“How to Rebel Against God”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, April 23, 2023
Reading: Number 27:1-11
At a church I served once, the women’s group invited me to speak, like my wife Jaylynn is going to do for our women’s group here soon. I was happy to accept. Then the leader gave me some advice: ‘don’t talk about women in the Bible. It’s boring. We’ve all heard that talk a hundred times. We could give it better than you. Do something not boring. Okay?’
Uh, right, I was totally not considering that topic at all.
The reading for this morning is about five courageous women in the Bible. We are doing a series on weird texts. And this text is not in the lectionary that churches like ours use. I’ve never preached on it, the book of Numbers isn’t a common go-to for churches in general, so you’ve likely never heard a sermon on it.
The Bible often doesn’t name someone personally. Sometimes this is an intentional diss: the Pharaoh who oppresses Israel is unnamed. The world’s most powerful person and the Bible doesn’t bother to say which one. Sometimes it doesn’t name women, just gives their husbands’ names: the wife of Noah, the wife of Lot. Poor form, I know, but up until about 100 years ago that would’ve been acceptable among us as well. Sometimes in the New Testament also women aren’t named: the Syro-Phoenician woman, or the woman who anoints Jesus’s feet.
That makes it all the more surprising that our women today are named: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Some of those names are making a comeback: friends have named daughters after Mahlah, Noah, Tirzah. Hoglah, not so much. They’re named five different times in the Old Testament. They have no brothers, and their father has died. Do they not get to inherit their father’s land? Or is their father’s name going to pass from history and be forgotten?
Now, don’t let anyone fool you that this is modern feminism in advance. It’s not, as much as I wish it were. And this is also not a patronizing pat on the head: Oh look, women in the Bible! That’s what my former women’s group was worried about. This is something altogether more interesting.
Jonathan Sacks, late chief rabbi of Great Britain, tells a story of an eccentric old farmer in England whose hobby was buying old paintings. Had so many he kept them in stacks in sheds. His kids weren’t amused, so they got rid of the lot as soon as he died, including one he’d bought for £12. An art dealer looking through a magnifying glass saw it listed for £15,000. Realized it was misattributed. It was actually a missing masterpiece by Nicholas Poussin. His bidding raised the price to £150,000. He then sold it for its proper price: £4.5 million, in 1995 money, or more than £10 million today. Its an image of the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and it now hangs in the Israel museum in that great city. Rabbi Sacks sees a parallel with how many treat our religious identity. It’s a treasure often treated like an inheritance of trash. Sometimes restored to its rightful place of honour.
This story is also a treasure. Treated like trash. Not read or commented on. Advocates of “progress” often find arrayed against themselves religious traditionalists: no to women voting, no to the civil rights movement, no to gay people, no, no, no. But what if the very Bible “traditionalists” claim to defend says different? What if scripture is political dynamite, blowing up knee jerk arguments, whether “progressive” or “conservative”?
Here’s the dynamite. The people of God are wandering in the wilderness 40 years, a whole generation. Nothing grows. Scorpions sting. No rain, until there’s too much, and you drown. A blast oven in the day. A freezer at night. Jews and Christians alike see the wilderness as an image for the life of faith. Wandering for years. ‘Moses, you promised milk and honey. But all we have is dirt and pain.’ There are rebellions, including from within Moses’ own family. But the promised land is still out there. So, Moses sends twelve spies to check it out. Ten come back with a bad report. ‘Yeah, it flows with milk and honey alright. But the people are huge. We look like grasshoppers compared to them. We can’t conquer it.’ And all Israel wails. (Num. 14:4) “Let us choose a captain and go back to Egypt.” Only Caleb and Joshua among the twelve spies are brave enough to say, ‘uh, the Lord is with us, so, yeah, let’s go take the land, grasshoppers.’ But most of the men take a look at the promised land and say, ‘oh no way. I miss my old shackles.’
In our story for today five women come forward. The Hebrew is more demonstrative: they push themselves forward. They’re in front of the tent of meeting, the forerunner to the temple, where the ark of the covenant is, God’s own presence. Moses and Aaron and Eliezer the priest are there. This is a public demonstration, no quiet backroom. And they bring forward an issue not yet faced in the law. Land is passed down from father to son, like in most societies. ‘But our father had no sons, only us daughters. Surely his portion of the land shouldn’t be lost, should it?’ Now here’s the key point. The male spies trembled when they saw the promised land. ‘Back to Egypt, please.’ These women foresee the promised land. They don’t even see it with their own eyes. And they want it. They demand their share. One ancient Jewish interpreter says God allowed Moses to send men to spy, but Moses should’ve sent women. Men only see defeat. Women see home, and they are not afraid to fight for it.
