Our story introduces us to five women, sisters:
most often collectively known as the daughters of Zelophehad,
but they did have their own names:
Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah.
They have a complaint—a legal complaint.
Their father died in the wilderness—
in his sin, as they say, as that whole first Exodus generation did,
but Zelophehad had no sons.
So his daughters point out the juxtaposition
of two distinct biblical priorities/two different biblical values
standing, in their experience, in tension with each other—
with competing claims on their circumstances:
the patriarchal system on the one hand,
with its patrilineal laws of inheritance (the sons get it all)
and, on the other hand, the disposition of the land by family—
each family—each clan retaining the land allocated to them.
So what happens when there aren’t any sons in the family
to retain the land allocated to the family,
and there are five daughters?
It’s not that there’s an unjust law being challenged—
needing to be replaced or changed,
it’s that there’s no law for this circumstance.
So our first affirmation is of women who make their voices heard—
who boldly speak up—assuming—taking for granted—
that their experience matters—that their circumstances matter—
and that their voices should of course be heard.
As women with a legal issue working within the system,
they bring their complaint before the authorities (the men).
Some scholars suggest they met with all the authorities gathered together:
Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and all the congregation.
Others think they met with the authorities in that order—
that they met first with the congregation,
then they met with the leaders,
then they met with the Eleazar the priest,
then they met with Moses—
kicking it on up the line
because no one knew what to do!
So we have our second affirmation
the importance of acknowledging
we don’t know what to do here.
We don’t know what’s right.
We don’t know how to prioritize these competing claims.
It’s complex. It’s complicated.
And no one, notice, forced an answer—
no one presumed an answer.
And while even Moses didn’t know the answer to their question,
he did know what to do.
He took the question to God.
That’s our third affirmation—
not just that God is a part of our ongoing conversation—
part of our day to day circumstances (as important as that is!),
but that we take our questions to God.
That means we don’t go to God for confirmation
of what we think we already know,
but for guidance in our uncertainty.
That’s not how the people of God tend to be described these days, is it?
We tend not to think of women seeking justice
from the leaders of institutional religion—
nor of the leaders of institutional religion confessing their ignorance
and seeking God.
And we’re the worse off for it.
Our fourth affirmation is a gift of insight into Scripture.
For as God evaluates these competing claims of law,
we note there are stories like this throughout the Bible,
that place one biblical law against another one,
juxtapose one religious custom or tradition with another.
Jesus consistently did that.
“You have heard it said, but I say to you ….”
“The sabbath was made for human beings,
not human beings for the sabbath.”
Such a good word for us today.
Because we do so need a good model
for acknowledging multiple priorities and values.
We need some sense that these priorities and values
can be in conversation with each other, us and others
rather than in cutthroat competition.
Imagine—imagine the practice of thinking and speaking
less in absolute terms of what we’re going to do—
what we need to do—
what everyone else needs to do—
and more in terms of how we want what we do
to reflect what we value most.
Imagine more reflection on whether and how our actions
manifest our values.
But in the midst of this,
we also have to remember to keep admitting,
when we don’t know what to do—
when we have to acknowledge
that we’re paralyzed in trying to assess and evaluate.
And we even confess that sometimes
the people of God and the institutions of religion
and even God God’s own divine self
don’t have all the answers …
and may, at times, have the wrong answers.
And sprinkled through the Bible
are those bizarre stories that affirm that God changes God’s mind.
Now I don’t think that’s what’s going on here in our story,
but it’s not unrelated.
So we remember in the preamble to the story of Noah and the ark
where it explicitly says God repented:
God repented that God made humankind (Genesis 6:6).
Abraham bargained with God—changed God’s mind
about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33).
Moses convinced God not to kill the children of Israel
in the wilderness (Exodus 32:7-14)—
“Please don’t, God. It’s really not like you.”
God corrects God’s own self in Hosea’s word (Hosea 11:8-9).
The Syro-Phoenician woman corrected Jesus
who learned from her more about his own calling
(Mark 7:25-30; Matthew 15:21-28).
And Luke writes that Jesus increased in wisdom
and in divine and human favor (Luke 2:52)—
suggesting there’s a learning curve to being the Son of God,
to being the Messiah!
And five women showed up to ask about an overlooked flaw in the law.
