I have been thinking about Turman’s first-person witness of the search process for a senior pastor executed by the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church of New York. The legitimacy of Turman’s testimony is not in question and the accuracy of its presentation is not my overarching concern. I have no interest in debating her antagonists, hostiles, or rivals. I have no plans on entertaining counterarguments to this Black woman’s testimony. I am not barking back at hit dogs. As a co-laborer in the vineyard of theological education invested in the biblical canon and its responsible interpretation, Turman’s signature has arrested me. In addition to her many giftings, Turman is a preacher par excellence rooted, steeped, and tested in a rich preaching tradition, and as such, her ‘close’ is meaningful. In her initial post (dated September 23, 2023), before metaphorically affixing her words to the doorpost, Turman signs her theses as The Daughter. Turman encourages her readers to “keep the faith,” and then self identifies with the epithet, The Daughter. In my first monograph, Daughters in the Hebrew Bible, I examine daughters’ presence, roles, and functions in the biblical canon and suggest daughters are worthy of skilled analysis and critical engagement, so Turman’s designation caught my attention.
Some thoughts …
While many have supported and affirmed Turman’s words, the post and the person have been met with all manner of vitriol. Often this contempt has been enveloped in alleged biblical precedent. It may be that part of the problem is because there are no neat, surface examples of daughters speaking up on their behalf, non-critical treatments of the Bible have lulled many into a false sense of textual security in their decisions to silence women and girls. Followers may claim ‘the Bible is clear’ in that there are no examples of daughters refusing to be silent in the biblical witness – or at least those daughters that do speak up are not lauded by the biblical writers and their modern interpreters.
The biblical story of Zelophehad’s daughters is instructive. When newly acquired land is being dispersed among the Israelites in Numbers 27, the daughters of Zelophehad (deceased), Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, petition for their father’s allotment. Close readers of the biblical text (not those who simply read the parts that serve their immediate theological need) understand the daughters’ request was just in the eyes of the Creator and that the Divine established a new order based upon the efficacy of the daughters’ claim. Furthermore, the very close reader of the text understands that Moses was never the decision-maker in the first place. When the daughters approach the assembly and make the argument to receive the land that would otherwise go to their father, Moses defers to the Lord to adjudicate the matter (Num 27.5). And when Moses brings the request before the Divine, he is told “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” (Num 27.7). Moreover, the English translators of Numbers 27 spend four verses detailing how the divine decree impacted the Israelite community. Daughters may inherit their fathers’ land and “it shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses” (Num 27.11). By the end of Numbers 27, the daughters know they are due the land and the entire community knows the daughters are due the land.
There ARE examples of daughters refusing to be silent in the biblical witness. Unfortunately, most preachers do not highlight the fact that Zelophehad’s daughters refused to be silenced and were, indeed, rewarded. Having taught the Numbers texts in both the church and the academy, I can attest to the fact that most readers stop reading the story of Zelophehad’s daughters in Numbers 36 wherein the daughters comply with the wishes of the elders of the community, marry within their kin-group, do not push back, and remain without the land that was theirs. When the daughters’ story is told in our churches, very few do the work of reading beyond the Numbers 36 text. Would pastors, preachers, and pew-dwellers read beyond Numbers 36 they would learn these daughters were, indeed, not denied. When the daughters approached the new leader with their request in Joshua 17, they were given what was due them.
In reading the Turman experience through the lens of the biblical daughters of Zelophehad, we have a two-part problem. First, too many are willing to accept the injustice done to the daughters as normative - as what is to be expected. Second, too many stop reading before the problem is resolved the way the Divine intended. If we are honest, people have been conditioned to expect the daughters to fade into the background without any fight and without any noise. But then comes along one Eboni Marshall Turman. Turman is The Daughter who decides to hold the institution accountable. The daughter who tells when she is being wronged. The daughter who makes ‘the system’ uncomfortable. Turman is just the one who would have caused a stir among the elders in the book of Numbers. Despite the fact the Divine had adjudicated the matter in Numbers 27, it seems the elders had a back-room meeting (or at least a meeting that was not public) and decided stipulations were in order. In Number 36 the daughters acquiesce to the elders’ request. Here, the daughters say less. It appears the elders have made decisions that silenced the daughters. But, as in the case of the decision-makers of Abyssinian, what the elders were not counting on is the daughter’s awareness, tenacity, and persistence. When Joshua comes into his leadership role, the daughters speak up again. After a time, the daughters’ collective voice results in their receiving what was due them.
Evidence of Moses not making the call in the matter of Zelophehad’s daughters is supported by the fact the Divine directs Moses by saying, “the daughters have spoken rightly” before articulating the new ordinance for the community. Likewise, while certain 21st century Moseses and certain present-day tribal elders are all a flutter, perhaps Turman was not candidating with the leadership at Abyssinian in the first place. Perhaps Turman was, in fact, making herself, her pastoral sensibilities, her leadership skills, and her theological expertise available to the ultimate decision-maker. Perhaps, like Tirzah and her sisters, when Turman approached the assemblage at Abyssinian, she submitted her credentials and answered their questions knowing all the while, ‘it was above them.’
I am waiting for the Joshua 17.4 moment for Abyssinian and institutions like it. I am waiting for the, “So according to the commandment of the Lord he gave them an inheritance among the kinsmen of their father” moment in the modern narrative. I, like the daughter Miriam, am standing afar off watching to make sure my sibling journeys safely to her God-ordained destination.