Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Divine Census v2.0 - and Women Can Own Land?: Numbers 26 - 27:11

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

God tells Moses and the new high priest, Eleazar son of Aaron, that he wants another census to be conducted. Presumably because God has poisoned, buried, burned, and blown up so many Israelites since the last count that he wants the numbers tallied again. They count 601 730 Israelites, which means the population has basically flatlined. Given the tens of thousands God has killed in the meantime, not to mention casualties from their various battles, we must conclude that Israelite girls are having a hell of a lot of babies. Which is cool - more profits for the priests!

God decides that the Israelites' future inheritances will be decided based on this census: larger tribes get more land than smaller ones. The Levites, of course, don't get any land, which God had already said is what would happen. At least now we know why they didn't need to be counted along with the rest.

A truly phenomenal incident follows: five women, who the Bible actually names (Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah) come before Moses and say that they're worried about the way the land is being divvied up. Their father, Zelophehad of Hepher, has died in the desert without giving birth to a male heir. This means the land he stood to "inherit" in Canaan will never be allotted. The women tell Moses that the land should be given to them instead.

This half-chapter is markedly more tolerant of women's role in public affairs than most of the rest of the Torah. The Bible actually identifies their genealogy through their father's lineage all the way back to Manasseh, the way it would if it were trying to establish the proper credentials of men. Moses takes the case to God, who immediately agrees that Zelophehad's daughters "are right" and says they have the right to inherit and own land. From then on, God adds, the same principle will apply in every similar case: daughters have the right to inherit land when there are no eligible sons. It's a pretty minor concession, but I'm still impressed and a little surprised. Women have challenged an apparent flaw in the divine law, and God responds in their favour.