Sermon from October 18: The Daughters of Zelophehad

The Daughters of Zelophehad
Pentecost XXI (O. T. 29); October 18, 2020
Numbers 27:1-11

Simply for the sake of inheritance and family identification, human society tends to organize itself either patrilineally or matrilineally. That is, we take our family identity from our father or our mother. Ordinarily, that is; there are always exceptions. And ancient Hebrews understood their lineage from their father and their father’s father. Part of the law that governed the land was that a family’s land was to be kept intact; men would inherit from their fathers and women would inherit nothing, but would become part of their husbands’ families.

But what if a man had no sons? Remember Fiddler on the Roof? Tevye and Golde had daughters, but no sons. Likewise, Zelophehad had daughters, but no sons: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. When he died, what was to become of his property? Until these five women spoke up, the practice was that it would go to his brother; his own name and family would be lost.

So Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah went to Moses and made their case. And I think they were brilliant. Instead of a frontal assault, claiming that women should have the same rights as men, they were more subtle. They put it this way: why should our father be punished? He didn’t join in Korah’s rebellion. He’s done nothing wrong other than the ordinary sinfulness common to all humans. So why should his name be erased in Israel, just because he had no sons?

In staking a claim for their father, they won a right for themselves and for other women in Israel. They won the right to inherit. To be sure, it was secondary: they would inherit only if there were no son. But it was a big step forward.

I’m struck by more than simply the cleverness of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. I’m struck also by the responsiveness of the Lord God. When Moses laid their case before the Lord, the Lord responded clearly: they are right. Some who could be disinherited spoke up; the Lord God said, “They are right.”

Who is speaking up now, in our time and in our society, and demanding something that goes against our tradition or even our sense of right and wrong? If we take their demand to the Lord God, will the Lord God say to us, “They are right”?

It’s been a few months now, so given the way the news cycle goes in this country, perhaps we have forgotten. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Ahmaud Arbery. Don’t forget their names and don’t forget that Black lives matter. Our assumption as a society has been that white people are the norm and everyone else is a variation, and that some of these variations are particularly threatening and need to be handled with violence. Many formerly silenced people are speaking up; is the Lord God saying to us, “They are right”?

I wonder if anyone protested when Moses reported what the Lord had said. I’m sure someone protested women getting “special treatment.” That’s what people in power do: when folks who are out-of-power ask for some measure of rights, the folks in power feel their own rights threatened. Do you think the Proud Boys and the Boogaloo Boys and other white nationalists are arming themselves and trying to promote a race war just because they hate Black people? It is that, but it’s also deeper than that: they feel their own rights being threatened, as though rights are a limited commodity, and allowing women or people of color or gay people or anyone else out of power to have some rights necessarily diminishes our rights. As a white man, I’m accustomed to being in the position of power, part of the group that gets to tell everyone else what to do. But I don’t need to tell everyone else what to do. I can’t see why power needs to be concentrated in the hands of white men. In fact, I suspect that if the white nationalists would stop shouting and waving their guns for a while and would talk to the Lord God about people of color and women and Jews and gay people, the Lord God would say to those men, “They are right.”

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah didn’t win equal rights for women by speaking up, but they won a measure of rights. It was a step in the right direction. There would be further steps as the years went by, and some of those steps would be promoted by the Lord Jesus himself.

As difficult as our current time has been, isn’t it exciting to be living in a time when we are listening more carefully and are hearing the words, “They are right”? I know it is frightening for many; and I know others are frustrated that it isn’t happening more quickly. We all know that much that has been gained is always threatened with being lost. Vigilance and patience are called for, as well as the willingness to be both firm and gentle with those who are frightened.

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah went to Moses and said, “Why should our father’s name be lost?” and thereby won a milestone right for women. Moses, the leader, did not simply react and say, “These are the rules” or “I’m in charge here,” but went to the Lord God in prayer. The Lord God said, “They are right.”

People of God: keep listening to those who speak up. And keep listening to the Lord God. Who knows? Perhaps they are right.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska