This week I came across an article from Forbes magazine on FB titled “Your top 10 objects, your kids don’t want.” In the article it stated, “Your house, and what it contains, is a minefield in the eyes of your grown children. They can see from your example that collections of stuff are a curse…superfluous to a life well lived…Your grown children [may] not agree to be the recipients of your downsizing if it means their upsizing.” So the top ten list gave suggestions on how to get rid of these things instead of passing them onto your children. The list included things like, old books, sewing machines, silver plated objects, and your porcelain figurines. “Do you want x object?” Is an all too familiar question that comes up in our family. After my mom’s last move she is already putting into boxes and storage the things I do want from our family heirlooms and has already started purging the things I know I will not need or want. She also, in her most recent update to her will and trust, sent me a copy and let me know where the official document is when that day comes. And while I am her only child and her will is simple, not all families can afford that luxury. Perhaps you have experienced or have heard of families quarreling about their inheritances after loved ones have died. I’ve even read the bizarre stories of people leaving their fortunes to their beloved pet over their family members. What we are entitled to in our inheritance can be quite important. Perhaps not so much in today’s world, but very much so in generations previously.
Which is the basis of our story today, who is to receive the inheritance left after someone dies? This is a passage that I can admit to you all honestly, that I do not recall ever reading or studying before this week, but as I began to read and study the scripture, I believe is critical and important when we think about the nature of God, the nature of justice, the call for people to speaking out for justice, as well as our call to listen to those who are speaking. The story is a short story filled with lot of names, but centers around 5 sisters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. The Israelites have been wandering in the desert for 40 years and they are on the precipice for returning home, to the Promise Land. As generations have come and gone, the leaders of the Israelite community decide to take a census of what families are there, so that they can distribute the land fairly to the families.
The daughters of Zelophehad become concerned, because their father, died before entering the promise land, and they had no brothers. But according to Jewish law, land rites, and the father’s name would only be passed down through the male heirs. According to law, the daughters were out of luck, they/their family name would not then receive land. They would not receive any inheritance that was due to them. It would not be fair, that their father’s name and lineage would fade away, just because he had no sons. It would not be fair that his property would be given to some distant male relative because he had no sons. It would not be fair that these women would be stranded, destitute because their father died.[i] And so, they go to Moses and the priest Eleazar and plead their case. They don’t rage, they speak eloquently and reasonably to them. Scripture tells us they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He wasn’t part of Korah’s rebel anti-God gang. He died for his own sins. And he left no sons. But why should our father’s name die out from his clan just because he had no sons? Give us an inheritance, property, among our father’s relatives.” Not only do the sisters see the injustice of the current religious and civil laws the previous generations had lived by, but they also see how their inequity would be similar to families like theirs and choose to stand up and advocate for themselves. What these bold women are doing is providing a new model for this new generations of Israelites to live by. The women are challenging the tradition of male only inheritance, by appealing to what they see as the tradition’s more foundational values, namely, the just distribution of land and maintaining integrity to all of the tribes of Israel. The sisters’ motivation is not necessarily for themselves (getting their just dues) but rather, advocacy on behalf of others, and for the good of the community-for family, tribe, nation and the whole tradition of God’s people.[ii]
Now what is more incredible is that those in power, Moses and Eleazar, choose to listen to the women, to hear their case. These two men, did not dismiss the women when they came forward with their request. They didn’t say, “well we’ve always done it this way.” They didn’t say, “you are women, you are less than others.” They didn’t say, “you don’t deserve the right to take ownership of your father’s name or be given your rightful inheritance.”
What Moses and Eleazar decided was that they need to go to God for guidance and God grants the sisters their dues. God says, “Zelophehad’s daughters are right. Give them land as an inheritance among their father’s relatives. Give them their father’s inheritance.” God’s love, unlike that of human beings, has no bounds and does not discriminate in favor of one group at the expense of another. God’s love extends to all of God’s creatures, both daughters and sons. God expresses God’s eternal love for them and proclaims their demand is justified.[iii]
According to the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, human dignity affirms the inherent rights of all human beings, “regardless of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” And that this inherent human dignity and the equal and indisputable rights of all members of the human family, is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. If we read this story through this lens, and through the knowledge that all people, regardless of factors such as ethnicity, gender, class, nationality or sexual orientation are created in the image of God, then all peoples are inheritors of the gracious gift of human dignity; which for the Israelites, meant inheritors of God’s promise to be successors of the Promise Land, regardless if there was a male heir. These bold women stood up and demanded human dignity, and the rulers and lawmakers of their world chose to listen to them, and to God, to make a fair and just ruling.
It may not be a surprise that others have used passages like this one in the Bible, as reference when speaking out for justice and the right for human dignity. In her work for the woman’s suffrage movement in the United States, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, used the story of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. In her words she said, “The respect paid to the daughters of Zelophehad at that early day, is worship of the imitation of the rulers in our own time.” She also called upon women of her own time, who chose to give up economic independences because of their personal apprehensions...and called upon them to learn from the example of Zelophehad’s daughters.[iv]
In his famous “I Have a Dream,” speech, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. references another power passage from the prophet Amos, “we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The civil rights movement was a time and call for action, for justice and equality, for human dignity to be given to African Americans in our country. “I Have a Dream” reminds us that all human beings are equally created in the image of God.[v]
In another sermon, Dr. King spoke of the need to stand together and speak out against what seems unjust, using the earlier story of the Israelites when they were enslaved by the Egyptians, “You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.”[vi] Acknowledging an issue, joining together, and speaking out is what spurs change.
These five sisters were able to join together, to speak out as one voice and to take one small step toward greater justice for women by appealing to the core values of their shared tradition. They teach us to dig deeply and to argue persuasively from within a shared tradition, if we are seeking to overturn old customs and create new possibilities in social and economic relationships. These women are our models of boldness, fueled by hope, models of advocacy fueled by concern for a larger community, and models of faithfulness fueled by a dynamic relationship with their tradition and with their God.
So may we have the courage like Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, to speak out and up when we see injustices occurring in our lives, in our communities and in our world. May we and may others have the ears when we are in positions of power, like that of Moses and Eleazar, to hear the concerns of others and make fair and just rulings. May we go to God for guidance and wisdom when it comes to resolves matters of human dignity, and choose to honor that all are made in the image of God and deserve equality. And may it be so. Amen.
[i] Freeman, Lindsay Hardin. Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter. 103.
[ii] Olsen, Dennis. Interpretation Series: Numbers. Pg. 166-7.
[iii] Shemesh, Yael. “A Gender Perspective on the Daughters of Zelophehad: Bible, Talmudic Midrash, and Modern Feminist Midrash. Pg. 104-5.
[iv] Ibid. Pg. 81.