Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Expanded Inheritance--a sermon the daughters of Zelophehad

Rev. Teri Peterson
Expanded Inheritance
Numbers 27.1-11
5 June 2016, Pentecost 1-4 (gifted for god’s purpose)

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. 2They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, 3‘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. 4Why 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.’
5 Moses brought their case before the Lord. 6And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 7The 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. 8You shall also say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. 9If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11And 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.’

How is it going with reading the Bible in 90 days? Today is day 12…and tomorrow is a catch-up day, so if you’re behind, this is your moment! I confess that while I was on vacation I was so disconnected from the actual date that I forgot to start reading on time…and I didn’t notice until one day there was a facebook conversation about being on day 8. I kept trying to catch up by reading at cafes and pubs, but what actually happened was that I talked with friends and got all wrapped up in the delicious food instead. So I am here as living evidence that it is possible to catch up tomorrow, because I read all of days 1 through 12 yesterday.

Granted, I didn’t do anything else, except cook dinner. But still. If you haven’t started yet, this is your chance to get caught up!

Reading through the first four books of the Bible in one day made one thing far more clear than it had ever been before, even the last time I did the Bible in 90 Days. In the midst of all the minute details of what color the curtain in the holy tent of meeting should be, and how many silver bowls each tribe contributed to offerings, and the list of each place the Israelites camped during their 40 years in the wilderness…the story is full of people’s names. I know we know that, because we often think of them as impossible to pronounce, the kind of things we gloss over because they slow us down while we try to figure them out. But really, these first four books are bursting with names. Most of the names are men, of course. They are listed according to their family and clan and tribe, generation after generation.

I often tell people we shouldn’t skip over the genealogies that tell us of Jesus’ family tree, as told in Matthew and Luke, because that is also our family tree—these are our ancestors, and when we remember them we also find our place in the family story. But those are much shorter than some of these whole chapters of nothing but the names of men and their sons and grandsons and nephews and cousins. I really believe all these names are important, but it was only when I started thinking about asking my rabbi friend what she preaches on when these long sections of nothing but names and offerings are read in a worship service—every year!—that I understood more of what’s going on here:

This is a story of belonging.

Each and every one of those people—all 603,000 men, plus women and children—is known and belongs. Their story matters, even if we can’t pronounce their names. They are part of something God is doing. They may have been whiny and annoying, they may have been complainers, they may have been people who worked hard and didn’t make waves. They may have been great craftsmen, or gifted at animal husbandry, or a good teacher, or strong enough to carry the altar and all its furnishings from camp to camp. And their names, no matter which tribe they were from or which jobs they did, were worth taking the time and resources to write down and to pass on through the generations. Their presence in the community mattered.

So when we get to this story of Zelophehad’s daughters, we can see why their request was so important.

In order to get to this point, they would already have been through the system that Moses, at his father-in-law’s urging, set up for people to bring their grievances and questions to a local judge. Those local judges passed the hard cases up to Moses for a decision. These women, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, knew the rules and regulations of their people. They understood that they were at the mercy of the men in their lives, and without any men they were in danger. But they also understood there was a larger problem going on, a problem of belonging. Their lack of both brother and father meant that they no longer belonged, and their whole family would be forgotten. And in the midst of a story that is all about remembering who we are and to whom we belong, that is a tragedy.

They were surely not the first women to be in this predicament. But just before they come forward, in chapter 26, we read about how the promised land was to be divided among tribes and clans and families, each plot assigned according to the number of people. The problem of belonging nowhere was about to be magnified by the problem of having no place in the promise that God had made to their ancestors. And so Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milca, and Tirzah work their way up through the system until they are standing in front of Moses at the tent of meeting. And they brazenly ask for exactly what they want: to inherit their father’s place in the community of God’s people.

Over the centuries of God’s story to this point, the people had become more patriarchal than the earliest stories suggest. The rules had built up, and now there was a careful system in place. According to those rules and that system, the answer should have been no. Based on the previous three books of law, these women should have been sent to marry and find their place that way. But that’s not what happens. Instead, each judge at each level of the system has taken them seriously. They are all aware of the seriousness of the problem, of a family of faithful Israelites being forgotten and left out of the promise. And so Moses goes into the tent and asks God face to face.

It was a risk, for the women to place so direct a challenge to the way we always do things. They were asking for the community to do something that had never been tried before. And God’s answer was: “the daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying.”

In essence, God said to Moses: we have been too restrictive and closed and it is hurting my people. I don’t want anyone left behind, because each of them matters. Later, through the prophets, we will learn that God has all our names written on the palm of God’s hands—even the women who don’t have brothers or fathers. Even the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows. Even the people who, according to our rules, don’t belong.

The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying. They shall receive the inheritance of their father.

In one little story—so easy to gloss over because the names are hard and it’s in the middle of a book that seems to be a never ending list of identical offerings from every tribe—everything changed. The inheritance of God’s people expanded. The meaning of belonging expanded. The understanding of God’s gift expanded. Because five women were willing to come forward and claim that they too are God’s chosen and beloved, to insist that they belong to God’s promise, the whole system was changed to recognize women as people who could inherit and own property, who could advocate for themselves and know that they mattered.

Ten chapters from now, the book of Numbers will end with a recap of these women, and a rule made that they may only marry within their tribe, so that the inheritance may not end up passed to another tribe. On the surface it feels like a re-assertion of male dominance and women as property, but looking deeper we can see how consistent it is: because what the women asked for was to belong, to have a recognized place among their people. So they remain within their people, and their inheritance does as well—because yes, it is about land, but it is also about identity. It is about carrying the name, and having their presence and contribution matter to the ongoing story God is telling through this particular people.

So when we read these stories—whether you start today and catch up on four books at a time, or whether you’ve been reading all along—pay attention to the names. Not only are they our ancestors in the faith, they are people God loved, people whose names and lives are worth remembering. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, and all the rest, remind us of the good news: that we belong to God, and each and every one of us matters.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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