Greater Grace: A Story of God, Redemption, and Steve McQueen

They said he could act with the back of his head. No dialogue or frills required—his mere presence loomed larger than life in every shot. Put him next to some of the finest actors in the business, and he would undercut every one of them simply by being in the frame. His piercingly distinctive blue eyes were set in a rough-hewn, unconventionally handsome face that rarely betrayed strong emotion. His smallest physical gesture was precisely calculated and gracefully executed. You couldn’t best him, you couldn’t buy him, you couldn’t touch him. He was the King of Cool. He was Steve McQueen.

He was the definition of a self-made man, working his way up from a horrific childhood of neglect, paternal abuse and a tough life on the streets to the gold-plated life of a Hollywood icon. He once said that he often had nightmares of everything he had gained being suddenly taken away from him. A man of many paradoxes, he was both humble and defiant, stingy and generous, gentle and violent, self-assured and insecure. Perhaps it was director Norman Jewison (Fiddler On the Roof) who summed him up best: “He was a loner, and he was troubled, and he was looking for a father.”

Everyone had a Steve McQueen story.  His superior officers in the Marines could have told you how he spent 41 days in the brig for resisting arrest when caught AWOL. The young men at the Boys’ Republic where Steve had spent some of his teenage years could tell you how he regularly came back and visited the school after becoming famous, personally responding to every boy’s letters and financially supporting the school until his death. Magnificent Seven co-star Yul Brynner could tell you how McQueen stole scene after scene by deliberately throwing in extra, distracting bits of business. Bruce Lee could have told you about a hair-raising ride in Steve’s Porsche that had Lee cowering in the foot-well (and threatening to kill Steve when they stopped, causing a fearful McQueen to hit the gas again and refuse to slow down until Lee promised not to hurt him).

He was known to say that he lived for himself and answered to no one. Asked once if he believed in God, the actor brazenly replied, “I believe in me. God will be number one as long as I’m number one.” That philosophy informed much of his life. All the money, cars, alcohol, drugs and women that a man could ever want were at his fingertips, and it was only a matter of time before he became addicted in every way. Professional successes only inflated his ego. Wild experimentation with substance abuse drove him to the edge of mental stability. Though he tried to be a good father to the son and daughter of his first wife, his addictions, serial womanizing, jealousy and violence burned through two marriages.

By the late 1970s, his star was fading. The washed-up, aging characters he portrayed reflected where he himself was in his life and career.  He felt empty and unsatisfied. He began turning down huge offers and retreating into his own private shell. He was also developing health problems with his lungs. Doctors told him he should move, so in the spring of 1979, he left Malibu for the small, quiet town of Santa Paula, where he ultimately married his third wife Barbara Minty. For a period of time, they lived in an airport hangar which he had filled with his entire motorcycle collection. He bought a yellow Stearman bi-plane and learned to fly it, quickly mastering the craft as he had mastered motor racing before.

The pilot who taught him was a man in his early 60s by the name of Sammy Mason. Self-described as cranky and difficult to get along with, he became fast friends with McQueen. As they shared long hours in the air, talking together about the meaning of life, Steve sensed that there was something different about him. The more time they spent together, the more he wanted to know what Mason’s secret was. One day he asked him outright. Mason sat down with the aging actor and explained what, or rather who, had made the difference in his life. The answer, he said, was Jesus Christ.

McQueen was intrigued. He had so much respect for Mason and his family that he began regularly attending Ventura Missionary Church with them. The pastor was Leonard Dewitt. DeWitt later recalled that the famous icon had sat quietly in the balcony without even introducing himself for several months. When he finally requested a meeting with the pastor, he began firing off questions about life and faith, one after another. After a couple of hours, he leaned back and said, “Well, that about covers it for me.” Dewitt said, “Steve, I just have one question for you.” McQueen flashed his signature grin. “You want to know if I’ve become a born-again Christian,” he preempted. Then “still smiling, but very serious,” he told DeWitt that one morning when the pastor had given the invitation, he felt convicted by the Spirit and came forward. “When you invited people to pray with you to receive Christ, I prayed. So yes, I’m a born-again Christian.”Everybody around him could tell that he was changed.

In Sammy Mason’s words, it was “dramatic.” He said, “I doubt that I have ever seen a man flourish with more spiritual reality in such a short time.” Another close Christian friend, John Daly, said that the star’s conversion had stunned him. But when Steve talked about his new-found faith, there was no denying the seriousness of his commitment. In Daly’s words, “I think I had more faith that my saw and hammer would have gotten converted before Steve, but I was hearing it from the horse’s mouth.  I was blown away.”

Under the discipleship of Mason and DeWitt, McQueen could often be found praying or poring over his Bible. Around that time, he heard Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord” and embraced the lyrics as his own testimony. He also shared his testimony with friend and former personal assistant Mario Iscovich, who a decade earlier had been forced to stand by and watch as the actor “lost himself” down the “dark, ugly road” of his sin. As Iscovich puts it, McQueen “felt he had hurt a lot of people” but had finally “made peace with God.”

Shortly afterwards, McQueen traveled to Chicago to shoot his last film, The Hunter. Although his health was continuing to deteriorate, he was actively reaching out to various people in need. (He had always been generous, especially to kids, but now it sprang from a desire to serve God instead of trying to “cancel out” wrongdoings only Christ crucified could pay for.) One of the film’s extras was a feisty 15-year-old girl named Karen Wilson, who had no money to attend school and was working to provide for her family and dying mother. Immediately after visiting the family’s squalorous ghetto home, McQueen asked if he and Barbara could take the girl back to California with them and send her to school there. Eventually the mother agreed, and the couple went on to become Karen’s legal guardians. Her mother succumbed to cancer almost a year later. Today, Karen is happily married with a family of her own.

Also on the set of The Hunter, he gave his last interview to a high school student named Richard Kraus, who had initially been turned away by McQueen’s stuntman and told that he never gave interviews. The stubborn teen wouldn’t take no for an answer and found a way to approach the legend himself, who readily agreed.

In December of that year, he was officially diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, a fast-spreading and incurable form of cancer. The news was crushing because McQueen had expected God to use him in some great way now that he was converted. But he told Pastor DeWitt that he was able to endure it because at least he knew where he would spend eternity. Still, he was ready to try anything for the sake of his children—too ready, unfortunately. It led him down an almost year-long road of “unconventional” remedies where he was essentially taken advantage of by quack doctors (including a faith healer), all to no avail. We have a tape-recorded conversation from this time period where McQueen is talking about his illness, his faith, and the change in his life. “My body is broken,” he says, “but my spirit isn’t broken. My heart isn’t broken.” You can hear his voice crack when he shares dreams of “changing some people’s lives with what I know of the Lord, and what I have to offer with what’s happened to me.” He hoped to move to his wife’s ranch in Idaho and impact the community there. Sadly, he never got his wish.

One of the last people Steve talked to was none other than Billy Graham, whom the actor had long wanted to meet. DeWitt informed his contacts in the Graham organization that McQueen didn’t have much time left and wanted to see the evangelist if it could at all be arranged. Graham came right before McQueen was flown to a hospital for surgery to remove his tumors. Bed-ridden and on oxygen, McQueen was still, in Graham’s words, “a fighter.” Graham recalls, “Under that oxygen, he would talk. His eyes were just as bright, but he looked emaciated and old.” He poured out his life’s story to the evangelist, telling him about his friend Sammy Mason, telling him how God had made him a new man. McQueen had misplaced his Bible, so Graham personally inscribed his own Bible and gave it to the dying actor.  He stayed by McQueen’s side and prayed with him until they reached the airport, then saw him off on the plane.

