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Numbers 27:1-11

In the census report of the previous chapter that we considered last Lord’s Day evening it was noted that one of the clans of Manasseh had produced no sons, only daughters (26:33). We also noted that these last chapters of the book of Numbers concern themselves with the prospect of Israel’s entering and taking possession of the Promised Land. Given that claims to land ownership were transferred from father to son, this posed a problem for Zelophehad’s clan. And that problem is addressed in the text we have before us this evening. As the problem was not likely to be unique, the inquiry of Zelophehad’s daughters created the opportunity to establish a procedure to be followed in all such cases.

Text Comment

v.2       In other words, they came to the court to plead their case. This is where legal judgments were rendered.

v.3       It is not entirely clear why the daughters were concerned to exonerate their father from Korah’s rebellion. The suggestion has been made that those found guilty of serious religious offenses were not only executed but their property was forfeit. This may account, for example, for the fact that when Ahab and Jezebel wished to confiscate Naboth’s vineyard, they trumped up a blasphemy charge against him.  [Wenham, 193; cf. 1 Kings 21:7-10] In that case the daughters would have been asserting their late father’s continuing right to dispose of his property to his heirs.

They do not claim that their father was not sinful and was not justly punished with the rest of the people for refusing to enter the Promised Land at Kadesh almost forty years before. They are perhaps admitting that he was among those who supported the skeptical spies when they brought back their discouraging report. In any case, the specific point they are making is that they are on the same legal footing as anyone else in Israel whose parents have died in the wilderness. [Ashley, 542]

It is another interesting piece of evidence for the biblical doctrine that some sins are considerably more serious than others. Every sin is damning if unforgiven, but some are worthy of a more severe punishment.

v.4       For those of you young women who are wondering just what is going on here, think of it this way. Mr. Bennet has five daughters and no sons. Should he die, his land will be entailed to Mr. Collins, the nearest male relative. That will leave Mrs. Bennet and her five daughters without property and just imagine what life would be like living with Mrs. Bennet in a small apartment somewhere! That’s pretty much the situation faced here.

v.11     That is, this is now a statute in Israel, a part of the legal code.

One of the most interesting features of this piece of history is the light it sheds on how the law code of Israel was developed. The covenant that God revealed to Moses at Sinai included a set of fundamental laws – called the Ten Words or the Ten Commandments – which were then applied in a representative list of cases. That is what is meant by the term case law: the application of general rules to specific cases. But, of course, only a few such cases can be anticipated in any legal code. Life throws at us too many situations that are different enough from one another that they require a separate, different instance of legal reasoning to take us from the general statute to its specific application. The sixth commandment against murder is applied to the question of an owner’s liability for a dangerous animal in Exodus 21 and to the question of a homeowner’s liability if someone falls from his roof in Deut. 28. But those are hardly the only cases that arise in which there is a question of liability for another’s death. Personal injury law is a growth industry in our land in one part because there are so many more ways for people to be harmed in our industrialized world.

Well, apparently, in Moses’ day, the law code grew much as it does today: new cases arose that were not covered by existing statutes; judgments were rendered; and those judgments became encoded in the statutes and became precedents to be applied when somewhat similar cases arose in the future. But there was this great difference between then and now. When a new case arose, a case without legal precedent – as here – Moses consulted the Lord. What he was told, as here, then became part of Israel’s case law and became a precedent for the judgment of somewhat similar cases that might arise in the future.

The paragraph is also interesting for the light it sheds on the inheritance practices in the ANE and in Israel in biblical times. In Hebrew law, as we know was the case also in Mesopotamia, daughters did not usually share in the family estate. A father’s property was divided among his sons at his death, with the eldest son receiving a double portion (Deut. 21:15-17). The daughter’s situation was very different. Relative to the wealth of the family they received substantial wedding presents from their fathers, the dowry. This could often amount to a significant piece of the estate. The dowry typically contained clothes, jewelry, furniture, and money, and richer fathers often bestowed on their daughters land, slaves, even in some cases an entire city (in 1 Kings 9:16 we read of Pharaoh giving the city of Gezer to his daughter who was married to Solomon). Once the daughter had received these gifts and married she became a member of her husband’s family and her sons inherited that estate.

