Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Numbers 27: 1-7; 36: 1-12; Joshua 17: 3-4)
My Dad is one of five brothers. That was not what my grandparents intended to happen. When the two of them were expecting their first child, fully expecting a son, they had the name all picked out – Charles. And Charles was born. Some years later, when Granny got pregnant again, they were ready to welcome a little girl into the world; they would call her Elizabeth. Instead, they got Don. Okay. Child number 3 was going to be Elizabeth, until it was John. They tried again with number 4 and once again failed to have Elizabeth, which I’m actually grateful for since #4 was my Dad, Derek. Alright – surely an Elizabeth was in the cards with number 5, right? Nope – it was Jimmy. Charles, Don, John, Derek and Jimmy. Five boys. No Elizabeth. After which my grandparents decided that they were not going to try to bring Elizabeth into the world any more.
It’s not five sons we find in our scripture today; it’s the opposite. Five daughters of Zelophehad, a member of the tribe of Manasseh, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. I wonder if you’ve heard about Zelophehad before today – I’m betting not. Truth be told, I hadn’t either until I started working on this sermon about him and his daughters. His five daughters. When I was talking with Angela in the church office this week about the sermon title in the bulletin and making sure that the apostrophe in daughters came after the “s” since there were five of them, her response was understandable: Good lord, bless the parents who have five daughters!
I imagine Zelophehad and his wife whose name we don’t know would appreciate that blessing. I also imagine they approached things much the same way my grandparents did in their quest for a daughter: surely, at some point, it’s got to happen, right? Surely a son was coming. Instead they got Mahlah. Then Noah. Then Hoglah. Then Milcah. And finally Tirzah. When all is said and done, five daughters. Not one son.
And while I’m sure these proud parents thought the world of their five girls, it presented a bit of a conundrum in the world they were living in. That’s because that world was an unabashedly patriarchal one where everything was passed on to the first-born son upon the parents’ death – all assets, all property, all land, everything. That’s what the Torah commanded; it all went to the son. What the Torah did not address was a situation like the one Zelophehad’s family found themselves in, where there are only daughters. Five of them. Who gets the inheritance then?
Here’s what I find fascinating in all of this: out of some 613 laws in the Torah, you would think one of them would provide some kind of guidance on this matter, right? Like, how is it that no one ever pondered this possibility; just assumed that at some point a son would come along? One scholar notes that this passage is one of only four instances in the entire Old Testament where an ambiguous legal situation required special divine revelation. We’re in pretty unchartered territory here.
And so here’s what happens. The five daughters, their father now deceased, bring their case to Moses in a special council, which is something that didn’t happen all that much. They came and pleaded their case together – scripture almost seems to suggest that they spoke in one unified voice; their case literally being made to the fifth degree. They had to go to great pains to explain what, to us today, sounds like a no-brainer: Yes, it is true that our father had no sons and that only sons can inherit their father’s property. But why, they asked, should our father’s inheritance go up in smoke simply because he had five daughters? Give the land to us, they pleaded, so our father’s legacy will live on.
Did you catch the crux of their argument? They were not asking the land to go to them for their own sake – they were asking it to go to them so their father’s legacy would continue. They were smart enough to know that that argument wins in a world ruled by men. And they had to make it together; all five of them. And the good news is that, in the end, their wish is granted. All’s well that ends well, right?
Well, not so fast. Some time after that was resolved, a new wrinkle was introduced. See, equally important to ancient Israelite culture that only sons could inherit their father’s property was the practice of land needing to stay within the bounds of its original tribe. You remember that there were twelve tribes of Israel; each tribe given a portion of the Promised Land to settle in and call home. And as long as sons inherited their father’s land, the tribe’s land would perpetuate itself. But now that daughters could inherit land, that perpetuation was no longer guaranteed – and that was a problem.
So there was another special council to discuss the matter and the fact that, if even one of the daughters married outside their father’s Manasseh tribe, the entire inheritance would be lost. And to simply assume that the daughters would all marry in their tribe was not a given: it’d be like asking five daughters from Charlotte to marry only lifelong Charlotteans.
So what do the daughters do? They band together once again, get on the same page, and each marry a man in their father’s tribe. And because of that, the land would remain theirs. Crisis averted – again. Thanks be to God.
As I mentioned earlier, this story is a new one to me. I love when, after decades of doing this, I still find stories I’ve never heard of before. That’s how rich our Bible is. And since this story is new to me, I find myself experiencing two somewhat divergent reactions to the saga of five daughters doing everything they can to hold on to their father’s inheritance; an inheritance I think we’d all agree in 2023 was rightly theirs all along.
