“Wonder Women V: The Daughters of Zelophahad”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
July 30, 2017
University Baptist Church
Today is the first of three Sundays where the topic will be chosen by a grab bag suggestion. So last Sunday, worship leader Ginny Gray picked the following topic from the grab bag: “I would like to hear a sermon about: ‘reprise of Wonder Women—church camp’.” Discerning UBCers figured out that this person might have missed my July 9th sermon on Rahab because many people from First Church were at Pilgrim Point’s Church camp that Sunday. You remember that we heard four sermons on the wonder women that appear in Matthew’s genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. Perhaps they were not quite fully grasping the concept that today we are at our respective churches and that the previous sermons are all on line. Oh well. So, liking a challenge, I’ve added a fifth Sunday to the Wonder Women series. And just for fun, I want to talk about not one wonder woman, but five: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, the daughters of Zelophehad.
Let’s look what makes them wonder women:
They were named (something that happens all to rarely for women in the Bible. If a woman is named, it’s the Biblical writer’s way of saying, “Pay attention”).
They spoke up.
They used their wits and their knowledge of the law to get inheritance rights usually reserved for men.
They successfully modified Torah, while Torah was being written.
And like so many women before and after them, they were forgotten. Except perhaps by us.
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah—not exactly household names. They don’t show up on the top Biblical names for children, with the possible androgynous exception of Noah.
Some context, here. In Numbers 26, a census is taken. Not a census of everyone. There are no women, no children, no slaves mentioned. Only men over the age of 20. Kinda like when the US constitution called only white male landowners real human beings with things like voting rights. We read in Numbers 26:33 that Zelophehad…has no sons, only daughters.” The census was made to apportion the land among the tribes. Back then, only men could own land—inheritance rights what they were and all.
But there was more than that going on. There was a revolt that had happened. It’s listed back in Numbers 16. You remember, right? Yeah, me neither. A guy named Korah had led a faction of people to oppose Moses. It was almost like challenging situations made people on the same side fight with each other. The census was in part given to exclude the revolutionaries and consolidate power by the followers of Moses. Zelophehad was not a part of the faction. So, he was an upstanding man of the community. He had lots of children. Only none of them were boys. Should his family name die out?
As we enter today’s scripture, the land treaties were being signed and the apportionments were being made. All was well, until some objected. There may have been many who objected. I’m sure there was rumbling about who got what portion of the land. But this law came from God, and God’s representative Moses. So who could oppose it and win. Enter the daughters of Zelophehad.
When there are wonder women in your midst, you need to pay attention.
They were not going to take their loss of land sitting down. They were not going to be relegated to the lowest forms of society—those without names and without land. This was not just about them. It was about their offspring, the generations that followed them. So the daughters of Zelophehad, the scriptures tell us came forward. They did not stay in the tent of meeting. They did not do as culture told them. They did not graciously submit to the rules of the men, or even the rules of God. They came out. They charted a new, better course. They were wonder women. Today’s scripture tells us that they came forward, stated their names, stood before Moses and Eleazar the high priest, the chieftans and the whole assembly at the tent of meeting. This was a bold move.
Imagine the scene: The Israelite camp is formed of tribes, each with their own turf. In the center is the Tabernacle with the stones of the law and the golden ark of the covenant. In front of those holy objects stood the men of authority. An imposing hierarchy to say the least. And these nobody women come to the very center, without being invited, where they had no authority and claimed their authority. Unprecedented. They didn’t even elect a spokeswoman. All five stood there as equals.
The family name passed in Israelite society as it does today, through the sons. If there were no male heirs, the name would die out. The land also would go to someone else. The sisters thought this unwise and unfair. The point of the law was to preserve the tribes. The sisters declared their rights to the land and the name of their dear departed father. They made a sound legal argument that demanded a response. They all but said, “if you are representing the God of Israel who is supposed to be better than the gods who imposed slavery on us in Egypt, prove it. Prove that your God, our God is different.” Moses took the case to YHWH. And YHWH agreed with the sisters’ arguments. They insisted on and were granted a change in the law. Enshrining inheritance rights to women in certain circumstances. Not all circumstances, but it was a start. And people thought it was impossible. But with wonder women around, lots of things are possible.
Think about the defeat of the Trump Health Care bill. John McCain is being hailed as a hero. But he was one of three Republicans who voted against the bill. The other two were women: Lisa Murkowski from Alaska and Susan Collins from Maine. They displayed courage and moxie befitting wonder woman status. Amy Klobuchar reminded us to remember them. From the beginning, they were left out of the negotiating process and had decided that it was bad policy—something everyone knew, but on which few were willing to stake their reputations. In the waning hour before Friday morning’s vote, they deftly engaged Senator McCain in conversation so that no one else could lobby him. They were strategic mavericks who perhaps reminded the good Senator from Arizona who he was and how he wanted to be remembered.
What wonder men or women will emerge with the courage to push for universal healthcare as a human right? I guess that’s another sermon.
According the Talmud, the sisters were wise (chachamot), astute interpreters (darhanyiot), and pious (Rachmanyiot): Wise because they spoke at the precise moment. Even pious because they would not marry unworthy men just to receive an inheritance.
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirza are the patron saints of female lawyers. The Ruth Bader Ginsbergs of their time. God turned out to be an activist judge who ruled in favor of the plaintiffs—changing the law and establishing new precedent. It’s right there in Numbers 27.
These five wonder women refused to believe that their destiny was fixed and there was nothing that could be done about their lot in life. If you think that even divine justice has abandoned you, remember these five wonder women, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. Remember their names.
When I was in Mexico with the Baptist Peace Fellowship~Bautistas por la Paz, I met several wonder women. Many of their names I could not pronounce. But they had etched out a place for them and they advocated on behalf of the poor and downtrodden.
One was named Olga and she ran a hospitality center in Mexico City for migrants. These were people who were on their way from southern Mexico or Central America up north and those deported back south. They were desperate people in need. They arrived at her church doorstep cold, tired, hungry, thirsty, and sometimes injured as they rode the train of desperation to a more hospitable place where they could provide for their family and perhaps stay alive.
She did not ask why they came. She did not cooperate with border agents—the border was very far away. She saw a need and said that Christians ought to assist them. She said, “When people smell bad, that’s where God is.”
Violeta was a preacher from Managua, Nicaragua. She preached, as did most at the conference, about the passage from Matthew 25 where the sheep and the goats are separated because of how they treated the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, the stranger. For Jesus said, whenever you did it unto the least of these who are my sister or brother, you did it unto me.
Knowing a little bit of Spanish is a helpful thing sometimes. When I heard Violeta read scripture, something leapt out at me. She translated stranger as imigrante. I was an immigrant and you welcomed me. Now that takes on some more import, doesn’t it?
Elsa was our Bible study leader for the week and she took us on an astute theological journey through the book of James, declaring that solidarity with the poor is how we demonstrate Christianity.
They all follow in the tradition of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcn and Tirzah. They all point us to an image of God that is liberating and hopeful. Thank God.
So the next time you think that God has abandoned you, or that the church does not speak to contemporary issues, or that a religious life is not worth your time, remember that we follow a tradition of wonder women and wonder men who have brought new and essential meaning to the life of faith.
So remember these wonder women, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, Tirzah. They may not show up in a crossword puzzle, but remember them. Add them to Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. Throw in an Olga, a Violeta, an Elsa. Heck, even add a Lisa, a Susan and an Amy while you are at it. We are among good company and we celebrate these wonder women. May we be granted a bit of their courage, their wisdom and their strength for the living of these days.