Plowshares Into Swords: The Lost Biblical Ideal of Peace

By David Hazony

The Bible’s vision of peace differs markedly from what one may think.

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n an arid plain on the east bank of the Jordan River some three thousand years ago, a young Israelite from the tribe of Levi hurled his javelin through the body of a prince of Israel, killing him along with the Midianite idol-princess who lay naked beneath him.
The biblical story of Pinhas marks the climax of one of the worst crises in the Israelite journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Only a few miles from their destination, many Israelites have abandoned God and turned to the Midianite god Ba’al-Pe’or, offering it sacrifices and partaking of its orgiastic devotional culture. Despite the best efforts of Moses, the religious corruption expands, reaching into the upper echelons of Israelite society and threatening to bring the new nation’s dissolution.
The crisis reaches its height when Zimri ben Salu, chief of the tribe of Simeon, ceremoniously escorts the daughter of Midian’s king into his tent—thereby declaring his tribe’s fidelity to Midian and its effective secession from Israel.1 As a paralyzed leadership looks on, Moses’ great-nephew Pinhas emerges from the crowd and, with a thrust of his spear, brings the crisis to its dramatic conclusion.
The Bible offers an immediate vindication for Pinhas’ act; God tells Moses of his unequivocal approval, and grants Pinhas an honor bestowed on no other individual in the Bible:
And God spoke to Moses, saying: Pinhas son of El’azar son of Aaron the Priest has subdued my anger at the children of Israel, by avenging my jealousy.... I therefore grant him my covenant of peace. And he and his descendants shall bear a covenant of eternal priesthood, since he avenged his God, and atoned for the children of Israel.
For his act of “jealousy” on God’s behalf, Pinhas earns himself a divine “covenant of peace,” as well as the promise of priesthood for his descendants. Moreover, Pinhas is hailed as a hero and subsequently placed in command of the 12,000-man force that invades and conquers the Midianites.3 
Pinhas’ covenantal reward has perturbed biblical commentators for millennia: How is it that a man who achieves extreme ends through violent means, and then leads the charge in war, is granted a reward redolent of amicability and nonviolence? What, indeed, has Pinhas to do with “peace”? The reader is left wondering whether he has missed something basic in the story—and whether the Bible does not have something entirely different in mind when using the term.

R. David Hazony is Managing Editor of Azure.

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