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October 21, 2018

“The ZelopheHads and Had-Nots”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Exodus 3.7-8

Numbers 26.33, 27.1-11

October 21, 2018

Whenever we read a passage – from the Bible or any book – we come with our own perspectives. Perhaps we try to be objective, but we cannot forget our own identity, which shapes how we view the world. I recognize that when I read scripture, I do so as a young, white female with a feminist perspective. Sometimes I am able to put aside that identity and try to view the world through the eyes of someone else – perhaps a black woman or an older man, but I still come back to my own world each time. We also are influenced by the happenings of the world around us. I believe Karl Barth was correct whenever he referenced the importance of bringing theology and the news together – we must look at both to see how the Gospel is needed in the world. Yet, I found this particular passage interesting as I began digging deeper.

I frequently choose scripture passages well in advance and had chosen this one in August. I began writing the sermon, however, the week of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. As I read this passage I was hearing on the news the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. For the past few months it appears that the law has not been on the side of women. With the accusations women have made against politicians, movie stars, and famous people there has been progression in women’s rights regarding the #MeToo movement – women have joined together to tell their stories of abuse and harassment, bringing to light the unfortunate common occurrence of these tragic events. While the stories are being told, they are not always believed or even taken seriously. In our world, especially our culture, we can remember that women have made progress but there is still room for growth in how our society accepts and treats women.

Though, that is not to say that we couldn’t learn a few things from history and how women were treated. At times feminists like to point at the Bible and remind readers that women were not always included in scripture – and I have been one of those feminists at times. We remind readers that the disciples were all men – but that women were present. We remind people that there were five thousand men at the great feeding of fish and loaves, but how many women were there? Noah’s wife is never named, as many women weren’t. Yet, I think there are moments in the Bible when women are treated with equality and that must be acknowledged.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is not included in the lectionary. This is one of those great stories that often goes untold. This fascinating story is about inheritance, livelihood, and most importantly, God’s listening ear.

The women’s father, Zelophehad, was someone that wandered in the wilderness with Moses. He has died and the women are left with nothing. Zelophehad did not have any sons and in those days an inheritance was passed along to male offspring. Women were left with nothing and often were dependent upon others for their financial stability. Without a son, the inheritance would be given to someone else and the women would not have any financial stability.

The women explain that their father died for his sins. At first glance it appears that he died of sins, or something bad he did. Another translation can also be that he died with error. Essentially, he didn’t die because of sins, but when he died, he left a legal error, or complexity since he had no one to pass along his inheritance.[1] In other words, his death has caused a real problem for them to figure out.

No husbands are mentioned here. These women might be married, but maybe not. In that time many might assume that they might be well cared for if they were married, but for these women it is not so much about daily surviving, so much as it is about carrying on their identity – their name. They were looking after their own financial survival, but also they were proud to be Zelophehad’s daughters. They wanted the legacy to continue on, and probably the inheritance contained some items that were more memorable than worth money.

Their family name is important, and their names are important, as well. All five women are named, which was not common in the Bible. Their names all have different meanings. One is the “weak one,” and another means “relief for the destitute” while another means “beauty.”[2] We know that sometimes we are shaped by our names, but I also think that sometimes we redefine our names. We claim who we are and stand up for what we believe and we make our own names. These women are strong together and they make their own names. They stand before a group of people – mostly men, I think we can assume – and they demand justice. They don’t ask meekly. They don’t even ask. They demand. “Give to us a possession among our father's brothers." This is bold and direct. The women are able to see what is important, and they fight for it. Those who fight for justice are able to look at a situation and see what is important. They aren’t fighting for the stuff. They are fighting for equality, their rights, and their name.

They aren’t just asking the people, they are asking God. They have to know that Moses will take all this to God. Moses does take this to God. Moses speaks and God tells them something very interesting – that the law should change. God essentially tells them that the women are right and that they need to change policy. Imagine – in one, fell swoop their policy is changed! When was the last time you saw a policy change in the church or government with such ease?

We can certainly learn from the daughters of Zelophehad – from Milcah and Tirzah and Noah and Hoglah and Mahlah. We can learn how to fight for justice and to seek out what is worth fighting for. We can lift our voices and join together for common causes. What is the name or identity of the church? What do we stand for? How do we come together?

I also believe we can learn from God in this passage. God listens. God hears the stories. God makes a change. This doesn’t mean that God changes, but that God encourages humans to make a change in how the world is working. In Christianity we often think of forgiveness in big terms – asking for a change in something huge. Yet, I also think sometimes we have to look at the smaller, day-to-day parts, being willing to concede that maybe we didn’t have the whole story, or maybe we didn’t have full understanding of something. At times we just need to step back and say, “Maybe I didn’t handle that in the best way – let’s try again.” The leaders in this passage have to do this – they listen to the women, they listen to God, and change how they handle inheritances. They change their interactions with women. They are willing to try something new. This is incredibly difficult for people – especially systems. Laws do not change quickly. Institutions do not change quickly. In some ways, this is good. We make decisions deliberately and with great thought. Yet, God listened and had compassion for the women, and answered appropriately. The church is called to do the same.

What we learn from the Exodus passage is a continuation of this compassion for people. God heard their cries. God listened. God responded. As the church, we are called to follow this model: listen, and respond.

So, listen to the world around you. Listen to the community. What do you hear? I’m hearing that there are many people who are hurting. I hear that there is racial inequality. I hear that people are going hungry. I hear that we do not have enough mental health professionals in our community. What do you hear? Maybe you hear these things – and probably even more.

After you have listened, how will you respond? Will you be intentional about your interactions with people who are different from you? Will you petition a politician? Will you volunteer your time? Will you give your money?

Listen to people in our community, and spend time in prayer trying to figure out how God is calling you to respond. Amen.

 

 

[1] Ernt Jenni and Claus Westermann, Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament. (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishing Inc., 1997), 409.

[2] Gail Anderson Ricciuti and Rosemary Catalano Mitchell, Birthings and Blessings (New York: Crossroad, 1993), 40-41.