Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.
They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, ‘Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. 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.’
Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 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. You shall also say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 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.’
The Israelites learned that the rule of law matters. This fascinating case, however, also shows that law cannot be too rigid. Even the best lawmaker (God Himself) cannot foresee all eventualities.
Judges need to have the wisdom to interpret the law and adapt it to new circumstances. This is what Moses does. The reinterpretation is radical, giving women inheritance rights (in some circumstances). This case law needed to be retold because it goes against the way that men have thought through the ages. It is within living memory in the UK that the man was the head of the household, expected to fill in the tax return and so on. As an Inland Revenue employee said to my aunt, “Why don’t you ask your husband to help you?” As she said to him, “It’s no use asking him. He can’t count.”
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah stand up for their rights against the male dominated empire (and even in the wilderness the men of Israel were empire-building). The women’s protest is assertive, clear – yet respectful. Although some suffragettes did turn to violence after a generation of frustration, other female protestors are notable for their peaceful yet forceful methods. Women tend not to riot, but to stage vigils and witness silently to oppression. The Women in Black (http://womeninblack.org/vigils-arround-the-world/) show the force of women against empires.
One of the greatest signs of hope today is that so many of the leaders of Extinction Rebellion are women. The crisis we face and the indifference of the political and business empires run by the men in power are so great that we men might well be tempted to violent protest. We need to allow women to take the lead – they are far more likely to save us all from the apparently irresistible power of fossil fuelled empire.
We link hands with each other as a sign of our solidarity with all who are affected by gender-based violence, prejudice and discrimination. We reach out our hands as a sign of our unity with all who campaign for justice across the world. We stretch up our hands as a sign of our prayers for an end to all forms of violence and abuse. Amen
Slightly adapted from a prayer by the Mothers’ Union for the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence, November-December 2018.
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys is Policy Officer for Cytun (Churches Together in Wales) and a member of Parkminster URC, Cardiff.