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I guess it had to happen: in the midst of a summer sermon series on the symbolic significance of numbers in scripture, I am, for the first time ever, preaching a sermon on the book of Numbers. There’s probably a reason for that; the first five books of the bible tell the story of God’s people from creation to the point of entry into Canaan, the land of promise. And, really, as far as I’m concerned, the best stuff happens in the first two of books, Genesis and Exodus. Genesis is a sweeping story of beginnings, including creation stories and the wonderful family drama of Abraham and Sarah. Exodus tells the story of that same family—now called “Israel”—their escape from slavery in Egypt and their wilderness wanderings, culminating with God giving the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Things begin to bog down in Leviticus, though. Leviticus is fascinating if you are concerned with matters pertaining to the priesthood, ritual, sacrifice, ordination, uncleanness and purity, and the very specific requirements of the holiness code. From the commandment to avoid mixing fibers in clothing (Lev. 19:19) to the commandments to stone adulterers (Lev. 20:10) and disobedient children (Lev. 20:9), Leviticus is filled with laws that no longer carry moral weight, particularly among Christians (though I do wish we would pay more attention to Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”). Deuteronomy, the last of the first five books, is an ultimate “famous last words” scene: Moses is on his deathbed, re-telling the story of Israel, and giving some final instructions to God’s people, with whom he will not enter the land of promise.
Between Leviticus and Deuteronomy we find Numbers, arithmoi in the Greek because it begins with a census, and has yet another census in chapter 26. But Numbers has another name, its Hebrew name: bemidbar, “In the Wilderness.” Numbers details the wanderings of God’s people following Exodus, and their final preparations for finishing that forty-year-long journey and settling down in Canaan.
Here’s something fascinating about Numbers. I’ll introduce it with a question: Why do you think it took the people of God forty years to wander in the wilderness before finding their way to the land of promise? (Insert joke about men refusing to ask directions here.) The answer lies in the contents of chapters one through twenty-five of this book. Chapters 1-25 contain stories of rebellion and complaint; these actually reflect fairly accurately the disintegration of good will experienced by a family in close quarters in a station wagon for a long, cross-country summer vacation. The people complain about the food. Korah leads a rebellion of over 250 chieftains—the ultimate back-seat-drivers—who have lost faith in Moses’ leading, which results in God having to follow through on that ever-present threat, “don’t make me come down there.” (In a dazzling display of power that would stop even the worst whining, God causes the earth to open and swallow up Korah and everyone who joined with him). Even Moses’ siblings, Aaron and Miriam, resort to sniping at their brother because of the nationality of his wife, and it isn’t fair because only Miriam gets punished (Num. 12:1-16)! In all seriousness, the people’s complaints about their leadership—including the leading of God, whom they believe has taken them to the brink of slaughter—results in their refusal to enter the land of promise for fear of their own lives in conflict with the Canaanites. Finally, the people begin to intermarry with local tribes and worship the local gods, an intolerable situation. God sends a plague upon them, which is only arrested when the chieftains take disciplinary measures into their own hands.
God, the one in the driver’s seat, has had enough. It is God’s ultimate judgment that the rebellious generation that was rescued from slavery will not enter the land of Canaan.
So, back to our question: Why did it take the people of God forty years to wander in the wilderness before finding their way to the land of promise? Because that’s how long it took for the generation of rebellion to die off. The census in chapter 26 marks the moment, after forty years of wandering, when that occurs. The only one remaining alive who escaped from slavery in Egypt is Moses himself. And even Moses will not enter the land, but simply take people to the border.
In chapter 27, a new era has dawned. Instead of looking back at the trials behind them, instead of looking back with longing for the nice food and relatively cozy beds of their homes in Egypt, the ones whom scholars call the “generation of hope” are looking forward to life in the land of promise. And now the discussion turns to how the land will be divided. Enter the five daughters of Zelophehad: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Five women whose names are preserved for us. More bible facts for your everyday living: There are approximately 2600 proper names used in scripture, and therefore at least 2600 individuals, likely more. Of those whose names are recorded, only 188 are women. That’s about one in twelve. The simple fact that we have been told the names of these women hints at the remarkable role they play.
The five sisters come to Moses with a request. Their father, Zelophehad, was a member of the tribe of Manasseh. He died in the wilderness, a member of the rebellious generation; though, as the daughters are careful to point out, he died for his own sins, and not one of the group swallowed up along with Korah. But Zelophehad had no sons. And that means that his family would not be included in the lottery to divide up the land.
