Gracious God, we thank you for glass-shattering sisters and brothers of times past who stepped up and spoke out for the cause of justice. Help us, God, to take risks that move your heart and affirm your righteousness. Use us, by the power of your Holy Spirit, to collaborate with others so that together we can make lasting changes that bear witness to your love, grace, mercy, and justice on earth as it is in heaven. In the name of the one who gave all that we might have life, amen.
“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them’” (Numbers 27:6-7).
Introduction to the Daughters of Zelophehad
In Numbers 26, God instructs Moses and Eleazar the priest to take a census of men of a certain age who are fit for battle. Tribe by tribe, family by family, ancestors were named and the troops were numbered. We encounter the daughters of Zelophehad for the first time in Numbers 26:33 where they are inserted into the census list of warriors among the various tribes. Because women are rarely mentioned by name in biblical lists, the inclusion of these women in the census of warriors is noteworthy.
Translators have puzzled with what to do with their inclusion here, given that Zelophehad had no sons. Were his daughters over the age of 20 and physically fit for war? Did they seek to be listed among the warriors? Or is the composer of Numbers simply acknowledging, more as a parenthetical aside, the unfortunate situation of a certain Zelophehad, who had no sons, but had several daughters?
Translators have attempted to make sense of this in different ways. The TNIV puts all of verse 33 in parentheses, setting Zelophehad’s situation with his daughters off to the side. This suggests they were an afterthought, which is reinforced by the fact their names were not mentioned when it came time to distribute property. The NRSV does not insert parentheses, but does create contrast with the other entries. The first word in the verse is the conjunction “and,” but it is translated here as “now” (“Now Zelophehad … had no sons”), implying an unusual situation. Regardless, it is noteworthy that the daughters of Zelophehad are included here, by name, as sisters who shattered the glass ceiling in ancient Israel.
Digging Deeper: A Glass-Shattering Move
Numbers 27 opens with a powerful image. The daughters of Zelophehad made a petition for their father’s property. Standing together at the entrance of the Tabernacle before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all of the community, these women did the unthinkable. They spoke up and spoke out for what they deemed just and right. We don’t know if they shouted confidently, or if their voices were barely above a whisper, but whatever the volume, Scripture records them saying in unison: “Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers” (Numbers 27:3-4).
For the daughters of Zelophehad, this was a risky move. Their petition not only challenged the property laws in ancient Israel, but also challenged their father’s brothers who would have been the rightful inheritors of the land since their father had no sons. If Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah were granted the land, their uncles would receive less property. If they were not granted the land, the sisters would be beholden to the care of those whom they had challenged. In either case, by standing together and raising their voices, they risked being pariahs in their family and community. They risked being kicked out of the assembly and being told to go back to their tent. They risked being told that women are to be seen and not heard. They risked their uncles cutting them off because they were mad. They risked losing everything. Risky as it was, the daughters of Zelophehad made the first crack in the process of shattering the glass ceiling in ancient Israel.
But the daughters of Zelophehad knew they couldn’t shatter the glass ceiling on their own. They would need help, and the law was against them. The law declaring who could own property was clear. Moses would have been well within his authority to silence these women. But Moses does not make a decision on his own or consult the leaders who would likely have been inclined to uphold the status quo. Instead, Moses puts a few more cracks in the ceiling. He heard their petition and went directly to God.
God replies, and the cracks spread in the ceiling. God pronounces that the daughters of Zelophehad were correct in their claim. God orders Moses to divide Zelophehad’s property evenly between Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. But God doesn’t stop there. God, who is righteous and just in all ways, completely shatters the ceiling. God changes the law so that if a man dies and has no sons, his daughters will receive the inheritance!
This story illustrates how shattering glass is not only the work of those on the margins or those being oppressed. Leaders, too, have a responsibility to crack the glass. But more than anything, it is a reminder that shattering glass—doing the work of justice—is what God is all about. And when God is brought into the process, no ceiling is safe.
She Is Called and We Are Called
For the daughters of Zelophehad, the fate of their father’s inheritance was an “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS” situation. Have you ever noticed those red boxes posted on the wall with this message? They are bright red to capture your attention. There is a metal link chain attached to the box that has a hammer or some other sharp tool at the end. The front of the box is clear glass with the words of instruction written in bold lettering. There are some humorous replica boxes with M&M’s inside, but most of them have a fire extinguisher or alarm button inside of them. They are usually in high traffic areas where there is an increased risk of fire or medical danger. In a crisis situation, an emergency situation, a situation of grave danger, one is to break the glass in order to remedy and correct whatever emergency is taking place.
The daughters of Zelophehad were in a situation that warranted courage. These sisters took a risk and stood in the face of power to demand a change of law so that they could have a future worth living. We have no shortage of “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS” situations in our society. Courage is a much needed virtue as God’s people face the issues of the day. Whether in a whisper or shout, tweet or phone call, protest or prayer vigil, we are called to summon the courage within us to raise our voices against all forms of injustice.
It takes strength and conviction—a knowing that fears can be faced because God is our ultimate source of strength—to face individual and systemic evil, oppression, and injustice. Look around: are there any laws that need to be amended, rules that need to be changed, tables that need to be dismantled, or ceilings that need to be shattered around you? Perhaps God is calling you to stand up and speak out with courage to break glass and remedy an emergency in your family, community, or congregation so that all of God’s people—women, men, girls, and boys—have what they need to thrive.
But courage alone does not create lasting change. There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The daughters of Zelophehad went far, gaining an audience with Moses and the approval of God, because they worked together. There is great power in collaboration. We are called by God to collaborate. The church is at her best when all her people work together. Our ministries are more effective when we work together. Our communities are stronger when we work together. From the daughters of Zelophehad to the Day of Pentecost to the Suffragette Movement and #MeToo Movement, collaborations like these invoke the Spirit and make an indelible impact.
Just like the daughters of Zelophehad, we are called to be courageous. Just like these sisters, we are called to be collaborative. When God’s people work courageously and collaboratively, guided and affirmed by the Spirit of God, we effect lasting change in the lives of individuals and communities.
In the Gospel of Luke, we encounter Martha, a land-owning woman, who hosted Jesus in her Bethany home during a respite from his travels. In the Acts of the Apostles, we meet Lydia, a land-owning woman, who welcomed the Apostle Paul into her home so that he could encourage the saints in Philippi. The daughters of Zelophehad helped pave the way for countless unnamed women in the centuries that followed to own land. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, first named as an afterthought because their father had no sons, shattered glass in ways that opened doors and provided opportunities for and beyond themselves. May our vision, voice, and actions for justice make ways, open doors, and provide opportunities for ourselves and the generations that follow us. It’s time to shatter some glass!