Suzan Mark Zira is a female theologian from Nigeria and a member of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN). She served as principal of EYN’s John Guli Bible School for 17 years and is the current academic dean of Kulp Theological Seminary in Adamawa State, Nigeria. She was director of EYN’s Women’s Fellowship for six years and Women’s Ministry for four years. She also led the Mission 21 Women’s Network in Africa for six years.
Speak Out Boldly
Scripture: Numbers 27:1–11
27 Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 2 They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, 3 “Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. 4 Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.”
5 Moses brought their case before the Lord. 6 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 7 The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. 8 You shall also say to the Israelites, “If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. 9 If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10 If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11 And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.”—Num. 27:1–11 (NRSV)
The Text in Its Context
Normally, land inheritance in Israel would pass from a father to his sons, not to his daughters. This passage contains the story of the daughters of Zelophehad presenting their case to receive their father’s inheritance rather than having it pass on to other Israelite clans, and to have the Lord's determination in their favour.
We are urged to imitate these daughters of Zelophehad, heroines of faith. By asking an unusual thing, these five remarkable young women are a picture for us of faith in action. Their father had died in the wilderness, part of that generation which God had said would not enter into the land into which Israel is about to enter. Zelophehad’s daughters remind Moses that their father had not been part of the rebellion of Korah. Thus, though he had died in the wilderness, he was not part of those who had forfeited their inheritance, and so they ask for that inheritance.
This story takes place in the wilderness, just before the Israelites entered into the promised land. Therefore, all that is being done, is done in faith; Israel does not yet have an inch of land. The Israelites are simply trusting in God's promise that they will have the land and, acting in faith, are already dividing it up among themselves.
Zelophehad’s name will be lost among the tribes of Israel and the clans of Manasseh, and his daughters feel that everything is against them. Yet, no one had ever contemplated a situation like this before. Moved by courage, boldness, and faith, the young women realize that there might be a chance—if they ask—that they could have their inheritance.
Faith is key here. As in any age, faith is the watchword for blessing. There is nothing from God that will come into one’s life apart from the channel of faith. No blessing, no achievement, no victory can ever be one’s own, except if one takes it by faith. As such, faith in the age of our scripture passage, and in our own age, is the key to obtaining God’s blessing.
These young women are aware that God had promised Israel an inheritance in the land of Canaan. They know this history, and knowledge is power. They know that the promise involved a land flowing with milk and honey; a land of beauty, fruitfulness, and blessing. And they desire to have the part of this promise that belonged to them. They are determined, despite discouraging cultural and religious factors—the cultural gender discrimination of the law and customs of Israel that said that their father had lost the family inheritance because he had no male child.
The Text in Our Context
In Israel, all inheritances were to be passed to a male, regardless of age and status. The system was completely unfair to women. This kind of cultural gender discriminative norm is what women are experiencing throughout Nigeria. Women are denied the right to the inheritance of either their father or their husband.
In Nigeria, especially in the north-eastern part of the country where I live, traditional cultural norms deny women the right of inheritance and ownership. This has long been the major reason that women live in poverty and are marginalized. Women are considered part of a man’s property. This has made many women vulnerable during the ongoing insurgency in the country, especially in the Northeast.
In terms of education, males are educated more than females, as society gives more educational opportunities to boys and young men. Only female students are expelled from school if they are found to be sexually active, while their male counterparts may continue with their studies. Rape of women is so rampant because of the culture of silence. Indeed, the plight of women in this region cannot be overemphasized.
This passage has given us an example of how women can, by faith, boldly raise and talk about their situation, and end up as agents of change—something every woman can become. Keeping quiet will never bring about change. Women must talk about how they are feeling, with boldness, by faith, against the culture of silence and suffering. Faith challenges tradition; we must therefore be ready to move in new ways against universally accepted ideas and traditionally held views. If we would walk by faith, we must make choices that take us off the commonly accepted path.
These women’s act of faith formed the basis of a new principle, a new law. A whole new area of action opened up. We need daughters of Zelophehad of our time, who can take bold steps of faith that bring about new understanding about the treatment of women. Women need to have faith to act against cultural norms that work against them. Keeping quiet is equal to supporting the evil. Women, speak out for your rights; men, speak out for women’s rights. Jesus said, if you have faith, even small like a grain of mustard, it will remove mountains, it will cause trees to be cast into the sea and other things to happen. When we begin to exercise faith, we encourage someone else to exercise faith too. Who knows what God is going to do in our time through us? God is calling on us to live by faith. This is God’s way of changing human history.
The people of Israel numbered over a million, yet the daughters of Zelophehad appear before the leader and the people to make known their demand. It must have been an unusual circumstance and sight for the women of Israel in particular.
