Zelophehad’s Daughters and the Democratic Fingers of Death

Moses holds a census, after which lands are allocated. God instructs Moses: “The land shall be apportioned as an inheritance according to the number of names. To the numerous, you shall give a large inheritance, and to the few, a small inheritance. By lot this land shall be divided and it shall be received as a possession according to the names of the tribes of the fathers.”

Zelophehad has has no sons. Since only males are counted, Zelophehad has no claim on a land, and his offsprings are not entitled of an inheritance, He has five daughters who are named:  Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Their names mean movement, and they join together to create a change in the law of inheritance. The five daughters of Zelophehad approach Moses and ask: Why should the name of our father disappear from the midst of his family, just because he did not have a son?

Moses does not know how to respond. God instructs him: “The daughters of Zelophehad speak justly. Certainly you shall give them, according to the legal right of males, a hereditary possession, and you shall cause their father’s inheritance to pass to them.”

In her poem “Color, Cast, Denomination” Emily Dickinson suggests that the classifications of class, race, religion, sex and gender are based on the all too human need to govern reality and gain a sense of control over the ephemeral nature of life. However, in the grand scheme of things we are all equal, and death “with its democratic fingers” does not differentiate the rich from the poor, man from woman, white from black.

Color, Cast, Denomination
by Emily Dickinson (1864)

Color — Caste — Denomination —
These — are Time’s Affair —
Death’s diviner Classifying
Does not know they are —

As in sleep — All Hue forgotten —
Tenets — put behind —
Death’s large — Democratic fingers
Rub away the Brand —

If Circassian — He is careless —
If He put away
Chrysalis of Blonde — or Umber —
Equal Butterfly —

They emerge from His Obscuring —
What Death — knows so well —
Our minuter intuitions —
Deem unplausible —

Feature Photo: Dance to the Music of Time, by Nicolas Poussin (1634)

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