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Archdiocesan Family Life Commission celebrates…Trailblazers: The daughters of Zelophehad

By Carla Thomas

The recent election of Kamla Persad-Bissessar to the office of Prime Minister marked a watershed in the political life of Trinidad and Tobago. For the first time in our country’s history, a female candidate was chosen to lead the nation. Together with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina and Laura Chinchilla, President of Costa Rica, they comprise a small group in the Caribbean and Latin America region who represent the highest form of political advancement for women and are living testimony to what is possible when hearts are stirred by compassion and spirits undaunted by challenges that appear insurmountable.

The daughters of Zelophehad were likewise pioneering women in their day. Without doubt, their actions deserved respect and recognition. But, who were they? What was their story?

The narrative is found in the Book of Numbers, principally Nb 27: 1-11. The book itself recounts the difficult journey of the tribes of Israel through the desert of Sinai, the wilderness of Paran, Kadesh and finally the region of Transjordania in preparation for entry into the Promised Land.  It was a journey in which God remained ever-present to the chosen people and was faithful in spite of numerous instances in which the people themselves lost faith. Laws and regulations were established for religious worship and counts were taken of clans and families over at least two generations. The census taken of the sons of Israel was crucial for it marked the basis upon which “the land was to be shared out as a heritage” (Nb 26: 52). It is perhaps important to underscore at this point the significance of the land for Israel who for centuries had been a nation without a “living space” of its own, essentially always sojourners in foreign lands. Land represented stability and security. It was integral to the promise between God and the chosen people.

Scripture first introduces us to Zelophehad during the census at Nb 26: 33. We are told that he had no sons but only daughters and that he belonged to the clan of Manasseh, son of Joseph. It is important to understand that legislation at that time provided for inheritance to be passed on only through sons. According to Raymond E Brown et al (The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Student Edition, pg 91) in a case where the deceased left no sons, the levirate marriage would provide a male heir. Under levirate law if a man died without an heir, his brother was expected to marry the wife. The first son born to her would assume the name of the dead brother, thus his name would not be “blotted out in Israel” (Dt 25: 5-6).  Brown et al suggest that in the case of the family of Zelophehad, such a marriage was apparently not possible, presumably because the wife was deceased as well.

The daughters of Zelophehad thus came forward and appeared before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole community at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (Nb 27:2). They presented the following case to Moses: “Our father died in the desert. He was not one of the company of those who conspired against YHWH…Why must our father’s name be lost to his clan?  Since he had no son, give us some property among our father’s kinsmen” (Nb 27: 3-4).

It was a truly remarkable action. In the first instance, scripture identifies each of the five daughters by name: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah (Nb 27: 1). This is significant for out of the 36 chapters in a book which is about the movement of an entire nation, no other women are mentioned by name except for Miriam (Nb 12) the sister of Moses and Aaron, Jochebed the wife of Amram and daughter of Levi who was their mother (Nb 26: 59), and then Serah daughter of Asher (Nb 26: 46). In the Book of Numbers, women are absent and their voices silent.

The daughters of Zelophehad stood up and spoke out. We see in them the story of women whose sense of right, and faith in a God of justice and mercy propelled them beyond the external socio-cultural limitations of their time. Their approach bore resemblance to the “see-judge-act” methodology employed in contemporary social justice for they recognised the situation in which their family was placed by not having sons, they reckoned that these were not grounds on which their father’s name ought to be lost to his clan and finally they acted by proposing a solution.

In addition, it is important to consider the impact of their family life. Their desire to honour the memory of their deceased father suggests that these women were probably nurtured in an attentive home that fostered in them a sense of self-worth as true daughters of God and instilled the enduring values of community and family loyalty. It must have been a home which empowered them to move past the circumstances of their birth as well as any self-doubt to pursue courageously what they knew to be right. Perhaps, it can even be argued that this was their father’s real inheritance to them.

They present to us the strength of womanhood. They are important examples of people who by refusing to accept the status quo changed the course of history. In their case and though almost certainly not versed in the law, they succeeded in getting the long-standing casuistic laws on inheritance by virtue of male lineage changed, for YHWH affirmed to Moses “The daughters of Zelophehad have a just case.  Give them a property for their inheritance among their father’s kinsmen; pass on to them their father’s inheritance.  Then say this to the sons of Israel, ‘If a man dies without sons, his inheritance is to pass to his daughter’.” (Nb 27: 7-8). Who knows how the lives of many other daughters of Israel in a similar situation were helped that day by the “genius” of these five simple women? A source of inspiration and hope, the story of the daughters of Zelophehad is for women and girls everywhere.


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