Sacred Slaughter: The Discourse of Priestly Violence as Refracted Through the Zeal of Phinehas in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish Literature

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Sacred Slaughter: The Discourse of Priestly Violence as Refracted Through the Zeal of Phinehas in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish Literature

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Title: Sacred Slaughter: The Discourse of Priestly Violence as Refracted Through the Zeal of Phinehas in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish Literature
Author: Miller, Yonatan S.
Citation: Miller, Yonatan S. 2015. Sacred Slaughter: The Discourse of Priestly Violence as Refracted Through the Zeal of Phinehas in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish Literature. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
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Abstract: The story of Phinehas’ zealous slaying of an Israelite man and the Midianite woman with whom he dared consort in public (Numbers 25) is perhaps the most notorious of a number of famed pentateuchal narratives that are marked with vigilante violence. Significantly, these narratives feature members of the Israelite priesthood or their eponymous ancestors. When reading these texts together, we uncover a consistent literary undercurrent which associates the priesthood with acts of interpersonal violence –– a phenomenon which I refer to as the motif of priestly violence. This dissertation examines the origins and discursive functions of this motif, and, employing the violence of Phinehas as a test-case, explores its interpretive afterlife in biblical and Jewish literature.

I argue that likely impelling the motif of priestly interpersonal violence is the cultural memory of the violence of the sacrificial cult –– be it the violence inherent in the slaughter of animals, or the possible Israelite prehistory of human sacrifice. Despite these seemingly negative associations, the discourse of priestly violence functions as a critical legitimating component of the priestly imagination in the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, numerous biblical texts insinuate that it is violence, not the right lineage, that generates priestly identity. Exploring the Nachleben of Phinehas’ famed violence, I demonstrate how ancient readers of the Hebrew Bible recognized and were sensitive to these facets of the motif.

My findings reveal that the legitimating function of Phinehas’ priestly violence continues in the Jewish literary tradition. From the literature of the Second Temple period through the rabbinic canon and continuing through the medieval midrashim, Jewish authors employed Phinehas’ violence in the service of their own discourses of group (de)legitimation. Priestly groups with questions about their pedigree, such as the Hasmonaeans, appropriated the discourse of Phinehas’ violence as a bulwark against the contestation of their priestly identity. But we also find subversive uses of Phinehas’ violence, particularly in Palestinian rabbinic texts, which question the integrity of Phinehas’ priestly lineage as well as the propriety of his lethal zeal. This serves to delegitimize the priesthood and effectively quash any lingering priestly claims to ritual leadership.
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Citable link to this page: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:23845464
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