What the 5 Daughters of Zelophehad Reveals about our Narrative of Progressive Liberation and the Mission of God


“The Bible is against Women, Especially the Old Testament”

This is something I regularly hear either spoken outright or intimated.

  • “women were treated as property, not persons”
  • “women were not free to express themselves, their desires, needs or rights”
  • “women were treated as second class citizens”
  • “women were only there to serve the needs of men”

I don’t believe the Bible supports any of these ideas.

Equality and Diversity

That isn’t to say that our ideas of equality are found in the Bible. Our notions of equality are our own and of our cultural context. I believe that in many ways the rise of Christianity put Western civilization on the road toward some of the ideas of equality we currently have but to assert either that the Bible reflects or demands out concept of equality would be myopic given the fact that ideas vary not just over time but also over cultures even around the world today. The Bible was written to people of different cultures in the ancient world, is read and has been read by a tremendous diversity of people throughout time and across the world today.

I’m also not saying that there wasn’t injustice or discrimination against women in the ancient or modern world, including our own. A tenet of Reformed theology is that these kinds of sin always dog us to contaminate or destroy our relationships with each other.

Progressive Liberationism

If Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the most common assumption for private spirituality in our culture today, Progressive Liberationism is ascending moral and civil religiousity. Like most religious traditions is has

  • a doctrine of humanity, what we are
  • a doctrine of sin, what is our problem
  • a doctrine of salvation, how we are rescued from our problem and who rescues us
  • a doctrine of last things: what is the blessed stated we destined for
  • a historical narrative, a way of interpreting history to demonstrate the truth of this system

These are the basic elements of most religions. What we will see is that this religion doesn’t have, or even need a deity. It can have an atheist form or a theistic form and there is much that atheists and theists can agree upon.

I also believe that just as it is true with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, many Christians have difficulty distinguishing the tenets of Progressive Liberationism from historical Christianity because in many ways many elements of Progressive Liberationism are the product of Western Civilization which has been deeply shaped by Christianity even when neither side in the culture war wish to acknowledge it.

Dogmas of Progressive Liberationism 

David Brooks captures many of these elements.

If you were born at any time over the last sixty years, you were probably born into what the philosopher Charles Taylor has called “the culture of authenticity.” This mindset is based on the romantic idea that each of us has a Golden Figure in the core of our self. There is an innately good True Self, which can be trusted, consulted, and gotten in touch with. Your personal feelings are the best guide for what is right and wrong.

In this ethos, the self is to be trusted, not doubted. Your desires are like inner oracles for what is right and true. You know you are doing the right thing when you feel good inside. The valid rules of life are those you make or accept for yourself and that feel right to you.

“Our moral salvation,” Taylor writes, describing this culture, “comes from recovering authentic moral contact with ourselves.” It is important to stay true to that pure inner voice and not follow the conformities of a corrupting world. As Taylor puts it, “There is a certain way of being that is my way. I am called to live my life in this way and not in imitation of anyone else’s…. If I am not, I miss the point of my life. I miss what being human is for me.” 17

From an older tradition of self-combat we move to self-liberation and self-expression. Moral authority is no longer found in some external objective good; it is found in each person’s unique original self. Greater emphasis is put on personal feelings as a guide to what is right and wrong. I know I am doing right because I feel harmonious inside. Something is going wrong, on the other hand, when I feel my autonomy is being threatened, when I feel I am not being true to myself.

In this ethos, sin is not found in your individual self; it is found in the external structures of society— in racism, inequality, and oppression. To improve yourself, you have to be taught to love yourself, to be true to yourself, not to doubt yourself and struggle against yourself. As one of the characters in one of the High School Musical movies sings, “The answers are all inside of me / All I’ve got to do is believe.”

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (pp. 249-250). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Here we see some of the elements of this faith

  • Your true self is some golden self deep inside of you that you have been alienated from by religious, social, circumstantial, governmental or familial restraints.
  • Your duty to yourself is to be liberated from these constraints
  • Your liberation from these constraints comes through self-assertion against what is holding you back from becoming your true self and working with others to overthrow traditional societal, religious, cultural or legal norms that resist you as an individual or your identity grouping from this liberation.
  • The goal of your struggle for liberation is to no only achieve full external expression of that true, golden, inner self that you’ve been alienated from but also full acceptance and celebration of this expression. The job of friends, family, lovers, institutions, laws and government is to reflect back to you your gloriously revealed true self. This is heaven. This is the glorious end state that you are destined for.
  • History (especially since the 19th and 20th centuries) has been inevitably pushing us towards this glorious reality and if we commit ourselves to freeing ourselves and helping others become free from the restraints that bind them and the alienation they may not even be experiencing from their inner golden selves then we will fix he world, live forever, and humanity will share in joy, glory, happiness and fulfillment.

