Saturday, August 6, 2011

Those Uppity Women

Numbers 27:1-11

August 7, 2011

William G. Carter

Series: “Can You Believe That’s in the Bible?”

Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. 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 father’s 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 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. If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the LORD commanded Moses.

Of all the bumper stickers that I have ever seen in our church parking lot, my favorite says this: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

It’s a line from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, an American historian. Before she got a teaching job at Harvard, she was writing about the funeral practices of Puritans. Women were rarely mentioned in colonial culture, especially among the Puritans. About the only record that women even existed was when a Puritan preacher mentioned the deceased by name in a funeral sermon. Otherwise they lived behind the scenes, out of sight, rarely noticed outside of their homes. Thus the line, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

What Dr. Ulrich did not expect is that her line would escape from the pages of a scholarly article. Now it appears on coffee mugs, t-shirts, and posters. The slogan has become a feminist reminder that history books have mostly been written by men. Historically speaking, the only way you get any ink as a woman is if you do something outrageous.

Certainly the Bible bears this out. Even though scripture bears the vision that “in Christ, there is neither male nor female,” the plain fact is a lot more men than women are mentioned in the Bible. The women whose stories are told are stand-outs. They are extraordinary, and they do not worry about being well-behaved.

Eve is revered as the mother of the human species, and then scapegoated by her dimwitted husband. Sarah laughed when angels announced her 99-year-old husband would give her a baby. Deborah judges, Delilah seduces, and Jael drives a tent spike through the head of her enemy. These are not quiet, demure, feminine types who stay in the shadows. They claim their God-given dignity. They push through the crowd to be seen and heard.

They remind me of the woman in our Gospel text. Her daughter is sick and Jesus ignores her. She yells at him. She grabs his tunic, shakes him around, and will not let him go without a blessing. She kneels at his feet. She talks back to him. So he heals her daughter as she wished. (Matt. 15:21-28)

Jesus admired women like that. One time, he made up a story about prayer, in which the key figure was a widow who wore out a judge by pleading her cause. Every morning, every night, knocking on his door, yelling in his window, “Give me justice!” She kept pestering that judge until he gave in. Jesus said, “Now, that’s the way to pray!” (Luke 18:1-8)

We distort the truth if “history” does not include “herstory.” Women are the womb of the human race. They are created equally in the image of God. It is their story which we honor today, in spite of cultural silence and religious indifference.

Tucked away in the census accounts of ancient Israel is the unusual text for today. A man named Zelophehad had five daughters. No sons, but five daughters. Do you know what that meant? The daughters had no rights. They could not own property. They could not inherit property. They had no standing in their society unless they married men – and then it wasn’t their standing that mattered!

There were five of them: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Because of the inheritance laws, they would gain nothing after their father died. They knew they had no future unless they raised their voices. So that’s what they did. They stomped in a straight line, right up to the front flap of the Tent of Meeting. They yelled for Moses, for Eleazer the priest, for all the leaders, and for the whole congregation.

And they said, “This is not fair. Our father Zelophehad was one of the good guys. He was not a grumbler in the desert. He did not rebel as others did. Now that he is gone, there is nothing for us simply because we are female. That is not fair!”

Well, Moses wasn’t sure what to do. He did not feel qualified to juggle that hot potato. So he took the matter into the Holy Tent, the tent of meeting, and said, “Lord, what are we going to do?”

The Lord Almighty said, “Well, of course the daughters of Zelophehad are right! Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah are all entitled to inherit their father’s estate.” And then God spelled it out, just so there was absolute clarity. Ever since that day, the law was corrected – because it was God’s Law, and God had created women equally in the divine image.

May we say, on behalf of 52% percent of the human population, thank God for uppity women! And thank God for paying attention to them.

These stories matter. They shape our DNA. Whenever 48% of the population gets swollen out of shape, high and lofty, God seems to raise up prophets for justice to declare what is most important.

As the eighth of eleven children, Elizabeth Cady Stanton might have been overlooked. But she stood tall, worked hard, and excelled in everything she did. Elizabeth won academic prizes in a time when many women were not formally educated. She loved studying alongside male students and frequently bested them.

Her father was a congressman in upstate New York. One day she was trying to console him after the death of her 20-year-old brother, and her father exclaimed, “Oh my daughter, I wish you were a boy!” It was as if he had slapped her. She paid a visit to a local minister who said, “Elizabeth, you are every bit as capable as any boy!” The Rev. Simon Hosack tutored her in Greek, encouraged her to read widely, and bequeathed her a good share of his library.

In 1848, she joined with a group of like-minded women and led the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. With a resolution shaped by the country’s Declaration of Independence, she declared that men and women are created equal, that they share the same dignity, and that they share the same human rights. It would take our nation another seventy-two years to catch up with her and grant all women the right to vote. Most of that time, she was scorned and denounced as an “uppity woman.” May we all say: thank God for uppity women.

One hundred years ago this week, a quiet movement began in the railroad town of Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. A small group of women met to study scripture and pray. They were most concerned about God’s mission in the world, and they wanted to do whatever possible to take part. It was their leadership that brought this congregation to life. Their men folk may have financed the beginning, but they prayed this church into existence. I think that strong female leadership has always been a part of this church’s DNA.

Maybe that was not always obvious, especially to the men. The Presbyterian Church (USA) welcomed female elders for the first time in 1930. It took another thirty-three years for the idea to catch on here, but then the gates opened wide. The first year our congregation ordained women as elders was 1963, and there were three of them: Marge Hoffman, May Wimmer, and Carm Kareha. Each was strong, capable, articulate, and full of prayer.

So today we honor these spiritual pioneers. Like the daughters of Zelophehad, they spoke up to be included. They proclaimed the promises of God are available for all people regardless of gender. We know their names of Zelophehad’s daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, Tirzah – and to them we add more names such as Rebecca Monaghan, Margaret Gibbons, Anna Smith, Edith Krietner, and Laura Elizabeth Keen.

The bumper sticker speaks the truth: “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History.” Thank God for the women who speak and serve, who study and pray. We are here for worship in this place because they were here first.

© William G. Carter

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