Notice: I went far off the reservation with this lesson. If you’re going to be offended because I did not follow the manual in telling the stories of Hannah and Ruth, please don’t read any further. There is no excuse for chastising me in a comment.
Lesson 20: “All the City … Doth Know That Thou Art a Virtuous Woman”
Numbers 26-27, 36
Purpose: To encourage class members to emulate the righteous qualities of [Biblical women]
As some of you may know, I earn my living doing historical research for scholars. I specialize in Mormon and Utah history, and spend most of my time digging through the Church archives. Most of my clients, believe it or not, are non-Mormons who are interesting in learning and writing about Mormon history.
Very often these non-Mormon clients will instruct me at the beginning of a project to simply send them documents, but not to explain what those documents mean to Mormons. They want to be objective, they say, and not be influenced by Mormon thought. So I do. Without comment, I’ll send off the first packet with, perhaps, some sermons of Heber C. Kimball talking about the event my clients are interested in, or some letters written by Brigham Young giving instructions for that event.
Without fail, a few days later I get a very frustrated email from those clients: “What in the heck are these people saying? I can read all the words, but I have no idea what these Mormon men mean!” And so I begin my real work of interpreting the documents so that non-members can understand them. I say I specialize in Mormon-to-English translations.
What kinds of problems do you think these clients usually have when they try to read Mormon documents? (Some of it is unfamiliar vocabulary, but the majority is that they can’t understand the religious mindset, or the references to scripture or to Mormon history that Mormon readers take for granted.)
I’m not the only one who has to translate the gospel, of course. In fact, half the people in this room are experts at translating what they hear and read. They’ve done it all their lives, and it is so ingrained in them that they probably don’t realize they’re doing it.
I’m talking about the women of the Church. Every one of us sisters is used to hearing phrases like “doing good unto all men,” or “men are that they might have joy,” and mentally editing that to “… and women” or sometimes struggling to understand whether women are in fact included. We can all sing hymns about being “Elders of Israel” and not even blink. We can reverently study General Conference talks given by men teaching us what it means to be daughters of God. We do all this without ay sense of irony, and usually without noticing what we’re doing.
I wonder if you brethren can understand what that’s like. If we go into Sacrament Meeting this morning and the opening hymn is announced as “As Sisters in Zion,” can you sing that without feeling awkward? (I remember when that first came into our hymn book, and how some men refused to sing it at all, and some of those who did sing made a joke out of it.\) When you’re watching General Conference and the next speaker is announced as a counselor in the general Primary presidency, do you listen to her talk as respectfully as you would the talk of a Seventy? or do you decide it’s a good time to make yourself a sandwich or take a potty break?
I’m asking you to consider these ideas today because our lesson today is entitled “All the City … Doth Know That Thou Art a Virtuous Woman.” We’re going to be talking about Old Testament women today and discussing what lessons we can learn from their examples. Sisters, this is a day when you can relax and won’t have to make those mental translations that we ordinarily have to make in Church. Brethren, today is your chance to prove that you can do what women do: listen to stories that you may not think really has much to do with you, and think deeply enough to find out what the Lord meant by including these stories in the scriptures.
Scripture Discussion and Application:
<strong>Daughters of Zelophehad</strong>: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, Tirzah
To understand why our first group of sister is so admirable, let’s talk for a moment about human nature. In our day, when someone or some group thinks the Church has taken a wrong stand on an issue, or want to pressure the Brethren into adopting some policy, what are the typical tactics they use? (Please, in order to keep politics out of discussion, let’s not identify any specific groups; let’s just talk about their methods.) [Demands for meetings held on the terms of the objectors, protests, complaints to the press, appeals to law to remove tax exempt status, etc.] How successful are those methods, generally?
Back in the days of Moses, a group of young sisters faced a decision that they felt was unfair; their tactics in addressing the problem were quite different from those of modern protestors:
As the Israelites approached the Promised Land near the end of their 40 years of wanderings, Moses and Eleazar, the high priest, directed that a census be taken of all the men in Israel, 20 years of age and older. This was one of the most important numberings Israel ever made, because the census was to be used to decide what land, and how much land, each of the tribes would inherit in the Promised Land. Even more importantly than that, as Moses explained to the Children of Israel, the land granted to each man would be his memorial forever. The land was a stewardship to be passed down in a man’s family forever. Land could never be sold, but only temporarily leased: when a Jubilee Year was declared, all land was to be returned to the descendants of the man who had originally owned it. Land would be forever known by the name of the man who entered the Promised Land to claim it.
52 ¶ And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
53 Unto these the land shall be divided for an inheritance according to the number of names.
54 To many thou shalt give the more inheritance, and to few thou shalt give the less inheritance: to every one shall his inheritance be given according to those that were numbered of him.
55 Notwithstanding the land shall be divided by lot: according to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit.
There were to be some exceptions. The Levites, for instance, would not inherit land, but would be given cities within the lands of the various tribes. They also officiated in the temple rites, had claim to the meat offerings brought to the temple, and other temporal benefits of priesthood service.
