What Happened to Phinehas?
Last week’s Torah reading ended with Phinehas (the common English spelling of Hebrew Pinhas) slaying a flagrantly offending couple in the sight of all Israel, thereby turning back God’s wrath. This week’s reading opens with God’s specifying what Phinehas’s reward would be, a “covenant of eternal priesthood” (Num 25:13).
Interpreters were puzzled by this reward. After all, the text specifies that Phinehas was Aaron’s grandson. Hadn’t the Torah already said that the descendants of Aaron would inherit the priesthood for all subsequent generations? If so, it would seem that God was rewarding Phinehas with something that had already been given to him.
Some saw this “covenant of eternal priesthood” as referring not to the priesthood in general, but to the high priesthood; in other words, Phinehas and his descendants would forever serve as high priests in the Temple. Ben Sira, a Jewish sage of the early second century BCE, thus wrote that God “established a law for him. a covenant of peace to uphold the sanctuary—that the high priesthood should be for him and his descendants forever” (Sir. 45:24 [Hebrew ms. B]).
But there was another possibility. Interpreters noticed that Phinehas led an extraordinarily long life. Not only was he around after the death of Moses, but he is presented at the end of the book of Judges as still functioning as a priest in those days, standing before the ark of the covenant (Jud 20:28).
In fact, the Hebrew Bible contains no account of Phinehas’s death. (The old Greek translation of the Bible does contain a brief notice of his passing in Joshua 24:33, but this seems to have been a later addition.) Not mentioning his death, interpreters reasoned, could hardly have been an accidental omission: surely the death of such an honored figure, and someone who had survived so long since the days of Moses and Aaron, would have been marked with honored burial and an extended period of mourning, such as that decreed for his grandfather Aaron.
Interpreters thus came to the conclusion that Phinehas never died. At some point after his last appearance in Jud 20:28, he must have ascended into heaven while he was still alive, just as Enoch and Elijah had. In other words, his “covenant of eternal priesthood” must have meant that he would be immortal and, hence, eternal.
Eventually, attention came to be focused on a later figure, the opponent of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, Israel’s great northern prophet Elijah. For all his greatness, he had no last name: from his very first appearance in he was just “Elijah,” without the specification “son of X.” Neither does the Bible contain an account of Elijah’s birth or childhood; he just shows up as a grown man. Could it be that this prophet was none other than Phinehas redivivus? Phinehas—the man who was promised to be a priest forever—might simply have gone somewhere for a few centuries and then made his reappearance under a different name, a name that sounded suspiciously symbolic (Elijah/Eliahu means “my God is the Lord”).
What is more, Phinehas and Elijah shared a particular quality: they were both jealous (or “zealous”) for the Lord. This is what God says of Phinehas in Num 25:13 (“because he has been zealous for his God”), and it is what Elijah says (twice!) about himself, “I have been extremely zealous/jealous for the Lord” (1 Kings 19:10, 14). Surely this could not be a coincidence!
So it was that midrash came to identify Phinehas and Elijah as one and the same person, the priest who never died. After he returned to earth for a time, Elijah/Phinehas took up his place in heaven again; Elijah’s miraculous ascent into heaven on a fiery chariot is recounted 2 Kings 2.
And there, according to tradition, he remains to this day. When will he return to earth? The prophet Malachi reported God’s words on the subject: “For I will send to you the prophet Elijah, before the great and awesome day of the Lord. And he will return the mind of the fathers to their children, and the children’s minds back to their fathers” (Mal 3:12-14). To which Ben Sira added, “and he will reestablish the [lost] tribes of Israel” (Sir 48:11)