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  • Mariah Martin

Happy Father's Day?

Numbers 27:1-11

I wanted to do something different this week. I didn’t want to go with a lectionary text, so I asked my friend what his favorite Bible verses or stories were. He named Numbers 27 as one of his favorite Bible stories. To be honest, I had never heard of this story before. I was intrigued and excited to dive in and begin studying this passage. I sent off the passage to Ruby, Rachel, and Wendy and all of a sudden while I was gone at the Indiana/Michigan conference, at a camp with limited service and a phone that doesn’t work—so no chance of getting in touch and changing my mind, I realized that this Sunday is Father’s Day.

I instantly began to regret picking the passage I did.

I mean the father in the story is dead.

He died "because of his sins" and he had no sons to carry on his name. This doesn’t seem like the most inspirational or celebratory text to use on Father’s day. A very happy father’s day indeed. Yet, like most Bible stories, there is more going on here than first meets the eye. Perhaps we will find something relevant, and possibly even hopeful, for the men and fathers we know and love today.

If the story of Jesus and the paralyzed man by the pool is a crime show, this story is one of those stories about court. Like Judge Judy or something. To understand this episode of Judge Judy, we have to zoom out a bit and look at the book of Numbers as a whole.

The book of Numbers, or as it is translated in Hebrew, “In the Wilderness”, “…begins with the Israelites encamped in the wilderness of Sinai and spans the forty years of the wilderness wanderings. It ends with the people on the east side of the Jordan River…

poised for the conquest of Canaan.”[1]

The Israelites were the people enslaved in Egypt who cried out to God, God heard their cries and sent the reluctant Moses to set them free. Now these same people are trying to be faithful to their God, follow Moses, and bide their time until they get into the promise land, a land flowing with milk and honey the very land God had promised Abraham all those years earlier. But the people have grown increasingly agitated.

Where is this promised land Moses keeps going on about?

Why haven’t they gotten there yet.

There are moments of revolt, where people name their frustrations with Moses. This upsets God greatly. God decides that the generation who were led out of Egypt will not see the Promised Land after all. After a revolt, a plague wipes out nearly all of this generation. The next generation will be the ones who live long enough to finally settle in this land.

So we see a separation between an older, rebellious generation who will not see the Promise Land, and a younger more faithful generation lining up to have their portion of this land.

In verse 3 of our passage today, the five women say that their father

was not among the company of Korah, those who had gathered themselves together against the Lord. They are speaking of this very revolt named earlier in chapter 16.

Also, the law that they are trying to amend was described in Numbers 26, where a census was taken of all the males over the age of 20. In Numbers 26:33 God instructs Moses: “Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares.” This means that only the men who were over 20 at the time the census was taken will receive land as inheritance.[2] This is promising land they don’t even have yet, land they are trusting God will provide in the future.

All of this is to say that the five sisters know their history; they are in touch with the tradition that has led them to where they are today. But who are these women?

The passage says they are daughters of Zelophehad, who is a member of the Massanite clan. What is extraordinary is that we learn the names of these five women. Their names are Mahlah, Noah, Hogla, Milcah, and Tirah.

Their names mean: disease (which indicates she was either of frail health or born during difficult times), motion, partridge, queen, and favorable.[3]

There are 1, 770 named men in the Bible, 93 women in the Bible, and of those 93 women in the Bible, 43 are named. Women speak in the Bible 1.1 percent of the time.[4]

So the fact that there are five named women who speak for two verses, is incredibly rare.

What is more incredible is what these women say, who they say it to, and where they say it.

The story is written in the formal style of a juridical court proceeding. (This is where Judge Judy shows up). These women are making a formal case to change the law before Moses (their God-appointed leader), Eleazar (the priest and son of Aaron), leaders from the community, and “all the congregation” which basically means all the of-age men. Basically they were five women in front of a lot of men, gathered in front of the “tent of meeting.”

This, tent of meeting, is no ordinary tent.

This tent houses the ark of the covenant, the holy of holies where God is believed to live. So, on God’s doorstep, in front of Moses, Eleazar the priest, and a bunch of men these women boldly declare that since their father is dead and they have no brother, they should be given the inheritance.

