A Biblical Vision of Gender Justice

A Bible Study of Numbers 27 from Prayerful Preparation

by Ofelia M. Ortega

For our reflection, I have chosen a text from a book, which I had no end of trouble to “digest.” As a matter of fact, it almost brought me to a sort of reading indigestion, as it were. The book of Numbers is undoubtedly not very attractive and certainly little known. Origenes admitted this as he wrote: “The reading of the Gospels, the Letters or the Psalms is assumed with joy by everybody, and all stick to them with pleasure; people are happy to find in them some remedy to their illness. However, if they turn to read the book of Numbers … many will believe that it is all useless, that it will not provide a remedy for their weakness, nor salvation for their souls; they will reject it and put it aside as food that is difficult to digest.”

Nevertheless, as Katherine Doob Sakenfeld stated, “the book of Numbers, even though it is not well known today by comparison to Genesis or Exodus, helped to provide basic religious guidance for the ancient Israelite community.”

This book seems to intend to make women “invisible.” The Levite and priesthood leadership in worship is really surprising. They “surround” the holy places as guardians, closing constantly any “space” to the participation of women. And yet women appear now and then as bright flashes of revelation in nine out of the 36 chapters in the book, showing to us that the male priesthood barrier, marked by women’s exclusion, can always be surpassed by women who are capable of adding “courage” to the faith they profess. To put it in the words of Ivone Gebara: “the patriarchal wall is tall and impenetrable, but we are like small ants smart in opening holes into it to get to the other side.”

And this is precisely what is done by the daughters of Zelophehad—Mahlah, Noah, Milkah, Hoglah and Tirzah—when they went to talk with Moses personally and publicly (Numbers 27). It is then no wonder that the message of these five women reaches us today, like the glowing light of a candle, which, small though it may be, dissipates the surrounding darkness.

I: These women have their names
We—women—lose our names along the way, first legally, then emotionally. We no longer know who we are. We lose dignity and self-esteem by not being called our names. These women (although “the daughters of”) have proper names, which entitles them to establish a claim to get back the inheritance they seemed to have lost; the inheritance of the father who died and had no sons. These women were really smart. They advocated that the name of their father should not be lost by losing the land, which should have corresponded to him if he had had sons. Their decision was a clever one, and it is for this reason that their names appeared in the Scriptures.

II: The voice of women
In claiming for their right to receive their heritage, these women challenge male authority and the power. Their voices must be heard. They have the courage to face Moses, the priest Eleazar, the leaders and all the congregation (Numbers 27:2). They stood before, so it is stated in the text. They did not bow, they did not kneel down in humiliation. They were standing up before them “by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation,” evidently by the entrance of the sacred enclosure. Here, in the void space, in the midst of the camp, and close to the presence-chamber of God, they spoke. But today we need to break the spell of silence which covers women’s lives, as Mahla, Noah, Milkah, Hoglah and Tirsah did.

III: Let us go into the sacred space
And they spoke at the entrance of the sacred space! The sacred space has also been banned for us. One of the most precious experiences in my life was a visit I paid to the Orthodox Church in Romania. At the time of the Eucharist, by the altar, the group that was conducting the worship service went around in circles with the sacrament while the choir performed. The women in the congregation then moved to the “sacred area” intended for men, and there they threw blouses, kerchiefs and pieces of cloth, so that the sacrament (which was in the hands of the priests) could exert a beneficial influence upon these cloth items. This meant invading the sacred space, but the invasion was beautiful, and blessed by God. In the Old Testament, God dwelled in the OPEN SPACE. Jews did not conceive the presence of God materially, that is, as corporeal. The theological concept of OPEN SPACE was central to the prophetic announcement of the Jewish people. God dwelled in the “OPEN SPACE” between the two wings of the cherubs, almost on the verge of touching (infinitesimally separated from each other).

