Scripture Sketches: Zelophehad's Daughters

Numbers 27  •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 10
The difficulties of questions concerning “Women's Rights” are not quite of such recent origin as some think. The “movement” never reached any acute stage amongst the Hebrews, it is true; for the position of women there was one of honorable consideration and quite above the position they held in any of the contemporary nations. Amongst the most civilized of them, their condition was one of extreme oppression, Herodotus says that in Assyria they were sold by auction; amongst the Romans they were classed with the chattels, res domestica; and amongst the Greeks, Plato's advice was that the children should be always kept away from the mother. The Hebrew child, on the contrary, was commanded to honor his mother as well as his father; and the subjection of the wife enjoined in the New Testament is illustrated by reference to Abraham's wife, who was certainly his companion and not his serf.
Phæbe was servant of the church at Cenchrem: Priscilla was able to instruct Apollos; Timothy is reminded of what he owed to his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. If we are to remember that a woman first listened to the Tempter, we may also remember, that, “Not she with traitorous kiss her Savior stung, Not she denied Him with unholy tongue.... Last at His cross and earliest at His grave.” All this may be noticed without in any way entering into the controversy, respecting the relative merits of men and women, which seems like comparing the merits of a flute with a trumpet. One may harmonize with the other: but why contrast or compare them? We know that green is the complementary color to red; we do not think it necessary to dispute about their respective merits or prefer one to the other. Each is best for its purpose.
Zelophehad had died leaving no sons, and his daughters, seeing that the Promised Land would be allotted without their father's house receiving a portion, had approached Moses and requested their share in the name of the dead. This was before the Promised Land was even in sight. Therefore, beyond all other aspects, the passage stands out as expressive of the anticipating and appropriating power of a living FAITH.
The matter in itself was a small one, but the principle involved was so great and far-reaching that even Moses felt he could not take upon himself the responsibility of deciding it, and referred the subject to the judgment of God1: so easy is it for the humblest to ask a question which the wisest cannot solve. If Moses had been as careful to maintain his reputation for knowing everything as rulers usually are, he would never have confessed his inability to solve so apparently simple a difficulty. But his action was another proof of the simplicity which formed part of the grandeur of his character. And, besides this, it is another proof of the consideration and justice with which women were treated even in those barbarous times by the people of God, and of the evident civilization—from whatever causes—of that nation; for there is no greater test of the advancement of a nation in civilization, than the position which its women occupy. Moses might have brusquely dismissed the matter as too trivial (and embarrassing) for his consideration; but he appeals to Jehovah by Whom he is commanded to grant the claim. A great principle of law was by this laid down for Israel's future guidance, and a great principle of grace was unveiled.
Thus a small matter may involve vast issues. Some seem to think that every small matter does, but happily that is not true. If it were, we should have to be fighting to the death over every scruple of mint, anise, and cummin, whilst neglecting the weightier matters of judgment, mercy, and faith. But it is true that some small-looking questions decide principles of immense magnitude. flow are we then to discern the really important questions? Ah, I grant that there is a margin for dispute. Nevertheless I think that with candor, grace, and discretion we may count on always finding a sure guidance. If we seek it as Moses did, we shall find it as he did—in the word of God. It is well to be not hasty to judge in disputes that seem trivial. For instance these two words that men fought over once, homoousian and homoiousian, seem nearly the same: in fact there is literally only an iota, a Greek ι, between them; yet they are as wide as the poles asunder; for one means a true Christ and the other a false. But on the other hand where it is a question of customs, prejudices, of “meats,” there is no question of principle at all involved, except indeed these principles, “Forbearing one another in love,” “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended or made weak:” “Let your moderation (ἐπιεικὲς) be known unto all men.”
But consider what a living and practical faith that was which enabled these women (concerning whom we have no reason to suppose that they were otherwise than modest and submissive2) to come forth and stand before all the priests and princes, and the whole vast congregation, in order to claim a portion of a land not yet visible. How supremely ridiculous it was, or else how sublime!—according to the way one regards it, for the same action is often sublime towards God and ridiculous towards men. What presumption (ay, that is the term!) for one to believe he is entitled to a portion in the Promised Land, and to try and make a reality—a substance—of it! What presumption indeed, or what humility and faith Is it presumption to believe God's promises? When we think of the effect of faith toward God—moving the arm that moves the world—let us think also of its reactive effect within the possessors. It enables them to see the unseen. The youthful skeptic said he would not believe in what he had not seen. “Hast thou seen thy brains?” asked the Quaker. “Well, no,” said the youthful skeptic. “Then,” replied the other, “dost thou believe thou hast any?” It enables them to brave ridicule and persecution, to count a thing which God has promised as already tangibly and substantially their own.
For “Faith is the SUBSTANCE of things hoped for, THE EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN.” 3Contrast with this short, clear, explanation of the character of faith any of the theological descriptions that are so puzzling. Stay, I will give a specimen written by one of the most learned, capacious, and devout minds of the century:—
“Faith may he defined as fidelity to our own being, so far as such being is not and cannot become an object of the senses; and hence, by clear inference or implication to being generally, as far as the same is not the object of the senses; and again to whatever is affirmed or understood as the condition, or concomitant, or consequence of the same.....4 and so on for 13 pages of explanation, somewhat less distinct as it proceeds. The author of Religio Medici has however, written some beautiful thoughts about faith which may well be considered in a more skeptical day. He says he was greatly struck by Tertullian's expression, certum est quia impossibile est. He does not value very highly a faith which believes things which are inherently probable. It is a high faith that can see the absolutely unseen, and believe that which to the senses seems incredible and impossible.
But faith has its restraints as well as its possessions. The question arose shortly afterward in regard to these women as to what was to become of the land allotted to them if they married. The command is given that, if they take the land, “only to the family of the tribe of thy father shalt thou marry.” Some would have thought this to be an objectionable restraint; but it was of absolute necessity so as not to alienate the property; and every faculty and privilege carries a restraint with it. “Property also has its duties.” At any rate it is characteristic of Zelophehad's daughters, that they accept the condition imposed and observe it with loyalty and submission, though they had not as yet seen so much as a grain of the earth of their promised possession.