Zelophehad’s daughters

Mostly, I read the Bible slowly and thoughtfully, but some parts I skim — genealogies, census figures, most of Leviticus. Recently, skimming my way through Numbers, I hit chapter 27 and slid to a halt. Eleven verses tell the story of five sisters, and how their stand for justice changed history. They are the daughters of Zelophehad — Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.

Their story (Numbers 27:1–11), goes like this:

After 40 years of wandering, Israel stood on the border of the promised land. A census was taken of men aged 20 years and older and the land was to be shared out based on these numbers. As Zelophehad had died without sons, under the law of the time, his daughters were left with no inheritance.

We might expect that women, under a law that frequently favors men, would keep silent and accept as natural the rule decreed for them. But not these women. Something in them rose to challenge this. They dared to “go out” from the destiny that was being imposed on them.

The five sisters went and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. They stood in the place where only the high-ranking men congregate, the place where women had no authority. Such an appeal was virtually unheard of.

Yet the sisters faced the powers that be and spoke out. “Our father died in the wilderness…and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27:3–4).

Continuity of family name depends on inheritance of land; and they knew the current law was not adequate, for it didn’t account for the unusual circumstance of a man without sons. They recognized this omission in God’s law, but because they considered God’s law to be just, or to aim to be just, they showed no hesitation in pointing out the unfair nature of it.

How does Moses react to these women coming forward and demanding change? He hears their appeal, he humbly admits he doesn’t know the answer and takes it to God. How did God react to these women appealing His law? He supports the sisters’ demand and even promulgates a new law to secure inheritance for any daughters in such circumstances (27:6–8). The achievement of Zelophehad’s daughters was a landmark in women’s rights regarding the inheritance of land.

What courageous women! They didn’t sit back and accept what ‘life’ was throwing at them. They rose up — the ‘weak’ marching into the place of the strong. And because of this, change came. Justice was done. I often wonder what would the world look like if the voices of women were more prominent in places of power?

As I read this story though, I think beyond these successful women who spoke up and found justice, to those whose voices are not heard. Or who are unable to stand up and speak for themselves. And for those multitudes who don’t find justice.

All too often when we see injustice, we think how terrible it is, but we do nothing. We say nothing. We leave others to fight their own battles. Not getting involved is easier. But when we say nothing and when we do nothing, are we not giving consent for those injustices?

Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn said, “In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.”

Albert Einstein, said, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil but by those who watch them without doing anything.”

And God says:

“SPEAK UP for the people who have no voice, for the rights of all the down-and-outers. SPEAK OUT FOR JUSTICE! STAND UP for the poor and destitute!” Pro 31:8–9 The Message Bible.

“Learn to do good; SEEK JUSTICE, correct oppression; BRING JUSTICE to the fatherless, and please the widow’s cause,” Isaiah 1:17.

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to DO JUSTICE, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8.

Speak up, stand up, do justice. Injustice requires action if it is to change.

Robert F. Kennedy said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

“And let’s not make the mistake of thinking that you have to agree with people and their beliefs to defend them from injustice.” Bryant McGill (Voice of Reason).

The legacy of Zelophehad’s daughters teaches us not to accept injustice, but to rise up and confront it.

What could happen if enough people recognised injustice, rose up and went to the place of power, to the ones who have authority to stop it, and spoke out?

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men (and women) should do nothing.”



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