Holy Phinehas – The Death Penalty and Expiatory Satisfaction (Numbers 25)


Zeal of Phinehas

There are many discussions going on around the world concerning Pope Francis’s recent revision of the Catholic Catechism which asserts the following: “Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”. I’ve seen more than one interpretation of this, and I’m in no place to offer any satisfying clarifications. Although, I can tell you that my own interpretation is that Pope Francis *is not* saying that capital punishment is *intrinsically evil*, since the revised text admits that its use in the past was not uniformly inadmissible as the current action is disposed to do. Francis seems to think that the modern context of the criminal justice system, along with other matters (read more here), offers the common good of society a sufficient immunity from further harm from heinous offenders that it renders the level of criminal justice that is capital punishment unnecessary all the time, and thus totally inadmissible. In fact, the Pope is calling for the world-wide abolition of the death penalty. One cannot but help to see that the Pope understand the rational justification for inflicting the death penalty to be primarily, if not purely, to protect the common good of society. Modern methods accomplish this with detention centers, and thus there stands no further reason to kill the offender. Such a deed would be needless, and thus a crime against the dignity of 1024px-Rembrandt_-_Moses_with_the_Ten_Commandments_-_Google_Art_Projectman, i.e. an unnecessary bloodshed.

I’m curious to know if the Holy Father knows about a particular event, out of many, in the record of the Old Testament where I think serves to show that the rationale behind a justified capital punishment is more than a pure protection of the common good, but also of an appropriate expiation and equalizing of justice. Oh, I know so many will hand-wave this and say, “That’s Old Testament! we are under the Law of Christ in the New Testament! God permitted divorce and other things which are not acceptable in the New Epoch of Salvation History, dodo head!”. Well, before we throw a party of Marcion, we should step back and ask ourselves if the following event I am about to describe, and particularly the things which God says about it, can be equally said of a divorce-event in the Old Testament.

The event which I speak about in the Old Testament  occurred during the process of Israel’s journey towards the promised land where the taking of the life of another (2 persons, in fact) was proven to be both expiatory and meritorious for God’s blessing on the sinful Israelites. Let’s read.

In Numbers 25, we have the following:

“Now Israel remained in Acacia Grove, and the people began to commit harlotry with the woman of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the Lordwas aroused against Israel.” (v 1-3)

So here we have a serious lapse into transgression of God’s holy Law against sexual immorality and idolatry, the latter of which, if not the former, surely merited the sentence of capital punishment in Israel (Ex 22:20)

Then we read of The Lord God’s reaction to this:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and hang the offenders before the Lord, out in the sun, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel. So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Every one of you kill his men who were joined to Baal of Peor.”(v4)

Here, the death penalty of the offenders was prepared as a propitiation (i.e. an action which averts God’s wrath) the “fierce anger of the Lord“. The common good of Israel, though that is certainly served, is not the only object in mind. We read that such penal executions would turn God’s anger away from Israel. This was not to protect Israel from the offenders, but to protect Israel from God (!).

We read on:

 “And indeed, one of the children of Israel came and presented to his brethren a MidianitePhinehas_and_Cozbi_are_slain woman in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Now when Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose from among the congregation and took a javelin in his hand; and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her body. So the plague was stopped among the children of Israel. And those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand. Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 11 Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the children of Israel, because he was zealous with My zeal among them, so that I did not consume the children of Israel in My zeal. 12 Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace; 13 and it shall be to him and his descendants after him a covenant of an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made [b]atonement for the children of Israel. “(v 6-13)

Phinehas averted the wrath of God by inflicting the death penalty upon the sexually immoral Israelite as well as the woman he was caught together fornicating with. One cannot escape how such said action was expiatory and propitiatory in nature. The consequence of this righteous act was that the plague against Israel came to a halt because of the zealous righteousness of Phinehas. The way in which the Lord describes this is particularly interesting. He says, “…he was zealous with My zeal among them“. The King James Version translates it , “he was zealous for my sake among them“. Not only did God approve of this action, but it was a vicarious act of righteous zeal which merited the blessing of atonement for the sins of the Israelite offenders. And not only this, but it merited for Phinehas a covenantal lineage of an everlasting priesthood. In other words, the seminal descendants of Phinehas would feel the blessing which was merited by the execution he committed.

