Five Sisters Who Fought the Patriarchy | Sojourners

Five Sisters Who Fought the Patriarchy

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The Jewish people were nearing the end of their 40 years wandering through the desert when Moses orchestrated a census to determine how the promised land would be divided among families when they arrived. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah were five sisters. The fact that they are often referred to as the “daughters of Zelophehad” or the “daughters of Z” reflects the patriarchy of the day (in which, for instance, land was only passed to a male heir). “Z” had died in the desert, and these women of the wilderness advocated for themselves with Moses.

Moses consulted God and determined that indeed these women should be able to inherit their family’s land (Numbers 27:1-11, 36:1-12).

All of my young life, my paternal grandma, Margie Shafer Hartman, lived in a beautiful forest in mountainous north central Pennsylvania. As a child I would wade through the stream, swing on vines, and climb trees on the land that my grandma inherited, resting each night in a home of hand-hewn logs from my great grandpa’s farm. Margie and her sisters, Beatrice, Miriam, Dorothy, and Carol, were born to J. Harold and Mildred Shafer. Family lore has it that great grandpa J. Harold was mocked for supporting his five daughters to get a college education. But that didn't stop him and great grandma Mildred from raising strong and wickedly smart women, all of whom served the world in beautiful ways.

“Grandma in the woods,” as we called her growing up, played piano at local American Baptist Churches and taught music in public school.

My paternal grandparents, Margie and Walter (who died before I was born), traced their heritage back to two waves of Baptist families who, fleeing religious persecution in Germany, found refuge in Pennsylvania in 1804 and 1819. Our family heritage looks more like a spider web than a tree: Every year, this family gets together for an apple butter boil and meeting at the Shafer Grove, not far from our family museum filled with 200-year-old dentistry devices, dresses, farming tools, musical instruments, and German Bibles hand translated into English.

Because we were strangers in this land and because we were persecuted for our way of being, believing, and belonging, one core of the American Baptist commitment is freedom of and from religion, acknowledging that each of our liberties is ensured only by the liberty of all.

Back to the five sisters of 1800 B.C.: You must have suspected that things did not end so easily for these bold women. After Moses conveyed God’s finding that their cause was just, some Israelites clambered that if these sisters should marry outside of their tribe, their land would be lost forever. Thus an addendum was crafted to modify the new law, giving women the right to inherit land so far as they marry within their tribe.

My partner and I had a baby girl in June 2015. She won’t have five biological sisters. But she does have Grandma Hartman’s cheeks. She does have a great cloud of witnesses to draw on for strength as she navigates this complex and magnificent world.

Unlike Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, her marriage — if she chooses that — will not be restricted by tribe. But there will be times when she has to boldly claim the future that she desires. Unlike Margie, Beatrice, Miriam, Dorothy, and Carol, she will not be ridiculed for pursuing education. But education alone will not close the rifts that threaten the health of the communities where she lives.

What will be her path as it relates to people who are different from her? Will others be seen as a threat? Or will others be seen as unique communities, worthy partners in solidarity? If today’s American Baptists are any indication, and if I have anything to say about it, she will follow Christ’s lead as a friend to the outsider and a home to the displaced. In August 2016, 30 American Baptist and American Muslim women will travel to the Republic of Georgia to be in relationship with Baptists and Muslims for the second time in two years. This is my daughter’s inheritance.

My daughter’s name is Eleanora. We have an Eleanor and a Nora in our family web. In Greek, Eleanor means light; in Arabic, Nur means light — a pleasant, accidental, interfaith moment for us. Yet in such dark times as these — with xenophobia and racism dominating popular and political culture, and the largest global forced migrant crisis since the Second World War — only light can drive out darkness. Only love can drive out hate.