Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Challenging God: Zelophehad's Daughters

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Numbers 27:1-11:

Many of you know that I am a number person.  Give me an excel spreadsheet, especially if it’s one I can make longer and more complex, and I am a happy person.  But if you had asked me when I began my ministerial career if there was one book in the Bible that I thought I might never preach from I would have probably said the book of Numbers, because these are not good numbers of excel spreadsheets, these numbers are census reports.  It’s not that there aren’t some good stories to be found in Numbers, but to get to them you have to wade through these lists of names. If you get bored in the genealogies found in other parts of scripture, you are going to fall asleep reading Numbers.  Now, I’m sure that there are some people who find these lists exciting, but I am not one of them, and so I rarely even think about Numbers, but then I came across this remarkable story of Zelophehad’s daughters.

At another church I served, someone asked me to preach about the proper role for women in the household; and while I knew what I thought I wanted to say, I didn’t really know how to approach it, and to be honest I was a little afraid to approach it, but then something remarkable happened.  Within a short period of time, two different people made mention of this story.  The first was someone with whom I went to high school who is now an atheist, although knowing something about the church he grew up in I can certainly understand how he ended up the way he did.  I don’t know how he heard about the story, but he found it exciting and definitely wondered why it had never been covered in his church growing up.  Then shortly thereafter someone else passed on info on a blog being done by someone who was reading the entire Bible and then blogging his thoughts about each story and what made her pass this blog on to others was when he got to this story.

So within less a week, two different people had commented on this rather remarkable story, which I had to have read it because it’s not just found here, but instead is actually mentioned five times in the Bible, although I didn’t even remember having every encountered it. So I thought that having this appear had to be more than just a coincidence and so I began learning more about Zelophehad and his remarkable daughters.

The Book of Numbers gets its name from the censuses that are conducted and which are listed in great detail.  There are actually two censuses conducted.  The first is done two years after the Israelites have left slavery in Egypt, and we are told that there are 603,550 people.  Although that number is not quite accurate, because the census is done in order to know how many people they have available to be in the army. So, in fact, the census includes only males, over the age of twenty.    That means that all women are excluded, and all children, male or female, under the age of twenty are excluded.  This sort of begins to give us some indications, not that we really need any, of whom and what is important, and thus gives this story even more significance.
In addition to the census, Numbers also tells us about the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, including stories of some of the many things that they do wrong, which is what prevents the first generation from being able to enter the Promised Land.

One of those stories is about the revolt of Korah, which is mentioned in today’s passage.  Korah, along with Dathan and Abiram challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron.  They do this by going to stand at the entrance to the tent of the meeting, which mirrors what is going to happen with the five daughters.  They make accusations against Moses and Aaron and challenge not only their right to be leaders, but also whether they are God’s chosen leaders.  In response, and you can find the full details of this in chapter 16, God opens up the land on which their tents are located and swallows all of them, and then the earth closes over them, so that they, in the words of the text “went down alive into sheol.”  Challenging Moses is not a very good thing to do, and indeed this is emphasized again in chapter 12 of Numbers when Moses’ sister Miriam is punished after she questions Moses.  So questioning Moses, let alone challenging his authority, appears to be a very bad idea.  But, there is one other crucial piece of information that we are told about, and that is that the sons of Korah are not punished for the sins of their father.  That sin dies with him.

The Book of Numbers wants to be about precision, and there is precision in numbers.  2+2 always equals four, 7 times 7 always equals 49.  You can count on that.  The censuses want to say exactly who is there, how they are all related and exactly how many there are, or at least how many of those who matter.  In addition, the way that the camps are all said to be arranged is precise as well.  Each tribe is located in one area, then they are divided by clan, and everything is centered around the tent of the meeting in the middle.  It tries to go with the old saying, a place for everything and everything in its place.  The first half of Numbers wants to model this, but then the daughter’s come on the scene.

In chapter 26 a second census is taken, this time with a dual purpose.  Like the first census, this one is done to see how many males, over the age of twenty, are available for military service.  This time the count is given as 601,730, but then Moses is told that the census is to be used to divide the land they are to enter amongst the different tribes.  But of all of the people named in this census, only six of them are not clan or tribal leaders, and only five of them are not men.

The number seven is very important in scripture, and in the censuses, the seventh tribe listed is that of Joseph, the favored of the sons who form the 12 tribes of Israel.  But in the second census not only is Joseph listed seventh, but there are seven generations listed.  This is the only one of the tribes for which this is done.  Zelophehad, who is not a clan leader and therefore should not actually be included, is listed as the sixth generation, and then his daughters, who are again listed by name, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah.  They are the seventh generation.  The seventh generation of the seventh tribe.  This structural set-up indicates that these women are important, even without the later stories we have this listing would show them to be significant.  What is also interesting is that the order of the names of the daughters changes, which would seem to indicate that they are all viewed as equals.  Indeed, we are not told that one of them spoke, but instead that “they” said these things.

Now some want to make more of this story then what we can find in it by turning it into a feminist text.  I do think there is a lot here about seeing women in a new light and of women being given something which before they were not entitled to, but to make it somehow more than that is to read something into it that’s not there.  This is still, ultimately, a patriarchal story.  But, the biblical writers clearly think these women are important.  They could have simply referred to them as the daughters of Zelophehad, but instead they made sure to name all five of them.  There are 956 men named in the Bible but only 188 women.  So, for Tirzah, Milcah, Hoglah, Noah and Mahlah women to be named not just once but five times is significant. They represent 3% of all the women named in the Bible.