McQueen would not survive the operation. Four days after his meeting with Graham, he died of a heart attack with the evangelist’s Bible resting on his chest. It was opened to his favorite verse, that old, familiar promise so simple a child could grasp it, yet so profound the angels cannot comprehend it: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Today, he is still idolized and remembered for what he left behind in his films. But as remarkable as that legacy is, it will  fade away like a forgotten dream at the dawning of eternity’s day. For when the grass has withered, and the young men have utterly fallen, and time like an ever-rolling stream has borne all its sons away, we shall be left with two wonders only: our own worthlessness and God’s redeeming love. May we all so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal.

I’ll close with a fitting song, a beautiful marriage of lyrics and music by Marc Cohn. This is called “Old Soldier.” I created this video to go with it.

Listen, old soldier, wherever you are
The hills or the valleys, come near or come far
They say youth is a treasure we waste when we’re young
So come down from the place where your medals are hung
You’re forever returning and learning to fight
And you feel just like an old soldier tonight…

Carrickfergus

Carrickfergus (from IrishCarraig Fhearghais [ˌkaːɾˠəɟ ˈaɾˠɣəʃ], meaning “Fergus‘ rock”) is a large town in County AntrimNorthern Ireland. It sits on the north shore of Belfast Lough, 11 miles (18 km) from Belfast. The town had a population of 27,998 at the 2011 Census. It is County Antrim’s oldest town and one of the oldest towns in Ireland as a whole. Carrickfergus was the administrative centre for Carrickfergus Borough Council, before this was amalgamated into the Mid and East Antrim District Council in 2015, and forms part of the Belfast Metropolitan Area. It is also a townland of 65 acres, a civil parish and a barony.

The town is the subject of the classic Irish folk song “Carrickfergus“, a 19th-century translation of an Irish-language song (Do Bhí Bean Uasal) from Munster, which begins with the words, “I wish I was in Carrickfergus”.

The British peerage title of Baron Carrickfergus, which had become extinct in 1883, was bestowed upon Prince William on his wedding day in 2011.

The town is said to take its name from Fergus Mór (Fergus the Great), the legendary king of Dál Riata. According to one tale, his ship ran aground on a rock by the shore, which became known as “Carraig Fhearghais” – the rock of Fergus.

As an urban settlement, Carrickfergus far pre-dates the capital city Belfast and was for a lengthy period both larger and more prominent than the nearby cityBelfast Lough itself was known as ‘Carrickfergus Bay’ well into the 17th century. Carrickfergus and the surrounding area was, for a time, treated as a separate county. The historical walled town originally occupied an area of around 97,000 square metres, which now comprises the town centre, bordered by Albert Road to the west, the Marine Highway to the south, Shaftesbury Park to the north and Joymount Presbyterian Church grounds to the east. Segments of the town wall are still visible in various parts of the town and in various states of preservation. Archaeological excavations close to the walls’ foundations have yielded many artefacts that have helped historians piece together a picture of the lives of the 12th and 13th century inhabitants.

Carrickfergus became an inhabited town shortly after 1170, when Anglo-Norman knight John de Courcy invaded Ulster, established his headquarters in the area and built Carrickfergus Castle on the “rock of Fergus” in 1177. The castle, which is the most prominent landmark of Carrickfergus, is widely known as one of the best-preserved Norman castles in Ireland.

Sometime between 1203 and 1205, De Courcy was expelled from Ulster by Hugh de Lacy, as authorised by King John. de Lacy oversaw the final construction of the castle, which included the gatehouse, drum towers and outer ward. It was at this time that he established the nearby St Nicholas’ Church. de Lacy was relieved of his command of the town in 1210, when King John himself arrived and placed the castle under royal authority. de Lacy eventually regained his title of Earl of Ulster in 1227, however the castle and its walled town were captured several more times following his death (in 1242) and the town largely destroyed by the Scots in 1402.

