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Your Daughters Shall Prophesy

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

July 9, 2017
Numbers 27:1-11

A Reading from the Old Testament

Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. 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.”

Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 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. You shall also say to the Israelites, “If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.”


Some pieces of scripture get more prominence in our regular church life than others. Some stories we read over and over again — the prodigal son, the Exodus story, the Good Samaritan. Some passages speak to us like poetry, words that we have stitched into our hearts — the 23rd Psalm, The Lord is My Shepherd; 1 Corinthians 13; the greatest of these is love. Some parts of scripture are so baked into our regular Sunday morning liturgy that we know them by heart, like the words of Matthew 6: “Our Father, Who Art In Heaven;” or the words of Institution: “On the night of his arrest…” There are things in this book that we know so well; there are streams that we return to again and again and again; there are thin places in these words where we find ourselves and where God finds us. And my hunch is, that for most of us, Numbers 27 is not one of them. My hunch is that, for most of us in this room, myself included, this text, the daughters of Zelophehad, is a pretty deep cut. My hunch is that this story is not carved into our hearts.

But perhaps it should be.

This is a story about courage. And this is a story about some remarkable women, the daughters of Zelophehad. Zelophehad was a member of one of the Israelite clans following Moses through the wilderness, we know almost nothing about him except that he dies leaving no sons and only these five daughters. And of course the customs and legal procedures of Jewish law at this time had no provision for what would happen to the estate of a man who died without a male heir — this is an incredibly patriarchal society, a society in which men own property and men inherit property and all of the rules and regulations surrounding property in the Jewish law that immediately proceeds this chapter of Numbers operate in an exclusively male paradigm. Yes, of course, the Old Testament abounds with stories about amazingly complex and important female characters, but as a matter of policy, the legal code in which this story finds itself is patriarchal to the core. Until Zelophehad dies, and these daughters come forward.

That’s what the text says. The daughters of Zelophehad come forward. These remarkable women come forward and stand in the tent of gathering itself, they come and stand in front of the congregation, they come into the middle of church where they are not supposed to be. The text says they stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation — they are not supposed to be there, they are looking out over a sea of men who have nothing to gain by this display and they state their claim. “Our Father was a good man. He stood by you all in hard times. 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 righteous question. If their father’s inheritance is going to stay in the family, it has to go to them, and so here they are. But just because it’s a righteous question doesn’t mean it’s an easy one to ask. So here they are, standing in front of everybody, staking their claim in front of everybody, bringing suit against an entire patriarchal institution, standing up to the men who led them out of Egypt and standing up to the men who had guided them through the wilderness and standing up to the men who would take them into the Promised Land and saying “We Should Be Part of That Promise, Too.”

This is a story about courage.

And it’s a timely one. This past week I finally got myself to a movie theatre to see Wonder Woman, the most recent addition to our decade-long juggernaut of superhero movies and the very first in that entire trend to feature a woman in the central super heroic role. And of course, like all superhero movies, this is also a story about courage. It’s a story like so many superhero stories about someone with super-human abilities who can therefore do remarkable things, like step out of a World War I trench and lead a single-handed charge against a barrage of artillery and machine gun fire. But of course that’s not the only kind of courage that it takes to be Wonder Woman. For my own part the most effective and memorable scenes in the movie didn’t have artillery or machine guns at all; they were simply scenes of Wonder Woman charging into places of routine male-dominated bureaucracy and asking the most righteous of questions. She’s standing in the corridors of British military power and asking why those generals aren’t also leading their men on the battlefield. She’s trying on dresses in some fancy London department store and asking why they’re not tailored for hand-to-hand combat. Wonder Woman’s not from around here, and the fish-out-of-water thing works; these feel like righteous questions; but just because they’re righteous questions doesn’t mean they’re easy to ask. “Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son?” It’s hard to come forward and ask righteous questions. So this is a story about courage.

And so there I was, as the movie ended, and I’m all fired up, I’m ready to smash the patriarchy, even though I realize I kind of am the patriarchy — well, we have a complicated relationship — but when the credits start rolling, I’m ready, pitchfork in hand, and then I start to see the names. Director Patty Jenkins has gotten a lot of credit for this movie and rightfully so but nobody makes a movie alone and so here we go with a list of writers and it’s Allan, Zack, and Jason, and then here we go with a list of producers and it’s Jon, Wesley, Tommy, Geoff, Stephen, Curt, Charles, Enzo, and Richard. There’s one Rebecca. There’s one Deborah. But I have to say. On balance. For a movie that had me ready to smash the patriarchy. It did not feel on the whole like the patriarchy had been smashed. Given that the movie was sold-out when I saw it three weeks after opening day, it felt on the whole like the patriarchy was doing quite well. And it’s not just for Wonder Woman. Last year’s Moana — the latest animated Disney juggernaut and part of our upcoming Supper and Substance series — starring an amazing young girl but directed by Ron, Don, John, and Chris. A few years before, Frozen, with Elsa the Disney princess to redefine Disney princesses, but also with another majority-male writing team and a majority-male production team. For all the patriarchy-smashing joy of these movies, for all the good, it’s still the same system. It’s still the same rules. And they have a way of closing in.