It’s not exactly clear what it is that the daughters making issue about, because there is nothing in the existing law dealing with inheritance.  But, what we do know is that the land, which it should be noted they did not yet poses, was being divided and they were concerned that they were not going to get their portion, or, as their argument is, their father’s portion.  In an agricultural community, to be without land is to be marginalizes, and so the daughters go to Moses and Eleazar, who replaces Aaron as chief priest following Aaron’s death, to make an appeal.  Notice that they really don’t ask anything for themselves, again this is not sort of a proto-feminist appeal.  Instead, they want to claim the land because if they don’t, since they have no brothers, then their father’s name will be lost.  They don’t really make any claims that they, as women, are entitled to the land.

They also make very clear that their father died, as they say, “of his own sins.”  He was not part of the Kohar rebellion, and therefore they shouldn’t lose anything because of that.  What this is also claiming is that the sins of the father, die with the father, they should not be passed on to future generations.  This too is a radical claim, one that will be re-emphasized in the very next story in which Moses is told by God that he will not be able to enter into the Promised Land, not because of the sins of the people, which is what we are told in Deuteronomy, but because of his own sins.  So people’s sins die with them, and are not passed on to their offspring, children are not punished for the sins of their parents.   This challenges the law given in Exodus.

But even still what the daughters are doing is particularly bold and risky.  There have been plenty of women who have tried to get what they wanted, just think of all the things that Rebekah did to make sure that Jacob got what she thought he deserved from his father, but they all did so behind the scenes through trickery or conniving.  But the daughters of Zelophehad are not working behind the scene, instead they are going right to the source and asking for help to challenge a law apparently given by God, to challenge God’s justice, but to get what they want they need some help and that’s where Moses comes into play.

Moses could have done several things.  He could have just ignored them and hope they went away.  He could have said that women had no right to speak at the tent of the meeting and sent them away.  He could have also said that women have no right to own property, after all women themselves are property; therefore they have no right to own appeal and sent them away.  Moses could have just taken the easy way out, and what more of us would probably due, and certainly what we hear the most and said that the law is the law and there is nothing which can be done about it and sent the women back to their tents.  And certainly chastised them for even thinking about questioning the law.

Or, the last option, and the one Moses took, which is really the most shocking of the options, is to take the request seriously, to say that laws can be questioned, even laws presumably given by God, and to ask for a ruling on it, because what we really have here is a legal situation looking for some clarification, but this is also a challenge to God.  So Moses goes to God.  And God says that the daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they ask for and then a new set of inheritance laws are expounded which begins to take in lots of different scenarios, although, as it will turn out, not all of them.

Benjamin Coady, who is 13 years-old, recently made a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which is one of, if not the premier art museum in the world.  Coady considers himself something of a history buff, and so while at the museum he was in the Byzantine gallery and looking at the museums map of the Byzantine Empire when he found what he thought was a mistake in the boundaries of the empire.  Before leaving the museum he told someone that the map was wrong.  “[They] didn’t believe me,” Coady said, “I’m only a kid.”  But Coady’s information was written down.  A few months later he received an email from Helen Evans, the MET’s curator for Byzantine art who informed him that he was correct that the boundaries of the map for the Byzantine Empire under Justinian were incorrect and the museum would be correcting it.  He was even invited back to meet with Evans in person.  When asked what he learned from the experience Coady said, “If you have a question, always ask it.  Always take chances.”

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah take a significant risk in what they are doing, especially in challenging a law, but the results are even more amazing.  What we find out is that laws, even God given laws are not absolutes, they can be changed, and we even find out that they can be changed by people other than God.  In the last chapter of Numbers, some men come to Moses and say that if the daughters of Zelophehad inherit the property and then marry men outside of their tribe, then the land will pass on to those outside and the tribe will then lose some of its overall inheritance.  Moses, seemingly without consulting God this time, says that what they are saying is correct and so makes a new stipulation to the law that the daughters must either marry members of their own tribe, or if they marry outside then they cannot inherit.  So we end up with a law that is stipulated by God, then an appeal made to the law so that God modifies the law, and then another appeal so that Moses changes the law, there is a modification to the modification.

Bishop Jack Tuell says “the God we worship is not a static God, capable only of speaking to us from two, three or four thousand years ago.  Rather, God is living, alive in this moment, revealing new truth to us here, now.”  Of course as Christians we should understand this because in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “you have heard it said” and then he stipulates one of the laws, and then continues, “but I say to you” and he changes the law.  What the daughters of Zelophehad show us is that the law is not static, it is not something which is stipulated and then never ever changes, instead it is something that gets adjusted as new realities present themselves in order that justice might be done.  What we see is that change is built into the tradition.  What the daughters of Zelophehad do, and what they accomplish, and the lesson we learn from them really has little to do with inheritance law, but instead has to do with “its modeling of social change,” and about standing up, or at the very least asking for what is right, something we will see again next week in the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

When we believe that we have voice, no matter what, then we understand the story of Zelophehad’s daughters.  When we believe that we can make a difference, then we understand the story of Zelophehad’s daughters.  When we believe that laws can, and indeed in many cases must, be changed, then we understand the story of Zelophehad’s daughters.  When we believe that God cares about us, even when others say we are not worthy, then we understand the story of Zelophehad’s daughters.  When we believe that we can shape history, that we can influence the future and that we can make the future better for others, then we understand the story of Zelophehad’s daughters.  When we believe that we can even stand up and challenge God and say this is not fair, then we begin to understand the story of Zelophehad’s daughters.  This story shows us how law evolves over time, even the laws of God, but more importantly it shows us that even those who face million to one odds, which is just about what Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, Tirzah, and Mahlah faced, when they are willing to stand up for what they think is just and right can make a difference.  They can make a difference for themselves, they can make a difference for us, they can make a difference for the world, and we should make sure they can be heard and listen to them.  But even more importantly, are we willing to stand up and make a difference?  May it be so my sister and brothers. Amen.

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