The Old Testament offers a look at the lives of two priests—both young, important, men of authority. But though these men named Phinehas share the same Old Covenant calling, they handle their duties in contrasting ways that can still provide direction to Christians today.
Who Was the Good Phinehas in the Bible and What Did He Do?
We first encounter the priest, Phinehas, son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron, in Numbers 25. Phinehas’s righteous acts follow a major encounter that Israel had with Balaam; a diviner hired by the King of Moab to curse Israel. Although Balaam refused the king’s commission, he still inflicted great harm upon God’s chosen people.
According to the historical book of Josephus and a reference to the event in the biblical book of Numbers, although Balaam refused to pronounce a curse upon Israel, he encouraged the Moabites to incite a manmade calamity against God’s people by tempting them to commit idolatry and sexual immorality.
Israel fell into the trap laid for them by the beautiful Moabite women. They yoked themselves to the pagan god, Baal of Peor, by participating in ritualistic sexual practices with the Moabites and eating their sacrificial foods. The Lord’s anger burned against Israel for these detestable acts. As punishment for their idolatry, He inflicted a plague upon His people and caused death to enter their camp. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the Lord’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel’” (Numbers 25:4).
Moses followed God’s command. He called an assembly together and instructed Israel’s judges to put to death anyone who had participated in the sinful behavior. While they were still gathered—weeping over Israel’s sin and God’s judgment, an Israelite named Zimri openly defied Moses by parading a Midianite princess through the assembly and ushering her into his private tent to have sexual relations with her. When Phinehas saw this act of rebellion he left the assembly, grabbed a spear, and followed Zimri and the woman into the tent.
Fueled by his zeal for the Lord and righteous indignation, Phinehas drove the spear into Zimri’s back and continued driving it until the blade also skewered the body of the Moabite princess beneath him (Numbers 25:6-8).
Then the Lord said to Moses, “‘Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites’” (Numbers 25:11-13).
Because of Phinehas’s bold and righteous act, the plague against the Israelites ended, and God rewarded Phinehas with a covenant of peace that would extend to his family for all eternity.
Who Was the Bad Phinehas in the Bible, and What Did He Do?
The book of 1 Samuel begins with the story of a barren woman named Hannah, who during her annual pilgrimage to Shiloh went to the Temple of the Lord and prayed fervently for a son. The High Priest, Eli, took notice of Hannah. Thinking she was drunk because of her anguished posture, he rebuked the woman. But when he discovered Hannah’s genuine state of petition, he offered her a blessing of favor from the Lord instead.
God granted Hannah’s request for a child, and she soon bore a son and named him Samuel, meaning “God has heard”. After the boy was weaned, Hannah dedicated him to the Lord and left him with the High Priest for service. Eli gladly took Samuel into his care for training. But the priest also had two older sons, who he had neglected to train in the service of the Lord.
The King James Bible describes Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, as “sons of Belial” (1 Samuel 2:12) a Hebrew word that means wicked or worthless. Eli’s sons were the acting Levitical priests in Shiloh—yet they continually treated their duties with dishonesty and contempt. Their sin was great in the Lord’s sight because of their shameless mishandling of sacred things.
Phinehas and Hophni gorged themselves on choice meats intended for sacrifices. Even before the sacrifices were prepared for offering, they had their forks in the pot. Whenever anyone would question the men about this despicable practice—saying, “Let the fat be burned first, and then take whatever you want,” they would respond with threats and forcefully take what they desired. Phinehas and Hophni also participated in lude sexual acts with women connected to the service of the Tabernacle (1 Samuel 2:22).
As a result of Phinehas and Hophni’s abhorrent practices and the fact that their father, Eli, refused to restrain his sons, the Lord pronounced judgment upon Eli’s house forever through Samuel.
“The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house, so that no one in it will reach old age, and you will see distress in my dwelling. Although good will be done to Israel, no one in your family line will ever reach old age. Every one of you that I do not cut off from serving at my altar I will spare only to destroy your sight and sap your strength, and all your descendants will die in the prime of life. And what happens to your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, will be a sign to you—they will both die on the same day”.(2 Samuel 2:32-34).
God’s judgment comes to pass shortly after the pronouncement of judgment when Phinehas and Hophni enter into battle against the Philistines. When the Israelite army realizes that the odds are stacked against them, “Phinehas and his wicked brother decide to turn the tide of the battle. They bring out the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25), a housing vessel for the Lord God himself during Old Testament times. This battle strategy fails,” explains Hope Bolinger in 3 Hopeful Truths from the Ichabod Bible Story
Not only does Phinehas and Hophni’s vile disregard for God cost them their lives on the battlefield, but it also causes Israel to lose possession of the Ark of the Covenant. When Eli hears about the turn of events, he has a heart attack and dies. That same day Phinehas’s wife also dies after giving birth to a son she names Ichabod, which means “The glory has departed from Israel.”
Why Was it so Bad that Hophni and Phinehas Abused the Priesthood?
“Under Mosaic Law, the Tribe of Levi was set apart to be priests and dedicated to serving God (Exodus 23:26-29). Priests were responsible for mediating between sinful people and their Holy God by offering sacrifices,” says Penny Noyes in Why Do We Need Jesus as Our High Priest?
The calling of the Priesthood in the Old Testament was a weighty and sacred honor. God commanded that the role be taken seriously because the picture of that role was intended to reflect a greater truth yet to come—Jesus as our High Priest.
When Hophni and Phinehas defiled their priestly calling through blatant rebellion and sinfulness, their actions maligned the image of a Holy and righteous God.
What Can We Learn Today from Both Priests Named Phinehas?
Both priests named Phinehas can teach us something about sin, idolatry, and repentance. In Moses’ era, when Idolatry entered the Israelite camp through the seduction of the Moabites, God’s wrath burned against His people. At that time one man—a young priest—intervened on behalf of God’s righteousness. Through a swift and immediate penitent act, he took a stand against the sin of idolatry and immorality and stayed the plague that had already killed over 30,000 Jews.
During Eli’s time one man—a young priest—brought shame and judgment upon Israel through his unrepentant acts of immorality and idolatry. He blatantly mishandled the role of a priest by placing himself on God’s throne to serve his own lustful desires just like his father Eli had. In Who Was Eli in the Bible? David Sanford explains that “Eli was a man who, for all his priestly duties and privileges, had reduced God in his heart and life. On the throne of Eli’s life was his own comfort instead of the Lord”
In the book of Revelation, we see a further warning about lapsing into the same temptations faced by both of these men. The sins of idolatry and sexual immorality are as old as time, and God’s unwavering warning against them remains clear, as we see in John’s letter to the Church in Pergamum.
“But I have a few things against you, because some of you hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to place a stumbling block before the Israelites so they would eat food sacrificed to idols and commit sexual immorality. In the same way, some of you also hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent! Otherwise I will come to you shortly and wage war against them with the sword of My mouth” (Revelation 2:14-16).
When we put God on the throne of our hearts, and trust Him to guide us into His righteousness, the power of the Holy Spirit enables us to live the new life in Christ that is our priestly calling. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Adrian Weinbrecht
Annette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.
This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.