The Battle of Carrickfergus, part of the Nine Years War, took place in and around the town in November 1597. It was fought between the crown forces of Queen Elizabeth I and the Scots clan of MacDonnell, and resulted in a defeat for the English. A contemporary Elizabethan illustration of Carrickfergus shows ten tower-houses, as well as terraces of single-storey houses, some detached cottages and 70 or more Irish beehive-type huts in the town. A drawing of Carrickfergus Castle circa 1840.

Sir Arthur Chichester was appointed by the Earl of Essex to govern the castle and town in 1599 and was responsible for the plantation of English and Scottish peoples in the town, as well as the building of the town wall.

In 1637 the Surveyor General of Customs issued a report compiled from accounts of customs due from each port and their “subsidiary creeks”. Of the Ulster ports on the list, Carrickfergus was first, followed by BangorDonaghadee, and Strangford. In the same year the town sold its customs rights – which ran from GroomsportCounty Down, up to LarneCounty Antrim, to Belfast. This in part led to its decline in importance as the province of Ulster grew. A plaque at the harbour commemorates the landing of William of Orange in the town in 1690.

Nevertheless, the decaying castle withstood several days of siege by the forces of William of Orange in 1689, before surrendering on 28 August. William himself subsequently landed at Carrickfergus on 14 June 1690.St Nicholas’ Church in the town of Carrickfergus

During the Seven Years’ War, in February 1760, the whole town was briefly captured and held to ransom by French troops landed from Francois Thurot‘s naval squadron, after the defenders ran out of ammunition. In 1711 Carrickfergus was the scene of the last witchcraft trial in Ireland. Eight women were charged with bewitching a young girl, and were convicted, despite a strong indication from one of the judges that the jury should acquit. They were sentenced to a year in prison and four sessions in the pillory.

In April 1778, during the American War of IndependenceJohn Paul Jones, in command of the American ship Ranger, attempted to capture a British Royal Navy sloop of warHMS Drake, moored at Carrickfergus. Having failed, he returned a few days later and challenged Drake to a fight out in the North Channel which the Americans won decisively.

During the 1790s there was considerable support in the Carrickfergus area for the United Irishmen.[15] On 14 October 1797 William Orr was hanged in the town following what was widely regarded as a show trial held in Carrickfergus Courthouse[16] (now the Town Hall) and in 1798 United Irish founder Henry Joy McCracken was captured on the outskirts of the town while trying to escape to America.

In 1912 the people of Carrickfergus turned out in their thousands to watch as the RMS Titanic made its first ever journey up the lough from its construction dock in Belfast. The famous passenger liner was anchored overnight just off the coast of Carrickfergus, before continuing on its journey. View of Carrickfergus Castle from the dock, June 2020.

During World War II, Northern Ireland was an important military base for United States Naval and Air Operations and a training ground for American G.I.s. The First Battalions of the elite US Rangers were activated and based in Sunnylands Camp for their initial training. The US Rangers Centre in nearby Boneybefore pays homage to this period in history. It is rumoured that Italian and German POWs were held in the town, the Italians in a camp at Sullatober mill, and Germans at Sunnylands.

The 365 Day Devotional Commentary

FEBRUARY 4

Reading 35

PROMISES TO PILGRIMS Numbers 31–36

“Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess” (Num. 33:53).Israel reached the border of the Promised Land. Everything in these last chapters can be taken as a firm promise that God will give His people victory and peace.

Overview

Israel crushed the Midianites (31:1–54), and 2 of the 12 tribes were granted their lands (32:1–42). Moses reviewed Israel’s journey (33:1–49). He charged the people to utterly destroy the Canaanites (vv. 50–56), fixed the boundaries of the Promised Land (34:1–29), and reminded Israel to set aside towns for the Levites and as cities of refuge (35:1–34). He also commanded that women who inherit land must marry within their own tribe (36:1–13).

