Thursday, March 7, 2019

Zelophehad's Daughters

Originally appeared in 2010 at Quivering

An acquaintance of mine asked me what I knew of some of the ideas that neo-patriarchy had about unmarried women living alone. I explained that some sectors within patriarchy maintain that Numbers 30 requires unmarried adult women to have an assigned male overseer who is accountable for her and her affairs. Others in these circles maintain that all woman require a male as her a protector at all times to remain both spiritually and physically safe. Some actually extend this concept to support their idea that a woman who works outside the home (for a man other than father or husband) commits a form of adultery by serving the vision and efforts of another man.

My friend pointed out the account of the Daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27:1-11. They asked me why I had never cited this example in the past as evidence against patriarchy’s overtly paternalistic take on Numbers 30, and I did not have a good answer! Perhaps because it takes me a while to process the dramatic events of the previous chapter where the sons of Korah are swallowed up alive into hell for rebelling against Moses’ leadership, I glossed over the significance of this account. I did not remember anything about these daughters, and I didn’t recall their father’s name. I certainly know them now! (That’s the cool thing about Bible Study: I expect to discover a new thing that I’d passed over before or understood only marginally, and I expect that this will happen for the rest of my life.)

Numbers 27 introduces the Daughters of Zelophehad to us: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, also tracing their lineage. Zelophehad was the great, great grandson of Manasseh, one of Joseph’s two sons. These daughters went to the Tent of Meeting and spoke directly to Moses, Eleazar (the priest), the leaders of the tribes and the congregation. They explained to Moses that their father who had borne only daughters died in the wilderness, but that he did not participate in the rebellion of the Sons of Korah. The daughters asked if their father’s name must die out because he had borne no sons and requested to be granted their father's portion of the inheritance that was set aside for Manasseh’s heirs. Verse 5 tells us that Moses brought the case of Zelophehad’s daughters directly before God.

God ruled that Zelophehad’s daughters were entitled to receive their father’s inheritance and established that if a man dies and leaves no son, that man’s inheritance should be passed to the father’s surviving daughters. If he had no daughters, the inheritance should be given to the man’s brothers or the nearest relative to keep the inheritance within the family.

If unmarried women must be assigned to a male governor who oversees their process of sanctification and protection, how is it that these daughters who were the offspring one of the house of Joseph who remained faithful to God were treated so favorably? God tells Moses to give their father’s inheritance directly to them. God doesn’t use this as an opportunity to spell out the rule that women must be assigned to a man for decision making, bestowing the inheritance upon an elected man whom God assigns to them. God doesn’t instruct Moses to find a “male covering” for these unmarried women. 

Consider that these daughters also had recourse to approach Moses directly. They did not need a man or other representative to speak to Moses for them. Many women who follow strict patriarchy are denied status to even read Scripture or pray in church sanctuaries, addressing the congregation. Some churches don’t even let a woman speak to remind everyone about the “pot providence” (in place of what most people refer to as a “pot luck” meal) in the basement after the conclusion of a worship service! Yet the Daughters of Zelophehad spoke confidently and directly to Moses who took their plea directly to God. God rewarded them and established these standards for all of Israel.

In full context within close proximity to the Numbers 30 passage, does Numbers 27 support the model for women taught by many within neo-patriarchy? I think not. The account of the Daughters of Zelophehad discounts the claim that all women require male oversight and protection. Property and inheritance require good stewardship, and stewardship requires a certain degree of authority and personal autonomy. God Himself rewarded the faithful daughters with their father’s inheritance, and He did not discriminate against them because of their gender.