Because Christianity is bigger than Biblical manhood or Biblical womanhood (Blog of Retha Faurie)

Posts tagged ‘Zelophehad’s daughters’

Rumors of God’s patriarchalism have been greatly exaggerated (Part 1, Zelophehad’s daughters)

(Note: When I refer to patriarchy on this blog, it usually refers to the ideology of Vision Forum, Bill Gothard, etc. In this post and others of this series, patriarchy will refer to the word’s broader meaning.)

A question posed to me on another blog (I was defending that Christians should hold the Bible in high regard) was:

What about the possibility that patriarchal cultural views slipped into the Bible? The Bible is full of things that is impossible for a loving God (if he exist) to say.

I think that we often read patriarchy into the Bible when God did not intend it, or fail to see the patriarchal bend of Bible characters as theirs and not God’s.

As a case in point, here is the story of Zelophehad’s daughters. (Numbers 27)

Here is the common version:

God made a rule that only males could inherit. (How patriarchal of Him!) Then some young women whose father died came to Him. Mahlah and her sisters, Zelophehad’s daughters, asked if they could inherit.

Although Moses know God already ruled against them, he took their case to God. In Mahlah et. al vs. God, God as judge ruled in favor of the plaintiff. (Why did he not make fair rules from the beginning?)

And He decreed girls could, in future, be second in line for their father’s inheritance, but boys should get favored. (Again, that would be patriarchal!)

Here is apparently the more accurate, measured by the Bible, version:

God wanted to divide the newly acquired land between the Israelites. So He ordered that everyone should be counted by father. (26:2) This command is not about inheritance laws in general, but about practical rulings for dividing the land.

In fact, God make no rule, anywhere in the Bible, saying only males should/could inherit. It just isn’t there. (I will withdraw this statement if anyone points out such a rule to me.)

They listed the people by father. (26:3-51)

God said to give land to each family: (Each family, not each father) Large pieces for large families, small pieces for small families. (26:53-56)

Mahlah and her sisters came to Moses: God said to list people by father and give land accordingly, but their father was dead! Would these orphans go uncounted, and not get land, even shared with family, anywhere? Or would the five of them get counted with some cousin or uncle’s family, and enlarge the land that patriarch will rule by the large-piece-of-land-for-large-family rule?

Anyway, they wanted what God already said (26:2&53-56) in his general instructions: To be listed by their father, and inherit land for the Zelophehad family.

This paragraph is speculative, but these unmarried girls were probably teenagers or younger. It is very unlikely that five adult women would be unmarried in Ancient Near East society. I think that not just their portion of land, but also their independence may have been on trail: If five unmarried girls could get their own land, they could probably live on it. Without a father or guardian in sight? Their not needing a guardian is alluded to in “They could marry whom they think best.” (36:6) Usually, the father/ guardian gave girls in marriage.

Whether it was independence or just inheritance at stake, the patriarchal society did not want to give these unmarried (strike one) orphan (strike two) females (strike three) what God said all Israel could have.

I could just imagine a stiff-necked Israelite leader saying: “God did make this general rule of giving to each family, listed by their father, but this can’t count for unmarried orphan girls! How could these waifs handle land ownership? Moses, take this back to God. I’m sure He did not mean this rule should count for girls!”

Even Moses was not sure how he should rule, and took it back to God.

The court case was Israelite rule enforcers vs. God, Mahlah, et al.  God ruled for these orphan girls – They should get their land. His justice, giving to each family a share, goes for fatherless girls too.

He then made what seems to be the only rule pertaining to inheritance in general:

Numbers 27:8 If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.

Note that He did not say, sons first, daughters second. He said that if you are so inclined as to favor someone over your daughter as your heir, he forbids you from it being anyone except your son.. (God in the Bible never forbade people from favoring one of their sons over his brothers either, so I am unsurprised that he does not forbid favoring a son over a daughter.)

Where is the patriarchy in this story?

It is in the attitude of those who did not want to give Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah their piece of land. It is in the eye of the reader who assume God was unjust towards women, and had to change His rules for these daughters to get anything. Like in many other allegedly patriarchal stories in the Bible, God did not endorse human patriarchy here.

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