Aleppo_Codex_Joshua_1_1There is still more evidence of this. In Psalm 106, the Psalmist recounts the “mighty acts of the Lord” on behalf of His beloved people Israel. It begins by recounting in solidarity with the sins of the Israelites who came out of the bondage of Egypt:

We have sinned with our fathers,
We have committed iniquity,
We have done wickedly.
Our fathers in Egypt did not understand Your wonders;
They did not remember the multitude of Your mercies,
But rebelled by the sea—the Red Sea.” (6-7)

And proceeds to go on and on with how the Lord mercifully delivered His people over and over again. Again, the sins of Israel are recounted in the worship of the golden calf, and then finally the Psalmist brings up the situation of Israel in Moab:

They joined themselves also to Baal of Peor,
And ate sacrifices [h]made to the dead.
29 Thus they provoked Him to anger with their deeds,
And the plague broke out among them.
30 Then Phinehas stood up and intervened,
And the plague was stopped.
31 And that was accounted to him for righteousness
To all generations forevermore.” (v 28-31)

Notice what is said here. The Psalmist, under the holy inspiration of God, says that what Phinehas did in inflicting the death penalty was accounted to him for righteousness. Us Catholics are wont to harp on how the word “impute” means for God to calculate what is actually there in reality. In turns out that the LXX version of Psalm 106 has the very same Greek word for “account” or “impute” as used by St. Paul when he describes God’s imputation of Abraham’s faith as righteousness. “And that was accounted ( ἐλογίσθη ) to him [Phinehas] for righteousness to all generations forevermore”, and “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted (ἐλογίσθη) unto him for righteousness.” (Rom 4:3). The consequence of this is that the righteous putting to death by holy Phinehas was seen as an act of meritorious righteousness in the eyes of God, and it was not seen as a necessary evil by which the common good was necessarily protected and maintained. Rather, this was to prevent the wrath of God from pouring out more forcefully upon the Israel. The logic here is basic to the notion of sacrifice in Semitic culture. By offering the deity something of value, there can be a satisfaction made for the result of blessing and salvation. In this case, the obedience of one was the grounds upon which the corporate whole of Israel was spared from further plague from God.

Could we really picture God adorning a divorce-act with such praise and merit? I think not. On the other hand, was what Phinehas did a necessary evil which God merely tolerated in light of the deeper truth of human dignity? I can’t see how this can be a reasonable glean given the expressions and conclusions that God himself came to as a result of this intervention of Phinehas to slay the offending Israelite. Perhaps I am just not seeing something, and one can explain to me where I’m gong wrong here, but I can’t help but notice that there is something more here which is said to be praiseworthy in Phinehas and which serves both justice and the propitiation which was needed to avert further punishment from God upon Israel.

The only thing which I can think of is someone’s rebutting this by an appeal to the fact that Israel was a theocracy colonizing the Land of Canaan, killing whole people-groups in order to settle in fulfillment of God’s plan. Since this is totally inadmissible for Christians to do today (as I’d imagine they’d argue), we can say that what Phinehas did, even as a righteous act of its own which merited God’s mercy, was admissible during its time, but nothing akin to that would be admissible today. I grant this 100%. However, my point is not that we should be able to mimic what Israel did during her conquest, nor is my point that we should be able to repeat what Phinehas did to people we know who might be sexually impure. My point here is this – the “doctrinal development” in the Catechism Revision states that a “new awareness” and a “deeper understanding” of human dignity has spurred this new ruling to completely denounce capital punishment as inadmissible world-wide on the basis of the common good being served does not fully capture what the people of God, since the beginning, have understood as the rationale behind the death penalty. Just look at this situation in Israel – is what happened a necessary or tolerated evil? Did Phinehas *have to* kills the offenders? It doesn’t appear so. Sure, to protect the common good is always going to be a desired consequence, and a needed priority. However, I cannot help but see that more is in view, such as expiatory satisfaction and the equalizing of justice, irrespective of how immune the common good is from a repeat-offense from the offender.