- What do you think made them act in this unusual way?
- What made them think they ever had a chance to inherit this land?
- Why were they determined to ask for this when they knew it went against the law?
- What was it that made them hope like this?
- Do you have experiences in your context that are like those of the daughters of Zelophehad?
- Are there examples from your context when women have acted in the same way as the daughters of Zelophehad?
These young women took time to talk about their plight and situation and, in the end, came up with an agreement and understanding that the promised land was a gift of God’s grace to the people of Israel, which meant it had nothing to do with the realm of custom and law. Grace is not one’s right; it is a gift that is for all, unless we bring culture into it. Therefore, we should speak out; keeping quiet will not solve or end women’s plight.
- Find an example in your context where you as a group could make a difference regarding the plight of women, either by taking action or by raising your voices.
Adeyemo, Tokunboh, ed. Africa Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006.
Adeyemo, Tokunboh, ed. Sharhin Littafi Mai Tsarki Don Afirka. Jos: Africa Christian Textbooks, 2019.
Henry, Matthew. Complete Commentary on the Bible.
NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Our Father, awaken our faith anew. Teach us to take our burden to you in faith and speak out. Lord, teach us to walk by faith. In Christ's name, Amen.
Second Bible Study by Amanda Khozi Mukwashi
Amanda Khozi Mukwashi is the chief executive officer of Christian Aid, a global movement of people, churches, and local organizations working to end poverty. Her career spans intergovernmental and non-governmental spaces, including the UN, VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) International, and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. She is the author of But Where Are You Really From? published by SPCK Publishing in 2020.
Gender, Economics, and Structural Injustice
6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”—Ruth 1:6–13 (NRSV)
The Text in Its Context
The Book of Ruth relates that Ruth and Orpah, two women of Moab, had married two sons of Elimelech and Naomi, Judeans who had settled in Moab to escape a famine in Judah. The husbands of all three women die; Naomi plans to return to her native Bethlehem and urges her daughters-in-law to return to their families.
The Book of Ruth was written in Hebrew sometime in the 6th–4th centuries BCE. The culture and practice at the time meant that women were permanently and solidly on the cultural margins. If they were without a husband or a son, they were left stateless, unprotected, and vulnerable in their communities. Naomi knew the fate that awaited widows and did not want to see her daughters-in-law become outcasts dependent on the mercy of their husbands’ extended families. Instead, Naomi believed that if her daughters-in-law returned home to their families, they would be looked after, or they would find other men to marry and bear sons, giving them new opportunity for social protection. In these societies, social, gender, and economic injustices were deliberately structural and therefore embedded in the norms of community life.
The injustice faced by all three women was not an accident, since women were seen as little more than objects—voiceless and largely defined by their relationships to the men in their lives. The system in operation perpetuated a lack of rights and benefits, with no opportunity for women to flourish in their own right.
The Text in Our Context
Poverty and injustices today are not an accident. Economic systems are built with a deliberate structure; they are designed to keep vulnerable communities in a state of poverty, and women are hardest hit. Over the centuries, many Western economies have been perfected to create wealth and power that serves the few at the expense of billions of lives across the world. Evidence collated by the UN, the World Bank, and other global institutions inform us that millions of women take the brunt of the consequences of social, economic, and political inequalities and injustices.
Many of the countries in which we at Christian Aid work, have experienced high levels of economic growth and falling poverty rates. Yet, notional economic success can mask severe pockets of poverty, growing levels of inequality, or the destruction of the natural world. And although market mechanisms, fundamental to economic growth, have been vital for lifting some people out of poverty, they are rarely able to address the needs of the hardest to reach.
For some in the global South, the dogmatic pursuit of economic growth is, far from being part of the solution, part of the problem: a form of neoliberal globalization that “has already cost the lives of millions and destroyed much of God’s creation.” By asking the question “What enables a truly human life?” we can see the economy as a tool that should exist to facilitate human and planetary flourishing. Our economic system should be judged by its potential for sustaining life, both of people and planet, in ways that support the common good.
Today, the world faces some of the most serious economic, environmental, social, and political challenges it has ever faced. Across the world, citizens are calling for governments to implement policies to address these issues, but again and again, governments tell them the same thing: “We don’t have the money.” At the same time, it is a fact that governments worldwide tolerate widespread tax evasion and avoidance—and that malevolent actors routinely steal from government funds. Indeed, it is estimated that 416 billion US dollars is lost every year to IFFs or illicit financial flows, that is, illegal or harmful movements of money or capital from one country to another.
The impact on women and girls has been disproportionate, leaving them bearing the brunt of poverty, climate change, health pandemics, conflict, and fragility. Women are the primary victims of violence. Violence takes different forms and manifests itself in poverty, displacement, and a lack of access to essential healthcare services, education, and shelter. Nearly one in three women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by any perpetrator in their lifetime.
