By Jasmine Obeyesekere Fernando

When Rocking the Boat Is Good: Insights from the Daughters of Zelophehad

Are you comfortable about speaking up for yourself in situations when you experience discrimination? You may have approached the appropriate authorities to explain an injustice and been met with incomprehension, disbelief, condescension, or even hostility. Maybe you get a sense that it is better to be quiet and not rock the boat. Yet somewhere between the 14th and 12th centuries BC, we find a family of sisters who recognize a practice that is discriminatory towards them and speak up, resulting in the passing of more equitable laws within their society.  

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah were the five daughters of a man called Zelophehad who had no sons. They lived toward the end of Moses' leadership of the Israelites. Laws had already been given to this fledgling nation, who was poised to enter Canaan. Living by these laws, the Israelites were to reflect the nature of the God they worshipped — an all-powerful, moral, universal God, in contrast to tribal deities with limited power worshipped by the nations around them. The story of the sisters (Numbers 27:1-11) can speak to our situations today.

Recognize and name the injustice you are facing.

The sisters did. Their laws stipulated that if a man did not have sons, his land would go to the nearest male relative even if he had daughters. The girls reasoned, "Why should our father's name disappear from his clan because he had no son?" It is not always easy to recognize a personal situation that is discriminatory, especially when the injustice springs from people who are generally likeable and are part of the group you belong to. Many women living in patriarchal cultures are unable to recognize instances of injustice — or even if they do, they are hesitant to name unfair practices that hurt them. There is a fatalistic acceptance of their lesser position to men. Sometimes women are not able to articulate discrimination, since it is within the wider family that women experience the preferential treatment given to men. It seems disloyal to speak against your family to others, especially when the norm is for the family elders to represent the family to outsiders.

Advocate for yourself and initiate redress.

Instead of staying quiet for the sake of peace, these women who lived over three thousand years ago refused to accept the status quo that disadvantaged them and took public steps to retain ownership of their family property. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah petition the religious and civic leadership in front of the entire assembly to be given inheritance rights. They don't appeal for sympathy or ask a male relative to speak for them — rather they make their own case. "Why should our father's name disappear from his clan because he had no son?" Their tone is confident as they request, "Give us property among our father's relatives."        

Understand that others may not recognize that there’s a problem unless you speak up.

In this record from the book of Numbers, it is not the religious or political leaders who identify the problem, but a bunch of girls who are personally affected by a lack of adequate protection by law. Their own circumstances uniquely position them to be the first to recognize a flaw in the system. Sometimes people aren't going to know how bad a situation is unless we tell them. Those who have privileged identities in a given society do not experience discrimination first-hand. When the dominant group is not affected by an unjust status quo, they may not realize that a certain group may experience life very differently. Giving voice to a discrimination you experience because of a particular group identity creates a space for the whole group to be heard and a grievance addressed. The all-male leadership in Moses’ time were not personally affected by the gender-discriminatory law and so were unable to see the pain of all-girl families who could not inherit. When the situation is brought to light, we see the leaders being receptive to change that is fair to all.

Work to change your unjust situation and it will pave the way for a smoother path for those who follow you.

Because of the sisters’ initiative in working publicly to address a situation that was personally discriminatory, they were able to bring about a new law that benefitted not only themselves but each all-girl family in Israel that followed. In the absence of a son, a daughter could inherit rather than a man's brother or other male relatives. Were the young women nervous before they made their very public claim? Possibly. It is very likely they hadn't been in the public eye in this way before. What if the girls had allowed their fears and misgivings to overcome them and had remained silent? All-girl families would have had no inheritance rights if they had not rocked the boat. They would have had to wait a few more generations until someone else came along who was willing to speak up. When my daughter came home from kindergarten after learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. some years ago, she had already made the personal connection that if not for his legacy, as a brown-skinned child she would not have been able to be close friends with one of her favorite playmates who was white. Likewise, today’s women vote in elections without giving it a second thought because of the willingness of a few to challenge societal norms many years ago.

Become a leader who places a premium on truth even if it comes from unexpected quarters.

Considering the culture of the times, it is remarkable how Moses and the leadership deal with a new situation which their existing norms do not address. The women’s contention is taken seriously and Moses brings up the issue before God. It is the very first response to the problem. The leaders focus on the merits and justice of the issue, without getting sidetracked about how it is presented or who will lose if the girls win. Some of us are privileged to work for people with a high level of integrity and others of us, not so fortunate. Even if the leaders you encounter — your dissertation committee, university administrators, pastors — aren’t receptive to truth, you can choose to become a leader who is willing to listen to hard, uncomfortable truths, irrespective of who brings them up.  

Remember that lack of precedence does not justify ignoring important questions.

In this story, we see that God did not expect his people to live within a closed system where nothing can be questioned. Instead the daughters of Zelophehad had freedom to highlight the injustice they experienced and effect change. The fact that the existing laws did not address their case was not grounds for dismissing their concern. The fairness of the issue was the focal point and in the absence of precedent, God's mind was sought. When the women highlight the issue, God concurs with them that they are in the right.

Bask in God’s vast and generous boundaries.

Because of the sisters' initiative, God gives a new law. Daughters can inherit in the absence of sons. As the clan heads of Manasseh begin to ponder about the ramifications of this law, they identify a potential problem that could crop up. What if the daughters of Zelophehad married from other Israelite tribes? Then their tribe would lose part of their original land allotment and the tribe into which the women marry will gain more land.

