(This is the first sermon in a ten-week series, “Wonder Women of the Bible.” The story of the Daughters of Zelophehad takes place during the wilderness wandering of the People of Israel, and is recorded in Numbers 27:1-11. The sermon was delivered at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville on May 27, 2018. You can listen to a podcast here.)
Let’s start with names. Today’s reading revolves around the importance of a name. Zelophehad’s daughters say, “Why should our father’s name disappear?”
There are names upon names upon names in the Bible. Did you ever decide to read the Bible all the way through, and then get to the begats – the genealogies – and give up?
Did you ever notice how few men are included in those lists of names?
To remember a name implied and imparted importance. Women just weren’t considered that important.
We have name after name of men who apparently didn’t do much of note, but think about how many women in the Bible were pretty important . . . and nameless. I found a website with a list of 107 of these nameless women, including Noah’s wife (no, she wasn’t Joan of Ark), Job’s wife, the woman at the well, the Widow of Nain, the woman caught in adultery, and Jesus’ sisters. We know the names of at least some of Jesus’ brothers, but none of his sisters.
To decide whose names are remembered and whose are forgotten is power.
It is power not just over the past but power to shape our present and our future. How long has the church gotten away with making women second-class citizens and used carefully chosen Bible verses to justify it?
I wish I could say how long did the church get away with it, but we’re not there, yet. There are still churches where women can’t preach or teach men, or be leaders in congregations.
In too many churches its taught that men are supposed to be in charge – not just in the church but in the home and in the community. You can justify the marginalization of women, and patriarchy, and even misogyny by the choices of men who wrote and compiled Scripture, and by men who choose what and who to preach about.
It’s not just those “other” denominations. There are churches in our own ELCA who won’t call a woman pastor. I hear and read form women pastors that not only do they have more trouble than men getting calls, but that their authority is not taken as seriously as a man’s, and that congregation members comment on the way their dress and other things they would never mention to a male pastor.
This is why I’m so excited about this sermon series. We get to intentionally disrupt those patriarchal systems that codified what – and especially who – is important and worth remembering. I’ve heard from several folks who looked at the list of women in this series and have said, “Some of these I’ve never heard of.”
I’ll be honest – one of these women someone requested a sermon about I had to look up to see who she was. (I’ll tell you who when we get to her in a few weeks.)
And this is why the five names we are given in today’s reading are so important:
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah.
Their father had died. The Law – God’s Law – said only sons could inherit. So Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah would have nothing.
These women could have just kept in their place.
They could have accepted the status quo.
They could have said, “It’s not fair but it’s the Law.”
All the pressure of Law and tradition and society and culture and decorum and propriety argued and pressured for their acquiescence and silence.
Nevertheless, they persisted.
The writer of Numbers tells us, “They came forward.”
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah came forward. They stood before Moses and the other leaders, before the whole assembly. They stood at the entrance – the doorway – of the Tent of Meeting.
They spoke. “Our father died in the wilderness.” He wasn’t part of the rebellion. “Why should our father’s name disappear . . . because he had no son?”
That’s a good strategy, isn’t it? “Do it for our father! Do it for a man!”
Their approach was excellent. They started with questions, then they made their demand:
“Give us property among our father’s relatives.”
Can you imagine what it took for Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah to come forward and to stand in the doorway? What it took to speak and present their demand to Moses and those other leaders, and the whole assembly – all those men?
It took Holy Chutzpah.
I didn’t make that up. It’s from a sermon about this story I found online by Rabbi Amanda Greene.
You’ve heard of chutzpah? It’s a Yiddish word that means audacity or insolence. The classic story from Judaism that illustrates chutzpah is about a man who kills both his parents then has the chutzpah to go to court and plead for mercy because he’s an orphan.
Originally chutzpah had a negative connotation, but when it’s used in English it’s come to mean more of courage or boldness in the face of opposition.
I agree with Rabbi Amanda Greene. For Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah to come forward, and to stand in the doorway, to speak, and to make demands took some Holy Chutzpah.