This is especially scary knowing that this same community stoned a man for gathering sticks on the Sabbath.[5] One wrong move and these women could very well be severely punished or killed.

But honestly, they didn’t really have any other option. If the women do not make a change to the law, then their dad’s name and lineage will be cut from the Israelite people. They would be cast out, on their own. Which, in their time, is worse than death.

The word used to cut off is actually a common expression for death or being killed.[6] They were not making a fuss because they wanted land and property. They might not have even been trying to be more equal with men. Their main concern was their identity.

Would their father’s name be carried on and would they be allowed to remain an Israelite,

a part of the community they have lived in their entire lives? Some commentators say that Moses and/or the other men deliberating their case could not decide on how to answer them, on what ruling would take place, so then they took it to YHWH to help decide.[7]And what did YHWH say? Basically a hearty yes, these women are right!

God said yes, not only will they receive the inheritance, but in all of Israel, if this ever happens again then the inheritance will be passed on to the daughters.

Later on, at the very end of the book Numbers, some men gather and approach Moses concerned that if the women marry outside of their family tribe then the outsiders will gain their land. So Moses went to God and God said that the women can choose whoever they find suitable for a husband, as long as it is within their tribe. So the women ended up marrying their cousins. (Lovely, right).

In Joshua 17:3-4 we actually get to see these women remind Eleazar, Joshua, and the leaders about the ruling their received from YHWH to Moses and then they receive their land![8]

For these women, this story is one of community, identity, and survival.

The fight for dignity is one as old as time. These women fought to be recognized as full human beings, deserving of the same legal rights as the men in their community. God affirmed their correction to the law, ironically the law that God gave Moses in the first place.

How neat is it to think of God as working with these people to craft laws and regulations

that were best suited for the flourishing of the Israelite people.

So, yes, the father in this story is dead, but his legacy carries on with his five bold, persistent, and faithful daughters. Men and women both benefit when all people are treated with human dignity and respect. Communities flourish as they seek to empower those with less power.

Our world today is less focused on the survival of a tribe. However the passing on of the family name still seems to be of importance. While we don’t give our family inheritance to the sons anymore, we do generally pass on the family name through the father’s side of the family.

Some of you may have recognized the fact that Nick and I have different last names. I kept my last name Martin and Nick kept his Dutch last name Bouwman. His Dutch heritage is important to his identity and he wanted that to remain intact.

I also felt an attachment to my last name. I didn’t want to give up this part of my identity

and be kind-of engulfed into a family name and tradition that isn’t my own. Our lives are inextricably connected, through marriage we come together both as full individuals and as one flesh.

What is beautiful is that I got to choose Nick to be my spouse, and I got to choose to keep my last name without going in front of a court. And what is even more beautiful is that Nick is not my cousin!

I have so many women to be thankful for, for this ability to choose. For my ability to be a pastor, to teach, and preach. I am thankful for women that acted as historical snowplows, carving the path so that I can stand in front of you today behind this pulpit. I also have my father to be thankful for.

As a pastor, he showed me that being with others during times of their worst pain as well as well as their greatest joy, is a way to live faithfully. It is a way to continue to follow a God who has made promises that we can’t see yet. Promises that we have hope in.

My father says that he treated my sister and I the way he would have treated any child of his, no matter if we were boys or girls.

We played with trucks, legos, chickens, Barbie dolls, and soccer balls. Our dad taught us how to ride bikes, fix flat tires, catch fish, wrestle, set a tent, climb, run down mountains.

Our dad taught us how to pet rabbits gently, how to take good care of what we had. He taught us how to care for the Earth, picking up trash we saw on the ground. Most of all, my dad taught me reckless kindness. Here is an entry I wrote for him, entering him into a local contest where he won an award for his kindness:

“Reckless kindness. If our dad had a phrase that would describe how he interacts with others that is what it would be. Reckless kindness. Most people harbor the individualistic mindset of kindness that says that people ought only be kind to those who will reciprocate that kindness. You scratch my back I’ll scratch yours. Our father is not like that. He recklessly spreads kindness to others, regardless of what they can do for him. Our daddy is notorious for picking up hitchhikers, giving homeless people jobs, and helping us track down a loose dog so it can be returned to its owner.

