Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Foregiveness and reconciliation:

Zelophehad's daughters' land in Num 27:1-11, 36:1-12
Bible study for NSW Synod
October 06, 2001

I fakatapu ‘foregiveness’ in this third reflection by underlining the word ‘give’ that it contains.’ This is in order to highlight the fact that foregiving is an act, an event.’ In other words, foregiveness contains a gift (Derrida), the gift of giving in advance.’ I ask for your permission to conceive this ‘gift’ not as an object or property but as an event, an act, the act of gifting.’ The gift in foregiveness is not the stuff that one gives, but the act that allows one to present foregiveness; [1] the value of foregiveness is not in the amount or worth of the stuff one gives, but in the stir that allows one to give the stuff away.’ That is what I have in mind in the ‘give’ that I underline at the heart of ‘foregiveness.’

By underlining ‘give’ I am saying that foregiveness is valuable when it is given, and that foregiveness crumbles when it is received and kept. [2] ’ One receives foregiveness for the purpose of giving it, of handing it over, of giving it away.’ In this regard, foregiveness should not be taken.’ To take foregiveness is to undermine the ‘give’ that I underline.

One must receive foregiveness, but one can only accept the gift in foregiveness by giving.’ To give is to receive foregiveness; to accept foregiveness is to give!’ And the joy one experiences in giving exceeds the release one feels when one receives foregiveness.

I have woven this redefinition to bring out our interconnectedness.’ In other words, how can one give foregiveness if s/he has not accepted foregiveness?’ She can’t give what she has not received, unless she is able to give in advance.’ In yesterday’s reflection, a mother showed that giving in advance is not only possible but life-giving also.’ There are underlying and more discomforting questions here: why does he who has received foregiveness refuse to give foregiveness?’ With respect to the title of this reflection, why does he who has received reconciliation refuse to re-conciliate?’ Why does he who has received ‘sorry’ refuse to give it back, to release and re-lease ‘sorry,’ so that he may enjoy the gift of ‘giving sorry?’’ Without giving sorry, and without giving foregiveness, as my redefinition suggests, he has not accepted the gift of foregiveness.

I must acknowledge that I am a newcomer to this land and to this Synod, so I am not fully aware of the complexity of my new contexts, of our transiting contexts, so I invite you to also make the connections for yourselves.’ Furthermore, I acknowledge that these reflections may be difficult to receive but they are transforming to give.’ It is not the talking that makes them transformative, but the possibility of giving and the joy of gifting! [3]

I will re-tell two stories in this third reflection.’ A story that involves an Israelite family in the book of Numbers, which draws our attention to the wilderness, and a story involving a Tongan family, which pulls our attention to the present. [4] ’ I will end by inviting you to reconsider your story in this Synod and in this land, in this wilderness.’ This reflection invites you to the wilderness to explore ways of living in the present.

giving Zelophehad's daughters' land

The story of Zelophehad’s daughters is in the book of Numbers, one of the biblical books that most readers do not read.’ Zelophehad comes from the family of Manasseh, son of Joseph, and he had five daughters. [5] ’ He died in the wilderness in between Egypt and the land of the Canaanites, before God’s promise was fulfilled for his generation.’ He died before God’s gift of land was given to him.

Zelophehad had no son, but five determined daughters.’ They came with a demand that God could not refuse:

Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered against Yhwh in the company of Korah, but died for his own wrong; he had no sons.' Why should the name of our father be erased from his clan because he had no son?' Give to us a possession among our father's brothers. (Num 27:3-4)

Zelophehad was not a part to Korah’s rebellion; [6] he died for his own wrong.’ To his daughters, his name should not be removed for something he did not do and surely not because he had no son. [7] ’ They come to claim their father’s land, in order to preserve his name.’ They come because Israelite customs threaten to take and erase their father’s memory.’ They come as women, as organic intellectuals, seeking to preserve their father’s memory, in other words, to re-member his name.’ Their claim was both affectionate, for their dead father, and courageous.

Their courage is evident in the place where they present their claim: before Moses, Eleazer the priest, the leaders, all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting (27:2).’ They present their claim before both men and God.’ They come to a place that was not a woman’s place in their days, a place from which some men were also excluded. The aliens and uncircumcised have no places there, and ones with blemishes, such as the lame and blind, were not to draw near (cf. Lev 21:16-24). [8] ’ That tradition could not keep Zelophehad’s daughters away, testifying to their courage and the importance of their father’s land and name.’ Like the two women in 1 Kings 3, Zelophehad’s daughters were gutsy!’ Whether they had courage, perseverance and/or pure arrogance, is a matter of opinion.’ But that should not cloud the fact that they took a risk by coming before Moses and the leaders of Israel.’ They took a risk to show that women have a place at the entrance to the tent of meeting, and not just at the ’entrance to Enaim’ (with Tamar).