This is known as a patrilineal system – inheritance through the father’s line – and its great purpose, at least in Israel, was to keep the land within the family, a principle firmly fixed in Israelite jurisprudence and enforced in the law of jubilee. The land always returns to the original family ownership. [Wenham, 192] Remember, we are often reminded that the Promised Land ultimately belonged to the Lord himself (Lev. 25:23); Israel were his tenants. So if it was his will to keep it divided among the tribes and clans of Israel, then this system of inheritance served that end admirably.

In Zelophehad’s case, having no sons, his property, in order to keep it within the family, would have been transferred to his nearest male relative. The order of claimants is given in vv. 9-10: brother first, then, if there are no brothers, uncles, then, absent uncles, the nearest male relative that can be found among his cousins and so on.

There is an interesting appendix to this legislation in the final chapter of Numbers. There the leaders of another clan of the tribe of Manasseh raised a related question. What if some of the daughters of Zelophehad married outside the tribe of Manasseh? Wouldn’t the land, which belonged to them according to the judgment given in chapter 27, then be lost to the tribe and become part of the inheritance and patrimony of another tribe and another clan? In other words, the particular reason for all these laws that served to keep the land in the possession of a particular family would then have been overturned. In chapter 37, we have another, separate case that requires a legal judgment. In chapter 36 we read that the daughters were forbidden to marry outside of their clan, or, at least, forbidden to take the land with them if they should marry outside their clan. So a codicil was later added to the law enacted in chapter 27. The law grows as specific cases arise that have not been addressed by statutes previously.

In our feminist age it is now common for even biblically oriented Christians to think that women were given the short end of the stick in the Bible. But, fact is, the Bible is utterly unique in the literature of the ancient world for the dignity it attributes to women, for the relationship of love and grace that Yahweh is said to have with women, and for interest it shows in the protection of the rights of women. To be sure, in other countries of the ANE daughters could sometimes inherit from their fathers. But in Mesopotamia, for example, there was no doctrine that the land belonged to the Lord and had to stay in the possession of the families to whom he had entrusted it as his stewards. The fact that the preference for a male heir is here set aside is a rather remarkable indication of the dignity afforded women in the Bible. ANE custom would regard the question the daughters of Zelophehad brought to Moses as adequately answered in the customs of the culture. The land would stay in the clan through the nearest male relative. Why should they complain against a universally accepted and effective system? Indeed, the fact that Moses had to consult the Lord is some evidence that the women’s case was not immediately and entirely persuasive to him. He could see turning them down according to established legal custom. However, as a matter of fact, they are said by the Lord himself to have a right to their father’s inheritance as anyone else who has not married into another family and clan.

But the real purpose of this chapter, though important enough in its own right as a matter of jurisprudence, is the demonstration it provides that this new generation of Israel cared much more for the Promised Land than did their fathers. These five are women of faith. They believe that Israel will gain possession of the Promised Land. The Canaanites hadn’t grown shorter in the last forty years, their fortified towns had not grown weaker, they still presented the same military challenge they did when the 12 spies scouted out the land nearly 40 years before. But the size of the men, the strength of their armies, and the height and thickness of the walls of their cities does not daunt these five women as it did their parents years before. They expect to possess the land and, as a consequence, they are already concerned about their inheritance in it. It is a real question to them. They want it answered. They want to know that they will not be forgotten in the allotment of real estate to the people of God in the Promised Land.

And in this they are an example for us. Living, saving faith is many things in the Bible and it looks like many different sorts of things in the Bible. It can be love for the Lord. “A curse on all those who do not love the Lord Jesus,” Paul writes at the end of 1 Corinthians. Real believers love the Lord. It is obedience in many places in the Bible. Real believers obey the Lord. “Faith without works is dead.” But faith is also living hope, the active expectation that the promises of the Lord will come to pass and that what he tells us shall be ours, will indeed come into our possession in due time. That is the mark and measure of the faith of these five good women. God had made a promise to them, they believed him and they acted in the strength of their confidence that his promise would be kept.