Understanding the Text

“Take vengeance on the Midianites” Num. 31:1–24. The Midianites had not only opposed the Israelites, but had carried out Balaam’s strategy and turned many Israelites to idolatry. The complete destruction of Midian was a divine judgment on this sin and on idolatry itself. Often God uses human beings as instruments to punish sin. “Not one is missing” Num. 31:25–54. The strength of the enemy is suggested by the 808,000 animals and 32,000 virgins taken as spoil. In Bible times girls married in their early teens, so the 32,000 represent a small percentage of the total population. When roll was called by the Israelite commanders, they discovered that this total victory had been won without the loss of a single man! The victory over Midian was a preview and promise of the success God would bring His people if they continued to trust Him. This time Israel responded appropriately. They donated all the gold they had acquired as a gift to the Lord. God’s people had at last learned to be thankful. “Let this land be given . . . as our possession” Num. 32:1–42. At first Moses took the request of the Reubenites and Gadites for the land of the Midianites as a failure to follow God wholeheartedly. The promise of these tribes to join in the battle for Canaan showed they remained committed to the Lord. We need to measure others by their commitment to God, not whether they agree with us completely. “Here are the stages” Num. 33:1–49. Commentators have come up with a variety of creative theories about the significance of the 42 stops mentioned here. Yet one thing is very clear. God had brought His people from Egypt to the very border of Canaan. Despite Israel’s sins and failures, despite desolate and waterless wastes, despite enemy armies, God had been faithful. Looking back at each stage of the journey, Israel could see in what had happened a preview of the future. The God who had kept them safe would surely fight for them when they at last invaded the Promised Land. Looking back can have similar value for us. Yes, we’ll find many examples of personal failure. We’ll recall times when life seemed desolate and empty. But we will also realize that God has brought us through those times, has guided, strengthened, and brought us safely to the present moment. Remembering God’s faithfulness helps us to move ahead confidently as we take our next step toward the Promised Land. “Drive out all the inhabitants of the land” Num. 33:50–56. Moses repeated God’s command to expel all the Canaanites from the Promised Land. Too-intimate association with pagan peoples would corrupt Israel. God’s people were to remain separate and pure. The New Testament reflects this thought, with a significant modification. Paul notes that the only way we could avoid contact with pagans and their practices would be to “leave this world” (1 Cor. 5:10). So we are simply to avoid being “yoked together” with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14). We are to identify with our fellow believers, not with the unsaved. If our hearts belong to the Lord alone, and our most intimate values are shaped within a Christian community, then we will remain both separate and pure, able to represent Jesus to the people of this world. “Give the Levites towns” Num. 35:1–5. Towns for the Levites were scattered through the territory of the other tribes. In this way the Levites, who with the priests were to teach God’s Law to Israel, would be available. We can’t influence those with whom we have no contact. “Cities of refuge” Num. 35:6–34. Old Testament Law makes a clear distinction between premeditated murder and accidental homicide. Specific situations are included as cases from which precedents can be drawn. No national or local police force existed in Israel. The people of each community were responsible to enforce God’s laws, after a jury of local elders determined the facts of each case. In the event of a killing, it was the responsibility of a near relative of the victim, called the “avenger of blood,” to execute the murderer. The law is very strict in its treatment of premeditated murder. “Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it.” God would provide the land for His people. They were responsible to maintain its purity. Cities of refuge were located so that anyone who killed another person accidentally would be within a day’s journey of safety. God, who judges the guilty, is quick to safeguard the innocent. “Marry within the tribal clan” Num. 36:1–13. The Promised Land was to be divided among the tribes of Israel. Each tribe, and each family within the tribe, was to hold the plot of land it was given perpetually, as a permanent heritage from the Lord. While the daughters of Zelophehad were guaranteed land, they were told to marry within their tribe in order to preserve that tribe’s heritage. What God gives us is not to be lightly transferred to others.

