Women are infrequently the main characters in biblical stories, but in this one, there are five! Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah are sisters with a mission.
Following a plague, God instructed Moses to do a census of the people of Israel and portion out the land according to the actual numbers in each clan. The sisters quickly realize a problem. Their father has died, and because he has only daughters, his land will be taken away and his name will end. This is not acceptable.
It is tempting to read this story as a fight for women’s rights. And in some respects, it is. Women could not inherit land. A clan’s name and land were passed down from father to son. A clan with no sons would simply die out. The author emphasizes the importance of this structure by starting with a list of Zelophehad’s male ancestors. So yes, the sisters are arguing against a law that prohibits them from inheriting as women.
However, in that context, women did not have equal voice or equal rights. And so here the sisters are not arguing for their own voice, or their own rights, but for their father’s. This is not to downplay the incredible courage of their actions, but to recognize that the value of their own personhood was simply not yet in their imagination.
Their courage in challenging the law, however, is paramount. Given the place of women at the time, it is incredible that the sisters even considered approaching Moses and the entire congregation.
What makes this even more astounding can be found in the brief reference to a man named Korah. The sisters note that their father did not die because he was part of the company of Korah, but why does this matter?
Earlier, in chapter 16, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram of the tribe of Levi rebelled against Moses, and thus against God. In dramatic fashion, God had them swallowed up by the earth. The sisters are well aware of this event. Yet they are willing to risk their lives for a law that they see as unjust, even a law that has been given to Moses by God.
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah may not be advocating for themselves in a 21st-century sense. However, their story is a reminder that the words and laws of those in power, even if the words are presumed to be from God, can still be challenged, and in fact, should be, if those laws are unjust.
Take a few moments to reflect on the sisters’ courage.
- What helps you to act with courage?
- Are there laws or rules in your church, community, or country that benefit some, but are not for the good of all?
- How might you speak into those situations?
God, sometimes it is easier to remain silent. Grant me the courage to open my eyes to injustice and to speak out according to your Spirit. Amen.
This Bible study, written by Carrie Martens, comes from Shine: Living in God’s Light, the Sunday school curriculum published by Brethren Press and MennoMedia.