The content of their claim was also risky: a possession among their father’s brothers.’ There is nothing risky about demanding a possession, but demanding a possession among their father’s brothers is subversive.’ These daughters intend to cross two barriers: gender and generation.’ They did not demand a possession among the males in their generation, but among their father’s brothers.’ Like Tamar, they took the risk to show that they are ‘more in the right’ than their male authorities.’ And like the mothers who came before Solomon in 1 Kgs 3, Zelophehad’s daughters come for judgment and justice.

Even though Moses has been chief judge over Israel since Exodus 18, he would not give an immediate decision on their demand.’ He brought their case before the Lord, who confirms that the daughters ‘are right in what they are saying’ (27:7). [9] ’ They should inherit their father’s possession among their uncles.’ Whereas Solomon’s s/word and final decision divide two women, the Lord’s initial decision affirms Zelophehad’s daughters.

A daughter’s right to inherit was not limited to Zelophehad’s daughters.’ The Lord follows up with a law: if a man with no son dies, his daughters shall inherit his possession before his brothers, uncles, or any other male relative (27:8-11). [10] ’ This law did not go far enough because a daughter will not inherit if the man has a son, older or younger than her, more responsible or otherwise, but this law surely points Israel in a new direction.

Despite being risky, the daughters’ demand is encouraging, setting the stage for other women who may wish to take a place among their ‘father’s brothers.’’ These daughters have given other women, in advance of their asking, places at the entrance to the tent of meeting and among their ‘father’s brothers.’’ Whether those places are good places to be in I leave for your judgment, respecting our different experiences in both places!’ In other words, whether the daughters’ gifts are liberating and/or limiting depends on who accepts them.’ And I am obliged to remind you, in light of the redefinition I gave earlier, that you may accept their gifts by giving them.’ In that regard, their gifts are for women and men both.’ Men need to receive the daughters’ gifts by giving more women access to decision making places and places of inheritance.’ I push even further: we need to give organic intellectuals, whether at the side of the road, at the mall, or in prison, a chance to accept these daughters’ gifts.

The Lord too took a risk in this story, because the law legislates the dispossession of many Israelite men. [11] ’ Given the rate at which sons die in the wilderness (due to plague, curse, and war; see also Joshua-Judges), I suspect that many families were left with only daughters.’ They too could claim their father’s inheritance, taking advantage of the law in Num 27:8-11, which would draw resistance from their uncles and male relatives.’ Such a resistance occurs in Num 36:1-12.

Zelophehad’s uncles’who would have inherited Zelophehad’s possession had his daughters not made their demand’came with a counterclaim to Moses and the heads of Israelite ancestral households.’ They did not like God’s law, for if daughters marry into another Israelite tribe then their ancestral inheritance could be lost to that other tribe.’ The law does not protect the allotted portion of their inheritance.’ Moses affirms their counter-claim and he issues a new law: [12] the daughters of Zelophehad, and every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of Israel, shall marry within their father’s tribe.’ The reason for this legal revision is ‘[’] so that all sons of Israel may possess their ancestral inheritance.’ No inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for each of the tribes of the sons of Israel shall retain its own inheritance’ (36:8b-9).

This legal revision upholds the difference between giving and taking.’ One arm of the law takes away what it gives with the other.’ Daughters are given the right to inherit, but their right to choose a husband is taken from them for the sake of the sons of Israel.’ The purpose of this legal revision would be fulfilled in a society in which all daughters are married.’ But that was not always the case in Israel, as the story of the two ‘prostitutes’ before Solomon suggests (1 Kings 3).’ A daughter can upset this legal revision by not marrying at all, and by marrying someone from outside her father’s tribe before claiming her father’s inheritance (as in the case of Peseti’s daughters below).

In their story, Zelophehad’s daughters claim and are given the right to inherit their father’s inheritance but they are not free to give it to whomever they choose.’ They are to receive the gift of their father, but they can only give it to their father’s brothers. [13] In other words, the gift in foregiveness is held back from them; they are not to enjoy the gift of giving and joy of gifting.’ Their story differs, somewhat, from that of Peseti’s daughters.

re-telling Peseti's Daughters' story

Peseti Nai had no sons, only two daughters.’ He moved to Aotearoa/New Zealand to be with his daughters, and he died there in 1999.’ He is buried in Aotearoa, in the whenua [land] of the Maoris; a land whose name points to the clouds, to the skies, Aotearoa.’ He is buried away from home, in a new land that has given him a home, among a people who received him by giving a place for his body.