DEVOTIONAL

It’s Their Choice (Num. 32)

Many years ago I was best man at a friend’s wedding. Jack was a young flier whom our pastor was convinced should go to the mission field as a Missionary Aviation Fellowship pilot. I remember how upset the pastor was when Jack announced he was getting married and staying with his airline. Pastor was convinced that Jack had chosen something less than God’s best. Moses would have understood our pastor’s reaction. He was just as upset when the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh petitioned him to give them the Trans-Jordan region they had taken from the Midianites. The problem was that this territory lay outside Canaan, the land that God had promised to Abraham. Was their request wise, or even right? The text gives no clear answer, though at first glance settling outside the Promised Land would seem to be an outright rejection of God’s stated purpose and promises. Yet two things suggest that the request was not motivated by a lack of commitment or of faith. The petitioning tribes promised to “cross over to fight” in the battle for Canaan. The Hebrew here is impressive. It actually says “hurrying before the Israelites” (v. 17). The tribes of Reuben and Gad demonstrated their commitment by their willingness to lead Israel into battle and bear the brunt of the attack. They showed their trust in God by a readiness to leave their families and herds unprotected while the fighting men went off to the war. Moses accepted these conditions and granted Rueben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh vast lands east of the Jordan River. It is a good thing to remember when you or I are tempted to stand in judgment over another person’s decision. Moses may not have liked the decision Reuben and Gad made. But, convinced of their commitment and trust in God, Moses granted them the freedom to make it. You and I can’t really say what God’s best for another person is. And our view isn’t really important. What counts is still his or her commitment to, and active trust in, God. Each person must have the freedom to follow where God leads.

Personal Application

The most important advice we can give another person is, Trust the Lord, and follow wherever He leads.

Quotable

“Every time we say, ’I believe in the Holy Spirit’ we mean that we believe there is a living God able and willing to enter human personality and change it.”—J.B. Phillips

The 365 Day Devotional Commentary

FEBRUARY 3

Reading 34

PROSPECTS FOR PILGRIMS Numbers 26–30

“The land is to be allotted to them as an inheritance” (Num. 26:53).Purified again, the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land. The incidents and laws reported in these chapters serve as promises to God’s people. Canaan was ahead, and victory was assured.

Overview

A military census revealed Israel’s readiness to attack Canaan (26:1–65). Confidence that Israel will possess her heritage was shown by Zelophehad’s daughters (27:1–11), by the commissioning of Joshua (vv. 12–23), and by a review of offerings to be made perpetually after the Conquest (28:1–29:40). Rules for personal vows, frequently made just before a war, were clarified (30:1–16).