If you understand the tenets of Progressive Liberationism you can hear it in the admonitions of self-help gurus, in song writers, in celebrities giving commencement speeches, in government officials giving campaign and policy speeches. It is everywhere, even often in churches and other places where “helpers” try to help.

Once we implicitly imbibe this we begin reading it back onto the Bible and Biblical stories are assimilated into this history. This is not unusual, this is how all religious filters and traditions work. Some Progressive Liberationists assert that the Bible is beyond redemption and should be set aside for other more enlightened texts to guide us. Others believe that if we ignore some texts and privilege others we can redeem it.

The Five Daughters of Zelophehad

All of us have been influenced by this ascending cultural religion and it has become the lens through which we interpret questions of racism, sexism and identity. For many the parts of the Bible most in need of dismissal are from the Old Testament with is ethic tribalism and its rules about women and slaves.

We’ve been going through the book of Numbers and one of the strange stories that pops up here at the end in Numbers 27 is a story about 5 daughters without a father. This story undermines a variety of narratives, both that the God of the Bible is discriminatory against women and that the path to salvation is found in individual expression of unrestrained desires and alienated identity.

Israel is about to take possession of the land and the land will be divided up by family groups. In that culture at that time family groups were identified by male heads of household or clan. What happens when the men die? This is the question raised by these 5 daughters.

The question wasn’t just about property, it was about one’s future.

At this time Israel didn’t have the idea that when you died you might hope for a resurrection. The idea was that the dead went down to a place called Sheol which was kind of like the Greek’s Hades. It wasn’t necessarily a place of torture or necessarily reward, just a place where the dead went.

What was important for families was that the lived on through their descendants. Their names lived on. One of the worst judgments you could receive was to be “cut off”. That would mean that your lineage ended with you or your children.

The entire system of “inheritance” developed for Israel was that the land would be permanently associated with your family. Even if calamity struck and you fell into debt your land couldn’t be permanently separated from your descendants. In the year of Jubilee the family inheritance would pass back to the original family.

A Cry for Justice

Now comes the case of Zelophehad. Unlike those who died in rebellion against Yhwh, he died “for his own sins” and was not worthy of being “cut off”. The problem was that he had only daughters. If/when these daughters married his name would be lost. He would in effect become “cut off” merely by virtue of having had daughters rather than sons.

When Israel was ready to try to divide the land the daughter realized this impending calamity for their dead father. Was he, and they, not able to have an inheritance in Israel? The 5 daughters then decided to take their case to Moses, who found the case too difficult and so took it to the LORD at the tent of meeting. Were daughters not also a part of Israel and heirs of the promise of the LORD for his people? This is their question.

In Contrast to the Men

Again, the Bible has a reputation for being anti-women and the Old Testament often the worst. I believe this is unfounded. Time and time again in the Old Testament we in fact see women stand up when men fail.

  • Tamar rebukes and redeems Judah
  • The midwives of Israel during the Egyptian genocide defy Pharaoh to his face
  • Ruth rescues the house of Elimelek from being cut off
  • Hannah gives away her precious son Samuel that he might save Israel
  • Esther saves her people from Haman.

While these daughters are less famous they stand in the same tradition.

Last week we saw the men of Israel “prostituting themselves” with the daughter of Moab and Midian. Israel is perpetually getting herself into trouble and it is usually the men taking the lead.

Similarly in the verse immediately proceeding chapter 27 we are reminded of the rebellious spies of the first mission into the land who doubted God’s ability to achieve what he set out to do. The women stand against this.

Rashi, noting that this episode immediately follows a mention of the ten fearful spies, construes it as a special argument in behalf of the role of women as opposed to men in the Wilderness narrative: “The men say (Numbers 14), ‘Let us make us put up a head and return to Egypt,’ and the women say, ‘Give us a holding.’”

