The book of Numbers describes the forty-year period in which the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness heading toward the land God promised to them. It was the time of the Exodus. The people were freed from slavery to Egypt but many of them would never see the land God promised they would be given in order to form a nation. The ones who never saw it were the adults who had left Egypt at the beginning of the Exodus. You may remember why they wouldn’t see the Promised Land; all along the way the people sinned against God and one another many times. According to the priestly writers of Numbers, their punishment was to never see the Promised Land. Their children would inherit the land when they got there.
As you know, Moses was their leader. He was unprecedented before and after as a leader (until Jesus Christ, that is). He can be thought of as prophet, Law-bearer, organizer and judge. He was vital to the faith story of the ancient Israelites.
The story of Moses and the Hebrew people going into the wilderness a freed people is found in four books of the Bible: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Along with Genesis, those books are called the Torah which means “the Law.” Four of those books, excluding Genesis, have overlapping stories as well as differing stories to tell. The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is unique to the book of Numbers.
It is important to note that the Hebrew men in the wilderness, regardless of being able to see the Promised Land or not, were promised a share of the new land. They each had a “tribe” or “clan” they were part of, named after the sons and grandsons of their earlier patriarch, Joseph—of the many-colored coat. In the original hundreds of commandments, the share of land for each tribe was to be passed from father to son and, if there was no son, another male member of that particular tribe of Israelites. That is the backdrop for our story.
Zelophehad dies as the Hebrew people wander in the wilderness. He dies with no sons but he does have five daughters. However, as the Law stands, they could not inherit his share of the Promised Land and so his name, lineage, and land in his tribe would die out. Our scripture text for this morning reported that “the daughters of Zelophehad ‘came forward’.” This is a subtle way to say that these daughters were quite bold. The daughters had no legal rights under the Law and this was their dilemma. We will pause for a moment to discover why the Law was so essential to the Hebrew people.
The apostle Paul talks about the Law countless times over several New Testament letters. In our passage in the book of Galatians, Paul is a little obscure in how he first addresses the Law. However, from my study of this passage, he seems to think the influence of the Law has passed away. Remember the Law is the hundreds of commandments handed down to the Hebrew people from God through Moses, as explained in the Torah. It’s possible that Paul thought that the Law was given to God’s chosen people to identify human sinfulness as conscious transgressions, choices people made that were wrong in the eyes of God. Secondly, that the Law was given to try to restrain the people’s propensity to sin. As such, the Law fails for Paul.
The apostle tried to explain the Law as given by a mediator, Moses, and contrasts the many aspects of the Law with the only one God. Back in verse 16 of chapter 3, not included in our second scripture lesson, Paul explains that God’s promises “were spoken to Abraham and his “seed,” singular, according to the NIV translation. Paul makes his argument against the Law based on the singularity of the seed, or “offspring,” who is Jesus Christ. as the NRSV translation says. Through the one God, as known in Jesus Christ, salvation is offered. It is not given through the Law, for the Law causes sin, simply because people can’t follow it to the righteousness God requires.
Paul explains the Law as a temporary custodian of the chosen people. According to the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, in the ancient Greco-Roman world, of which Paul was a part, households with the means to do so had a “slave who supervised and guarded the children.” That slave’s (the custodian’s), “responsibility was to walk them to and from school, to see that they behaved properly and stayed out of harm’s way.” When the children were old enough, they no longer needed the slave’s custodianship in their lives. That is Paul’s metaphor for what happened to the people of Israel and the Law. The Law was a custodian until the seed, the one specific offspring in the lineage of Abraham, Jesus, brought salvation directly to the people. Now, explains Paul, the Law is no longer needed for such a purpose. We Christians tend to look at it this way: the intent of the many commands from the Torah still may guide us, but the Law itself cannot save us. We cannot earn our salvation by keeping God’s commands perfectly. It is impossible.
Paul goes on to say in our passage, verse 27, that we are baptized into the one “offspring”- Jesus Christ. Baptized “into Christ” means that we are united with Christ and share in his inheritance of God’s promises and in the salvation he brings, offered to all people. For Paul, baptism signifies our close union with Christ. The Law can no longer lead us to eternal life, but Christ can. He continues by saying that believers are “clothed” with Christ. In scripture to be “clothed” with some quality or attribute is to take on the characteristics of that in which one is clothed. Meaning, we, Christ’s disciples, are to take on the particular features and qualities of Jesus Christ.