This rationale is not just rooted in ancient times such as the Old Testament (Gen 9), but all throughout history and as understood by the Council of Trent, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and more than one Papal decree. Moreover, there are examples even in the New Testament where the death penalty is inflicted. See, for example, Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. The consequence of this was, as recorded by St. Luke: “…great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things.” (v11). Fear? I thought the gospel of Jesus Christ came to drive out fear? Well, there is certainly truth to that, but we have to have proper distinctions in place. There is no doubt that God should be feared if we choose to disobey him willingly and impenitently.  In a discussion elsewhere I had mentioned that I believe that our Lord Jesus is the one who killed Ananias and Sapphira, and someone responded to me and said, “That just sounds impious” (words to that effect). Well,  in response to this I cited St. Thomas Aquinas who wrote the following:

“…..when Abraham consented to slay his son, he did not consent to murder, because his son was due to be slain by the command of God, Who is Lord of life and death: for He it is Who inflicts the punishment of death on all men, both godly and ungodly, on account of the sin of our first parent, and if a man be the executor of that sentence by Divine Russian-Orthodox-Jesus-Christ-iconography-diamond-painting-Cross-Stitch-mosaic-decorative-Orthodox-icon-home-religion-decorauthority, he will be no murderer any more than God would be.” (ST Question 100)

Our doctrine of the consubstantiality of the eternal Son with the eternal Father also entails that they share one absolute will, power, and operation, and that no distinction between them in this regard exists. If that is true, then we can also properly say that our Lord Jesus killed the whole of mankind in the Flood-even, except for 8 souls (Noah and his family).

We also get this sort of speak from Christ Himself in the Apocolypse of St. John the Divine when he records the threat of Jesus Christ to the Jezebel-woman who was corrupting the Church in Thyatira:

I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches[p] the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works” (Rev 2:23)

Notice the rationale here? “To give each one of your according to your works”. This is retributive justice, and it stands behind the rationale for the death penalty, whether directly by God, or by an agent of God, as said well by Aquinas in the citation above. And it is this idea of retributive justice which is prematurely represented in the new Catechism revision. How so? Because it says that if the common good is protected by sufficient detention systems, then there is left no sufficient reason to take the life of the offender. Consequently, to take the life of such an offender would be a sin, because it attacks the inviolable dignity of the human person! What does that say about our God who, as Aquinas said, executes the death sentence even through the human minister.

Those defenders of this Catechism revision are telling us that there is no change in the doctrine of the Church’s faith and morals., but that the social doctrine of the Church is the only thing which has been revised, and which is based on the contingent circumstances of today’s world strategies in handling heinous criminals. Thus, they say, that the death penalty was admissible back in the day, but today it is entirely inadmissible. They miss the fact that a crime can be so heinous, and the offender can be so deserving of punishment, that nothing less than the loss of life is appropriate, and that it would not be a sin to do so.

Even with this being said, I fear that we won’t ever cease from hearing how the new “light of the Gospel” has given new eyesight to the dignity of man, rendering all of these former ideas null and void.

God help us.


2 thoughts on “Holy Phinehas – The Death Penalty and Expiatory Satisfaction (Numbers 25)

  1. Since we have the benefit at this time of foresight and hindsight in history, apply what is self evident to God’s warning and built in punishments to Commanding Law. It is much like the law found in thermal dynamics.
    Where by cold is simply the absence of the heat source.
    Where crime is not punished it can be self evident or seen to punish the whole nation or the collective individuals that make up the nation.
    The burden on the nation can be seen and felt on an individual level.
    Where the need to secure a place for the accused to prepare his or her case assumes innocense until guilt can be proven. Today, the few that will try to use emotional arguements where Law has already been given, moneterise and weaponize the guilty.
    To feed, educate, rehabilitate etc seeks to compete at first but surely as night follows day, surely leads to the plunder or death of national security?
    Each productive individual who inhabits the nation surrenders both their time and energy (work) and taxed (coerced or forced) to pay for or fund the new doctrine of cause and effect (still ultimately at odds within the understanding of God’s commanding laws).
    The pull that is felt by the individual living in a nation where lets say capital offences are increasing and go unpunished will eventually be left unchecked, with no moral deterent and a would be murderer standing under the security and protection of the productive individuals contributions, can only compete with the moral urges to secure basic neccessities for life as God also commanded.
    Commands are non negotiable, the consequences or cause and effect can be seen throughout biblical and modern history.
    It is a choice where the effects of both can be measured.
    If you cannot punish the criminal according to the commandment of God then the punishment follows your future security, collectively expanding as it were, this should become increasingly evident to all those who are effected in the present of what has become compromised.

    • I think I understood what you said. I think it echo’s a recent much needed interview between Patrick Coffin and Catholic philosopher Dr. Ed Feser. It can be listened to at this link

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