According to Tonga’s law, since Peseti did not have a son his land goes back to the noble, Tungi, who is also our king.’ Last year, ‘Ema, the first daughter, went to Tonga to see about inheriting her father’s land, which she wishes to share with her sister Kaufo’ou.’ The daughters do not want the land for themselves but in order to give it to their children.’ They want to give their children something that they do not have, a land that does not legally belong to them, to give them something before they even receive it.’ In other words, they want to accept their father’s gift by giving it to their children.’ And their wish was granted, against the law of the land.

Today, Peseti has no land.’ He has passed on to be a part of the Maori’s whenua.’ And in Tonga, Peseti has been given to his grandchildren, as if to say that Tungi has accepted him as part of the Maori’s whenua, and as if to say that one Polynesian fonua [Tongan for land] recognizes the gift [Peseti’s dust] it has given to another Polynesian whenua.

The significance of ’land’ for the natives of Pasifika [Pacific and Oceania] has been documented.’ Iutisone Salevao resists Hebrews 6:7-8 from a Samoan perspective.’ To burn the land’ele’ele (which also means ‘blood’) and fanua (which also refers to the afterbirth embryonic sac) in the Samoan language’is to burn parts of a human person.’ To burn the land is to destroy life.’ And Wali Fejo talks about the voice and smell of earth from the perspective of the natives of Larrikia country in Arnhem Land, whose ‘Old Man Rock’, Nungalinya, is connected with Uluru, the great red rock at the center of Earth.’ The land is our mother, our ancestors, our God.

‘Ema and Kaufo’ou recognize the sacredness [tapu] of the land not for themselves but for their children.’ I spoke with ‘Ema while she was in Tonga to give her father’s land to her children, and she said that property does not really matter to her.’ Land is dirt, dust and rocks.’ She does not plan to leave Aotearoa, and there is a chance that her children will not return to Tonga.’ She came to Tonga not so much for the land, the dirt, dust and rocks, but in order to give her father to her children.’ She came to Tonga not to receive, but to give the dead to the living, and in that regard the dead continues to live.’ It is up to her children what to do with the gift they have been given.

Let me make a leap here: I wonder if people do not know how to give foregiveness because they have not been given foregiveness.' And I wonder if people do not know how to live because they do not know how to give the dead life.' In other words, they do not enact, practice, make present, materialize, the give in foregiveness.

-- Whereas Zelophehad's daughters cannot give their father's inheritance to whomever they choose, Peseti's daughters give their father's inheritance in advance of receiving it.' In so doing, they accept their father and his gift.

I juxtaposed these two stories not in order to undermine the biblical story in favor of the story of Tongan daughters, though I am proud to be Tongan, [14] but in order to call your attention to the ways in which these female organic intellectuals re-write, and thus liberate, their traditions. We still have a lot to learn from such organic intellectuals.

so what?

These reflections addressed different life stages ’ a widow, mothers, and daughters ’ at different places ’ an entrance, king’s court, and tent of meeting.’ I chose the stories of female characters not just because I am sympathetic of feminist interests, but also because I want to re-write biblical stories that undermine ‘inferior characters.’’ I did so by appealing to Gramsci’s distinction between traditional and organic intellectuals, giving the rejected female characters the right to be organic intellectuals.’ In other words, these reflections respect the tapu of/in organic intellectuals, female or otherwise.

Let me close with a simple question: what do we give to the future?’ If I have learned anything from Zelophehad’s daughters, it includes the need to re-write tradition by allowing daughters to inherit the gifts of their fathers, of their mothers, [15] as well as the promises of God.’ I am not satisfied with the way Numbers ends, given our multicultural context.’ I prefer that we give our daughters the opportunity to give their gifts to others, within and beyond the tribes of their fathers and their mothers.’ In this regard, I add to Jesus’ prayer in John 17:1 (cf. first reflection). [16] ’ I pray that God glorifies daughters also so that they may glorify others, within and beyond the tribes of their fathers and their mothers, within and beyond the churches of their fathers and their mothers, within and beyond their own generation and gender!

And if I have learned anything from Peseti’s daughters it includes the need to give our children the gift of giving, the gift of foregiveness, and in this land, we need to give the gift of reconciliation.’ The gift of reconciliation will push us outside of our father’s tribes, beyond our comfort zones, so I again add to Jesus’ prayer.’ I pray that God also glorifies ones who are not God’s children, and ones who opt not to be God’s children, so that they may glorify others. [17]

Herein lies another challenge, another paradox: We must not be middle persons, as Gondarra requests, but we do not have to be on our side all of the time!’ These studies have been about taking a stand on the other side.’ I am not too concerned with the glory of God.’ I think God is equally glorious with and without me.’ I am more concerned with the ones at the side of the road, with or without a veil; the ones who have lost a child, or a parent; and the ones whose right to give their land have been removed from them.’ How can we foregive ourselves, if we remain impartial?