Alter, Robert (2008-10-17). The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (Kindle Locations 17217-17219). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

One impulse of Progressive Liberationism is that Israelite men should have been free to

  • Go back to Egypt if they feel this is their destiny and best expresses their true inner selves
  • Worship any God they want, as long as no one else gets hurt
  • Take Midianite or Moabite women (Moses had a Midianite wife), but the polygamy thing keeps getting in the way, is that fair to women? Perhaps if they consent.

As we talked about last week the Bible critiques the assumption that following our dreams and desires is always a good thing, even if “nobody else gets hurt.” It is not a religious libertarian document. What is shows is that in fact we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to our desires and impulses. We regularly choose things that hurt others and ourselves as well as offend the God that owns this world and rightly continues to lay claim to it. There are more legitimate claims on existence than just the demands we make as individuals. Reality in community is more complex and freedom far more difficult than just release from external constraint.

The men who in these ancient cultures had power and responsibility were often the cause of troubles, and too often women and children paid the price.

Nuanced Critique of Many Competing Claims

One voice of Progressive Liberationism would be to demand that women here be treated equally. I’m not going to argue either that we should justify ancient concepts of male inheritance practices or promote them as a standard today but notice how these women are affirmed as women.

Part of the tension with Progressive Liberationist thinking is conflict between equality and identity. We want to say two contradictory things: that women should be treated as men (equality) but also that women should express and be affirmed and recognized in their identity as women. To say a woman is a man is to destroy something of her identity and therefore to do violence to her.

In this story the women rightly note the injustice being done to their family through the legal system. They make an appeal to God who affirms not only their rights but also their identity as given to them through his creation of them. While the men are being all liberationist, often at the expense of women and each other, the women’s call for recognition and justice is affirmed and given a place in law.

Is There Gospel In This Text? Where? 

The Old Testament language of “cut off” and “inheritance” gets appropriated by the New Testament in our inheritance in Christ and our inclusion in the renovation of God’s good creation. This text is an affirmation that God is not only rescuing and valuing the sons of Adam but also the daughters of Eve. God uses not just men to bear witness to his kingdom but women as well. In a world where women too often suffered the consequences of the poor leadership of men God speaks here and affirms their place.


This text, as is seen throughout the book of Numbers reveals the loss of the age of decay. Death has left these women without a future in the assumed inheritance system of the ancient world. They were in danger of being “cut off” through no fault of their own.


God hears their cry, as he says he does for the weak and the oppressed and gives them an inheritance and a future.

We know, however, that the remedy offered to them was a sign of the larger remedy that Christ would make for them in the future. Israel itself would become a sign for the larger inheritance of God’s creation preserved for his people not through identity construction or self-reclamation but by receiving a new identity in Christ Jesus as kings and queens of the age to come, the created goodness revealed and restored.


We have more narratives and cultural streams than we can possibly disentangle. Elements of Progressive Liberationism bear witness to interests promoted in Christianity because the movement itself draws some of its ideals and values from Christianity. The key differentiators come from the source of our identity, the source of our rescue and the scope of our liberation.

  • Identity is finally received more than achieved. Foundational elements of our identity were seeded for us in God’s good creation and although obscured and mired by sin the path of God’s redemption is the reclamation, restoration and fruition of creation, not against it.
  • Christ is the guarantor of our rescue, not our own wills or societal actions. While we need deliverance from rebellious cultural, religious and societal oppression we also need rescue from our own rebellions. In the end the greater threats are from within than from our circumstances and only Christ by his Holy Spirit can deliver us from these.
  • What we are promised in Christ through the resurrection is far more than any secular Progressive liberationism can offer. Our individual redemption is tied to creational redemption as well. The renovation of the cosmos is tied to the renovation of our own selves and our identities in Christ. This makes Progressive Liberationism seem timid and unimaginative compared to the scope of the Christian vision for what Christ is about. Progressive Liberationism finally asks for too little, not too much.

Christianity invites you into this broader, more radical, more demanding vision of what liberation and rescue finally look like. It also suggests that unlike any human product or a product of “history” demythologized (which has its own problems for an atheist worldview) the God of the cosmos is on a mission to redeem us and reclaim us. Yes there will be liberation for us, but also from us and through us.


About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What the 5 Daughters of Zelophehad Reveals about our Narrative of Progressive Liberation and the Mission of God

  1. Pingback: How Can the Liberator and the Former Slaves Live Together? | Leadingchurch.com

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