Rev. Vernon Gramling
Faith in Real Life Blog
Decatur Presbyterian Church
June 2, 2022
Numbers 27:1–11  The Daughters of Zelophehad
Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir, son of Manasseh, of the clans of Manasseh, son of Joseph. The names of his daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 2 They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, saying, 3 “Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the congregation of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the congregation of Korah but died for his own sin, and he had no sons. 4 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.”

5 Moses brought their case before the Lord. 6 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 7 “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. 8 You shall also speak to the Israelites, saying: If a man dies and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. 9 If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10 If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11 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.”

In the time of Moses, the daughters of Zelophehad had no claim on the family land because they were women.  These women were about to be destitute solely on the basis of gender. In the scripture, they pushed against the expectations and customs of their society in order to make their case.  Their speaking out was, in itself, brave and could have ended very badly.  But their concerns prevailed.  

Their case, however,  is far less about women’s rights or gender equity than it is about their cunning use of the system against the system. They did not argue their case on the basis of gender equity or their human need. It is a story about how the women framed their argument in terms of male prerogatives.  Their case was decided on the basis of potential harm to their father—not as regard for them as women.  Later in Numbers, we discover that the men made a rule that required the woman to marry within their clan.  The women were not free agents with autonomous authority over the land—they were stewards until they married—-at which time the land reverted to the husband.  The women won the day but the inherent, male dominance remained. Bias and prejudice run very deep.

This is the real life struggle of any marginalized group.  Change can occur but it is incremental and frequently diluted if not reversed.  Equity is not an ideal that is easily reached.  It is far more likely that the status quo will be preserved rather than the advantaged yield their privilege to lift up the marginalized.  We should not be surprised that significant change has more often occurred through revolution and force.  In real life, voluntary cooperation and reallocation of resources is usually a non-starter.  Equity may get lip service but virtually everyone of us has a line of self interest we will not cross when it comes to actually sharing our power, position or our money.  The Christian model of servant leadership runs into big problems in real life.    

I still remember a guest preacher in Seminary who argued that liberals become conservatives when they have something to conserve.  It is easy to spend other people’s money.  I asked our FIRL group how they decided to share what they had versus keeping what they had.  Everyone of us gives regularly and everyone of us have long since realized that the needs of people around us far exceed our ability to respond. (I am using money to illustrate the difficulties in real life giving but the same issues arise around how we spend our time and energy when we see the needs of others.  Even sending cards to people can become an unending responsibility).  A variety of issues emerged. 

  1. Do you pick just one pocket of need or do you divide what you give?  
  2. Another said she gave a ‘reasonable’ amount—but what is reasonable for one person may not be reasonable for another.  
  3. All of us experienced unrelenting solicitations—especially from groups to whom we had already given.  No good deed goes unpunished.  
  4. Others spoke of trying to help family and rapidly discovering that such efforts—even with those close to us, could backfire.  
  5. But, in spite of these real life frustrations, everyone continued to be mindful of the needs of the people around them. The amount of investment varied but the direction of care continued.

Jesus did not try to explain the inequities of this world.  He did not spend his time defending God or attacking God.  He did not explain nor ask ‘why’ in the face of unfair treatment and exclusionary practices.  He simply cared for the person in front of him—but not always. It is never simple.  If you look at scripture there were plenty of times he withdrew even as desperate people lined up to receive help.  He experienced the same real life predicament every caring person experiences.  Jesis viewed life as a gift.  He consistently included the excluded.  That is a direction for life that he lived and modeled for us.  It is not a standard we can achieve.  That direction for life is a responsibility we all have as Christians.  It emerges out of gratitude not guilt.  And it is possible only when we can trust God with what we cannot (and often will not) do.

Indeed, the poor will always be with us—as will all manner of people who are marginalized and thought of as ‘less than’.  That does not give us a free pass to withdraw and conveniently maintain our own statu quo. It is a constant reminder that we live in a broken world and the challenges of love are never ending.  When we look at the war in the Ukraine, the animosity in our political discourse, the homeless on the streets, the threats to our climate, it is very hard to argue that our world is progressing towards care and regard.  

We live in uncertainty, paradox and faith.  Ultimately we all have to go back to the basics.  How do we balance our own needs with those around us?  In real life, Christians must be willing to be troubled.  There are no clear answers.  We live in a world filled with inequity and marginalized people.  We cannot explain our own good fortune and we cannot explain the plight of others.  Though it is tempting to ‘explain’ the inequities of the world on the basis of who ‘deserves’ or who works hard, that doesn’t really work.  There are plenty of people who work harder than any of us and who are smarter who will never make one tenth of what we do. 

 When we see The Daughters of Zelophehad, we see the limits of care in real life.  The good news is that these women were protected, the bad news is they were never treated as equals.  That battle continues to this day—thousands of years later.  We must rely on our faith that our efforts to love matter—even as we see the fracture lines of our broken world and even when we see the incredibly slow changes in the improvement of human dignity for all.  We must rely on the faith that we matter and that we are called to follow—not be—Jesus.  We can never escape our responsibility to respond and we can never have a clear answer to how much or when to invest our time, energy and money.  Choose to be troubled and choose to love.

We live in the promise that love will prevail and we live with the responsibility to love the person in front of us.  Every bit of mindfulness and regard matters. 

Let it be so.