On one level I feel deep admiration for these women – the way in which they banded together, worked as a team at every critical juncture, knew what they wanted and did what they needed to achieve their end. Want to hold on to your father’s inheritance with no son in the mix? Make an appeal directly to Moses and present a carefully-crafted and well-thought out case, and hope and pray that divine intervention will go your way. Brilliant! Facing the undoing of it all if any one daughter marries outside the tribe? Band together and covenant to marry within the tribe so the inheritance remains intact. Amazing! These women were ingenious, they were savvy, they were persistent; and that is indeed something to admire.
But at the same time I find myself dealing with another feeling – and while I’m not exactly sure what it is, the best I can describe it is anger. Not anger at the daughters, but anger at everything else. A society so stacked against women in the first place. All the hoops they had to jump through that should’ve never been there to begin with. Societal codes, or lack thereof, that required them to rise to an extraordinary level of persistence and self-advocacy. And then, when they finally get what they’d been fighting for, to have the goalposts moved on them so that they’re all the way back at square one, at risk of losing everything and having to go through another long process all over again.
I love that these women were so ingenious, savvy, persistent. And I hate that these women had to be those things. Or, more to the point, that the world they were living in made them have to be those things.
And it’s interesting, this is a common thread if we look at all we’ve seen in this sermon series over the past several weeks: disenfranchised people having to go the extra mile to get what everyone else is freely given. That wasn’t something Rebecca and I intended when we set out in this sermon series; I’d like to think it’s one of those God things.
But check it out: because Rahab was a non-Israelite living in the city walls, she had to go to extraordinary lengths to save her family. Because Balaam was caught in a tight spot, he needed his donkey to see the obstacles he could not see himself in order to steer back on course. Because Cornelius was a Gentile and considered an outsider in the early church, Peter had to experience a foundation-shattering vision to convince him that Cornelius was a child of God just like him. Because Esther was living in two worlds at the same time as queen, she needed Mordecai to bring much-needed clarity from the margins.
And that’s where we’re torn. Because we are grateful for the five daughters of Zelophehad. We are grateful for Rahab and Balaam. We are grateful for Cornelius and Mordecai. We’re grateful for anyone who speaks out, who steps up, who puts themselves out there to make a wrong right.
We are grateful for Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond; students at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro who, on February 1st, 1960, sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and insisted they be served, even though they were black.
We are grateful for Oscar Romero, archbishop for the Catholic church in El Salvador in the 70’s, who was a vocal critic of the violent activities between government groups and regional militias in that country’s civil conflict, to the point where it cost him his life.
We are grateful for the crowd of people who, in June 1969, took part in the Stonewall protests, considered by many to be a seminal moment in the fight for justice for the LGBT community.
We are grateful for Elizabeth Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and countless other women who fought tirelessly in the women’s suffrage movement, including the passage of the 19th amendment allowing women the right to vote.
We are grateful for all of these people and more – but we are angry that their bold actions are necessary in the first place; going above and beyond in order to confront unjust systems that benefit some and work against others.
But until those unjust systems are mended, until the time comes when there is only justice and not injustice, we will continue to need these people in the world. And these people – and this is important – may very well need to be us. We’re always looking for someone else to come and save the day – and we’ll be happy to follow them when they get here. But what if that somebody else happens to be us? What if we are the ones we’ve been waiting for?
Our voice matters. Our actions matter. Our coming together and using our collective power for good makes a difference. If Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah teach us anything, it is that.
After all, it was Richard Boyce, former dean at Union Presbyterian Seminary here in Charlotte, who once described our story today as an example of, as he puts it, “scripture provoking scripture.” I like that. Scripture constantly demanding new interpretation, because not everything can be easily accounted for, not even in 613 laws of the Torah. Richard writes: “The scriptures and God’s promises seem especially apt to crack open in fresh ways whenever someone or somebodies stand up and ask, demand, plead not to be left out.”
There is an African proverb that says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The daughters of Zelophehad went far because they went together. They experienced their deliverance because they understood that their influence would be far more impactful if they combined their voices, if they worked as a team, if they kept the end in mind, and if they never gave up.
Y’all, there’s something in there for the church to hear. As we continue figuring out what comes next. As we discern a new vision for a new Trinity. As we continue growing together and welcoming all. And for that, in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Richard Boyce, Leviticus and Numbers, Westminster Bible Companion.