We Christian people have minimized the value of this concept of the presence of God in a particular OPEN SPACE, and not only have we “closed the space” but have rendered the sacred corporeal. We have enclosed it in a body. We have rendered it material. Such a conception of the sacred, besides becoming material as a temple-object, sacrarium, Eucharist, priest, bishop, pope, is placed in the exterior, outside ourselves. That is the reason why it is a sacrilege to profane or treat with disrespect a sacred person or object. The point is not what they are in themselves but what they represent.

In contrast with this, to mistreat, manipulate (profane) the dignity of any human being is not seen as something grave. Sometimes the death penalty does not give rise to any condemnation, and yet to profane a sacred person or object does. We have to affirm that “every life is sacred.” It is necessary to open up the spaces. We need to break down the “sacred and the chastity belts” which have been imposed upon us, rendering our bodies impure, regardless of the fact that God made them pure and holy, in God’s own image and likeness.

IV: God makes a choice in favour of women (verse 5)
This decision is an act of justice, “women are right.” The matter is discussed: Victory! The demand has been listened and accepted. Grave injustices may derive from adhering to cultural and social traditions, without judging the consequence that such traditions or laws may have for the life of our women. In this narrative we see a God of equity showing God’s disregard for mere legal rights. Any law that contradicts the law of love to God and love to the neighbour is doomed in the very making of it, and it is a blessing that such laws get broken and ultimately destroyed by the energy of an expanding life. And this is exactly what happens in our story. “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 fathers’ brothers… Moses brought their case before the Lord. 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 of their father on them” (4-7).

What are the rules or norms which regulate and govern the lives of our women and girls in church and in society? Shall we have the courage to analyze them, eliminate them or change them in order to enrich the life of our communities? Let me tell you a little story about Evangelina Corona Cadena from the Presbyterian Church of Mexico. In this church a woman became a Federal Deputy of the Congress of the Mexican Union. Her participation in the political life of the country was brilliant. Shortly after this, she was elected elder of her local church. The presbytery voted against the decision of this congregation, since the Presbyterian Church in Mexico does not ordain women pastors or elders. Unbelievable! Is it not? A woman can become a member of congress in Mexico but not elder of her own local church. I was glad to learn that the women in Mexico published a book with a photo of Evangelina’s face on the front cover, showing this woman to the ecclesiastic world that rejected her. But God is on our side, and the Bible story in Numbers 27 reaffirms this fact.

V: The action of these women became a rule or norm of the right for the Jewish people
It was the promulgation of a new legislation! Yes! We as women can bring about changes in the laws that mean oppression and exclusion for us! Changes such as the long-term imprisonment of rapists and the laws against family violence which are in practice today in many countries. Women are creating new areas of action that did not exist previously in social and economic policies. And we have to continue fighting in that direction, just as the daughters of Zalophehad did! This Bible text is a proof that an act in favour of justice will have consequences for men and women.

I love this narrative, because the five sisters, besides defending a just law are ready to take the property of the land, which implies breaking with their domestic role, to take over the responsibility of the farm. So they receive a position of privilege but at the same time take over a great responsibility. The law founded on their case must help to make the women of Israel intellectually and morally vigorous. Property is only of value as it is a means to the enlargement and fortifying of people’s life. Nevertheless, we could find the control of the women’s heritage in chapter 36:1-13. This means that we always need to continue the struggle for life alternatives. The decision on behalf of the daughters of Zelophehad was of importance for what it implied rather than for what it actually gave. The original qualification that justified heirship of land was ability to use resources of the inheritance and take part in all national duties. The decision in this case marks the beginning of another conception—that of the personal development of women. The claim of the daughters of Zelophehad was allowed, with the result that they found themselves called to the cultivation of mind and life in a manner that would not otherwise have been open to them.

There is no doubt: they are from now on, NEW WOMEN!

through a love
that surrounds everything
in an eternal sunrise.
No more child deliveries in the exile,
no more dreams of captivity,
no more condemnations on the shoulders.
Now is the time for freedom
which dances joyfully in the daylight…
freedom in the voice and in the eyes,
freedom where to walk and what to sing.
Newness of life!
They accompany one another,
and applaud,
and carry out their struggle
at the rhythm of their Encounter.
Rebeca Montemayor L.