The Daughters of Zelophehad — #METOO
I know for a fact that there are at least a few of you here who are almost totally, technologically unplugged. You are avoiding TV news coverage because it is just too upsetting. You have an allergic aversion to social media and you don’t’ check your emails. You know who you are. This is one way to create a contemplative Benedictine space. But if you are paying attention at all to the digital craziness out there, either because you feel like it is your civic duty or you are a little addicted — like me – and you stayed awake for today’s readings you might have noticed an uncanny resonance.
Two of the things that dominated this week’s headlines, at least at the beginning of the week; Who do the proposed tax cuts benefit, the top 1% or the struggling masses? AND Harvey Weinstein, his victims and the social structurings and collusion that made this engulfing scandal possible. Given today’s readings and this week’s headlines there are two obvious choices for our reflection today, taxes or the sticky wicket of gender, sexuality and the equal treatment of women before the law.
The easier thing to talk about today would be taxes. After all, as the saying goes, “there are two certainties in life, death and taxes.” And everybody has an opinion. And who cannot repeat the adage from today’s Gospel, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s,”; a saying that might even give us a feel-good chance to rail against the hypocrisy of political and religious elites and others who seem captured by greed and unwilling to pay their share.
And besides who here has ever heard of the daughters of Zelophehad? I have two degrees in religious studies and I am ashamed to say I had not. My excuse? I am not a fan of the Book of Numbers and as well, the issues of women as they are portrayed in scripture, especially Hebrew Scripture, don’t often make it into prime time as a Sunday reading. Some of it is a matter of numbers. There are 956 men named in Hebrew and Christian Scriptures compared to 166 women (Answers.com, Womeninthescriptures.com.
But it is more than that. There are certain words and certain topics you don’t mention in polite, public conversations and for sure you don’t mention them in church. And many of those words and topics have to do with the relationship between men and women; its patriarchal, often violent and oppressive character that is, in fact, foundational for all the social structurings that form us including the church. It is hard to talk about and we are reluctant because we are the embodiment of these structurings, for good and for bad.
And so, the daughters of Zelophehad; Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. In today’s reading from the Book of Numbers, they stand before Moses, Eliazar the chief priest and the other leaders of the tribes of Israel, in a public place, in front of the Tent of Meeting, the most holy spot in their encampment. The generation of Israelites who had been banished from entering the Promised Land for their idolatry and lack of faith have died. Moses and the leaders have taken a census – that excludes women and children. And by this census they will divide the Promised Land – which they were about to enter – among the people of each tribe.
Zelophehad was of the generation who had passed on. He died leaving five daughters. He did not have a son. And so before the Tent of Meeting, the daughters ask, “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.” This is a brave thing for them to do. When Miram, Moses’ sister, challenged the authority of Moses she was punished with leprosy and banished for 7 full days. And still the daughters of Zelophehad make their claim. They are crafty in their request and frame it within the patriarchal structurings of their existence as a concern for the continuation of their father’s name. And Moses listens. He brings their case before God and God speaks. “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.”
But the story does not end there and it does not end well – at least from a perspective that would hope for some loosening of a patriarchal grip that constrained and diminished the status of women like Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. In Numbers 27, in something like a backroom deal executed behind closed doors – without the daughters’ presence or knowledge – the tribal leaders, who are of course all men, appeal the rights given by God to the daughters. They demand that Moses amend God’s pronouncement and come up with a formulation that protects their status as male landowners and so the patriarchal character of the covenant. The solution; any heiress to property must marry within her paternal tribe. Zelophehad’s daughters “choose” to marry their uncle’s sons who then immediately take control of the sisters’ land. So that the very men who would have inherited the land if the sisters had not made their claim before Moses, end up possessing Zelophehad’s land anyway (http://robinchoh.net/she-who-reigns-zelophehads-daughters/ ).
As for contemporary interpretations of this tale, they are varied but they mostly hold up the covenant as it stands. They praise the daughters’ strong advocacy for their father’s name. They lift up their selflessness as a virtue. And few, if any, remark negatively on Moses and the elders for seeking to amend God’s pronouncement.
The story of the daughters’ of Zelophehad; it is a long saga that spans the Book of Numbers, the Book of Joshua and 1 Chronicles. And there are some remarkable aspects to this tale. First of all, we know their names. The daughters are counted and named as part of the people who enter the promised land of milk and honey. Second, their claim is recorded to be read again and again. Third, they are not punished for their challenge. And finally, God does grant their claim. But, in the end, the leaders of the tribe modify this claim in order maintain the health of the patriarchy. And that is the problem, then and now.
If you, perchance, risked any engagement with the news of the day as it presented itself this week on your social media feeds (if you even have them), you could not avoid the hashtag #METOO. On Facebook or Twitter, if you were scrolling through your feed on Sunday night you might have noticed the hashtag #METOO posted to the status of a few of your women friends. By Monday the hashtag #METOO filled my feed, one post after the other. My Facebook friend list is not large, maybe 200 or so and it is mostly women and mostly they are young because that is the demographic that populates that space. One after the other, #METOO. Sometimes the hashtag was accompanied by a story of harassment or violence. Other times it stood on its own. Almost every single young woman that I know. Not 1 in 4. It was almost every single one. By the end of the week, my older Facebook friends were beginning to respond. And I wept. How have we let this happen to our daughters, our granddaughters, our mothers, our sisters, our wives, our friends? How have we let this happen, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, century after century after century.
I suggest that the story of the daughters of Zelophehad gives us a clue and the hope for a response. The daughters courageously make their claim and God speaks. The answer in its entirety remains patriarchal but the right for the daughters to own property, proclaimed from the mouth of God is a transformational moment in this story. The chieftains recognize, rightly, the threat to the foundations of an order that supports their privileged status as land owners. And they do what they have to do to reestablish and maintain the certainty of this patriarchal order. They respond the way people in power have responded across the millennia even as they do today. They renegotiate a better deal, behind closed doors while they shirk their duty as public witnesses to God’s word. The daughters are strong and brave but their claims are ultimately dismissed. Except, here we are today, saying their names; Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. And here we are bearing witness to their claims. And to the claims of every woman who posted this week #METOO. Their voices and their claim, heard across the millennia make a claim on us. In the space of our Benedictine worship their voices call us to a contemplative, active presence that we can call Benedictine because it opens us up and out onto the crying needs of the world and its peoples. In today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, Paul exhorts, “you became imitators of Christ. (So that) …the word of God has sounded forth from you.” So leaning into Paul’s exhortation, may our witness today transform us so that the word of God spoken in support of the daughters of Zelophehad may sound forth in us by our words and our actions.