Such is the fate of the daughters of Zelophehad. They stand in the house of worship with such courage, and they ask their question with such righteousness, and for the brief moment of our text this morning it feels like anything is possible. Moses goes to God, and God sides with these women — sure enough, the law itself needs to be rewritten, and now if a man dies without sons, his daughters will inherit his estate, which isn’t exactly rabid equality but it’s a start. Except that it doesn’t last for long. We’re in Numbers 27; by Numbers 36, this whole thing will come crashing down, because the men of Israel find their loophole. It goes like this: the problem with the law as amended in our text this morning is that the daughters of Zelophehad could go and marry men from outside of the particular clan of Israel, in this case the Manassites. And if they did, then land previously belonging to the Manassite clan through Zelophehad would transfer into the new clan into which they were marrying. And so the men protest this discomfort, and Moses sides with them, so, now the daughters of Zelophehad will indeed be able to inherit their father’s property as long as they never marry outside the clan. As long as they marry their cousins, everything is fine. As long as their liberation doesn’t fundamentally change any of the power relationships of that society, as long as it’s still the same system, everything is fine. And that’s the last we hear of these courageous women.

So why do we even tell this story? Why do we bother with this story when nothing really changes? Why does the notoriously legalistic and byzantine book of Numbers pause even for a heartbeat to tell the story of these five courageous women? Generally these kind of narrative breaks in the legal books of the Old Testament signify some kind of downstream effect, which is to say: we tell these stories because they’re the cause of something that sticks around. But so little of this story sticks around. It makes a few minor indentation in the laws around inheritance, but hardly enough to justify pausing for this substantial dramatic beat. And it is substantial. This feels like a big moment. These daughters, standing in the middle of the assembly, staking their claim, the eyes of the entire congregation fixed upon them, judging them, laying them low. Moses’s turning to the Lord, and God’s dramatic reply, and God’s dramatic affirmation. It’s like the whole frustrating political system of the day pauses just for a moment, just for an instance, before resuming its regularly-scheduled patriarchy, it’s a breath of fresh air, it’s like a thin space in the midst of gray. It almost feels like a dream. It almost feels prophetic. It almost feels like a vision, like maybe this isn’t a story about who we are. Maybe this is a story about who we are called to be. A story about courage. A story about hope.

Before Sarah and I came here, we lived in this little wide spot in the road called Lovingston, Virginia, halfway in between our two churches. Lovingston is the county seat of Nelson County, and it has the virtue of having a grocery store and a post office, which distinguishes it from much of the countryside for twenty miles in any given direction, but Lovingston itself is a pretty quiet place. There’s a little Main Street, but there aren’t a lot of shops or restaurants, and pedestrians are pretty thin on the ground. There were days when it was easy to feel like we were living in some kind of post-apocalyptic vision where all the other houses were just empty or abandoned and we were the only ones left. Except on Halloween. On Halloween, all of the families for twenty miles in any given direction come to Lovingston, because we’re the only Main Street around, and so the cops shut it down to cars, and the whole thing turns into a giant trick-or-treat fantasyland. All of a sudden, the decorations come to life, the houses open up with candy everywhere, and the streets would fill to the gills, hundreds of kids in any given direction. And on Halloween 2014,  everywhere I looked, everywhere I could see, so many that I lost count, every girl we saw was dressed like Elsa.

Yes, Elsa from Frozen, in case any of you needed to know that. I bet most of you don’t. If you went outside on Halloween 2014, I’m guessing you already know. Just a few days later, Disney would report annual sales of more than three million official Elsa and Anna princess costumes, and that number doesn’t include all the handmade ones we saw, put together from spare parts at the Dollar General and the Hobby Lobby. Three million Frozen princesses is twice what the National Retail Foundation estimated for second place — which was one of the re imagined Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So consider that number: more than three million girls who for at least one night could imagine what it would mean to grow up in a world where they could be the main characters, where they could affect the plot, where the story cared what they had to say, and even more remarkable to me, how many dozens of them who showed up on Main Street in Lovingston, Virginia. And yes, every time anyone bought one of those costumes, the Disney studio brass gets a little richer — in this case, Jim, John, Sean, Alan, and Robert — but this isn’t just a story about who we are. It’s about who God calls us to be. It’s about who those girls grow up to be. It’s about the world they grow up to build. It’s about the world we teach them to build. It’s about the world God calls them to build. It’s a story about courage. And it’s a story about hope.

So why do we tell this story? Maybe the question should be: why don’t we tell it more often? Maybe the question should be: where has this story been? This is a story about courage, and Lord knows we need courage. This is a story about hope, and Lord knows we need hope. And this is a story about women, about these remarkable women standing in front of their congregation and asking righteous questions, and Lord knows that our churches could use some righteous questioning. Even now, even in this country, even in the mainline church, roughly eighty percent of the people who hold jobs like mine look very much like me, and that eighty percent gets paid about twenty-five percent more than the other twenty percent. We’re not quite the rigid patriarchy of old, but we’ve got work to do, so why don’t we tell this story? Where are the daughters of Zelophehad action figures? Where are the daughters of Zelophehad children’s books? Where the daughters of Zelophehad Halloween costumes? When I stepped out of my screening of Wonder Woman, there were girls running up and down the hallway pretending to be Diana Prince, taking the pose and brandishing the sword. And there were boys running up and down the hallway pretending to be Diana Prince, taking the pose and brandishing the sword.

What if we told this story? What if we lived this story? What if we knew this story by heart? What if we walked out of church one day, and our daughters were running around the courtyard pretending to be the daughters of Zelophehad, taking the pose and brandishing the truth? What if our sons were running around the courtyard, pretending to be the daughters of Zelophehad, taking the pose and brandishing the truth? That would be a good day. That would be a prophetic day. That would be a Kingdom day. It feels like a vision. It feels like a dream. But it doesn’t have to. It can feel very real indeed. All we have before is to do tell the stories that God calls us to tell. All we have to do is to teach our sons and daughters in the way that God calls us to teach. All we have to do is to stand in the congregation and ask the hard questions and say the true things. It doesn’t take superpowers.
It just takes courage, the courage of the daughters of Zelophehad:

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.

Amen.