“We’re here to ask you, who overlooked us,
not to overlook us.”
Now they are working within the system—the patriarchal system.
That’s reaffirmed later in chapter 36
when other family members raise the concern
“Okay, now if women own land, what happens when they marry?
Because then that land will then be lost to the family,
because it will become their husbands’.”
And so the law is clarified: yes, they can inherit,
yes, they can marry whom they wish (!),
as long as they marry within their clan—keep it all in the family.
That’s all in chapter 36 (Numbers 36:1-12).
Five brides for five brothers!
Of course, according to some rabbinic tradition (ready?),
not one of these five women married before age 40!
And what a wonderfully sly way that is
in which to continue to call into question—
continue to juxtapose—these competing values.
Obediently honoring the expectation they would marry within the clan,
but waiting for someone they wanted to marry
until they were past child-bearing age
and so unable to continue the family line—
which was also part of the expectation that they marry in the clan!
I love Scripture! And I love these women!
And I bet everyone around them knew their names:
Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah.
Oohh, those women!
So our fifth affirmation offers us a perspective
on authority counter to most perspectives of our culture.
“We’re here because you overlooked us,
and we want you to fix that.
We’re here precisely because you blew it,
and we believe that’s not reason to reject you replace you,
mock you dismiss you, but precisely reason to work with you.”
Hopeless idealists, these women!
Or do we have a misplaced view of authority
when we associate it with knowing everything—
of having all the answers—
of always knowing what to do—
of being in control?
The tenor of authority in our cultural conversation
has to do with an absolute certainty—
of what must be done—of what is the answer—
what is the solution—what is the correct response—
what is the course of action.
And while we may admire such a conceit,
it eventually, inevitably, falters on the simple fact: it’s absurd.
Because it eventually always comes out that no one does.
Not even God.
So I’d like to suggest that our sixth affirmation
asserts that now, more than ever, we are in desperate need of awe.
Annie Dillard wrote these words familiar to many of you:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs,
sufficiently sensible of the conditions.
Does anyone have the foggiest idea
what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews”
(Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk
[New York: Harper & Row, 1982] 40).
We need a greater sense of awe.
It is, in a way, a funny assertion,
because another way to think about awe
is as a very appropriate fear of God.
And yet “do not fear,” is the consistent message of God.
I love Scripture!
The natural human response to God is fear of God.
The immediate divine response to the human response is don’t.
So according to wisdom,
fear of God is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7),
but not the end!
And so much talk about religion these days is about fear.
And I’m not talking about the whole be-afraid-of-them thing—
the shameful manipulation and exploitation of fear.
No, I think most of the fear in religion as I know it
is not the awe that is a fear of God,
but actually the desperation that is the fear for God.
The fear for a God who might not have all the answers.
The fear for a God not in control—not perceived as in control.
The fear for a God without power—perceived as powerless.
The fear that as followers of God we might not know what to do—
that we might be wrong.
The fear for a people of God with no power—
a people of God with no effect.
But fear of God is never fear for God—
fear of God—awe—doesn’t think it has all the answers.
Awe knows it doesn’t!
Awe doesn’t think there’s a prescriptive determination for every circumstance.
Awe is not defensive.
Awe cannot fathom the inclination to be defensive—
the need to be dogmatic—the need to be rigid.
And you can’t explain awe either.
What if we were to root our awe instead,
not in God’s inflexible certainty—
God’s omniscience (God as a know-it-all!),
but in an ever-changing, adapting, dynamic, flexible love
in actual conversation with us—
not in an extended monologue just using our different voices—
an awe rooted not in always having the right answer right off the bat,
but in the willingness to always engage in the struggle to find the right answer.
It’s like that perspective on authority—
the authority of not knowing.
Because monotheistic doesn’t have to mean monolithic.
Right thinking doesn’t have to mean rigid thinking.
Insightful doesn’t have to be insistent.
Principles don’t have to be imposed.
And authentic doesn’t have to automatically
mean dogmatic or autocratic.
There was absolutely awe on the mountain at Sinai,
but awe’s not what was codified in the law.
It’s what they were trying to codify in the law, awe,
fear of God, but legalism kills awe—chokes it—strangles it.
Too many details—
too much authority to those wishing to control it.
And so we’re back to assessing two theological values
in some tension with each other.
We’ve named our need for awe.
