For us as people of faith who are trying to figure out how to be this Both/And community of faith, the story of the daughters of Zelophehad cautions us against replying “Well, we’ve never done it that way” when faced with a new situation.
June 27, 2021
Daughters of Zelophehad
Numbers 27: 1-11
Pastor Heather McColl
Numbers 27 : 1-11 (Common English version)
Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.”
Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 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. You shall also say to the Israelites, “If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.”
We are continuing in our worship series: Faces of Our Faith Daughters of Zelophehad Numbers 27. I promise that this series is not all stories of women, although that would not be a bad thing. Eventually in this series, we will hear stories which feature men. But if we remember that this series is focusing on bold and UNTOLD stories found within our sacred text. And more often than not, the untold stories feature women, feature people who do not exactly fit what we assume is the “right type”, who we assume is the“correct example” of a servant of God. Often the untold stories found within our sacred text feature people who do not look like what we assume to be the “correct model of faith”.
However, as we have learned time and time again, when we start assuming things like this, that is when God reframes the story. God does not play by our rules. God does not really fall in line with any of our expectations. The whole point of the Gospel message is to expand our understanding of who God is, to expand our understanding of how God is at work in this world. The whole point of the Gospel message is to get us to realize that there is not just one way, through just one people, through just one practice in which God brings about healing and wholeness for all of God’s People. The Gospel message teaches us time and time again that it is about unity, not uniformity.
As people of faith, we are so used to hearing the stories we are familiar with in our churches, the stories of Abraham, the stories of Moses, the stories of Jesus that we tend to forget that there are other important stories found within the pages of our sacred text, the bold and untold stories which remind us that “ordinary people of faith—those doing what they can with what they have to make a difference.”
Which brings us to our text today. For us to understand this story a bit better, we need to experience it in its context. In the chapter right before this one, we are told that there is a census. This census lists all the people in the tribes of Israel.
The importance of the census is that it was taken to calculate the allotment of land for each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Larger tribes would receive larger portions of land. Smaller tribes would receive smaller portions of land. What land each tribe would get was determined by casting lots. This was done to avoid complaining by the tribes but more importantly to make sure that each “tribal and family unit had sufficient and fairly distributed base of economic well being.”
The land was promised to the people of Israel. It was on loan to them given to them by their God. It was theirs to tend. It was theirs to care for as good stewards. The land was their inheritance to pass on to their sons, to their sons’ sons, to their sons’ sons’ sons’. The land was given to the people as a gift by their God. It was their responsibility to make sure that the land stayed within and sustained their tribes for generations to come.
But as we read in the text, we realize that something unexpected has happened, something which is beyond anyone’s control, something which does not fit into the people’s box of rules and regulations. While reading this census, we realize that for one tribe there are no sons to pass the land onto. All of a sudden, the promise is at risk again. All of sudden, the people are faced with figuring out what this means. All of sudden, there is no precedent to help the people find their way and they are going to have to figure a new way to honor the promise
This is where we enter into the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad Numbers 27.
In this census at the end of Chapter 26, the tribe of Manasseh is mentioned more than any other tribe. It is lined out for seven generations. Then finally we are told that there were no sons, only daughters.
Now, this should be a clue to us because women are rarely mentioned in genealogies in the Bible. If they are mentioned it is because they did something remarkable and note-worthy. And at the beginning of chapter 27, we discover why the five daughters of Zelophehad are mentioned. They come to Moses and ask for land to be given to them in their father’s name.
When the daughters of Zelophehad come to Moses, they are challenging the system. They are pointing out that it contradicts itself. It doesn’t work to say that only sons can inherit land from their fathers while also saying that keeping the original portions of land for each family is important, unless the leaders of Israel are going to actually honor their statements. The leaders of Israel can’t have it both ways unless they are truly going to figure out a way for them to become Both/And people.
So like any good faith leader when faced with more questions than answers, when faced with a new reality which is filled with so many unknowns, like any good faith leader when one is expected to know what to do but really you have no clue and you are just making it up as you go, Moses turns to God in this situation. And God agrees with the women!
“God heard the voices of these women. “They are right,” God said. The old law was no longer suitable, so God made way for change. Though the laws were probably carved into stone, God shows us in this text that the law is living, breathing, adaptable, and changing. This text invites us to come forward, to stand, to speak, to question, and to demand change when we experience injustice. When the powers in place don’t budge, that is not the end of the story.
When we personally aren’t experiencing injustice, that does not mean we should bask in our comfort. For those whose voices are less valued, for those who go unseen, for those who have fought a long and continuing fight, we must breathe life into those old, tired, worn-out laws.”
You see the beauty of this text is that the women came forward; they stood, they spoke, they questioned, and they even demanded. Any one of those actions alone is difficult but the catalyst for this moment isn’t only the women’s strength; it also took a person to listen, to open his heart, to wrestle, and to offer up an opportunity to let go of what the people knew so that something new, something life giving, something life transforming could emerge.
Or let me say it this way: I cannot tell you how many times over this last year I have been reminded of this. We are not the same community of faith we were in March 2020. We are not the same community of faith we were just a few months ago. Things are constantly changing. I told someone that it feels like we are putting together a giant puzzle and we are trying to make all the pieces fit except we are missing pieces, except some of the pieces don’t fit anymore, except I don’t have the box with picture on the front of it to compare what we got to what it is supposed to look like when we are finished.
But in the midst of all this change, there are things which remain the same…it remains the same that we are striving to become the people of WELCOME God has created and called us to be. It remains the same that we like to break bread with one another and this practice of gathering around God’s Table shapes us. It remains the same that we are trying, sometimes better than others, that we are trying to be open to where and what God is calling us to be in this new reality.
For us as people of faith who are trying to figure out how to be this Both/And community of faith, the story of the daughters of Zelophehad cautions us against replying “Well, we’ve never done it that way” when faced with a new situation. Their story shows us how we as people of faith can honor the values of tradition while still leaning towards a future with hope and anticipation, that we don’t have to pretend that tradition is this limiting, sacred cow which we have to honor above all else. It shows us that our tradition as people of faith is a living experience based on the values of the Kingdom of God which continue to shape us still today. It shows us that no matter what, God is breathing new life into us, bringing the winds of change, so that healing and wholeness can be fully realized here on Earth for all of God’s people, just like God has been doing since the beginning of time. May it be so.