Stories from the Wilderness: The Daughters of Zelophehad

Scripture: Numbers 27:1-11

This Easter season, we’ve been journeying through the wilderness with the Israelites, asking ourselves what their stories from that time might have to teach us now in our own Covid-induced wilderness period.  By the time we get to today’s story, the last in our series, the Israelites are nearing the end of their wilderness wandering. They’re looking ahead; they’re making plans; their good future in the Promised Land is no longer just a far-off dream but actually beginning to come into view.

And to be honest, when I planned out this series, I kind of thought that it would be for us now too.  I thought that our time in the wilderness would be coming to an end – maybe not the end of Covid-19 altogether, but at least we’d be over the first hump, at least we’d be getting somewhat back to normal for a time.

Instead, even as things do begin to open up a bit around us, each day seems to bring new realization that normal is a long way off.

Surely, in 40 years in the wilderness, there must have been times when the Israelites thought the same: it won’t be too much longer now.  It can’t be, this isn’t sustainable, not in the long term; surely, the Promised Land can’t be that far away.  And still the wilderness stretched around them, as far as the eye could see.

I imagine there must have been some grief in that for them, in those moments of realization.  I know there is for me.  All these things that have been survivable for a time are turning into bigger questions: When will my daughter be able to go back to preschool?  What about all the things she’s missing out on in the meantime? When will we be able to spend time with family like normal? When will we be able to have dinner with our friends? When will we be able to gather for worship in person like we used to, and actually have it be recognizable as worship? And with those questions often comes a wave of despair, because none of it was supposed to be like this, certainly not for the long term.  The wilderness is no longer just an interruption, not just something to journey through.  It’s something to make our peace with.

So many times in Numbers we’ve read about the wilderness as a place where the Israelites butt heads with God, but remember, the wilderness is also a place where they encounter God’s grace and provision. Every day they’re fed with manna that falls from heaven, even as they doubt and fear and wish they could go back to Egypt.  When there is no water, God provides water.  When they trek through dangerous territory with enemies on every side, God is with them.

Good things can happen in the wilderness, too.

And then there is today’s story.  As a census is taken of a new generation of Israelites and plans for dividing up the land across the Jordan River are announced – land to each tribe and each clan within a tribe and each family within a clan – five sisters realize there’s a problem.  You’ve probably never heard of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the daughters of Zelophehad, unless you either really know your Bible or are into feminist biblical commentary, or both.  But the author of Numbers considers them important enough to record their names, an honor not always bestowed on women in the Bible.  They are their father’s only children.  By custom, if not explicitly by law, they can’t inherit land.  And this means their dead father’s portion of the land will go to his brothers, and this means, effectively, that their father’s name and legacy will be blotted out among his people.

And that doesn’t seem fair.

So they stand before Moses and the gathered community and speak, representing themselves.

Our father died for his own sin, they say.  They mean simply that he was part of the older generation that was told back in chapter 14 that it would not get to enter the Promised Land.  He was not, however, part of the much worse rebellion against Moses and Aaron’s leadership.  He has just as much a right to a legacy as any other imperfect, complaining, fearful person there in the wilderness.

We should inherit that land, they say.

But of course that’s not how it’s done.

And you could imagine – I could imagine – Moses telling them to take a seat, let the menfolk worry about all this, ladies. And after all what they’re proposing isn’t what God said, when God was giving the directions; and what’s more, there’s lots of important and immediate stuff to think about now, as we stand here on the precipice of crossing into the Promised Land, we need to deal with those things, let’s not get sidetracked.  I’m tired, it’s too much, let’s just get through this, we can work out those details on the other side, when things are more settled.

And the truth is somewhere there I’ve crossed from Moses’ supposed response into mine.  Because this is how I feel about a lot of things these days – I can’t handle this now, I’ll worry about that later, when things are settled. Right now we just have to get through this.

And I know that’s normal, because this is, after all, a pandemic; this is, after all, collective trauma; I am, in many ways right now and like many others, trying to sustain the unsustainable. But as it becomes clear to me that there is still a lot of wilderness left, I’m also beginning to realize that I need to envision what this future looks like, and not just the one I thought would be.  I need to start answering some of those grief-filled questions about preschool and family and friends and yes, even church, to the best of my ability.  Those things may not look like normal for a while, so how do we move forward now?

And this is actually how Moses answers – with a willingness to consider that positive, forward-thinking changes might be able to happen now.

He brings the case of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, the daughters of Zelophehad, before God, and God, perhaps surprisingly, says they’re right.

Yes, God says to Moses, give these women their land!  And not just them – if any man dies and doesn’t have a son, give his inheritance to his daughters.

And OK, it’s not perfect, by modern standards; the daughters are still Plan B in this scenario; the whole thing is still about keeping land in the family along patriarchal lines – but I love this story.  I love it first for how when God hears their case you can almost see God cocking God’s head to one side and saying, “Hmmm, I never really thought about it like that before!” I think we talk a lot, sometimes, about yielding to the will of God as if it’s some unchangeable force, and certainly it may often require giving up some of our own personal hopes and ambitions and prejudices and grudges – but when it comes to that arc of history bending toward justice, at least, I suspect sometimes God might welcome our suggestions regarding the details.

And I love it, also, because it shows us new things can happen in the wilderness – for the Israelites, and for us.

The time for taking steps forward is now.  The time for imagining possibilities is now.  The time for moving along that arc of history toward justice is now.  The time for loving, serving, and welcoming our neighbors is now.

Might these things look different than they would have otherwise, if none of this had ever happened? Well, I don’t know how they could look the same.  And that does require some imagination, and it might require a bit of chutzpah – but luckily, God seems to appreciate those qualities in God’s people.

I’m coming to learn, all these weeks in, that life now isn’t just on pause.  We’ll be here in the wilderness for a while.  And there is grief in that, for everything we’ve lost and still will lose.  Believe me, I know.

But there’s hope, too.

Because God still goes with us, and manna still falls, and possibilities abound if we can speak them into being, and changes can be made for the better – not just in the Promised Land, but even here, even now, even in the wilderness.

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