The transformation of the individual believer’s character, as baptized in and clothed with Christ, has many implications both for the individual and for the whole Body of Christ. The implication Paul points out in our passage in Galatians, chapter 3, is the “abolition of social distinctions.” Those distinctions were to help define society back then and, sadly, continue today. Paul proclaims: There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Jesus Christ. Paul’s declaration flies in the face of conventional norms and many people of his time didn’t like it. Too many people today, including Christians, still don’t seem to like it.
To summarize this portion of my sermon: Paul believes the Law, handed down from God to the people by their leader, Moses, that he and other leaders then interpreted, actually leads to sin. It was merely a custodian trying to guide them and keep them safe from harm until the one “seed” of Abraham, Jesus Christ, could come as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. “The Law was designed to be in effect only until Christ’s coming.” Salvation would be given not through the Law, but through Jesus Christ. Because we are united in and clothed with Christ, therefore taking on his characteristics, we no longer are to view people by society’s norms. I hope you will take note of my next point. The church is to be a transformed entity in our dark world. Distinction between people “is no longer the determinative identity markers, no longer a ground for status or exclusion,” for we are all one in Jesus Christ. As people of Jesus Christ and who learn to live in his ways, we are to treat all others without societal distinctions that separate us. Far too many people are separated by societal norms.
So, what does all this have to do with Zelophehad’s daughters? The Law that Moses gave during their trek in the wilderness said that only sons could inherit land but the daughters were questioning that particular law as being unjust. The fact that they boldly came forward was astonishing. Daughters and women in general were not consulted and often were seen as second-class citizens. Yet they didn’t quietly pull Moses aside and tell him of their concern and give him their request; they went to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting—where the people worshiped the one true God. It was where Moses and the other leaders and priests could gather to discuss decisions. It was a central place and these bold women came right up to it when it wasn’t a time for them to do so, because they were so convinced (of their viewpoint). When they petitioned Moses to give them their father’s inheritance to carry on his legacy and keep his portion of the land, Moses simply didn’t know what to do. He put this dilemma before God and God’s answer is surprising and succinct, “The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance … and pass the inheritance of their father on to them.” Here we see that the Law could be changed. It was not capable of giving the daughters what was really and rightly theirs, their father’s possession. But God could and did. The social barrier of that time for that particular justice issue came down for Zelophehad’s daughters.
A vital point in this discussion is that the Hebrew people knew that the land would not actually be theirs. By tribes they could go into the Promised Land and possess portions of it in an earthly way, but it would always be owned by God. God, the Creator, owned and still owns all that God created, the land, the sea and sky, the animals and plants. The Israelites understood themselves as custodians, stewards, of God’s creation and were to keep it as God meant it to be- good.
A key fact from this story, and other scripture passages, for us on this Consecration/Victory Sunday, the third and final Sunday of our official Fall Campaign, is that for the priestly writers of Numbers human life on earth is characterized as renting space, not owning land. This explains how important it is for us humans to take excellent care of God’s good creation. It seems to me that we are failing at that and sometimes failing badly but, we can always turn around, an act of repentance, and get back to being the stellar caregivers of all of God’s creation that we are meant to be.
The daughters’ gaining their Dad’s possession of property was really not their own, nor would it have been if they had been sons. They could receive their inheritance because it belonged to God. Paul’s upending of societal norms informs our thinking of this story. We may be grateful that those daughters were bold enough to stand up for the women of their time. It has been the case that throughout our history women have stood up for one another even in extremely precarious situations. God saved the daughters from a life of great hardship. For us the fulfillment of the Law, Jesus Christ, has saved us to live with God eternally. Because Christ has done so, we take on his attributes and ways in a way that breaks down societal norms so revealing to a hurting world God’s promises. We can make a difference. May we confidently and bravely do so just as Zelophehad’s daughters boldly stepped forward seeking justice—not any old justice, but God’s justice.