We have been thinking about the Promised Land ourselves in our studies of Revelation 21 and 22 these past two Lord’s Days. Do we have the faith of Zelophehad’s daughters? Are we so confident that we will be there that we are taking action now on the basis of that confidence? Are we thinking about our being there soon and therefore living the way we are going to want to have lived when we are there not so long from now? Good questions to put to ourselves; a good line of self-examination. Florence and I have been making plans for the trip to Israel you have so generously given us. We are making reservations, buying some clothes, and checking on arrangements. There is a lot to do. We’ve been on the computer a great deal. We are writing notes to ourselves to check this and do that. It has taken a good bit of our time. It is amazing how the prospect of a journey begins, very happily in our case, to force itself upon the mind and to require action. Every day there is something more to do to get ready and be prepared. Well, the prospect of going to heaven ought to be something like that. We ought to be thinking and planning and doing all the while knowing we are soon to be there.

The reason we need to get a clear picture of heavenly life in our heads, as we have tried to do these past two Lord’s Day mornings, is because the brighter, the more lustrous, the more convincing to us the prospect of heaven in our mind’s eye, the greater the impact that prospect will have on our lives. Heaven should be a living hope in a believer’s heart driving his or her behavior every day. We should be thinking about it and it should affect what we do and how we live. It has interested me that in the Lord’s Prayer, for example, the model prayer Jesus taught his disciples, heaven is mentioned twice. Interestingly, hell is not mentioned at all. Paul talks about how we have already been seated with Christ in the heavenly place when he wants us to know the greatness of our salvation. He speaks of our citizenship being in heaven when he calls us to forsake the worldly living of so many around us. He tells us in a great summary statement in Col. 3:1 that to live the Christian life is to set our minds on things above where Christ is, seated at the Right Hand of God. Heaven is supposed to be a power in the Christian life. The Promised Land was a power in the lives of these five women and it set them to taking action to ensure their place in it.

Too little I am like these women and too little, I suspect, are many of you. We are not actively contemplating our place in the Promised Land and not taking action every day based on our knowledge that we are going there soon. After all, if our obedience on earth, if how well we serve the Lord here has something to do with our station in heaven, as the Bible clearly says it does, should we not be laying up treasure there every day, conscious of the eternal consequences of our obedience and our disobedience. But far too often heaven is a distant prospect, too vague, too far away to capture our attention in the here and now. We are not enough like Samuel Rutherford, who once, and I think very honestly, described himself as “A man borne down and hungry, and waiting for the marriage supper of the Lamb.”  Could we describe ourselves that way? Would that be a fair description of us? One finds in Rutherford’s Letters many expressions of longing for heaven and the desire to be there.

“O heavens move fast!  O time, run, run, and hasten the marriage day.”

In the first edition of Rutherford’s Letters, a collection of his letters that was edited posthumously by his friend Robert MacWard, there is added the subtitle: Joshua Redivivus – Joshua Come Back to Life.  MacWard saw Samuel Rutherford as another Joshua.  You see, Joshua was one of the spies who went ahead into the Promised Land and brought back a good report. Rutherford’s letters are so full of good reports of the heavenly country and happy anticipations of heavenly life that it occurred to MacWard to style him as another spy come back to tell us about the Promised Land.  By faith Rutherford spied out the Promised Land for the rest of us.

Andrew Bonar concludes his excellent introductory essay in his edition of the Letters with this apostrophe:

“O for ten such men in Scotland to stand in the gap! – men who all day long
find nothing but Christ to rest in, whose very sleep is a pursuing after Christ in
dreams, and who intensely desire to ‘awake with His likeness.’”

You see Bonar thinks that it was Rutherford’s heavenly-mindedness, his desire to be in heaven, his longing for heaven, his thinking about heaven, his living his life with a view to heaven that lent particular power to the great man’s spiritual life.  And surely that is right.

And how did Rutherford keep a living expectation of heaven in his heart and mind? He thought about it. Every day he thought about it. He imagined it and turned over the prospect of being there in his mind. He tried to see the Lord in his glory in his mind’s eye. He tried to imagine himself without sin. He did over and over again what I said this morning we ought all to do in attempting to gain a sight of the heavenly country. The daughters of Zelophehad had only to look to the west, across the river, and there was the Promised Land. We have to look up and do our looking by faith; harder work.

