Does the Old Testament contain one of the oldest examples of an appeal for women’s rights? The story of the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27 is one that you may never have noticed. It’s a fair guess that you never learned about it in kids’ church, haven’t been to a Bible study where this text was the topic and that you can’t recall having heard a sermon on it. Let’s delve in and explore this much-neglected story from the book of Numbers.
A Lawmaker’s Challenge
When you hear the name of Moses, what do you think of? Perhaps you remember how his mother and sisters hid him in the bulrushes to save his life, and how Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him into the royal household. You might recall his fear when God, who had just appeared to him in a burning bush, charged him with the commission of freeing his people from Pharaoh’s slavery, and how he overcame that fear to stand up to his former adoptive father, calling down plagues until the king finally let God’s people go. Of course you recall the miraculous salvation of God’s people with the parting of the Red Sea. Perhaps the most important thing Moses is remembered for is handing down the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Jewish Law.
Moses is less well-known for his handling of a challenge to an aspect of the law from women who wanted to secure their rights. Moses clearly recognises the difference between this respectful request for reconsideration and instances of rebellion. As a spiritually mature leader, Moses is not affronted by the request, but recognises the genuine concerns behind the five sisters’ application and realises the opportunity to bring about changes which will lead to a more righteous and merciful nation.
Who Were the Daughters of Zelophehad?
Zelophehad was a member of the tribe of Joseph, who had died without a son. He had five daughters, who were still unmarried at the time of his death (see Num 36:2-3). While many women in the Bible are unnamed – even one as significant as the Samaritan woman, to whom the whole of John chapter 4 is devoted – the author of Numbers goes out of his way to ensure that the names of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah are recorded for posterity.
In Old Testament times, girls usually married during their teenage years. As Zelophehad’s daughters were all unmarried at this point, is likely that the eldest daughters were teenagers, which makes their courage all the more incredible.
Being unmarried and fatherless, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah represented themselves. It would have been normal for a husband or father to present their petition on their behalf, but they had no man to fall back on for support. The five daughters petitioned Moses, before Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly, requesting that the justice of their situation be subject to review. What courage and determination they must have had to take on such a challenge! Where did this courage to step so completely out of the box stem from? According to the Midrash – an ancient Hebrew commentary on the scriptures – it came from their belief in the mercifulness of God.
Note that Moses does not dismiss their problem because it is brought forth by mere women, and young ones at that. Despite the patriarchal culture, women in Moses’s time still had an opportunity to seek justice and to have their case evaluated on its merits.
The Problem of Patriarchy
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah’s problem stemmed from the patriarchal structure of the society in which they lived. One aspect of patriarchy is that inheritance passes from father to sons, rather than to daughters. In this instance, the land that would form the inheritance of future generations would be allocated to more distant male relatives.
One common claim made by patriarchy is that it protects women. Women’s welfare, happiness, safety, sexual rights and indeed, their lives in a patriarchal society are held entirely in the hands of men. If a woman’s husband or father is abusive, if he becomes sick or disabled and cannot work to support her, if she never marries, or if he dies, there are no contingency plans for her. How will she survive and thrive in the circumstances life has brought her way? Patriarchy relies heavily on everything fitting neatly within a very narrow ideal…and of course, real life is invariably so much richer, harsher, more complex and frequently more fraught with danger than that narrow ideal allows for.
Zelophehad – a man who was faithful to the Lord – had died while his daughters were as yet unmarried. And this, of course, is where it all came unstuck for them. The cultural circumstances essentially left them destitute. When the people of Israel entered the Promised Land, the property their father would have been granted would not become theirs, and without property, there would be no income, which would make them poor marriage prospects. Far from protecting them, their patriarchal society had landed them between a rock and an incredibly hard place.
Speculating on the Future
It is worth noting that this story takes place while the Hebrews are still in the wilderness, on their way to the Promised Land. At this point in time, nobody owns the rights to any land. All they have is faith that their sojourn in the desert will come to an end soon, and that as they conquer the land of Canaan, property will be divided among the people. Sue and Larry Richards explain, “Land would be given to each family and was to be held by that family in perpetuity as a gift from God” (Every Woman in the Bible, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999, p.77). So what Zelophehad’s daughters were seeking was not the passing on of what their father had owned during his life, but their participation in Israel’s future.