There’s more dynamite here. Israel is dividing up a land it does not yet possess. They’re still in the desert. Sand in their mouth and eyes, the generation of those who remember Egypt almost gone, no life but this wandering. ‘More cactus soup? We flavored it with a little scorpion dust...’. And they’re divvying up the promised land. They don’t even have it yet, not an inch of it! Yet they’re laying claim to land not yet theirs. And they’re doing it—this is amazing—they’re doing it completely equally. Each of the twelve tribes gets a parcel. Just so no one thinks there’s favouritism, the parcels are divvied up randomly by drawing lots. Oh, and there’s a year of Jubilee. Every 50 years the land goes back to its tribe. No one is without land in perpetuity.
You and I think of land rather differently. For us, it’s real estate. You buy and sell. You also pass it down as inheritance. We have taxes and government involved (not sure that’s an improvement). But no one can say, hey, I’m a citizen, where’s my land? Sorry buddy your great-grandfather sold it. Or your family’s never had any. These sisters in Israel say, hey, we are daughters of Sarah, so where’s our land? And they’re heard and get what they want.
Land is food, provision, life. And so everyone in Israel gets some. If they have to sell it away at some point, to get out of debt, it bounces back to the family at the Jubilee. This is a startlingly egalitarian vision for a society. Historians aren’t even sure it ever actually happened, the equal ownership, the Jubilee. But it’s how Israel’s promised land is supposed to work. Imagine if one of our mayoral candidates proposed it—they’d be called communists, or worse. And here it is in the Bible, recorded for all posterity. One family, one parcel, forever. Even if you lose it for a bit, you get it back. Don’t you think that’d be dynamite to propose in this city? Where housing affordability is our unsolvable problem?
But the daughters of Zelophehad have pointed out a problem. You can’t have patrilineal inheritance and also this equality. It’s not fair if a man has no sons that his portion be cut off. Give us our land, they insist, or don’t pretend to be so egalitarian. Moses sees they have a case and consults the Lord. God says to Moses, Numbers 27:7, “the daughters of Zelophehad are right: you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance.” When two principles conflict—only men owning land and equal land for each tribe—equal land for each tribe wins.
Many who advocate for justice take wisdom from this story. The women go together, not solo. This is not our age’s myth of a solitary hero standing up to a corrupt institution. No, these five clasp hands and go together, making each other braver. And the institution isn’t actually corrupt. In fact, it works exactly like it’s supposed to. A hard case comes to Moses, he takes it to God, and God decides for justice. Later in the book of Joshua the sisters remind the elders of their request, and duly receive their land. And again, they’re all five named. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. People joke about these lists of names in the Bible--you didn’t realize these lists could be dynamite, did you?
It’s a bit like the more famous parable of Jesus about the day labourers. A man hires a bunch at 9:00AM and promises them a day’s wage. He hires more two hours later. More two hours later. More with just an hour left in the day. Pays the last workers first. Gives them a day’s wage for their one hour’s work. The all-day workers are stoked, hey, we worked eight times as long, we’re gonna get eight times as much! But no. Everyone gets a day’s wage. The all-day workers are furious. But the hirer says, ‘hey, I’ve done you no wrong. You got what I promised. If I give equally to those who work less that just means I’m generous.’ Like the daughters of Zelophehad story. Everyone gets the same amount of land. Not because you’re this or that gender, but because God is generous.
These brave sisters show us how to rebel. They rebel within Israel. Not against it. Other stories are about rebellion against Moses, against God. One group of rebels says, ‘enough of this wilderness, let’s go back to Egypt!’ Another says, ‘who put this Moses in charge?’ Moses complains, ‘these people are terrible.’ Everybody gets tired of the manna. The spies say, ‘no one can take that land.’ Every church complaint in history you can already find in the book of Numbers. The sisters rebel within Israel. They say, ‘give us what we all want—the promised land. If necessary, change the rules to do it.’ And Moses and God grant their request.
The daughters of Zelophehad show us something more: for a tradition to stay the same, it has to change. The temptation of the fundamentalist is to keep things the same no matter what, even if no one understands why, even if it hurts people. The temptation of the progressive is to change things just for change’s sake, or with popular opinion. This story shows neither thing. This is a change to maintain what’s good: equal land in Israel.
Any institution is like a tree. The acorn, the sapling, and the grown tree are the same organism. It just looks different at different stages. That’s organic, natural growth, and if the tree isn’t changing, it’s already dead. To stay the same, you actually have to change. A Cambridge theologian illustrates it this way. In the middle ages, if you take a coarse brown garment and wrap it around your waist with a rope, you’re saying something: you’re a poor person. Today in the same town if you take a coarse brown garment and wrap it around your waist with a rope, you’re saying something: you’re a religious professional. To look poor today, you have to dress differently than in the 1200s.
My rabbi colleague and I taught this together in the seminary: when you introduce a change in the congregation, hug the tradition tighter. Don’t say, ‘we’ve never done this before, but here we go.’ No, no, no. Say, ‘because of the tradition we all love, we’re going to do the same thing a little differently.’ It doesn’t just work, though it does. It’s wise about God’s people. We exist because of God’s gifts in the past. We want to bear those same gifts to a generation not yet born.