We’re also already affirmed the consistent presence of God
to whom we go when we’re clueless.
So what happens when awe and consistent presence collide?
Because here’s the thing,
collide they must.
And no saying that God is the experience of awe,
and Jesus the experience of presence.
You better believe the disciples wore crash helmets!
As CS Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia consistently
reminded characters of Aslan, “Who said anything about safe?
Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.
He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion”
(C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
[New York: HarperCollins, 1950] 80 and 182).
Imagine though, the fun, the excitement of life with Jesus.
“What will he say next?” “What will he do next?”
“How will God be revealed next?”
Not partisan politics, not the smart thing—
not the in-thing—not the next thing—
not the safe thing—God! How will God next be revealed?
And the disciples’ world was regularly turned upside down.
“Love who?” “Forgive how many times?” “Eat with them?”
I’m sure they regularly lamented
(it was edited out of each of the gospels)—
I’m sure they regularly lamented,
“You know, verily, verily, I prefer the predictability of the law of gravity
to the uncertainty of the priority of grace.
I keep thinking something’s up, but it’s going down!”
And they lived in the vortex of the tornado.
And yet, even in the vortex of the tornado,
there’s an inevitable domestication to consistent presence—
whether we’re talking in terms of God or Jesus.
Now I think God and Jesus resist that
by the very nature of who and how they are.
What if we resisted that too?
We have this idea of God recreating
a new heaven and a new earth.
We have this idea of God redeeming creation.
What if we embraced the idea that God’s doing just that all the time—
in every act of grace—
in every expression of love—
in every extension of forgiveness
in every step made not knowing where it would take us—
unmaking the world as it is
and remaking it all around us—
in every step forward asking for justice—for what’s right—
until within patriarchy, women inherit land!
What an image: where Jesus walked—where Jesus stepped,
the world fell apart—unraveled—
shimmered like air around a gas pump—
down the road on a hot day—
looking like you could reach right through it—
into something else.
And the world bent—twisted—melted—folded—turned—
and reformed around him—to him—
to his stories—to his teaching—to his love.
It’s The Matrix meets Inception meets Jesus!
A future opening always—
not locked into but loosed—
not freezing but freeing—
and even God doesn’t know where it’s going,
because the world always tries to reestablish itself:
“Women can inherit? What?
And what happens when these women marry?”
“Well they have to marry family.”
But they don’t until they’re forty!
What will tomorrow’s world be?
And so what have you done this week
to unmake the world and recreate it?
What have you done to unravel a little of what is
and knit it back together different?
Because every step you take in the way of God
is a recreation of the whole wide world.
We want to have the outcome.
We want to have the end results,
but all we get is the choice of our next step.
We want to see the consequences and weigh them.
We want to evaluate the possibility of success.
We want to weigh in on the efficacy of our efforts toward the goal,
but all we get to ponder is am I going to risk it now—
the next step in the way of God—
this next opportunity to step into love—to step into grace—
to step into forgiveness—into world redeeming recreation …
and we’ll see ….
How do we cultivate such an awe full presence?
The consistent experience of awe within ongoing presence?
By practicing the telling of two basic stories—
neither one of dogma or prescriptive rules—
neither one of certainty.
Rather one of remembering awe.
Do you remember being awed by God?
Have you practiced telling that story—to yourself and to others?
That’s one story, and the other is of anticipating awe.
I can’t wait to be awed by God.
Those are our two stories—
that we tell a story that, told properly,
undoes the world into which it’s told.
And the whole system of patriarchy rippled—
because five women stepped forward.
Oh, it reasserted itself.
And they twisted it right back around on itself again—overturned it.
So we sing of the ever-presence of our God:
“What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
Oh, what peace we often forfeit, oh, what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer!”
(Joseph Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,”
in Wesley L. Forbis, ed., The Baptist Hymnal
[Nashville: Convention Press, 1991] 182)
I believe that.
but it is perhaps most appropriately sung in conjunction with something like:
“God the awesome, holy Other, turning my world inside out!
How unsettling to realize what I thought I knew I doubt.
Oh the certainty we forfeit, oh the ever-changing view,
all because we wait for Jesus to undo the world anew!”
Our seventh affirmation, as it so often is,
yours to make.
Will you undo the world?
Take one step into God?
I dare you!