Reading Phinehas, Watching Slashers

Horror Theology and Numbers 25

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Brandon R. Grafius
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , March
     2018.
     228 pages.
     $100.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781978701205.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Reading Phinehas, Watching Slashers, Brandon R. Grafius enlists horror theory, especially analysis of the slasher film genre, to elucidate the account in Numbers 25 featuring Phinehas jointly spearing a Midianite woman and an Israelite man who seem to be engaged in sexual intercourse. Grafius contends this “rhetorical violence” is part of a priestly attempt to reinforce social boundaries within the ancient Israelite community (xiii). He explores this concept throughout five chapters of the monograph, followed by a brief conclusion.

Chapter 1 provides a history of exegesis of Numbers 25, noting that both ancient and modern readings wrestle with the violence of the text. Grafius proposes reader-oriented approaches as being the most helpful for interpreting Numbers 25. In chapter 2, Grafius provides a historical-critical analysis of Numbers 25, arguing that the incident in Num 25:6–18 “delegitimizes Moses’ authority while simultaneously emphasizing the authority of the Aaronide priesthood” (33). The Israelite man and Midianite woman that Phinehas murders figuratively represent Moses and his Midianite wife. As such, this episode participates in a priestly defamation of Moses (in favor of Aaron) due to Moses’ ties to Midian in the light of Midian’s ostensible role in the origins of Yahwism.

Chapter 3 introduces horror theory as a lens for interpreting Numbers 25. Grafius anchors his psychoanalytic approaches to horror theory in Sigmund Freud’s concept of anxiety surrounding the unheimlich (“uncanny” or “unhomely”) and Julia Kristeva’s notion of revulsion at the “abject,” something that is neither subject nor object. Grafius also presents Robin Wood’s assessment that horror films from the late 1960s to the late 1970s show that “normality is threatened by the monster,” especially as it emphasizes the breakdown of the family (81). Grafius contrasts this with slasher films, especially popular throughout the 1980s, in which the monster tends to be a nonhuman infiltrator of the family that violently punishes immoral behavior (usually sexualized) in the absence of functioning authority structures. “Family structures have failed, so the slasher steps into the breach to enforce the value systems that are under assault” (94).

In chapter 4, Grafius maps Numbers 25 upon the slasher template. He regards “the most obvious monsters in Numbers 25” as the women who threaten to subvert the Israelite community (113). Yet this threat prompts the action of Phinehas, who is simultaneously laudable but also monstrous. Grafius interprets the slasher monster as “a temporary stand-in for parental and social authority figures, a corrective force that must be administered in order for the normal order of the family to resume” (117). Accordingly, Grafius depicts Phinehas as a slasher monster who figuratively murders Moses and Zipporah as the expression of an Oedipal struggle that violently reestablishes order in the community. Finally, chapter 5 assesses readings of Phinehas in Numbers 25 by Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and Josephus.

Overall, Grafius’ work is a success. It is well written and logically organized. It features a broad analytical approach, granting a satisfying balance between assessments of ancient texts and modern interpretive models. It is concise and yet it sufficiently highlights most of the relevant research on Numbers 25, horror theory, and slasher film analysis. Nevertheless, it bears several problems.

One problem rests in Grafius’ implementation of the theories of Julius Wellhausen. Grafius mentions Wellhausen numerous times in his assessment of the biblical text. However, Grafius’ description of Wellhausen’s outlook that “material that is ethically suspect is assumed to be earlier, with gradual development toward the more refined ethics of the New Testament,” is excessively simplistic, deeply flawed, and almost backward (9). Grafius’ misunderstanding of Wellhausen, coupled with the fact that Wellhausen’s works are not included in Grafius’ bibliography, indicate that Grafius did not read Wellhausen as part of his research. Given Grafius’ numerous references to Wellhausen, this omission in his research is a problem.

Another problem rests in the fact that it is unclear why Grafius neglects modern horror literature. He briefly mentions H. P. Lovecraft without analyzing Lovecraft’s horror fiction. Beyond Lovecraft, Grafius fails to examine major contributors to horror literature such as Edgar Allen Poe, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Dan Simmons, and Clive Barker, among countless others. Why leap from ancient literature to horror films while bypassing modern horror literature, which would seem to provide a natural bridge that deserves to be at least addressed if not explored?

However, far greater than these issues is a glaring problem in Grafius’ argument that leaves a gaping hole in his thesis. Grafius observes several times throughout his monograph that “Phinehas is lauded by the biblical text and later tradition” (146). Yet Grafius also argues that “in the character of Phinehas we see a rage-filled monster who lashes out against an other” (120). Grafius contends that the monster in a slasher film can serve as an interpretive model for reading the lauded Phinehas in Numbers 25. However, Grafius’ theory is fatally flawed in recognition of the fact that the slasher film genre celebrates the inevitable defeat of its monster. It is only upon neutralizing the menace of the monster (even if experienced by a single character, such as a “final girl”) that the slasher film grants the audience a feeling of sympathetic relief that thereby allows the film to resolve. Even in those films in which the monster shockingly reemerges in a final scene for one last scare, the genre requires that it had been defeated prior to this, allowing the audience a temporary reprieve. The fact that Phinehas is never defeated, but on the contrary, “is lauded,” indicates that he cannot function as the monster according to the slasher film genre (146). Although slasher films grant dreadful respect to their monsters, the films do not laud their monsters as the heroes of their stories. The monster is the menacing force that must be stopped. However, this is not how Grafius is reading Phinehas.

Grafius’ central argument—that Phinehas in Numbers 25 functions as a slasher film monster—is unpersuasive. However, this acknowledgement need not eclipse the merits of Grafius’ monograph. His book is articulate and insightful. It yields important contributions to scholarship and deserves to be read. Grafius is right that the slasher film genre bears remarkable points of contact to the Phinehas account in Numbers 25, even if the parallel is ultimately incomplete. Grafius is on firmer ground when demonstrating the psychoanalytic components latent in Phinehas’ murderous scene. Moreover, the connections between horror theory and religion are numerous and underexplored. As such, this book is a welcome attempt to bridge that gap.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Craig Evan Anderson is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
February 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brandon R. Grafius is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Ecumenical Theological Seminary.

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