This week’s column is a reprint from 2005. Moving has me a little bit behind in writing.
Reading this week’s portion something bothers me. After about my fourth or fifth reading a word popped into my head of what was bothering me: Misogynist. This didn’t seem not a complementary section for women. First, women are told that men are bound by their vows, but the vow of a woman may be overturn by the man who has power over her, such as father or husband. Secondly, the non-virgins of the Moabites were executed, but the virgins were made captives, for the “use” of the army. The last slight was a little subtler. While two tribes Gad and Rueben ask about staying on that side of the Jordan, three are granted land by Moses. The third, is a part of Menasseh.This quite coincidentally, happens to be the same part of Menasseh the Daughters of Tzlofchad belong to. For those who remember last week, these are the same women who stumped Moses in halakic debate, and even got a compliment out of God. One has to ask, was Moses trying to keep these women away from everyone else?
It’s this last question which finally caught my interest. What did happen with the daughters of Tzlofchad?
1. And the chief fathers of the families of the sons of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of the sons of Joseph, came near, and spoke before Moses, and before the princes, the chief fathers of the people of Israel; 2. And they said, The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for an inheritance by lot to the people of Israel; and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of Tzlofchad our brother to his daughters. 3. If they are married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the people of Israel, then shall their inheritance be taken from the inheritance of our fathers, and shall be given to the inheritance of the tribe where they are received; so shall it be taken from the lot of our inheritance 4. So when the jubilee of the people of Israel shall be, then shall their inheritance be given to the inheritance of the tribe where they are received; so shall their inheritance be taken away from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers. (Numbers 36:1-4)
This problem with inheritance is solved with the strictest ban on intermarriage: In the case a daughter inherits, then she must marry from within her own tribe only. The daughters do follow this, and marry their cousins. But note in our section
39. And the sons of Machir the son of Manasseh went to Gilead, and took it, and dispossessed the Amorite who was in it. 40. And Moses gave Gilead to Machir the son of Manasseh; and he lived in it.(Numbers 32:39-40)
Back in Numbers 27:1, the daughters were described as
Then came the daughters of Tzlofchad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these are the names of his daughters; Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.
Thus to bring the point so far, the daughters were not allowed to enter and live in the land of Israel. Their portion was apportioned on the east side of the Jordan, decided for them by Moses and their kinsmen, the sons of Machir, for taking the city of Gilead. They must live only there as they must marry within their own tribe, so living in Israel as a wife in another tribe was out of the question. Until the land was conquered, they were also locked up in fortified cities. If you wanted to keep the smart girls as far away from the action as possible, one couldn’t come up with a better plan.
Oddly enough, there is another who is finding the same fate, but with a shorter ending. This week, God notes to Moses that its time to die, implying he will not set foot in the land of Israel. But very much unlike Moses the daughters do make their way into the land despite everyone’s best efforts to keep them out. We have in the text two possibilities for them to enter the land.
The first is a legal loophole. Only half of the land of Menasseh was to be Transjordan, the other half was to be in the land of Israel. Even if their inheritance were apportioned in Transjordan, they could marry family from Israel, and enter through marriage. Then there is the biblical story in Joshua, where these women show their stuff. In the time of Joshua, the daughters come in front of Joshua and demand their inheritance, not from Gilead but from the land of Israel, recalling that God through Moses promised them a portion. (Joshua 17:3-6) Joshua gives each a portion of the land, along with five male descendants of Menasseh of their grandfather’s generation, for a total of ten portions in the land for Menasseh.
At least in this last bit of this week’s rather misogynist portion we see some empowered women. One of the daughters, Tirzah will have a city named after her, at one point the capitol of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In the Song of Songs, Tirzah is also mentioned as the city in the Song of Songs 6:4-5
Beautiful one, you are like Tirzah comely as Jerusalem .
Awesome to behold
Turn your eyes from before me.
They make me tremble
Your hair is like a mighty flock
Which are bounding down Gilead
Even in Midrash Rabbah VI: 14 to the Song of Songs the rabbis praise the women of the wilderness:
THOU ART BEAUTIFUL, O MY BELOVED, AS TIRZAH: this refers to the women of the generation of the wilderness, for Rabbi said: The women of the wilderness were virtuous and made up their minds not to give their rings for the calf. They said: ‘If the Holy One, blessed be He, could break the hard idols, how much more so the soft one! COMELY AS JERUSALEM: because whoever was looking for likenesses of Peor could find them in Jerusalem, as it says, Whose graven images did exceed them of Jerusalem and of Samaria (Isa. X, 10)
The women of the wilderness refused to worship the stone idols of Egypt, and saw what God did to the Egyptian gods. They realized the God would find toppling the soft gold idol of the calf easy. In later times, The women of Jerusalem, once again resist what the men cannot, Baal-Peor, the god of the people of Moab, the people destroyed this week over the same god. There are always righteous women who don’t fall to idolatry. Not only that, but as the verse 5 of the Song of Songs notes, the daughters are the mighty flock descending from Gilead, into Israel. They reject living in Gilead, on the sidelines. Their eyes are intense on their prize, enough to make others cringe. If there is one thing to pull from the text this week, it’s the will and righteousness of these women, who stood up for what God promised them, and never took second best, like some of their kinsmen. We look into their story, spread out in small piece throughout the biblical text, and their fight for their portion of land, even when others would restrict their rights.
Interspersed with the story of Tzelofchad’s daughters in Torah, is the seduction of the men of Israel by the unrighteous women, the seductresses of Baal-Peor. I wonder if they might be intentionally in contrast to one another. Righteousness, strength, determination and Law, even in the most extreme conditions are what is to be praised, not idolatry and seduction. Both women and men have a choice in life, which of these paths to follow. Tzelofchad’s daughters are there to point us in the right direction.