Ben Emerson’s ambitious effort to blog through the Bible — the Whole Dang Thing — reached one of my favorite stories this week. It’s in the 27th chapter of Numbers (Numbers 27:1-11), so I think of it as one of those bits of narrative tucked into that book as rewards for any reader who has managed to slog through its long lists of rules and names and begats.
A man named Zelophehad died. He left behind five daughters, but no sons. The rules were clear about sons and daughters: Sons could inherit their father’s land; daughters could not. So Zelophehad’s daughters were screwed.
Keep in mind that this rule was the law of Moses, directly from Moses, the lawgiver himself who was still directly in charge and standing right over there, talking directly to God. So this was a “thus saith the Lord” kind of rule.
But Z’s daughters didn’t let that stop them. The rule wasn’t fair. It would mean they had no inheritance in the Promised Land. It would leave them landless, penniless and helpless. That was wrong. It was unjust.
So the five of them — Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah — filed an appeal. They told Moses that his rule was unfair and needed to be changed.
What that really meant was that they were telling Moses to tell God that God’s rule was unfair and needed to be changed. “Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers,” they told Moses. It was more of a demand than a request.
And here’s the really cool part of the story:
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 among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. You shall also say to the Israelites, “If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. … It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.”
Moses and God listened to the women’s argument, conceded that they had a fair point, and changed the rules. In the case of Mahlah et. al. vs. God, God turned out to be an activist judge who ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, changing the law and creating a new precedent. Thus saith the Lord.
What are we to make of that?
Broadly speaking, we Christians take one of two approaches to this story about God changing God’s rules.
The first approach is to say this sort of thing may have happened back in the days of the Bible, but that we mustn’t think it can happen now. Nowadays we’re not in the Bible, we have the Bible, so now the rules are set. They’re final and unchangeable and we can no longer do what Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah did. We cannot appeal to Moses to appeal to God to change the rules. The Rulebook can no longer be changed or challenged. Those are the rules.
The second approach doesn’t see the Bible as a Rulebook, but as a story and collection of stories that shows us what God is like. This particular story about Z’s daughters shows us what God is like. And what we learn about God in this story is that God listens and God agrees with Mahlah and her sisters. The rules should be fair, they said, and God said yes, yes they should, that’s what they’re for.
If we want to talk about rules then, from this point of view, this story can be seen as giving us a rule about rules: If they are unjust, then they must be changed. “The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying.”