Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Faces of Our Faith: The Daughters of Zelophehad

The Rev. Bart Smith
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 2, 2018)
Numbers 27:1-11

We continue with the Faces of Our Faith series, which is a 16 week series designed by the creative folks at A Sanctified Art. It covers often-overlooked figures from Genesis on through the early church. The first people whose stories we explored, Adam and Eve, were very familiar, but the next ones, Shiphrah and Puah from Exodus 1, were a little less familiar. I’m willing to bet that only a handful of us have even heard of the people from today’s reading: the daughters of Zelophehad. That probably has something to do with the fact that their story comes from the fourth book in the Bible, Numbers. I don’t know if anyone has done surveys on this, but I’m willing to bet Numbers is probably way down on the list of the books of the Bible people read. Even the early church theologian, Origen of Alexandria, had this to say about the book in the 3rd Century:

When the Gospels or the Apostle or the Psalms are read, another person joyfully receives them, gladly embraces them… But if the book of Numbers is read to him, and especially those passages we have now in hand, he will judge there is nothing helpful, nothing as remedy for his weakness or a benefit for the salvation of his soul. He will constantly spit them out as heavy and burdensome food. [1]

Try not to spit this one out. There is wisdom here, so let’s listen for God’s Word from Numbers:

The daughters of Zelophehad, Hepher’s son, Gilead’s grandson, Machir’s great-grandson, and Manasseh’s great-great-grandson, belonging to the clan of Manasseh and son of Joseph, came forward. His daughters’ names were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chiefs, and the entire community at the entrance of the meeting tent and said:

“Our father died in the desert. He wasn’t part of the community who gathered against the Lord with Korah’s community. He died for his own sin, but he had no sons. Why should our father’s name be taken away from his clan because he didn’t have a son? Give us property among our father’s brothers.”

Moses brought their case before the Lord. The Lord said to Moses:

Zelophehad’s daughters are right in what they are saying. By all means, give them property as an inheritance among their father’s brothers. Hand over their father’s inheritance to them. Speak to the Israelites and say: If a man dies and doesn’t have a son, you must hand his inheritance over to his daughters. If he doesn’t have a daughter, you will give his inheritance to his brothers. If he doesn’t have any brothers, you should give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. If his father had no brothers, you should give his inheritance to his nearest relative from his clan. He will take possession of it. This will be a regulation and a case law for the Israelites, as the Lord commanded Moses.

Holy Wisdom, Holy Word… Thanks be to God.

A little background on the book of Numbers before we delve into the story of these five young women. The title comes from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it means “numbers” which refers to the census lists of the twelve tribes of Israel found in a chapters 1 and 26. I could see some of your eyes glaze over the instant I said “census.” I read somewhere that a modern version of the book might as well have been “Spreadsheets.” Not very captivating. But bear with me.

The Hebrew title for the book, Bemidbar, means “In/of the wilderness,” which is where the drama takes place. The story starts at Mt. Sinai and ends on the banks of the Jordan River. It covers part of the saga of Israel as they journey from slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land. Their 40-year journey takes them through the desert wilderness, one generation passes away and another emerges before entering Canaan. Moses, who received the Law on Mt. Sinai, leads the way. And they complain about his leadership… repeatedly. Lots of nasty things happen, which we won’t go into today.

So here the Israelites are on the plains of Moab, on the tail end of their journey. The Jordan is in sight, that second census has been taken, which only lists males above the age of 20 who were war-ready (women and children aren’t included in the count), and they’re apportioning the land.

Now begins our crash course in ancient Israel real estate law…

They divided the land according to the size of the tribes—bigger tribes got bigger portions—but the location of the plots of land were determined by casting lots. This is important because a fair distribution of land meant everything in terms of economic security. And a high priority was placed on keeping the land in the family. Tribes could buy and sell the land to each other, but every fifty years a Jubilee was declared and all land was returned to the original owners. To keep it in the family, the land was passed down from father to son.

But what if a man didn’t have a son? Enter the five daughters of Zelophehad: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.

It’s interesting that their names were listed because that isn’t always the case for women in the Bible. It’s also interesting that their ages and birth order weren’t included, nor which sister said what. They’re perceived as a bloc. And this bloc had chutzpah! They walked straight up to Moses at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, what it was called, the place where Moses prayed to God (the “holy of holies”), the place where the stone tablets from Mt. Sinai were kept. There are likely no other women there since this is basically the smoke-filled room where the men made all the decisions about important matters, where women have no authority.

What other choices did they have? To marry husbands in other clans, maybe. But then their father’s name wouldn’t even be listed in the previous census. Zelophehad’s name would have disappeared from the face of the earth. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah could have stayed silent, I guess. What else would a woman thousands of years ago who was part of a nation of former slaves have known to do? Stay in her lane. They could have asked one of their males relatives to speak up on their behalf, perhaps… the same men who might have stood to get a larger plot of land, so maybe not.

They were supposed to stay put in or around their own tents, but they showed up.

They were supposed to keep quiet, but they spoke up.

At face value they made the issue about their father’s honor (very clever): He wasn’t part of the community who gathered against the Lord with Korah’s community. Focusing on his legacy, they appealed to the male authority figures with a keen question: Why should our father’s name be taken away from his clan because he didn’t have a son? And they make a bold demand to be included in the apportionment: Give us property among our father’s brothers.” These five brave young women work within the system. They make their argument about the integrity of the system, its values, the justice allegedly at its heart.

And it works! Why Moses was persuaded, why he didn’t turn them away at the door of the tent, send them away with a sympathetic “no, the law is the law,” but instead went inside it to hold their case up to the Holy One, who knows? But God sides with the daughters and changes the law because of them. Because of their actions the Talmud (the tradition of rabbinic interpretation of the Torah) gives them the ultimate compliment of being wise.

They’re like the Ruth Bader Ginsburgs of their day and time: they create change through establishing a precedent, through Israelite case law, if you will. They change history. Speaking of, did you see that documentary about Justice Bader Ginsburg, RBG? So inspiring! I can almost hear her words coming out of the mouths of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah: “I ask no favor for my sex; all I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is but one “descendant” of Zelophehad among us today. We’ve known others—people who, in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, have the courage to seek justice. Now, I’m not just talking about the heroes of history, game-changers who make a difference on a society-wide level, but about ordinary people who try to do what is right. Who are the people like Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah who dare to show up and speak up within systems, people who create change in venues not many people hear about?

My assumption is that the Lord knew about Zelophehad’s daughters’ situation before Moses deemed it necessary to bring it to God’s attention. I would like to think that the living God was already stirring up courage in the hearts of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah and giving them the strength they needed to approach the Tent of Meeting with boldness, wisdom, and grace.

I can almost picture these young women standing before Moses and Eleazar. Behind them, through the flap of the tent, however faintly, the presence of YHWH appears, locks eyes with them, and nods in that knowing way, as if to say, “Daughters of Zelophehad, never, ever, ever forget, you are my daughters too. So show up, speak up, and claim your portion.”

[1] Quoted by Dennis T. Olson in Proverbs Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (1996), p. 1.

Featured image: Lauren Wright Pittman, A Sanctified Art LLC. Used with permission.