As a child, I learnt the proverb ‘Silence is golden.’ The meaning of that phrase is that there were certain attacks, arguments or situations when a verbal response isn’t required. It appeared to be true in many instances when I was growing up. The message became reinforced when I would hear childhood friends of mine retort to someone, ‘silence is the best answer for a fool.’ Even the Bible appeared to reinforce the phrase in certain verses where it says in Proverbs 23:9—Do not speak to a fool, for he will scorn the wisdom of your words. Proverbs 26:4 also says, ‘Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.’ These are powerful scriptures.
Silence may be golden when your speech is unnecessary and cannot change a lousy situation. However, silence isn’t golden when it is adopted due to fear. Usually, many people adopt a ‘silent’ posture when they are afraid to confront an uncomfortable behaviour, decision or situation. They may be afraid of pushback or reprisals.
I have wondered sometimes whether there are situations when silence is not golden but dangerous. This question arose repeatedly after I read the story about the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers chapter 27.
A census was carried out in Israel and only the men were counted because it appeared as if women did not ‘count’.
The census was carried out so that lands could be allotted to the men. In order words, the women were not to own any property. In fact, women were property to be owned. Sad but true reality in those times.
There was a man named Zelophehad who lived during the period but died before the census. He had five daughters and no sons. So, he had no male heir who could inherit any land. When his five daughters saw the turn that the land apportionment narrative was taking, they took unprecedented steps to stop the tides swimming against their favour.
What specific steps did these brave daughters of Zelophehad take?
- They stepped forward. They immediately saw that they could not afford to be timid and hidden away from the action: Land sharing. So, they took a step to the front where Moses and the elders (leaders) of Israel stood. The bible (NIV) states, ‘They came forward and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting.’
- They were bold. ‘They stood before Moses, Eleazer the priest and the leaders and the whole assembly.’ This implied that they were courageous before a group of powerful men who ruled the whole of Israel. It did not matter that these women were young and even fatherless! They still had the bravery to confront the the oppressive laws they were implementing in Israel.
- They knew, understood and recounted the facts. There were no displays of theatrics or melodrama by these women. They spoke rationally before the men and leaders of Israel. They understood the implications of their history. Who their father was? How he died? And the implications of their not inheriting any land? They said to the leaders, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.”
One resoundingly beautiful portion of this story is that God Himself endorsed their request. He told Moses, ‘The daughters speak what is right.’ Why were these brave daughters right? Because what they demanded was based on justice. The daughters did not just see a gap in the laws of inheritance, they saw social injustice that required a response in compassion. They understood that God would never want to be unjust to someone just because of their gender because God created both male and female genders in His image.
Rabbi Amanda Greene says that ‘the daughters, recognizing the law, and feeling dissatisfied with receiving no inheritance from their father, go before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the entire community at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to challenge the system that was clearly set to discriminate against them.’
I ask these questions. What would have been the fate of these women if they had kept quiet or maintained silence? What would have happened to the oppressive law if they had publicly portrayed a ‘sense of obeisance’ but sulked or resented Israel’s leaders privately? This is the attitude that many people have to injustice. They appear to be in submission to an oppressive behaviour or decision, but they sulk inwardly. Parmita Uniyal says that, ‘when your silence is misconstrued as your consent, it can hardly be golden.’
Today, make a decision to stand and speak up for the truth and justice in your relationships, home, workplace and neighbourhood. When silence isn’t golden. It is dangerous and can be potentially deadly. Thus, speak up rightly! Trust me, you will be golden afterwards.