Land was central to an agrarian economy and the land had been divided fairly. Laws had even been given to ensure that every fifty years land would revert back to its original owners. If indeed the daughters of Zelophehad had married outside their tribe, the tribes they married into would benefit from their inheritance and their tribe of origin would suffer financial loss. This is the situation that the family heads of Manasseh discuss with all the other Israelite family heads and their leader Moses (Numbers 36: 1-12). We glimpse the traditional leadership structure at work here, a closed-doors meeting among the male elders, making it even more extraordinary that the girls boldly petitioned not only this group but the entire assembly.

God sees the validity of the elders' point of view and makes amendments to the new law. The daughters of Zelophehad are told to marry within their father's tribal clan to ensure that the inheritance stays within the tribe. This is broad provision of choice since the clans of Manasseh consisted of over fifty thousand men! Legitimate safeguards are given to protect the livelihoods and prosperity of the tribe. God actually says, "They may marry anyone they please," within these very broad parameters. There is plenty of freedom for individual happiness within the boundary of the communal good. The choice of partner is theirs. It is not the responsibility of the clan elders to arrange their marriages. Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Noah choose to marry cousins on their father's side, men they are likely to know better than distant relatives of the same clan.

Look for win-win solutions to your situation.

I love the win-win solution that God brings about. The women get to keep their father's property. The entire tribe is protected from losing its land. God allows human initiative — the girls’ questioning and the men’s concern — to both create and amend laws. There is back and forth dialogue between God and the community as the law is honed to be fair by all.

Trust in God’s justice.

The five sisters make their final appearance as the Israelites settle in Canaan. The promised land allotments are in the process of being given out and the women remind the leadership that God had granted them the right to inherit along with their uncles. Moses is dead and Joshua is the new leader, yet the laws made during Moses’s tenure are honored by Joshua (Joshua 17:3-6). There is no lack of political will in implementing the law. The women receive their land.

The daughters of Zelophehad see the fruit of the good they strove for and the leaders make the necessary time to address the issue fairly. In our situations, justice is not always prompt and sometimes does not come at all. Can we still wait with hope for God to work out all things for good? 

Reconcile yourself to being noticed.

For good or ill, people will notice you when you begin speaking up. They may see you as a troublemaker, the one who asks the awkward question so that everyone has to stay longer at the meeting rather than go home. Or they may silently respect you for raising issues that they would rather not voice themselves, the one who doesn’t accept the explanation that “this is how things have always been done around here.” The five daughters of Zelophehad cause enough of a mark to make it to Israel’s official records. In a census of Israel that records over six hundred thousand men solely by clans (Numbers 26), apart from Moses’ family only Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Noah are individually named!

Seek to dismantle unjust structures. 

Perhaps there is nothing personal at stake for you now, but what about other communities? Everyone does not automatically receive the advantages we take for granted. The discrimination faced by the daughters of Zelophehad was not only personal but systemic. During Sri Lanka’s long civil war, some army checkpoints at entry points to the capital had stop signs only in Sinhala, the majority language. Vehicles were stopped and searched for potential terrorists who would necessarily need to be of the Tamil ethnic minority. Many Tamils were from geographic areas where only the Tamil language was spoken and Sinhala was unfamiliar, but the signs demonstrated the expectation that everyone would know the majority language — a clear disadvantage for those of the Tamil ethnic minority.

My husband grew up for some years in an Islamic region in West Africa where his parents taught at the local schools. Once there was a competitive exam in the region to select students to attend better schools in the area. The kids chosen were not from the top of the class, but from the fourth rank downwards. My husband was a foreigner and the boys in second and third places were Christians from another region — and their ethnic or religious status caused them to be discriminated against in this competition for a place in these better schools. This incident didn't hurt my husband because his family hadn’t planned for him to move far from home, but he remembers the sobbing of the other two children who had earned a place by merit and were yet barred from the school with better facilities.

Laws given for the common good are never exhaustive. The historical record in Numbers shows that God does not consider people puppets unable to contribute to issues that affect them. The girls are bold in expressing a new idea that effects good change in their corner of the world. As we are exposed to new situations, we need to listen to others’ concerns and ensure that our laws and practices are fair to all. God draws broad boundaries for human flourishing giving us a large canvas to work things out for ourselves. Like the Old Testament story honored God’s character in the decisions people made, our processes need to respect truth, rather than any preferred point of view.  

Globally, groups with less power face discriminatory laws and practices. Depending on where one lives, the discrimination could be due to gender, religion, race, socio-economic status or a mix of these. In an imperfect world, the disadvantaged do not have the free access to power that the daughters of Zelophehad had. Who are the communities experiencing discrimination that need us to publicly stand with them? They may be a part of our usual landscape — people  we don't give a second thought to. If our social identity shields us from discrimination, a good way to start learning about prejudice faced by other groups is to get to know people different from us, whether in ethnicity, gender, class, faith, or generation. As people who possess a degree of power, let's use our relative power to empower those who have less. Let’s rock that boat.

About the Author

Jasmine is WSAP’s book club host and vocation specialist. She hails from Sri Lanka and has a thirty-year relationship with its national university ministry, the Fellowship of Christian University Students (FOCUS). She has also been involved with InterVarsity for twenty years. She has a BA (Hons.) in English from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, and a MA in International Relations from Syracuse University. She loves writing about theology impacting real life and enjoys British, Korean, and Chinese drama. Jasmine lives in upstate New York with her professor husband and two teenage children.

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