Numbers 27.1-11

Susanna 7-23

The Daughters of Zelophehad Are Right

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

            It is appropriate this morning that I acknowledge three women for today’s sermon, two colleagues and a parishioner. The Rev. Manda Lynn Adams is pastor at First Community UCC in Dallas, and this fall she is doing a series of sermons she’s titled, Rebellious Women of the Bible. A few weeks ago Manda preached on a passage that I had forgotten about, even though it contains one of my favorite Bible verses. The women she preached on are the five daughters of Zelophehad, and the verse I love is this morning’s sermon title: The Daughters of Zelophehad Are Right. And when both Manda and the events of this week directed my attention once more to this rather obscure Old Testament passage, I sought the counsel of a much closer colleague, Rabbi Marci Bellows at Temple Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek, who directed me toward a midrash, or commentary, from a 13th century rabbinic text, which I’ll share with you in a moment. And the third person I wanted to acknowledge is our own Anne Skaagen, who offered her observation last week that, and I quote, “The men in our church are on the right side of #MeToo.” Thank you for that, Anne.

            As most of you know, Debbie and I have two girls, Clare and Blythe. We have one wonderful son-in-law, Clare’s Brian, and in less than a year we’ll have another, Blythe’s Adam. But by blood we have only daughters. Now I know the Abramsons are like the Froggatts in that they too only have daughters. The Holloways only have daughters. Who else in the congregation only has daughters..? So then there is a fair number of us here this morning who can identify with Zelophehad.

            I want to do something a little different this morning: I’m going to try to confine myself to a simple retelling of two biblical stories: the daughters of Zelophehad, and then the story of Susanna, whom we’ll get to in a couple minutes. I’m going to try to resist the temptation to explicate or elucidate, or sermonize – very much, anyway. And this is because these stories are among those many, many instances in scripture where we are best served by letting the Bible speak for itself, and take us where it will.

            Mahlon, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah were the five daughters and only children of a man named Zelophehad, who, by the time our story begins, is already deceased. In the earliest days of Israel, ownership of property was a signal characteristic of membership and authenticity among the tribes, or families, of Israel, but it was reserved exclusively for men, their male heirs, the sons of Israel. And so it was that at the death of their father, the daughters of Zelophehad were disenfranchised. This was understood to be not simply the law of the land, but the law of God. In the eyes of both laws, the five daughters became non-entities once their father died; their father’s property went to his brothers in the absence of sons. But the sisters wondered to themselves, ‘Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son?” And so they asked Moses and his associates, “Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.” Their request was not only unprecedented, it was contrary to the laws of God and humanity. Yet nevertheless, they persisted.

            So the five sisters brought themselves before an all-male tribunal. They stood before Moses, before Eleazar the priest, before the leaders and all the congregation at the entrance of the tent of meeting and made their case. I have a mental image of multiple stern curmudgeonly old male faces staring at them in quiet disbelief and barely contained consternation that these women would have the temerity to come before them and ask for justice for themselves. And not only for themselves, but for all the fatherless husbandless women who would follow them.   For some reason it is a mental image that carries with it a certain sense of recent deja vu.

            So Moses took their case before God. I do wonder why he didn’t adjudicate their case himself, but the Bible doesn’t tell us. Fred Clark has an idea though. In the same article we have referenced on the back of this morning’s bulletin, Clark writes, “This is all [Moses] could do. We’re talking about commandments here, remember, God’s laws. Divinely ordained, serious ‘thus saith the Lord’ type stuff. And Moses doesn’t have the authority to change that. All he can do is agree to argue with God, to attempt to change God’s mind and convince God to do the right thing.” To change God’s mind and convince God to do the right thing. You might say Moses took the case directly to the Supreme Court - you can’t get any more supreme that the deity, right?