Let me assure you that these foregiveness-reflections that I have shared have not raised anything totally new, and they are not too idealistic.’ For example, how would you respond if I give you this simple phrase ’ The peace of God is with you!?’ [’]

[’] Moderator, I am glad that [some in] this Synod knows how to accept by giving.’ I hope that this Synod also knows how to give more than their words, and how to give in advance, how to fore-give!

On that note, Leveleva e malanga kae tau atu! [a Tongan phrase that indicates an end to a talk, hoping that what was given has reached across] [18]


Fejo, Wali.’ 2000.’ ‘The Voice of the Earth: An Indigenous Reading of Genesis 9.’’ In Norman C. Habel and Shirley Wurst (eds.), The Earth Story in Genesis.’ The Earth Bible, 2.’ Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (pp. 140-46).

Salevao, Iutisone.’ 2000.’’ ‘‘Burning the Land’: An Ecojustice Reading of Hebrews 6.7-8.’’ In Norman C. Habel (ed), Readings from the Perspective of Earth.’ The Earth Bible, 1.’ Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (pp. 221-31).

[1] I have in mind an act that presents, an act that makes present, as if to say, in other words, that foregiveness gives presence.
[2] To keep a gift is to stop it from continuing to be a gift, for it becomes an object that has lost its 'gift-ness.'' In other words, a gift stops being a gift when it looses its 'give.'' This is an invitation, a call to accountability, to responsibility, to 'give.'
[3] I am appealing here to Derrida's concept of jouissance, the climactic pleasure experienced in sex and play.
[4] The double movement of 'drawing away' and 'pulling back' undermines the earlier 'give versus take' redefinition.' I distinguish 'giving' from 'taking' relationally (cf. p. 6).' This point can be made more sensible with the Tongan word 'ave, which means both 'give' and 'take.'' That is the subject for another talk!
[5] Zelophehad is the son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, son of Joseph.' The names of his daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah (Num 27:1, Josh 17:3; the daughters' names are listed in a different order in Num 36:11, in which the decision in Num 27 is compromised).
[6] Korah is the great-grandson of Levi.' The story of his rebellion is told in Num 16.' His name re-calls the name of one of Esau's son (cf. Gen 36), which may have a part in the way he is regarded in the wilderness tradition.' Latter traditions appear to be more sympathetic for Korah, attributing Pss. 42, 44-49, 84-85, 87, 88 to the sons of Korah.
[7] There is an ironic twist here if 'sons' are understood as gifts from God.
[8] The irony is that six cities of refuge were later set up in the cities appointed to the priests; manslayers were permitted to the 'place' of priests!
[9] Compare with 36:5, which does not say that Moses brought the leaders' counter-claim before Yhwh but he 'commanded the Israelites according to the word Yhwh.'
[10] There is gender bias in the law in that the inheritance is to be 'passed over' to the daughter but 'given' to the men.
[11] In principle, a legal code is partial, usually, but not always, on behalf of the wronged party.
[12] Moses affirms the counterclaim without consulting Yhwh, as he did in Num 27.' This gives the impression that he favors the counterclaim more than the daughters' claim.
[13] The ultimate winners in this legal revision are the 'sons of Israel.'' They are the subjects whom the law privileges.
[14] The juxtaposition of these two stories also exposes the androcentrism in the biblical account.' Even though Zelophehad's daughters are named, they are grouped together as 'daughters of Zelophehad.'' On the other hand, I re-told the story of 'Peseti's daughters' by naming each of them in particular situations.
[15] The absence of the figure of the mother from the story of Zelophehad's daughters is peculiar, but that is the subject for another reflection!' On this point, I wonder if their mother[s] would have allowed the legal revision of the 'father's brothers' to stand.
[16] 'After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, 'Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you [']' (NRSV)
[17] That is one way, metaphorically speaking, given the scope of this Christian forum, to give life to the dead.' I stress that I am speaking metaphorically here.' The gift of reconciliation also allows us to receive life from the dead, to accept the gift that we must give.
[18] The original ending of this reflection was different: 'I end by giving you the opportunity I was given to give these reflections, which I refuse to keep because we have responsibilities to do more than just give talks.' I end by giving my words an 'and' '' The second ending was also different: 'This glory-talk takes me back to the fakatapu that I began with: to pay my respects and to sanctify others, especially organic intellectuals.' I end where I began, and I invite you to reconsider what came in-between!'
**** © Copyright 2001, Jione Havea