These things, while they may seem like relatively unimportant actions, have had a profound impact on how we see the world. People are not tools to be used for our own benefit. Every single person, no matter their social status, race, or gender can teach us something. Every single person is a mirror of the Loving One who created us. Sometimes we have to look a little harder to find that glimmer of the Divine, but it is always there. Because of this mindset, people come to my dad for help. They are drawn to his reckless kindness, knowing that they belong.

Both my sister and I have a burning compassion for humanity. We are not content with the socialized acceptance of half-hearted kindness. Because of our dad, we recklessly strive to better ourselves and the world around us. We do not look at life with the intent to squeeze as much out of it as we can. We look at life with the attitude of how much of ourselves we can squeeze into life. How much of ourselves we can give to others so that the loads that bears down on their tired shoulders don’t seem quite as heavy.

It is not a question for us to us whether or not we are going to spend our short time on earth helping others. It is not a choice. That is what makes my dad so reckless and radical, because kindness is not always a rational decision. That is how connected our dad is to our Creator. He lives, breathes, and acts in loving response to everyone because of his relationship to the one who first loved us. Our embodiment of our dad’s qualities is not a testament to our character; it is a testament to our dad’s radical relationship with God.”

Radical. That is the word that best describes Mahlah, Noah, Hogla, Milcah, and Tirah.

They may not have been trying to be revolutionaries, but it is people like these sisters, and my father, that will make an impact on the world. Today I invite you to reflect on what you want passed on from your life.

What will carry on long after you are gone?

Will it be a spirit of boldness that stands up to unjust laws?

Will it be reckless kindness?

What will be the mark that you leave on the world, the mark that reflects the ways in which God touched your life?

As you ponder these questions, know that the same God that said a resounding YES to these women is close, ready to hear your bold thoughts and feelings. God is ready to work with us to create a more just world that celebrates the dignity of every life.

Praise God.

Oh, and Happy Father’s Day.

[1] The Harper Collins Study Bible, Introduction to Numbers, pg. 194.


[3] John D Litke, “The Daughters of Zelophehad,” Currents in Theology and Mission 29, no. 3 (June 2002): 210.

The author seems to be signaling that this is an important family, not simply a random family with a complaint.


[5] Numbers 15:32-36

[6] Litke, “The Daughters of Zelophehad,” 10.

[7] Litke, 211.

[8] The Framing Function of the Narratives About Zelophehad’s Daughters, Dean R. Ulrich, 537.

Works Consulted:

Aaron, David H. “The Ruse of Zelophehad’s Daughters.” Hebrew Union College Annual 80 (2009): 1–38.

Claassens, L Juliana M. “‘Give Us a Portion among Our Father’s Brothers’: The Daughters of Zelophehad, Land, and the Quest for Human Dignity.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 37, no. 3 (March 2013): 319–37.

Derby, Josiah. “The Daughters of Zelophehad Revisited.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 25, no. 3 (July 1997): 169–71.

Gevaryahu, Gilad J. “The Root G-R-A in the Bible: The Case of the Daughters of Zelophehad and Beyond.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 41, no. 2 (April 2013): 107–12.

Litke, John D. “The Daughters of Zelophehad.” Currents in Theology and Mission 29, no. 3 (June 2002): 207–18.

Shemesh, Yael. “A Gender Perspective on the Daughters of Zelophehad: Bible, Talmudic Midrash, and Modern Feminist Midrash.” Biblical Interpretation 15, no. 1 (2007): 80–109. My Jewish Learning. “The Daughters of Zelophehad: Power and Uniqueness.” Accessed June 15, 2019.

“The Lineage Loophole.” Accessed June 15, 2019.

The Anchor Yale Bible: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary by Baruch A. Levine

The IVP Bible Background Commentary by John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas

Daughter's of Zelophehad by Iris Wexler

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