Also, apparently, those Israelites who had taken part in the rebellion of a priest named Korah, who, with 250 other priests tried to overthrow the leadership of Moses, were to be punished by not receiving land. This punishment guaranteed that over time their names would be forgotten, while the names of more righteous Israelites would be preserved because of their land ownership.
This all sounds fair and wonderful, doesn’t it? Won’t every righteous family in Israel be rewarded through this system?
Well, there was at least one group who spotted a flaw in the plan. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah were five sisters. Some biblical evidence suggests that Mahlah, the oldest, was about 20 years old, with her sisters ranging down in age. These were just young women, some of them perhaps still girls of Primary age. They were the daughters of a man named Zelophehad.
Zelophehad was a member of that first generation who had bed led by Moses out of Egypt. He may have been only a child when he was brought out of Egypt, since 40 years later his children were still so young. But like all members of that generation except for Caleb and Joshua, the Lord had decreed that he would not live to enter the Promised Land. He died in the wilderness, leaving his five daughters but no sons.
These five girls were greatly concerned about the inheritance laws announced by Moses. What do you suppose their chief concern was?
We might think their first worry was unfairness over not inheriting land. That, however, does not appear to be the case – presumably the girls would marry, and when they did they would share in the land set apart for their husbands. What other concern might they have had?
Now, if these five girls lived in 2010, we might not be surprised to see them use some of the tactics displayed by groups who try to pressure the Brethren today: They might give television interviews complaining about how unfair Moses was to women. They might picket Temple Square. Assuming they did so, how effective do you suppose they would have been in changing the inheritance laws?
Let’s read what they did do, instead:
1 THEN came the daughters of Zelophehad, 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.
2 And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying,
3 Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not in the company of them that gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah; but died in his own sin, and had no sons.
4 Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he hath no son? Give unto us therefore a possession among the brethren of our father.
Let’s look closely at what they did.
First, they went together. They presented a united front. They didn’t hang back waiting for someone else to speak up – they went themselves to speak before Moses and Eleazar, and all the congregation.
Next, they pointed out that their father, Zelophehad, had not taken part in the rebellion of Korah. “He died in his own sin” – that is, he was prevented from entering the Promised Land only because he was a member of the generation that left Egypt, who all had to die before Israel could enter the Promised land.
Then they made their real case: Not that Moses’s inheritance law was unfair to the girls themselves, but that the law was unfair to their father, Zelophehad. Why should his name be blotted out of Israel because he had no son to take up land in his name as a memorial in Israel?
Do you think the girls were sincere in their concern for their father’s memory? Why might that have been a more effective plea than one that sought land for the girls’ own sake?
Let’s read Moses’ reaction:
5 And Moses brought their cause before the LORD.
6 ¶ And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
7 The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them.
8 And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.
The Lord also put a restriction on the daughters of Zelophehad, and on other women who would inherit land in Israel: Unlike other women, these heirs must marry husbands who were members of their own tribe. That way, the land would be inherited by sons who were also members of the tribe, and no tribe would suffer any loss by having female heirs. This was a restriction obediently followed by the five sisters:
10 Even as the LORD commanded Moses, so did the daughters of Zelophehad:
11 For Mahlah, Tirzah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, were married unto their father’s brothers’ sons:
12 And they were married into the families of the sons of Manasseh the son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in the tribe of the family of their father.
I think it is just as important to recognize Moses’ part in this story, as that of the five sisters. What leadership qualities did he display in this episode?
The next story I’d like us to consider briefly doesn’t have quite the same application for modern life as we can find in the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, but it’s an interesting story. It takes place in the days of the judges, during the term of the prophetess Deborah.
In those days Israel was at war with a Canaanite king named Jabin, and Jabin’s general Sisera. As judge in Israel, Deborah called on her general, Barak, to lead Israel’s army against Sisera. She told him that the Lord had promised her victory, but Barak seemed a little unsure of that promise. Let’s read
8 And Barak said unto her, If thou wilt go with me, then I will go: but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go.
9 And she said, I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for the LORD shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman. And Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh.
So Barak won’t go to war unless Deborah goes with him. She agrees to go, but tells Barak that the glory of the battle won’t be to his credit, but to the credit of a woman.
This chapter goes on to tell of the course of battle, how Israel prevailed over the Canaanite army, but how Sisera, the Canaanite general, escaped from the battle. In an effort to hide from the Israelites, Sisera reaches the tent of a woman named Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. The rest of the story is briefly told:
18 ¶ And Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said unto him, Turn in, my lord, turn in to me; fear not. And when he had turned in unto her into the tent, she covered him with a mantle.
19 And he said unto her, Give me, I pray thee, a little water to drink; for I am thirsty. And she opened a bottle of milk, and gave him drink, and covered him.
20 Again he said unto her, Stand in the door of the tent, and it shall be, when any man doth come and enquire of thee, and say, Is there any man here? that thou shalt say, No.
21 Then Jael Heber’s wife took a nail of the tent, and took an hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died.
