We have come to the final section of the Book of Numbers. The first started with the initial census after the Exodus, which was to prepare the first generations of the Children of Israel for the the journey through the Wilderness. Now we come to the second great census, which prepares the later generations to enter the Promised Land.
We will skip over most of chapter 26 – the names and numbers would leave you numb – but feel free to read them at home. In spite of what I put in your bulletins, we will pick up with chapter 26, verse 63, which sets the stage for what is to come in chapter 27:
[Read Numbers 26:63-69]
The first part we read is an intimidating reminder that God’s will will be done. Just a few weeks into the trip from Egypt to the Promised Land, God declared that none of the generations that disobeyed God’s command to enter Canaan almost 40 years before would enter it now. Not one of them that were counted in the first census was among those counted in the second – with the exception of Caleb and Joshua. Everyone in those generations had died before getting to the Promised Land.
I have said this before, but it is important to repeat this now: the Israelites and the Promised Land are an image – a foreshadowing – of the followers of Jesus Christ and our eternal home with Him. That will come into play as we continue reading in Numbers – chapter 27, verses 1 to 11.
[Read Numbers 27:1-11]
This is radical. We have to remember that this was a time and place very different from our own. Women had little legal standing, almost no economic freedom, and no property rights. Some of that changed with God’s giving of the Law on Mount Sinai – in that wives now had the right to expect fidelity from their husbands, and men could not take liberties with woman indiscriminately. But God’s Law – as extensive as it was – did not spell out every right and rule. The common law of the society dictated much of the rest – including the notion that daughters were not entitled to any of their father’s estate.
That became a problem for Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah when their father, Zelophehad, died. He died in the desert because of some unspecified sin he had committed – and he died without a son to inherit the land that he was supposed to receive once the Israelites got to Canaan.
Each of the tribes of Israel – with the exception of the Levites – was to receive a portion of the land, and the size of that portion depended on how many people from each tribe were counted in the census. The land was supposed to stay with each family – and the family name would be attached to it.
But Zelophehad’s name would disappear from the tribe of Manasseh – and his daughters would be left with no way to support themselves. They would have no land to farm or to sell, they would not be able to settle in the Promised Land with other family members, and they would have no dowries to attract husbands.
Again – this was a very different society from ours. Women did not support themselves; they relied on husbands to provide, and for sons to take care of them once their husbands died. Families were large, so they almost always had at least one son.
I am assuming that Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah were not married, because they were concerned enough to ask Moses and Eleazar, the High Priest, and the whole assembly of Israelites at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting to do something about the injustice.
That was an act both of faith and of courage: faith in that they believed God’s promises to bring them into the Promised Land with the rest of the later generations of Israelites; courage in that these women took their complaint to Israel’s top civil and religious leaders, as well as the leaders of the tribes, and the entire congregation of Israelites. These women had guts!
Moses took their concern to the Lord, who sided with the daughters. In fact, God said, “You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and turn their father’s inheritance over to them.”
The way God words this, it sounds as though God is saying to Moses, “Why do I have to tell you this? You should have been able to figure this one out from the other laws I have given you.”
Then God clarifies it all for Moses: if there is no son, then the daughters get the inheritance. If there is no daughter, then the brothers get it. If there is no brother, then it goes to the nearest relative. In this way, the property will remain in the family – and the family name stays with it. It may be safe to assume that the relatives will provide for the widow and daughters.
And the wording from God indicates that the daughters of Zelophehad could will their property to their descendants.
What a change from the way women were treated just a few years before this! We just heard women going from being a man’s property to being able to inherit a man’s property.
This was another significant development in the history of women’s rights. Sadly, over the years, we have chipped away at those rights. As we talked about last Sunday, men continue to objectify women. Women are still discriminated against in hiring, promotions, and raises.
For goodness’ sake, women have had the constitutional right to vote in the United States for only 99 years of our 243 years of freedom. The hundredth anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment by the U.S. Senate went almost unnoticed this past June 4th – probably because of the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
And the church has been even more reluctant to recognize women’s rights to serve – except for Sunday School teachers. We have had female ruling elders for only 89 years, and female pastors for only 63 years.
But there has always been a right that men could not take away from women: the right to their inheritance as children of God.
Paul put it this way in Romans 8:17 – “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
Heirs. Women and girls who follow Jesus Christ are equal heirs with men and boys in the glory that will come at the resurrection. The resurrection to eternal life has nothing to do with gender – and everything to do with God’s grace and our faith.
And from our reading today from Galatians 3: “You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
Just as Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah had an inheritance in the Promised Land that could not be taken away from them, so you as believers have an inheritance promised to you in Eternity that can never be taken away from you.