These sisters ask for something new to maintain the gifts of old. Land for women, out of Israel’s radical egalitarianism. And it’s granted. They could have rebelled against Israel: ‘Moses is bad! We demand our rights!’ They don’t do that. In fact, later, when the sisters appear again in Numbers 36, they agree to marry only within their tribe to keep the land from going to other tribes. They agree to a curtailment of their rights, a limit to their freedom, for the good of the whole people. It’s called compromise. It’s not popular today. As someone joked with a fake protest chant, “what do we want?” “Moderation!” “When do we want it?” “In due course!” But compromise is actually necessary for any people’s life together.
In the New Testament, a gentile woman comes to Jesus. She’s unnamed—once she’s called a Syro-Phoenician, once a Canaanite, but an outsider either way. She begs for healing for her daughter. Jesus says, ‘it’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ Ouch. She rolls with the rebuke. And then turns it on him. ‘Yeah, and even the dogs get the crumbs under the table.’ Jesus says, ‘whoa, you’re right, for that your daughter is healed.’ She rebels within Jesus’ teaching. Not against it. But for it. And, in doing so, she changes it. And by the end, even he’s surprised a little. And someone wrote it down and called it scripture. For a tradition to stay the same, it actually has to change—you’re seeing the point, right?
In John Wesley’s day, 18th century England, revival broke out as folks met Jesus personally, not just in rituals or the creed. Before all that, a Moravian Christian asked Wesley, “Do you know Jesus as your saviour?” Wesley said, “I know he’s saviour of the world.” Uh, that wasn’t the question, reverend. Do you know him personally? Wesley didn’t. But soon he did. And started introducing Jesus to others. Some say the Wesleyan revival in the 18th century kept England from a French Revolution. Folks were busy converting instead of killing each other. But here’s the thing. Women came to know Jesus personally too. And were often better at introducing him to their friends than men, even ordained men. So, can they preach? I mean, why limit preaching to male priests if not all male priests even know Jesus? This sister over here speaks of Jesus and folks respond. That monsignor or archdeacon or vice dean or grand poohbah speaks and everyone’s asleep. Wesley came up with a compromise. Women can testify. They can tell of their experience of grace. But not preach from the pulpit. That’s just for ordained people. Just men. Not fair to us. But in 18th century terms, it was good, brave, and new. Women didn’t get to lead by insisting on their right to. They got it by telling of Jesus’ work in their lives. Daughters of Zelophehad, 300 years ago.
A more recent example, Franklin Graham is the child of Billy Graham who’s most known because he’s a political operative. But I’m gonna tell you a little secret. Franklin can’t preach. Really. He’s terrible. You know who’s the good preacher in that family? Anne Graham Lotz. Billy Graham’s daughter. She runs circles around Franklin every day of the week and twice on Sunday. So, she’s a woman. She’s divorced. Both no-no’s for Southern Baptists. But I mean, who can deny that Christ uses her? She’s a daughter of Zelophehad today.
I noticed both back home among Methodists and teaching in Vancouver that some of our best students come from conservative denominations. They learn Jesus there, learn the Bible there, but then someone told them they couldn’t preach. They were women. Or gay. Or otherwise the wrong sort of person. And they became the best ministers we had. Why? Because we liberals don’t focus on Jesus enough. Don’t teach the scriptures enough. But if someone comes in with those things ready-baked, they lead really well among us. Rebellion within tradition, not against it. If you will, dynamite that blows open the mine, not that blows it up.
We’re having two guest preachers this summer who are fourth generation clergy. Rabbi Dr. Yael Splansky at Holy Blossom is daughter of a rabbi, who’s son of a rabbi, son of a rabbi, son of a rabbi. Of course, her great-grandfather never imagined he’d have a daughter in his lineage of rabbis. They didn’t ordain women then. But now they do. She’s been at Holy Blossom 25 years doing honour to the name they share. Bishop Jenny Andison from St. Paul’s Bloor Street is also coming in August. She’s 4th generation Anglican clergy. Her great-grandfather would’ve been pleased to know his descendant would be a bishop. Shocked it’d be a woman. I think their clergy ancestors are smiling somewhere. Y’all come hear them preach, these modern daughters of Zelophehad.
This rebellion within tradition continues in Jesus’ day. Some of his closest friends are women. Sure, the twelve disciples are all men, but Mary and Martha are dearer to him than the twelve. And in fact, the one first entrusted to tell of the resurrection to anyone is Mary Magdalene. The first one to say, “uh, hey guys, I think he’s raised from the dead.” That’s the first Christian sermon. From a daughter of Zelophehad. The Eastern Church calls Mary “the apostle to the apostles” The first one sent to the ones who will be sent. Maybe that’s not too surprising. It’s women who fund Jesus’ ministry. Women who stay by him at his cross when the men flee. Women who go to care for his dead body when the twelve are hiding out. So, a woman first tells of the resurrection. Another daughter of Zelophehad.
When God saves the world it’s through all the wrong people. Including us here today. More of this dynamite, Lord Jesus, and make this world the one you dream about. Amen.