Who are the Daughters of Zelophehad today?
Having indicated that I might do a series on gender roles this past fall, with apologies I thought I’d take a brief and belated look at Numbers 27 instead. I want to talk about this passage because I refer to it more often in debate than I’ve seen in the literature and I wonder if I’m wrongly seeing something illustrative and informative here.
In Numbers 27 we join Moses in the midst of preparing the Hebrew tribes for the promised land and we see five great-great-great-granddaughters of Manasseh approach him a problem. Their father Zelophehad died in the wilderness and left them no brothers, and this was a problem because according to custom the family rights and property were passed on through sons. Here they were on the cusp of the promised land and at the long end of deliverance and their father was now tragically destined to have his line disappear from Manasseh’s clan. His daughters would not receive the inheritance promised to them despite their sin; the promise that he and they had together been hoping toward.
It is left to the imagination whether this son-less death had happened before, but for whatever reason in this case the deceased’s five daughters – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah – feel compelled to bring their case before Moses. What is interesting to me is that in their short presentation (v. 3-4) the daughters seem to anticipate objections which have nothing to do with the gender constructs of the time but rather with the question of judgement. The women are bold before Moses because their father “was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the LORD, but he died for his own sin.” They seem willing to grant that perhaps their family name might disappear if it was because of a specific act of judgement by God in the desert, but Zelophehad died like everyone else and so they feel led to seek an exception to the rule of male-inheritance rights. It doesn’t hurt to ask, right?
But here’s the thing that I wonder in light of prevalent interpretations: If a created rule of “male headship” exists then it would hurt to ask, wouldn’t it? If they are questioning a divine order, shouldn’t the answer to their question be a sympathetic “no”? Instead, Moses inquires of the Lord and learns that “what Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly … turn their father’s inheritance over to them.” Not only that, Moses is directed to make a new rule out of this provisional case: If there are no sons the inheritance goes to daughters; if no children at all then it goes to the brothers, uncles, or nearest relatives of the deceased. Certainly we see in these latter provisions that the pattern of male-inheritance rights is generally upheld (see also Num. 36!), but doesn’t this also make the daughter-clause unnecessary? Why weren’t they given into the care of their relatives rather than given responsibility for their father’s inheritance of promised land? The relative innocence of Zelophehad and the circumstances of impending entry into the promised land combined to compel his daughters to question the gender norms, and they were not turned away.
I do not want to build an argument from silence, but when we combine this with a fuller account of the relative fluidity of some of the gender roles in the Bible (see for example Deborah, Priscilla, Junia, the prophetesses of Corinth, the husbands of Ephesus and the trainees of Timothy’s church) I’d like to suggest that we do get the sense that the oft-supposed universals of male headship may not be all they are sometimes made to be. It would of course be presumptuous to claim that Moses’ ruling in the daughters’ favour necessarily opens up all other roles that might otherwise be reserved for men, but it at least lends credence to the question. Even if Moses ends up affirming a general pattern of male headship he nonetheless seems to undermine the notion that such a pattern is to be universally enforced.
Where gender studies talk about nature (i.e., “sex”) and nurture (i.e., “gender”), biblical studies will also talk about created order and legitimate variations of male and female faithfulness in different contexts. Much of the debate has to do with what are the universals and what are the contextual variants, of course, but I find it illustrative that on this occasion there was at least a small degree of variance provided by the Creator when it came to the generally assumed gender-role pattern. So might a drastically different situation show an even greater degree of variance? More specifically: Do we not see in the life, death and resurrection of Christ an even greater extenuating circumstance than the death of Zelophehad?
When Jesus comes not only are our family arrangements declared no longer definitive (see Luke 14:26) but our new-found standing in the family of God is also re-ordered to transcend the roles of ethnicity, class, and gender (see Gal. 3:26-4:7). (There are those who argue that this is merely a matter of “salvation,” but to me this pretty clearly entails the gifts and service opportunities that come with it.) When the Spirit comes it is indicated in Joel 2 and Acts 2 that both the sons and daughters prophesy in Jesus’ name. (There are those who argue that they had in mind a kind of prophecy that is distinct from leadership and teaching, but I think this splits hairs against the grain of Testaments Old and New.) So in Paul’s epistles are we seeing the maintenance of universal gender roles or are we seeing the gender norms of the time relativized and submitted to something more definitive, namely the reconciling rule of Christ? I think it is the latter, and while Numbers does not provide this point for us, to me it begs the question: Who might be the daughters of Zelophehad today?
To be clear, it would not be my argument that Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah were early radical feminists. They submitted to Moses’ ruling and they also eventually submitted to their husbands. But within patriarchy we see typically “masculine” things submitted to them, and this seems canonically significant. A crass version of secular egalitarianism might argue for “equal opportunity to power” – and this may have some of our sympathies – but in our Christian churches and families we are making an egalitarian claim on the basis of other premises. In Christ both the provisional norms of creaturely context and the perverted subordinations of the fallen world are subverted not in the name of “equal opportunity” but in the name of mutual submission out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5). So it is that our encultured gender norms and roles will often come into play as we seek to be faithful in our time, but it is the law of love (1 Cor. 10) which is universally binding and it is under the headship of Christ that men and women proceed together in that regard.