Light from the Sidra

Pinchas (Phinehas)

Torah: Numbers 25:10-30:1(29:40)*.Haftarah 1 Kings 18:46-19:21

The feisty faith of five feminists

It was 1972. I arrived at the home of some friends who had just watched a television interview with a couple of radical feminists and they were shocked. We are used to seeing women on the well groomed, immaculately made up, well mannered and attractive. The two women on the programme I had missed were apparently scruffy, aggressive and offensive. It was the beginning of ‘Women’s Liberation’. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was published around the same time and before we knew it Women’s Lib was all the rage and overnight I became a ‘Male Chauvinist Pig’. Slogans like, ‘A Woman Needs a Man like a Fish Needs a Bicycle’ were everywhere and a certain item of women’s clothing was either thrown away or burned publicly. The world has never been the same, and feminist ideas and ideals are even catching on in traditional Islamic societies.

Feminism has been a mixed blessing. If being a feminist means you believe women are made in the image of God the same as men, then I’m a feminist; and so is the Bible. Some women, however, seem to believe the female of the species is superior to the male, a perspective that has created more problems than feminism was supposed to solve.

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcha and Tirzah, the five daughters of Zelophehad are examples of biblical feminism. In Numbers 27, the Israelites were virtually on the border of the Promised Land and the five sisters were in danger of being homeless vagabonds. The generation that left Egypt was dead and Zelophehad was dead but not as a result of Korach’s rebellion against Moses. He had left no sons and all the promises of land inheritance in Canaan had been addressed to the male heads of families, so his daughters were in a tight spot. As things stood, they were faced with the very real possibility of being homeless vagabonds. What were they to do?

Each chapter of the Pirke Avot opens with, ‘All Israel have a portion in the world to come’ before expounding the ethics of the Fathers. Why, then, do Jewish people flock to synagogue on Yom Kippur, pleading with God to inscribe them in the Book of Life? And why, at the end of Yom Kippur, are most Jews uncertain about whether their names are actually in the Book? Are they worthy of life?

In Numbers 27, the concerns of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcha and Tirzah were focussed on a portion in this world and, as such, they have much to teach us about attaining the world to come. Canaan was to them a world to come and the principles by which the daughters of Zelophehad obtained a portion in that world are an infallible guide to those of us who long for a heavenly inheritance.

First of all, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcha and Tirzah believed there was an inheritance. We don’t know their precise ages but as the women had been born in the wilderness, they were all less than forty years old. All their lives, for six mornings out of every seven, when they woke and went outside their tents the ground was white with manna. When the manna was collected the Sinai desert looked like a lunar landscape with only the odd acacia tree to break the monotonous topography. The people of Israel had been promised a land flowing with milk and honey; a green, fertile land with all manner of trees and plants. Imagining such a landscape would have been as difficult for the daughters of Zelophehad as a man born blind imagining a rainbow. In spite of never having seen green pastures, vines, and fruit trees (they didn’t even have the benefit of photographs) the five sisters believed there was a world to come on the other side of the Jordan and they wanted a portion in it. No atheists will attain heaven. If we are to gain the world to come we must first of all believe in it.

Secondly, the five daughters of Zelophehad wanted a portion in the earthly world to come. I was once on a train to Portsmouth. Minding my own business, when a man across the carriage asked what I was reading. I held up the book. ‘Ah, theology,’ he said and then began to tell me that he attended Winchester Cathedral every Sunday morning and how much he enjoyed the music and the worship. As I listened I commented that he sounded quite religious. He told me he was very religious.

I asked him if he had reached a point in his religious life where he knew for certain that if the train we were on should crash in the next ten minutes and he found himself in the next world, that he was certain of being welcomed in to heaven. He admitted that although he attended church regularly, he had no certainty that if he were to die suddenly he could stand before God without fear of condemnation. I asked if he would like to know how he could be certain of having a portion in the world to come. Would he like to know that if we were involved in a fatal accident that he could face eternity without fear? There was panic in his eyes and he made it clear that he no longer wanted to talk to me, so I went back sadly to my book. If the daughters of Zelophehad had been like my companion on the train, they would have had no part inheritance in the Promised Land.

The third lesson we learn from Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcha and Tirzah is that if we want a portion in the world to come, we must ask. Had the sisters not taken action, had they simply hoped something would turn up, they would have ended up with no portion in Canaan. The biggest mistake we can make in this life is to imagine that everyone goes to heaven when they die (unless they happen to be Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin or Pol Pot).

In the early hours of 9 July 1982, Her Majesty the Queen woke up to find a stranger in her bedroom. It was Michael Fagan’s second nocturnal visit to Buckingham Palace. On his first visit, he had apparently wandered round the palace, viewed the royal portraits, had a sit down on the throne, and helped himself to some cheddar cheese and crackers and drunk a half bottle of white wine before leaving. On his second visit, Fagan was arrested and spent six months in a mental institution.

From what the police could gather, Michael Fagan had no evil intentions. According to his mother, ‘He thinks so much of the Queen. I can imagine him just wanting to simply talk and say hello and discuss his problems.’ If to most of us, the idea that we can simply walk (or, as Michael Fagan did, climb) into Buckingham Palace and make ourselves at home is outrageous and bizarre, why do we imagine that after we shuffle off this mortal coil we will march into the throne room of the King of the Universe and set up home there for eternity?

Lastly, Zelophehad’s daughters, went to the only person who could solve their dilemma; Moses, the mediator appointed by God. If we hope to have a portion in the true world to come, it will take someone greater than Moses to sort out the situation. He was appointed to deal with earthly problems, not eternal issues. No Rabbi or Rebbe has the authority to guarantee a Jew a place in the world to come. No pastor, priest, guru or imam can provide eternal security.

Writing to a congregation in the Turkish town of Colossae, over 1,900 years ago Rabbi Shaul gave thanks to God, ‘who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ (Letter to the Colossians 1:12-13). In Colossae, a group of Jews and Gentiles had come to believe in the Messiah. They had been disqualified from the world to come not by reason of their sex but their sin. And they had put their trust in Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, who by his blood had delivered them not from an earthly Pharaoh but from their sins and the power of the Satan. 

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcha and Tirzah were women of faith. They believed the promises of God and they were feisty enough to challenge Moses for a place in Canaan and their faith was rewarded. In the light of their faith in action, we must ask ourselves four questions: Do I believe in the world to come? Do I really want a portion in the world to come? Have I asked for a portion in the world to come? Have I asked the right Person?

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