Rights & Inheritance
It is commonly assumed that Zelophehad’s daughters challenged Moses to change the Law in regards to the rights of women to inherit their father’s property. But that is not quite accurate – the idea that only men would inherit was such a given that it appears that it was not thought necessary to specify it in the law (see Jewish Encyclopedia, “Inheritance“). The only specific command about inheritance in the Law prior to this was in regard to the right to bequeath foreign slaves to one’s children (Lev 25:46). What they are seeking was a new law to clarify cultural beliefs.
Some interpreters have understood this passage as being primarily about ensuring the preservation of their father’s memory (and therefore not really about women’s rights). But although their action does ensure that their father’s name was remembered by being included in Scripture, their names too are counted worth of being memorialised in the words of Scripture – their legacy is assured, as is their economic future.
Historically, women were often viewed as only capable to manage minor, immediate concerns, while men alone were believed to have the capacity to plan and strategise with wider concerns in mind. Zelophehad’s daughters are an example of wise women who display great foresight and planning.
A Sound Strategy
How you present your complaint is often as important as whether your cause is just. For those who aim to bring change to unjust situations and structures, the wise way Zelophehad’s daughters operated within their patriarchal culture may offer some insight into sound strategies for creating change.
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah showed wisdom in how they approached their petition for change. “Oi, what about our rights?” wasn’t really going to wash in that cultural context! Just as the suffragettes couldn’t simply walk into a voting booth and mark a ballot card but first had to lay a solid case to convince people why women should gain the vote, these five daughters laid out a carefully planned case to demonstrate to the male leaders of their patriarchal society that there were sound reasons to say “yes” to a proposal which would expand women’s rights.
Wisely, they began by presenting their father’s credentials as a loyalist. Some time before, a man named Korah had incited a rebellion aganist Moses, ending in the deaths of almost 15,000 people. Zelophehad was not amongst the rebels, his daughters explained. This is the beginning of a case they will mount, demonstrating how their proposed innovation will satisfy cultural requirements – honouring their father and their clan. The appeal to Zelophehad’s credentials shores up the daughters’ credibility.
In a culture which was built on a foundation of male honour, the five daughters highlighted how granting their request would honour their father and ensure a lasting legacy for him. “Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son?” they ask.
They conclude their case by framing their request within the structures of the clan system. “Give us property among our father’s relatives” was their petition. In that society, there was no opportunity for independence for women, so they wisely ask for an ongoing place within the clan, showing that they respect the family they belong to.
A Successful Campaign
Although Zelophehad’s daughters presented their case in front of the whole assembly, we don’t gain any insight from the text into any differing opinions which may have been expressed by the men present. Instead, Numbers 27 cuts directly to the response Moses received when he brought the issue to the Lord.
“What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them.” (Num 27:7)
The Lord then wenton to lay out principles for distributing inheritance in a variety of different circumstances (Num 27:7-11). Joshua 17 confirms that land was distributed to Zelophehad’s daughters, just as Moses had decreed.
It is worth noting that these principles only dealt with passing property on to daughters when there were no sons, not with equally dividing inheritance between daughters and sons. They were, however, progressive laws for that time and cultural setting. When dealing with Israel, it seems to have been God’s way to gradually soften the hearts of people over time. God provided teachings in both the Old and New Testaments which underscored the dignity of all people (e.g. Gen 1:26, Gal 3:28), and then left room for the people’s consciences to catch up over time with his will. I believe this issue of inheritance (and the rights of women more broadly) is one such issue.
A challenge was later raised (see Num 36) to Moses by the heads of Zelophehad’s clan, the clan of Gilead, airing their concerns that if these five daughters married men from other tribes, their land would be transferred from their own tribe to another. In a culture where the community was more important than the individual, this was a serious concern. The law was then amended to ensure that a woman who had received an inheritance of land married within her own tribe. Zelophehad’s daughters went on to marry cousins from within their clan.
These five young, single women – probably still children and teenagers – understood the dilemma they faced as unmarried and fatherless girls in a patriarchal society where women’s protection and economic security rested wholly in the hands of men. Seeing destitution in their future, they formed a plan to seek justice. Rather than ignoring or rejecting them, Moses took their carefully crafted request seriously and brought it before the Lord, with the result that their future was secured. Importantly, the story of Zelophehad’s daughters demonstrates that God cares deeply about women and about the implementation of just systems that protect their rights.
A big thank you to Iris Wexler – https://wexleriris.com/ – for generously granting me permission to use her beautiful painting of Zelophehad’s Daughters in this post. Please visit her site and support her work. You can purchase her work at her Etsy store: https://www.etsy.com/il-en/shop/WexlerArtStudio?ref=l2-about-shopname
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