And with Sisera’s death, the Canaanite army was defeated, and Israel lived in peace for the next 40 years.
As I said, this story doesn’t have quite the same modern applicability as other biblical stories – we are not encouraged to commit violent murder these days! But are we meant to see Jael as a heroic figure, or as a wicked one?
One clue is found in her name: Ja-el. The -el suffix should be familiar to you: Isra-el, Samu-el, Dani-el. It’s a word that means “God” in Hebrew; we’re probably most familiar with it in the name Elohim. The first part of her name, Ja-, is also a word meaning “God” – we find it in Yahweh and Je-hovah, and other names meaning “Lord.” So just judging by her name, it would seem that Jael is doubly righteous, doubly a follower of the one true God.
Can you suggest any lesson that we might learn from Jael’s story, perhaps about God’s call to women as well as men?
Next, I’d like us to consider the story of another woman who is not often held up as a role model to either men or women: Rahab the harlot. She lived in Jericho just at the beginning of the conquest. Let’s read the first part of her story:
1 AND Joshua the son of Nun sent out of Shittim two men to spy secretly, saying, Go view the land, even Jericho. And they went, and came into an harlot’s house, named Rahab, and lodged there.
2 And it was told the king of Jericho, saying, Behold, there came men in hither to night of the children of Israel to search out the country.
3 And the king of Jericho sent unto Rahab, saying, Bring forth the men that are come to thee, which are entered into thine house: for they be come to search out all the country.
4 And the woman took the two men, and hid them, and said thus, There came men unto me, but I wist not whence they were:
5 And it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark, that the men went out: whither the men went I wot not: pursue after them quickly; for ye shall overtake them.
6 But she had brought them up to the roof of the house, and hid them with the stalks of flax, which she had laid in order upon the roof.
7 And the men pursued after them the way to Jordan unto the fords: and as soon as they which pursued after them were gone out, they shut the gate.
Make no mistake about it: if you aren’t familiar with the word, a “harlot” is a prostitute – someone we would ordinarily be warned against associating with. And here is a woman who is not only a prostitute, but one who has betrayed her own people by hiding two Israelite spies and by sending the men of her community on a wild goose chase.
But in the next part of her story, we learn that Rahab has heard about the Israelites and their God, and has become converted. Let’s read:
8 ¶ And before they were laid down, she came up unto them upon the roof;
9 And she said unto the men, I know that the LORD hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you.
10 For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed.
11 And as soon as we had heard these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you: for the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath.
12 Now therefore, I pray you, swear unto me by the LORD, since I have shewed you kindness, that ye will also shew kindness unto my father’s house, and give me a true token:
13 And that ye will save alive my father, and my mother, and my brethren, and my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death.
14 And the men answered her, Our life for yours, if ye utter not this our business. And it shall be, when the LORD hath given us the land, that we will deal kindly and truly with thee.
15 Then she let them down by a cord through the window: for her house was upon the town wall, and she dwelt upon the wall.
16 And she said unto them, Get you to the mountain, lest the pursuers meet you; and hide yourselves there three days, until the pursuers be returned: and afterward may ye go your way.
And so it happened. The spies made it safely back to Joshua, the Israelites captured the city of Jericho, and Rahab and all her household were spared.
How do we know that Rahab’s actions were not just a desperate ploy by a woman who realized that the Israelites were stronger than the Canaanites?
The story of Rahab was remembered by the Israelites through all their history, at least into New Testament times. Let’s read what Paul wrote to the Hebrews, listing the great models of faith from throughout Israelite history:
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,
18 Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called:
19 Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.
20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come.
21 By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff.
22 By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.
23 By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid three months of his parents, because they saw he was a proper child; and they were not afraid of the king’s commandment.
24 By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter;
25 Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season;
26 Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward.
27 By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible.
28 Through faith he kept the passover, and the sprinkling of blood, lest he that destroyed the firstborn should touch them.
29 By faith they passed through the Red sea as by dry land: which the Egyptians assaying to do were drowned.
30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they were compassed about seven days.
31 By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace.
Imagine that: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses … and Rahab. Not the wives of any of those patriarchs, not Miriam, not Deborah the judge … but Rahab. Any ideas why that might have been so?
And that is not all. When faith and works are discussed in the epistle of James, Rahab’s works are praised as much as Abraham’s were:
23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?
26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
I love the Bible. More than any of our other Standard Works, the Bible is filled with stories of righteous women, courageous women, faithful women, exciting women. Some of the women are our traditional heroines: We could have spent our time today talking about Hannah, and how her righteous prayer was rewarded by the Lord giving her a son. We could have spent our time discussing Ruth and Naomi, and how Ruth, by converting to the Israelite God and by following the cultural instructions of her mother-in-law Naomi, was rewarded by the Lord giving her a husband; this alien woman, this convert, became an ancestor of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But we also have the opportunity to discuss other women’s stories, and perhaps find new heroines. I hope that has been the case with these stories of Zelophehad’s daughters, and Jael, and Rahab, some of my favorite women from this part of the Old Testament.