Their story is a call to Holy Chutzpah, to challenge injustice even when we’re walking into the headwind of tradition or swimming upstream against a current of “The way things have always been.”
How Holy Chutzpah is received often depends upon gender. Men who come forward and stand in the doorway and speak and make demands are “tough” or “driven” or “they know what they want.” They are called “leaders.”
When women, even and especially today, come forward and stand in the doorway and speak and make demands, they are “pushy” or “bossy” or “hormonal.” They are called . . . witches.
You don’t think there were some men among those gathered there at the Tent of Meeting who whispered to each other about those “pushy Daughters of Zelophehad” . . . or worse?
Sadly, the same thing happens today and our daughters hear those words and get those messages. They are then less likely to come forward and stand at the doorway and speak and make demands. They are less likely to have Holy Chutzpah.
I don’t know about you, but I want my daughter and the daughters of our congregation, our community, and our country to have Holy Chutzpah.
And the day is changing. The church is lagging behind, as usual, but we’re getting there. At least some parts of the church.
It took the Lutheran Church until 1970 to ordain a woman pastor – Elizabeth Platz, who served as campus chaplain at the University of Maryland.
Five years ago, we elected our first woman churchwide bishop, Elizabeth Eaton.
Just this month, two synods finally elected our first African American women bishops – The Reverend Patricia A. Davenport in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod and The Reverend Viviane Thomas-Breitfield in the South-Central Wisconsin Synod.
After her election, Bishop Breitfield was asked why she thought it had taken so long. She responded, “I think that, sometimes, our beloved ELCA is stuck on just being, “Oh, this is the way it is.’”
Yes, sometimes we are stuck. Too often.
But this story about Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah reminds us that we don’t have to be stuck. We don’t have to settle for the way things have been or are.
We can be, and are called to be, part of God’s ever-expanding revelation and revolution of grace.
We can be, and are called to be, part of the shattering of glass ceilings and the breaking of barriers and the tearing down of walls.
Like Moses of all people!
What really stuns me in this story is Moses’ response to the demand. He’s an old man, tired and frustrated from leading over a million complaining, stubborn, sometimes rebelling, people through the wilderness. If anyone should be set in their ways, it would be Moses, right?
It would not have surprised me if Moses’ response had been, “No! Only men can inherit.”
Like one of those bumper stickers:
GOD SAID IT
I BELIEVE IT
THAT SETTLES IT
But Moses doesn’t do that. He says, “Let me check with God and I’ll get back to you.”
In effect, Moses acknowledges there’s a chance he’s gotten it wrong. That maybe his interpretation of what God wants has been filtered through his own experience and prejudices and desires. So he goes to God.
And God says, “They’re right.”
And God makes a new law – daughters can inherit if there are no sons. Progress.
For the first and only time in the Torah, Law is made based on someone’s request.
Not just someone – five women: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah.
Remember their names.
Remember their names when you think it is God who favors men, and not the men who have interpreted God’s Word and God’s will to legitimate and perpetuate their own power.
Remember their names when you believe that patriarchy and leadership limited to males is God’s will and not a manmade (literally man-made) perversion of God’s will.
Remember their names when you think the possibilities of inclusion and grace are limited by the way things have always been done, or the way we’ve always thought God wanted it.
For a long time, the whole church taught what God wanted was men in charge and women quiet, not just in churches but in homes and in the world. As we go through this sermon series, pay attention to these women who snuck through the cracks in the patriarchal system. Pay attention to these women who couldn’t be silenced, who through their Holy Chutzpah and the work of the Holy Spirit we remember today.
The Bible for too long was used, and is being used still, to prop up patriarchy and to keep women from coming forward, standing in the doorway, speaking up, and making demands. The church has been complicit.
But, I heard Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber say something about this on a podcast just yesterday:
“Sometimes the origin of the harm can be the genesis of the healing.”
The Bible – and the church – have been the origin of the harm done to women. The Bible and the church – WE – can be the genesis of the healing.