This week we are focusing on women of the Old Testament. Some will be familiar to you, like Abigail, and others may be new to you, including a woman named ‘Noah.’ These 5 sisters are our next women of the Old Testament and they are found in Numbers 27, just proceeding the commissioning ceremony of Joshua where Moses anoints and appoints him as the next leader of Israel.
Numbers 27: 1-11
The daughters of Zelophehad son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, belonged to the clans of Manasseh son of Joseph. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah. They came forward 2 and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said,3 “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. 4 Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.”
5 So Moses brought their case before the Lord, 6 and the Lord said to him, 7 “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them.8 “Say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies and leaves no son, give his inheritance to his daughter. 9 If he has no daughter, give his inheritance to his brothers. 10 If he has no brothers, give his inheritance to his father’s brothers.11 If his father had no brothers, give his inheritance to the nearest relative in his clan, that he may possess it. This is to have the force of law for the Israelites, as the Lord commanded Moses.’”
Here we have 5 sisters, descendants of Joseph, who have found themselves orphaned and unmarried when their father dies. The custom of that time forbade a woman from owning property. This meant that their father’s land and his inheritance would be passed to someone else and not to them, simply because they were unmarried and female. This practise of inequality is not just found here in the Old Testament. When John and I worked in youth ministry at the University of Western Ontario, we met a young man from Lebanon. He had defected from a civil war that saw all his classmates except one die in the first few months. When his father passed away, the only way his mother could claim the family home and their savings was if the only son returned back to Lebanon and stood in his father’s place. This, of course, would also require prison for defecting. His mother lived in poverty despite the size of her husband’s estate until her son was granted a visa to bring her to Canada.
There are many instances of inequality in our world today. Some are justified complaints, and some not so much. However, the important thing here is to see the principles that Noah and her sisters implemented. Let’s look at what they do:
- They stood before Moses, Eleazor the priest, the leaders, and the whole assembly in one spot at one time and presented their case.
- They were in agreement with each other as sisters.
- They asked the God appointed leadership of the day to consider their case. What society thought was irrelevant. They came to the leadership with confidence.
- The leadership did not make a decision. Moses brought their case before the Lord and sought God’s reply.
- When God spoke and the verdict was in favour of the women, the leadership and all those in attendance recognized God’s way as supreme over the cultural laws and norms.
- God went a step farther and solved this dilemma for others who may find themselves in a similar circumstance.
- The new law (directly from God) surpassed this single case. It set a precedent that removed the male superiority over inheritance.
- On a second request, God set boundaries. The women respected these boundaries not because they were in agreement with them, but because they came from God.
These women didn’t grumble, moan, complain, demand, march or demonstrate. They came up with a respectful plan and put it into place, making sure that the message was clear to all. These women saw societal practises as irrelevant when seeking God’s will. At the same time, they respected God’s boundaries. After this law was communicated and put into effect, others came and asked that the girls marry within their tribal clan so the land would stay allotted within its ancestral tribe or clan of Israel. Every 50th year was deemed the Year of Jubilee (7×7) and land would revert back to the father’s tribal clan. If the women married outside of the tribe of Manasseh, come year 50 that ancestral land would no longer revert back but would become part of the inheritance of a different tribe. Once again, the leadership sought the Lord, and God gave a ruling. The girls could marry whomever they wished, but it needed to be a male within the same tribe. They agreed because they were interested in doing God’s will, not just in changing society in the name of ‘my rights.’ (Numbers 38)
The application for us is clear. We are to live our lives in accordance with God’s will and not societal norms. We should measure our decisions by what God says, and not what society deems acceptable or unacceptable. The example here for church leadership is to take any questions to the Word of God and use that as the determining factor: not society, not culture, not tradition. On the other hand, we shouldn’t fight against what God has put in place as boundaries. We live according to His will and not by what we prefer, wish or believe to be true. God’s truth is truth for all. He cares for us, is wiser than us, and desires us all to be free. Real freedom to play comes not in a room or on an acreage, but in a yard with a God built fence.