What Happens When Women Unite?
In celebration of Women's History Month and International, I am posting an excerpt from my book, The Pearl of God's Eye. The story of Zelophehad's Daughters coaches us in the power of women working together. Can you imagine what we can accomplish?
When Women Unite
Background text: Numbers 26:33, 51-56; 27:1-8, 36:1-9
Embedded within the history of Israel’s strife with God, we find a God who calls for justice for all. When Zelophehad’s daughters find themselves on the losing end of the inheritance law, they stood before God and their congregation to challenge such injustice. They challenged the law that would have left them with nothing from their father’s land.
Zelophehad’s daughters leave us with an impressive lesson that women can accomplish much when they stand together in unity. I can only imagine the courage it took to not only face their leader, Moses, but their entire congregation to ask for their inheritance. To know that God quickly responded in the affirmative asserts God’s amazing love for women and girls.
Zelophehad laid on his deathbed, trembling with fever. He could not help but wonder what would become of his daughters, especially with no brothers to look out for their best interests. He blessed each of them by name -- Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah -- and prayed that they would find good husbands.
Soon after Zelophehad’s death, the Lord commanded Moses and Eleazer, the priest, to take a census of the people of Israel, twenty years old and older, who had come out of Egypt. They were to be counted according to the lineage of their fathers.
Each tribe was given its inheritance based on its size. The larger the tribe, the larger their inheritance property would be. The inheritance laws had always demanded that the property rights come through men and be given to men – no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
Israel, like everywhere else in the known world, was steeped in patriarchy. Men dominated, violence prevailed, religion kept women in their places, and whoever won in war by snatching and exploiting the land and the people were declared the winners.
Moses began the census and distribution of land. The descendants of Rueben. Check. The descendants of Simeon. Check. The children of Gad. Check. On and on it went. Twenty-three thousand people in all, except those who were lost in the wilderness.
When all was said and done, the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Their father was a member of the Manassite clan. They made it clear that their father had died in the wilderness but was not among those who had rebelled against the Lord and then they asked the question, “Should our father’s name be lost among the clans and receive no inheritance because he had no son?” Moses went before the Lord, and the Lord said, “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.”
Can you imagine? Together, five women challenged God and men to justice and to circumvent the law. They were brazened and brassy with just the right amount of holy boldness to raise the question at all. But to raise the question openly in the church?! Let’s just say they are my sheroes!
The most amazing part of the story is how God responded by saying, “Zelophehad’s daughters speak what is right. Give them the land and make sure you tell the Israelites that this is how it should be.” Well, not exactly like that but that was the sum and substance of God’s response.
What a stunning victory! This story teaches us that we can influence God and lets us know that God will speak on our behalf. God acted in the sphere of what was not socially acceptable because God honored humanity’s dominion over the land. God did not interfere until God was invited to play a part. We see that principal demonstrated when the Israelites were oppressed by Egyptians and a deliverer was sent only after they cried out to God.
Unfortunately, their victory comes with consequences. We later find out that the “chief fathers” gathered before Moses and other male leaders. Although they were quite clear about the commandment concerning the sisters and their inheritance property, they were afraid the women would take their property with them when they married. That would mean another tribe could gain property rights.
Unlike the women’s request, the men’s gathering did not take place in the temple or among the people. In fact, there was nothing religious or sacred about it. It was a business meeting. We don’t observe Moses talking to the Lord about it, but we do note Moses speaking on behalf of the Lord.
Did he use “prophetic license” to speak on behalf of God as we often see Paul doing in the New Testament? What Moses speaks from the Lord poses an arresting limit to the women’s freedom. They are free to marry whoever they think best–-if the men are from their father’s tribe. Essentially, they can inherit the property, but can only keep it by marrying a cousin. If they decided to marry out of the clan, they would lose the rights to their property. The sisters consented and agreed to marry within the tribe. This was not the perfect triumph, but a victory, nevertheless.
Like many instances in life, women are most often asked to compromise and make trade-offs that men do not have to make. We still live in a world where it seems we take one step forward and two steps backward in challenging the status quo. I can only imagine the bravery and determination it took those sisters to stand. Through this story, God not only demonstrated God’s justice but God’s awesome love for women.