They had spent decades in the wilderness, learning to trust God. Now, on the threshold of the Promised Land, decisions had to be made. Who would get what land? How would they order their political lives, the ways in which they would live together in community?
Decisions were made that the land would be apportioned according to tribe in order of importance and number of people. All those decisions were based on male heads of households. That was the tradition.
Zelophehad died in the wilderness, without a male heir. Of course, his share would be given to his brothers, leaving his five daughters — Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah — dependent upon their uncles and perhaps without support at all if those uncles chose not to be welcoming. It’s clear that Zelophehad had raised his daughters to be strong and independent. Their reaction was, “Absolutely not. We are the descendants of Zelophehad and his land should come to us.” So they went to Moses and the priest Eleazar and stated their case.
Moses sought God’s wisdom about what to do — it was really an extraordinary request, that the daughters receive the inheritance. Moses not only ruled in favor of the daughters, he set the ruling as precedent: if there was no male heir, daughters were in the line of inheritance.
This is one of those stories that go unnoticed in the Bible. Eleven little verses which reveal that the Bible does not speak with a unified voice. All kinds of voices are in the conversation that is the Bible. Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright notes the diversity of the Biblical canon. In the Bible “we are listening, not to a single voice, not even to a single choir in harmony, but to several choirs singing different songs with some protest groups jamming in the wings.”
There is an enormous diversity of voices in these ancient texts, contrary to our tendency to filter it all through to a consonant voice. When we read the Bible we ought to be asking: “Whose voice is this?” “What is this voice saying?” “What are the voices that are speaking in tension with this voice?” “How are THESE voices (not one single voice) speaking to us today?”
Twenty-five years ago, Bill Moyers aired a series on Public Television titled “Genesis: A Living Conversation.” This series of conversations took place between the Bible, modern scholars from a broad theological spectrum and Bill Moyers. These conversations were my first insight into the diversity of the Bible.
We in the church — on whatever part of the theological spectrum we exist — need to live up to the example the Bible sets for us. Quit speaking and acting as though there is only one valid voice. Invite to the table those who may be in profound disagreement with us — and listen! It is in these conversations, in the tensions that exist between variant voices, that we are most likely to encounter God and to glimpse God’s justice.