The challenges faced by Ruth and Naomi were structural and based on a cultural context that placed women as second-class citizens of their nations, communities, and families. More than two thousand years later, while there has been progress on a number of fronts, women continue to be at the mercy of systemic structures, norms, and practices that keep them poor, powerless, and voiceless.
The Bible tells us that Ruth and Naomi managed to find a way through the different rules and practices in order to gain the security and protection that they needed. They worked together as two women to achieve the desired results. In this 21st century of the Common Era, there is much that we can learn from their strategies that will contribute to transforming our lives and the lives of future generations—standing in solidarity with one another and presenting our petitions before God in agreement. God tells us that where two or three are gathered in God’s name, God is there with them; that whatever is bound on earth is also bound in heaven. There is power and strength in women of faith coming together in prayer and action as we respond to the call in Micah 6:8 to “do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with [our] God.”
From a position of humbleness, Ruth, a migrant and foreigner, was to be elevated to be one of the women in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:5. There are millions of women who are displaced, who have not lived in their home for many years, and who do not know when they will next have a place to call home. Yet, through the scriptures, both in the Hebrew Bible and in the accounts of the life of Jesus, God is revealed as one who is concerned about the fatherless, the widows, and those who are socially excluded.
As followers of Christ, we have a duty to continue this work and reach out to others, contributing to lifting them out of poverty, to helping to bring down structures that keep people vulnerable, and to creating spaces for everyone’s voice to be heard. From a faith perspective, our work on gender justice motivates us to walk together, to provide support and accompaniment, to build solidarity and improve networks of support, and to nourish community life with spiritual and pastoral care, with empathy, love, compassion, and neighbourliness—during and beyond the current crisis.
- How can we reconstruct the conversation around a just economy, especially one that starts with self-assessment and moves towards a global transformation?
- Financial debt including climate debt, defined by policies developed in wealthy economies, shapes the realities of the global South. Debt within developed economies is very different to debt in developing nations. Therefore, how can we examine who owes whom, and for what?
- How can we confront corporate powers—beyond academic economists, bankers, et al. and including religious powers and practices—that contribute to continued inequalities and injustices?
- How can we cross the divide of race, ethnicity, and wealth to stand in solidarity as women across the world? Looking at how decolonization has shaped and influenced different levels and layers of privilege, what do we understand by the concept of privilege, and how can we restore that which has been taken—dignity?
- Think of and list cultural practices that women face. Share them and discuss the damage that they do to women’s wellbeing. Talk about how such practices contribute to violence against women and how they dehumanize women and girls.
- Reflect on the life of Jesus and how, during his earthly ministry, he reached out to those who were socially excluded and marginalized, including women. What can we learn from Jesus’ actions? Discuss as a group.
- Jesus saw poverty, inequality, religious and economic oppression, unemployment, depression, the physically ill, and the socially unclean. His heart was moved with compassion, and his sense of what was right drove him to take action. He pronounced what his mission was all about. Consider what this means for the ecumenical mission together.
“The Accra Confession.” 2004. World Communion of Reformed Churches. http://wcrc.ch/accra/the-accra-confession.
Christian Aid. Trapped in Illicit Finance: How Abusive Tax and Trade Practices Harm Human Rights. September 2019. https://www.christianaid.org.uk/sites/default/files/2019-09/trapped-in-illicit-finance-report-sep2019.pdf.
Christian Aid. An Unquenchable Thirst for More: Faith and Economic Growth. December 2017. https://www.christianaid.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-01/An-Unquenchable-Thirst-Dec2017.pdf.
Our God, who changes times and seasons, deposes kings, and sets up kings; who gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding; our God, who reveals deep and hidden things, who knows what is in the darkness and with whom light dwells—to our God we give thanks and praise.
Oh Lord, give us wisdom to see the context in which we live, reveal to us the solutions that will be pleasing to you, and give us the strength and courage to stand in solidarity with women across the world as together we work to fight poverty, tackle power structures that do harm, and lift our voices in concert and in thanksgiving.
Jesus, you walked and lived on this earth, and you sit at the right hand of the Father advocating for each one of us. Help us to walk in your footsteps and be bold in stepping in for those who are socially excluded and marginalized in our communities.
Remind us, oh Lord, that we are all created in your image and that we all receive favour before you that is undeserved and unmerited; that your love is offered and extended to all, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, class, caste, or social-economic status; that the only criteria that matters is to be a member of the human race.
Grant us now your peace that surpasses all understanding so that we can be a true manifestation of your love and a testimony of your faithfulness. Amen.