This should not surprise us. If the stories of Exodus are understood as being historically based, the era of the wilderness wandering is estimated to have taken place at least 2800 years ago, if not longer. Scripture provides us with many stories of remarkable women who played key roles in the story of God’s people Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures, and as followers of Jesus in the New Testament. Still, the role of women in the biblical era can be nicely illustrated by looking at the fifth and tenth commandments. In the fifth commandment, honor is to be shown to both parents, without differentiation between the mother and the father. However, in the tenth commandment, a “wife” is included in a list of property which must not be coveted. Women lived in the tension between the recognition that humanity is made in God’s image, male and female, AND the fact that women were themselves considered property: first, of their father, and then, of their husband. The chief value of women in the biblical era was through procreation. Women who gave birth to heirs had fulfilled their design.
But enter Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the five daughters of Zelophehad. This is their request to Moses: since their father died without sons, they want to be given the right to inherit his share of the land.
It is important that we pause, just for a second, in honor of the boldness of these women. They looked at the status quo and saw an injustice. They took their request for relief from this injustice straight to the top. And they did so with no encouragement that their request would be given any consideration.
Moses, perhaps sensing the potential for controversy, declines to rule on his own authority. Instead, he takes the request to God, and God’s answer is straightforward: “The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them.” God then provides instructions for inheritance if a man dies with neither daughters nor sons; in the end, the highest value upheld is that the land should stay within the tribe.
It is interesting to note, though, that scholars—those would be male scholars—throughout the ages argued with God on this point. Rabbi Pamela Wax, writing in the Women’s Torah Commentary, points out that the rabbinic sages go out of their way to mitigate God’s granting of inheritance rights to the sisters.
The rabbis, in fact, created two laws that were harsher to the daughters than those originally imposed by Torah… In the case of a family where the inheriting son predeceases the daughter, (the Mishnah), unfortunately, goes to great lengths to keep the inheritance out of the daughter’s hands...[i]
This also shouldn’t surprise us. Despite the great strides made by women over the centuries, they remain far, far behind men in something as simple as ownership of property. When the first Women’s Rights Convention gathered in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848, among the stated concerns was the fact that women could not own, inherit or sell property such as land, homes and farms or personal property such as furniture, clothing and household goods. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, women are responsible, worldwide, for approximately 50% of the food crops that are grown and harvested; and yet they own less than 2% of all titled land. We still have a long way to go.
But there are five daughters of Zelophehad, and that in itself should give us pause. In scripture, five is the number of divine power and grace. The first principle undergirding God’s decision to grant inheritance rights to the women is this: God owns the land. Each and every week you hear me say some version of, “The earth is the Lord’s, and every thing that is in it.” I say this at the time of our offering, because it’s good to remember, when we open our wallets or write out our checks or reach into our pockets to give—not just to the church, but to whomever we want to give our hard-earned money. If everything is God’s, even the stuff we know we worked for, that understanding has a way of reordering our priorities. Taking the story at face value, in the case of the people entering the land of Canaan, the land of promise, God’s sheer grace in the giving of the land is undeniable. In the case of the paycheck I will deposit first thing tomorrow morning, it may be a little fuzzier to me, but it is no less real. If the earth and everything that is in it belongs to God, that includes the resources I personally possess, whether it is my perception that I worked for them or not.
Last week at the Presbyterian General Assembly, one of the commissioners got up during a debate and actually uttered the words, “Greed is good.” I don’t know which version of the bible that particular commissioner has been reading, but it certainly doesn’t include chapter 27 of the book of Numbers. Here, the clear message is: The earth and all that is in it is on loan from God, and it is to be distributed even to those we have a hard time acknowledging as being “deserving” of it. It leads me to wonder: who are today’s daughters of Zelophehad? Women? The homeless? The mentally ill? The incarcerated? Jews? Palestinians? If the earth is God’s, if our inheritance comes to us, not because we deserve it, but because of pure and simple goodness and grace on God’s part, who have we been excluding? And how can we continue to justify it?
Many years ago a friend shared with me a poem by Merle Feld, a Jewish scholar. In it Feld imagines what it must have been like for the women who stood and listened to Moses sharing the law at Mount Sinai. It’s called “We All Stood Together.”
My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me
It seems like every time I want to write
I'm always holding a baby
one of my own
or one of my friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down
As time passes
the hard data
the who what when where why
slip away from me
and all I'm left with is
But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute
my brother is so sure of what he heard
after all he's got a record of it
consonant after consonant after consonant
If we remembered it together
we could recreate holy time
The earth is the Lord’s, and every thing that is in it. Almost three thousand years ago, five women were bold enough to claim part of the bounty of God should be shared with them, even though the laws of the day did not provide for women to inherit. We are still struggling to understand how best, in our modern context, to live out the reality that all we have is by the grace and power of God. All we have has been given to us in trust that, together, we really can and will recreate holy time, the time when God spoke and said: this is what is right. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Rabbi Pamela Wax, “Pinchas: Daughters and Inheritance Law,” The Women’s Torah Commentary: New Insights from Women Rabbis on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions, ed. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2000), 310-311.