paradigm that focused on just relationships among communities and kin—what Janzen calls the familial paradigm: “Life and family, the gifts of the land, and the practice of hospitality represent the good toward which the cult is to lead.” 9 As Walter Brueggemann has repeatedly emphasized, Israel’s vocation was to be an “alternative social experiment” in which justice was zealously defended. 10 Israel’s cult was intended to nourish this unique community.

Janzen’s insight enables us to see the so-called intolerance of the OT in a new light. The telos of the OT’s emphasis on holiness is not purity itself but a sustainable community within which forgiveness and mercy can be practiced. The things that are not tolerated, and are sometimes violently opposed, are precisely the pagan practices that threaten Israel’s ability to fulfill its vocation to be a uniquely just and merciful community. Thus Phinehas’s zeal was directed against the cultic complement to the pagan royal ideology that would eventually creep in and subvert Israel’s unique vocation.

Especially when Israel itself became a monarchy, this social paradigm would have enormous influence, leading to hierarchical and unjust social relationships in Israel. The powerful and rich would oppress the poor and powerless and Israel would be led away from its divine mandate to be a counter-cultural redeemed community exhibiting justice and shalom. 11 God had led Israel out of Egypt precisely to free Israel from this royal system of abusive power and oppression. Phinehas was zealously defending Israel’s unique identity by opposing a dangerous compromise with an idolatrous system. Though this does not justify the means he employed, it does highlight his praiseworthy motive, his passionate zeal, and his undaunted courage. 12


Borg is in error when he rejects wholesale the OT paradigm; nevertheless, his account of Jesus’ resistance to the purity system of Second Temple Judaism is accurate. Jesus did indeed challenge the assumptions of his contemporaries regarding holiness, never more memorably than in our story of the woman caught in adultery. Does Jesus thereby render the very idea of holiness obsolete, opting for tolerance instead? This seems an unsustainable reading of the NT. Let us not forget that Jesus also told the adulteress to “sin no more” (John 8:11 KJV), nor overlook the fact that Jesus’ outpouring of grace was vastly more effective in transforming lives than was the legalism of the Pharisees whose approach he opposed. Jesus was about the business of transforming lives into truly holy lives—lives set apart by their pursuit of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

We contend, therefore, that Jesus was not denouncing Israel’s emphasis on holiness but was rather confronting an institutionalized misunderstanding of purity that suppressed the defining characteristics of God’s people. Holiness as understood by the religious leaders around Jesus was a far cry from the holiness that God had intended—holiness designed to foster justice, mercy, and faithfulness (cf. Matt 23:23). It had instead become a means of asserting one’s social status, marginalizing the poor, and excluding “sinners.”

The role of Israel’s worship cult in first-century Palestine is evidence of this subversion of God’s call to holiness. In Jesus’ context, ironically, the Israelite cult had a social role little different from the idolatrous system Phinehas was opposing. As the NT and many of the OT prophets suggest, the Temple and its functionaries too often served as instruments of oppression rather than as reminders for Israel of the obligations of its covenant. 13 Contrary to its intended function, the priestly system served not to preserve justice but to legitimate domination.

From this perspective, we see that Jesus’ call to be merciful as God is merciful (Luke 6:36) does not displace God’s call for Israel to be holy (Lev. 19:2) but rather reclaims and refocuses it. Jesus reminds Israel that the cult and the priestly paradigm do not comprise Israel’s vocation but are instead supportive of it. Thus Jesus’ willingness to forgive and include sinners should not be construed as mild tolerance. Indeed, a close look at the Gospels quickly reveals that Jesus could also be strict and confrontational. Jesus is remarkably forgiving of tax collectors and sinners but vehemently opposes the rigidity of Israel’s leaders. The religious leaders imagined that they were the guardians of Israel’s holiness; Jesus recognized that they in fact blocked the kind of holiness God had intended.


God’s calling had not changed. Jesus’ goal was to remove the obstacles preventing Israel from living out her inherited calling. With this goal in mind he forgave sinners and confronted the self-righteous. As John Howard Yoder emphasized, “He who was not legalist at any other point, and who was ready without hesitation to pardon prostitutes and disreputable people, was nonetheless extremely strict upon one point: ‘only he who practices grace can receive grace.’ ” 14

The conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel can thus be envisioned as a conflict between two opposing views of holiness. This is evident in Jesus’ sharp critique of the Pharisees’ preoccupation with ritual purity:

Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it. (Luke 11:42-44 NRSV)

In addition to the striking emphasis upon justice—reminiscent of the familial ethics described above—it is worth noting that Jesus does not attempt to diffuse or sidestep the debate about what constitutes holiness. Instead, Jesus’ deft irony categorizes the Pharisees as unclean (unmarked graves) due to their power-mongering use of God’s law. 15


Rather than rejecting holiness, then, Jesus redefines it: Being a holy community means being a people set apart by unique mercifulness. Clearly, the seeds of this perspective on holiness were present already in the OT, albeit commingled with the ideas of taboo and purity that eventually coopted Israel’s conception of holiness. Thus although Phinehas used means that Jesus rejected, he expressed a zeal that Jesus shared as Jesus resisted a misguided view of holiness promoted by Israel’s powerful rulers. Both Phinehas and Jesus resisted those forces that called Israel away from what God had called it to be—the compassionate holy people of God.

It is therefore not an exaggeration to insist that these two stories, despite their superficial tension, presuppose a common vocation for God’s people and even a common understanding of the role of holiness. If superficially they sound like they are saying two different things, it is because the social role of Israel’s cult had in the interim between the stories changed from promoting holiness-as-justice to promoting holiness-as-intolerance.

Clearly, the biblical perspective on tolerance and intolerance is both more realistic and more profound than either the intolerant moralism to which Mennonites have often been susceptible or the ethical relativism of late modern liberalism and emerging postmodernity. In our globalized context neither religious intolerance nor unbridled relativism is adequate. If we want to be faithful to our vocation to provide a foretaste of God’s kingdom, we would do well to embrace the biblical vision of tolerance toward diversity, remarkable willingness to forgive, and persistent opposition to and intolerance of injustice.

We may, at times, be in the position of Phinehas, defending our community from subversion by systems of belief and practice that are incompatible with our unique vocation. When this is our situation we should, as Maier words it, “wish for Phinehas’s heart, though not his means.” 16 However, due to the lasting residue of Christendom, we will likely more often need prophets like Jesus who call our churches to leave behind religious and moralistic rigidity and refocus on our calling to be communities whose identity is characterized by grace, forgiveness, and justice—and who will not tolerate the religiosity that subverts us from our high calling. Yes, we want to be tolerant, but we dare not tolerate that which prevents us from living out our true identity as the just, merciful, and faithful people of God.


  1. See William Klassen, “Jesus and Phinehas: A Rejected Role Model,” SBL Seminar Papers, 1986 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars, 1986), 490-500.
  2. For a discussion of the textual problems associated with this passage and for an interpretation of the text, see the final chapter of Tim Geddert’s Verantwortlich Leben (Schwarzenfeld: Neufeld, 2004), 213-22.
  3. Canadian Mennonite fiction provides a particularly forceful indictment, e.g., Rudy Wiebe, Peace Shall Destroy Many (Toronto, ON: McClelland and Stewart, 1962); Patrick Friesen, The Shunning (Winnipeg, MB: Turnstone, 1980); and, most recently, Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness (Toronto, ON: Knopf Canada, 2004).
  4. Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1994), 46-61.
  5. Ibid., 58.
  6. Ibid., 59.
  7. That Cozbi was a coconspirator is less likely than that she was a victim in an essentially male plot. See Helena Zlotnick Sivan, “The Rape of Cozbi (Numbers XXV),” Vetus Testamentum 51 (2001): 69-80.
  8. Waldemar Janzen, Old Testament Ethics: A Paradigmatic Approach (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1994), 12-14.
  9. Ibid., 113-14.
  10. Walter Brueggemann, “ ‘The Earth Is the Lord’s’: A Theology of Land,” Sojourners 15 (October 1986): 28-32; idem, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1997), 177-81, 735-42.
  11. The conflict between the kinship-oriented land tenure defended by Israel’s prophets and the centralized control of land favored by the monarchy—dramatized in the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21)—provides a glimpse into this process. See Norman C. Habel, The Land Is Mine: Six Biblical Land Ideologies, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1995).
  12. We must insist that Phinehas’s zeal and not his violence is presented as a model for imitation (Janzen, 13). Indeed, Jesus’ nonviolent response to his enemies must be seen as a decisive rejection of the idea that the identity of God’s people can be preserved through violence—a rejection of violence the seeds of which can already be seen in the OT. See, e.g., the thoughtful comments of Gordon Matties, “Can Girard Help Us to Read Joshua?” in Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking, ed. Willard M. Swartley, Studies in Peace and Scripture 4 (Telford, PA: Pandora, 2000), 96-97.
  13. E.g., Jer. 7; Mark 11:12-18; 12:41-44; Acts 7.
  14. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972), 67.
  15. Cf. Luke 16:15. On the irony in Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees, see David B. Gowler, Host, Guest, Enemy, and Friend: Portraits of the Pharisees in Luke and Acts, Emory Studies in Early Christianity 2 (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), 235, 262-63.
  16. Gerhard Maier, Das vierte Buch Mose: Wuppertaler Studienbibel (Wuppertal: Brockhaus, 1989), 351.
Ryan Schellenberg is a graduate of Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and a New Testament student at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California. Tim Geddert teaches New Testament at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary.

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