            And because five fatherless husbandless women spoke up for themselves and asked for justice for themselves and for generations of daughters to come, even though what they were asking was contrary to the laws of God and humanity - God’s mind was changed. “And the Lord spoke to Moses and said, The daughters of Zelophehad are right.” The daughters of Zelophehad are right. Can you see why this is one of my favorite verses in the Bible? The daughters of Zelophehad challenged laws and traditions that were so comprehensively systemic and ingrained into the human mind and fabric as to remain heretofore unquestioned: laws and traditions of patriarchy and social currency and divine law, the highest law in the land, and the five daughters of Zelophehad challenged it all and walked away with justice. As that 13th century midrash that Rabbi Marci sent me reads, “Flesh and blood is apt to be more merciful to males than to females. But He who spoke and the world came into being is different – His mercies are for males as well as females, His mercies are for all: The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works.”

            I really had to wrestle with which scripture lesson I’d ask Deb Calamari to read this morning. Do I ask her to attempt a tongue-twisting array of ancient Hebrew names from the book of Numbers, names like Hepher and Machir and Mahlah and Hoglah and Milcah and Tirzah and Eleazar and Zelophehad? If you read my blog this week you’ll have seen that even the General Minster and President of the UCC, John Dorhauer, had difficulty with the name Zelophehad. Or do I ask Deb to read one of the more salacious selections of scripture? To be honest, you and I all know that Deb can handle pretty much anything she is asked to do, and so I thank her for bringing to us this morning part of the story of Susanna. Has anyone heard the story of Susanna before? Her story is so compelling that George Frederick Handel wrote an opera about her. Susanna’s tale is found in the apocrypha, those scriptures between the Old and New Testaments that, while not considered part of the Bible per se in some traditions, still tell us something important about God in relationship to humanity, and the story of Susanna is a powerful one of faithfulness and justice.

            Like the daughters of Zelophehad, Susanna found herself up against a powerful patriarchy. But her situation was much more dangerous. As Deb described it for us, two very powerful, respected, influential and seemingly godly men, burned with desire for the beautiful Susanna and hid in her garden to watch her bathe. When they accidentally discovered each other trying to spy on her, they decided to team up and, well, there is no nice way to put this, to plan a sexual assault. Their tool of compulsion however was not brute force, but rather power and shame. They told her that if she did not give in to them they would concoct a story about seeing her trysting with a secret lover. Now these men were elders of the temple court, men of power and esteem whose word would naturally be taken over hers because, well, because they were men of power and esteem and she was a woman. Who would believe a woman who would dare to accuse paragons of civic and religious virtue, of attempting to molest and violate her? Who would possibly believe her? What would become of her precious faith and virtue then?

            Even though Susanna found herself in a no-win situation, nevertheless, she persisted. “Susanna groaned and said, ‘I am completely trapped. For if I do this, it will mean death for me; if I do not, I cannot escape your hands. I choose not to do it; I will fall into your hands, rather than sin in the sight of the Lord.’” While she kept her faith and her virtue, her reputation and character were about to be destroyed by two frauds.

            But God would not leave her desolate. The book of Susanna, only one chapter long, is thought by some to be the concluding chapter of the book of the prophet Daniel. And so it is that Daniel comes on the scene, recognizes what’s going on, and suggests a resolution: simply put, he decides an investigation is in order. “Separate [the elders] from each other,” he proposes, “and I will examine them.” The elders are separated, and Daniel asks each one about the supposed lover of Susanna they claimed to have seen. “Under what tree,” he asked the first, “did you see her being intimate with him?” “Under a mastic tree,” came the reply. Then Daniel interviewed the other elder with the same question: “Under what tree did you see her being intimate with him?” “Under an evergreen oak.” Thus the lie is revealed by their conflicting testimony and Susanna is redeemed. And the story concludes, “Then the whole assembly raised a great shout and blessed God, who saves those who hope in him. And they took action against the two elders, because out of their own mouths Daniel had convicted them of bearing false witness.”

            Two biblical stories of women pursuing justice in a world, a culture and an institution dominated by men. Two biblical stories of justice served by people like Moses and Daniel, who knew that injustice and unfairness, whether they be the product of malice or inertia, are not the way of God. Two biblical stories of women who could easily have been swallowed up and spit out by patriarchy and power, and the men who stood with them and for them. Do these two stories sound remotely like anything we have been witnessing in the past week? Do they give us any sense of a way through? These are but two stories among those many, many instances in scripture where we are best served by letting the Bible speak for itself, and take us where it will.

            Amen.

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