George Sayer, a student and later a friend of C.S. Lewis and the author of what is perhaps the best biography of Lewis, recalls having read the Narnia Stories to his little daughter.  After they were done she told her father, “I don’t want to go on living in this world.  I want to live in Narnia with Aslan.” “Darling, one day you will,” her father replied.  [Jack, 193]  Well, out of the mouths of babes sometimes comes logic that is crystal clear. Why would someone want to go on living here if one could live there? There is an answer to that question. There is work to be done, service to be offered to the Lord, but if you have that vision, anticipation, eagerness and longing for the Promised Land, surely you cannot wait to get there. And if you cannot wait to get there that certainly has the power to change your daily life.

Christina Rossetti has a lovely poem entitled “Uphill.”  In the poem, which is about the Christian view of the end of life and of death, she sees death as an inn on the journey to heaven. Now the heaven she is talking about is what theologians call the “intermediate state,” not yet heaven in its completeness – such as it will be at the Resurrection and in the new heavens and the new earth – but still heaven. Even that heaven, the place of the souls who have died in Christ, souls living without their bodies, is still called Paradise in the Bible. Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” Paradise is the same word used of heaven in its consummation, its ultimate form – the new heavens and the new earth. Paul still calls that place and that life “better by far” than the life of this world because there we are with the Lord. She is reflecting on the “better by far” to which we are going and the poem is a series of questions and answers.

Does the road wind uphill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you waiting at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

That is a beautiful image: a pilgrim arriving tired and hungry at a welcoming inn. Life coming to an end and the traveler finding it rest. If you are weary think of the delicious rest that awaits you. I know some of you are weary and that the prospect of rest in the Promised Land is full of comfort and hope for you. I like another description better, however.  Andrew Bonar likened the heaven to which Christians ascend at death to arriving at a great house for a banquet, a banquet you feel greatly privileged to have been invited to and have been looking forward to for a long time. You are dressed in your best and so is everyone else. But the banquet is not quite ready to be served because all the guests have not yet arrived, so you spend your time in the great entrance hall, outside the dining room, though from time to time you look through the open doors upon that gorgeous dining room, brightly lit and bustling with preparations. Your host, the person you love and admire more than anyone else, mingles among you treating you as his best friends, greeting you and making you feel wonderfully welcome, and you find yourself talking with the most interesting people, enjoying the finest hors d’oeuvres and drinks you have ever tasted, and waiting for the remaining guests to arrive. Time passes and you hardly know it because you are enjoying yourself so much. That is the believer after death still waiting for the Resurrection Bonar says.  And that is simply the ante-room of heaven. Heaven itself, the new heavens and the new earth, heaven in its consummation, its ultimate form, is still greater by far!

The person who thinks this way and really believes in God’s promise of heaven both at death and then in perfect fulfillment at the end of time, cannot live his or her life the same way. Anticipation of it crowds in upon his thoughts. He makes his decisions with the place in his mind’s eye. She imagines herself having lived worthy of that destination when she arrives. There is always deep in his or her heart peace and joy for what is soon to be his or hers. He or she is going home, going where he has always wanted to be, going where she has so many times wished she already were. That is what these five gracious women, the daughters of Zelophehad show us: a life lived, actions taken in the living expectation of the Promised Land. We are to be like them!

Most people and, alas, even many Christians are not. They are consumed by this world and this life and their lives shrink as a result.

“Making a career out of nothing – wandering through malls, killing time, making small talk, watching television programs until we know their characters better than our own children – robs the community of our gifts and energies and shapes life into a yawn at the God and Savior of the world.  The person who will not bestir himself, the person who hands himself over to nothing in effect says to God: you have made nothing of interest and redeemed no one of consequence, including me.”  [Plantinga, Not the Way its Supposed to Be, 188]

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah might have been like that except for one thing: they knew they were going to the Promised Land, they could see it. And that changed everything. They had a destination. Their lives meant something because of that destination. And by a holy instinct they realized that the destination had to determine the nature of their journey. Most people live without any sense of destination and their lives lack shape and purpose and substance as a result. They have to manufacture a reason for their daily life and they never find something large enough to make of life what God intends for it to be. Heaven and the glory of God: those are large enough!

Brothers and sisters, we have a destination. We are going someplace wonderful beyond the power of words to describe. Keep that destination in view and in a thousand ways and every day it will change the way you live your life. Pilgrims don’t travel the same way tourists do.