Understanding the Text

“Not one of them” Num. 26:1–65. The census taken of those able to serve in the army established two important facts. The total number of men available was 601,730; just a few thousand less than 40 years before. And “not one of them was among those counted by Moses and Aaron the priest when they counted the Israelites in the Desert of Sinai” (v. 64). The old, disobedient generation was dead. Yet the community had suffered no loss of strength! The obedient would inherit the land the disobedient despised. “He died and left no sons” Num. 27:1–11. Moses was approached by five daughters of a man who had died and left no sons. Their request for property reflects the patriarchal structure of Israelite society. Only sons inherited, and the eldest son received twice as much as younger brothers. First, the request reflected the daughters’ faith that Israel would be successful and take Canaan. Only in victory would there be land for them to inherit. This illustrates the way many Old Testament laws were developed. A new situation occurred, Moses brought the case to the Lord, and God’s ruling became the precedent for determining similar cases. “Commission him in their presence” Num. 27:12–23. The closer Israel came to Canaan, the nearer the time approached for Moses to die. Moses put aside any fears for himself and thought of what his death might mean to Israel. He prayed that God would “appoint a man over this community” to replace him. The incident demonstrates Moses’ stature as a truly godly man. The New Testament gives us a partial definition of Christlikeness when it says, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). God responded to this prayer and told Moses to publicly commission Joshua to succeed him. Laying on of hands here is a symbol of transference of leadership. It’s good to know that, when people we depend on move on, God has others ready to fill their shoes. “Present to Me at the appointed time . . . My offerings made by fire” Num. 28:1–29:40. The function of the next section, with its details concerning ritual offerings, seems out of place. Why here, rather than in a book like Leviticus? These regulations function here as a divine promise. God specifies the animals which are to be offered to Him each day of the year, throughout Israel’s occupation of its land. Adding them up, we see that each year the Israelites are to offer 113 bulls, 32 rams, and 1,086 lambs, plus over a ton of flour and a thousand measures of oil and wine. This is in addition to any freewill offerings or sin offerings made by the people. The daily, week-after-week, and month-after-month listing of the offerings is a dual promise. Israel would surely occupy the land where the offerings were to be made. And that land would prove fertile, rich enough to support the Israelites and to provide generous offerings for the Lord. “When a man makes a vow” Num. 30:1–16. Vows were voluntary pledges to give money or something else of value to the Lord. Once a person uttered such an oath, it was binding and could not be broken. Vows often took the form of bargains: “If God does this, then I will . . . ” (cf. Gen. 28:20–22; 1 Sam. 1:11). It was quite common for individuals to make vows just before a nation went to war (Jdg. 11:30–31; 21:1–7). Now, just before Israel was about to invade Canaan, the laws concerning vows are clarified. Briefly, any man making a vow was bound by it. Married or single women could also make vows but if, when first hearing of it, a husband or father wished, he could void the vow. The passage introduces an important legal principle. If the husband or father does not say anything when first hearing of a wife or young daughter’s vow, the vow is binding. Silence implies consent. It’s the same today. If you and I fail to speak out concerning something that is wrong but remain silent, our silence implies consent. And makes us a party to the wrong.

DEVOTIONAL

The Prospect for Women (Num. 27:1–11)

“It’s time to leave that church,” Carol insisted. “I simply won’t have my daughter brought up in an atmosphere where women are constantly put down.” What bothered Carol wasn’t so much what church leaders said as what they did. Everything was done by men. There were no women ushers. Women never spoke from the pulpit—not even to give an announcement. Only men were allowed to serve Communion. Only men served on the church board. Carol realized that her church had much to commend it. But the impression that women don’t count, subtly conveyed by the church’s practices, created a sense of oppression she could no longer stand. The issue raised by Zelophehad’s five daughters seems to mirror Carol’s concern. Didn’t Israel’s patriarchal system discriminate against women? Weren’t women second-class citizens in Israel too? Some might even argue that Israel’s male-dominated culture is precedent for ruling women out of significant participation in churches today! But were women discriminated against? On the surface, perhaps. However, when an Israelite girl married, her father provided her with a dowry. This marriage gift, frequently of clothing, jewelry, furniture, money, or even slave-girls, represented the daughter’s share in the family estate. So women were valued and they did get their fair share! They simply received that share in a different way than through inheritance. The story reminds us how important it is to understand the whole Old Testament way of life before we judge the fairness or unfairness of specific practices, and before we apply principles drawn from them to modern times. What the story of Zelophehad’s daughters actually reminds us of is that women did count in Israel. The significance of daughters was simply shown in a different way than that of sons. Yet each was valued. And each deserved a fair share of all the family possessed. Perhaps what we should draw from this story is a challenge to reevaluate practices in our churches. The importance of women may not need to be affirmed in the same way that the importance of men is shown. But unless we do affirm women as full participants in the Christian commmunity, we violate their personhood, and deny the gifts that God has given to each and every one.

Personal Application

As we journey toward the Promised Land there’s a place of service for every pilgrim.

Quotable

“Scripture ultimately proves that the Apostle Paul had high regard for the work and ministry of women. Scripture shows that local churches and other Christian ministries should eagerly endeavor to find fulfilling effective ministries for the godly women who serve them. Some of the tragic situations arising out of intense counseling between members of the opposite sex might well be avoided by allowing godly women to exercise their calling to counsel other women. . . . Many other facets of God’s work often stand or fall on the availability of godly effective women to lead them.”—H. Wayne House

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