Pilgrims’ Progress: Eyes on the prize

Five wise virgins (Numbers 27:1-11)

In an intensely patriarchal society such as ancient Israel, daughters do not normally inherit any share of the family estate. But a certain Israelite (Zelophehad) has died at some point during the nation’s wanderings without leaving a son to claim his promised inheritance in Canaan. His five unmarried daughters perceive the traditional system to be unjust, and dare to challenge it. Moses seeks God’s advice – and not only does God uphold the women’s claim, but He commands that the principle of female inheritance be written permanently into Israel’s lawcode.

These ‘five wise virgins’ are remarkable not only for their initiative but also for their faith. Even though the land of Canaan is as yet unentered, let alone conquered, they petition for a share in it as if it were already in Israel’s hands! They believe (probably with good reason) that once the land allocation actually begins, the men won’t give them a chance to put their case. So by staking their claim in advance, they are making sure that they won’t miss out.

Could this passage shed some light on the notoriously hard-to-understand parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-10)? What makes five of them wise, and why are the other five foolish for not being prepared? The wise virgins are thinking ahead; they are determined not to run any risk of missing out on their places at the wedding feast. Like the daughters of Zelophehad, they want their inheritance – and they make sure that they get it. But whether through lack of faith or lack of desire, the foolish ones are less motivated; and they suddenly wake up to the fact that they may get left out at the last moment. So we must ask ourselves: do we give the Kingdom of God a high priority in our lives? If we do not think it sufficiently important to invest in it now, might we risk losing it altogether?

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