United Church of Christ

The Daughters of Zelophedad

I am indebted to Manda Adams in Dallas for this podcast. While driving me to my workshop last Saturday, she told me about a sermon series she was working on called “Bad Women of the Bible.”

I asked her which bad women she had chosen, and in the list was a group of five sisters I had never heard of: the daughters of Zelophedad. I am still a bit amazed that after 14 years in seminary and 30 years in ministry, there are stories like this I have no memory or recollection of. This is a good one.

The daughters appear in the book of Numbers. The context for their appearance is the 40 years of wandering in the desert prior to crossing over into the promised land. Moses is taking a census of all the males so that, when the land is claimed, there can be a just distribution and all families and clans can have their rightful share.

Zelophedad is one of those eligible males, at least until he dies and leaves behind five daughters. He had no sons – and therefore no heir to claim a piece of the property.

The daughters don’t think that’s right. They assemble before Moses and the chief priest and the elders - and make a claim for their right to land. None of the men in charge like it, but Moses says he will take it up with God. He does. Wouldn’t you know it, God says to Moses that they women have a just cause and that he is to give them their land.

These five female activists are among the first to assemble before the bastions of patriarchy and argue that gender doesn’t matter before the law. Moses didn’t like it, but God did.

This is a powerful story – and one I intend to begin to make better use of. Thank you, Manda, for putting me on to it.

But this reflection is less about that story than the realization that I have been part of a massive cover up. How can I have come this far in my ministry and only now have heard this? I have read countless books on scripture, read the Bible from cover to cover a few times over, sat through untold hours in scripture classes in preparation for ministry – and until two days ago I don’t ever remembers hearing about the daughters of Zelophedad.

There has to be some intentionality about that. The fact is you can’t sustain patriarchy at the level the Church has grown comfortable with without marginalizing the stories of some while championing the stories of others.

In a cultural environment in which women’s bodies are too easily subjected to men’s desires and governed by men’s rules, in which women whose bodies are violated are not allowed to tell their stories without men shaming or threatening them into silence, and in which women are still deprived of opportunities to own and operate and accumulate wealth and power the way men can – relegating stories like these to the hidden margins of our faith is nothing less than participation in a conspiracy to perpetuate patriarchy.

So meet Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the nasty women of the book of Numbers who nevertheless persisted. They may well be the first women’s rights movement. They succeeded by taking their case straight to God, who revealed to the men in charge that the women’s equality was a just cause.

Gentle listeners, let us persist in our efforts to be kind, to love one another, and to see each other as God does: created in Her image and fully beloved on this, our journey Into the Mystic.