The Daughters of Zelophehad
The Book of Numbers garners its name in English from the two censuses of the Israelite people that take place in its narrative, and these two censuses mark the major division of the book between the Exodus generation and the generation that goes on to conquer the land of Canaan. The second portion of the book, comprised of chapters 27-36, is bookended by an interesting story concerning five women, inheritance laws, and an engaging look at how the Law of Moses changed to fit the needs of the Israelites. The census of chapter 26 notes in verse 33 that “Zelophehad the son of Hepher had no sons, but only daughters; and the names of the daughters of Zelophehad were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.” In chapter 27, these five women of the tribe of Manasseh approach Moses, Eleazar the High Priest, and the “leaders and all the congregation,” and bring forth a legal issue. Zelophehad, being part of the previous generation, has died in the wilderness. The problem is that because Zelophehad did not have a son, the five daughters are concerned that this means their father’s name and ancestry will die in the wilderness with him. Why are the daughters so concerned about this idea?
Deuteronomy 21:15-17 reads “If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, then it shall be in the day he wills what he has to his sons, he cannot make the son of the loved the firstborn before the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn. But he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; to him belongs the right of the firstborn.” This is an important passage to understanding the episode of Zelophehad’s daughters; the standard practice of this culture is that sons inherit their father’s estate, with the firstborn inheriting a double portion over his brothers. So important is this idea of sons inheriting that, here in Deuteronomy, Moses takes time to clarify that the status of multiple wives should not violate the standard that sons inherit land from their fathers, and the firstborn of a lesser wife still gets his rightful portion. This passage in Deuteronomy makes it clear that inheritance ran on a patrilineal basis, which is to be expected of this Ancient Near Eastern culture that was centered around patriarchal family units. Adding another important dimension to this is the concept of “gathering to his people.” As discussed in a previous article, the Israelite conception of an afterlife seems to have been based around the idea of returning to both one’s ancestors and one’s descendants. If a family line was cut off or removed from their allotted portion of the land, the Israelite mindset would believe you were threatening the afterlife of your ancestors as well! This helps to explain why so much time is dedicated to the discussion of the Jubilee Year in Leviticus and why ancestral allotments of land were to be restored without question every fifty years. A land inheritance was about more than just fair economics; it was literally connected to the eternal status of the Israelite nation!
With this in mind, we can understand Zelophehad’s daughters’ concerns: they want to make sure that they are not only providing for their own descendants and future children, but also protecting the legacy of their father and earlier ancestors. Therefore they bring their request to Moses and the leadership of Israel: “Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.” At first glance, this might seem like an odd request. Isn’t the Law perfect and holy? Wouldn’t Moses just tell them “sorry, that’s not what the Law says?” Yet, perhaps surprisingly, Moses brings the case before God and God replies “The daughters of Zelophehad are right. You should give them possession of an inheritance among their clan and transfer the inheritance of their father to them. Furthermore, make a rule for the people of Israel, as follows, 'If a man dies sonless, then transfer his inheritance to his daughter. If he has no daughter, give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. If his father has no brothers, give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it,” (Numbers 27:5-11). This is an extremely important reaction, and it shows us an important reality about the Law: it was meant to adapt and change to the needs of the people! This might sound immediately suspicious because we often view the Law as monolithic and unchanging, but it makes logical sense: even with the 613 or so statutes found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the Law is fairly limited in the topics it covers. These limited statutes would not have been enough to cover every detail of a full nation that came to possess its own territory, and they were not intended to be a comprehensive covering of every single legal situation. This episode with the Daughters of Zelophehad shows that the Law functioned in a similar way (if we can use a somewhat limited example) as the American Constitution. The Constitution serves as the foundation and principles of the American legal code, but it is also interpreted, expanded, and adjudicated through numerous additions of “case law” (law established by the outcome of former judicial cases) as established by the various court systems. It seems that, similarly, the Law was meant to adapt and grow with the needs and advancements of the Israelites. The laws could change based off cases brought forward to Israel’s leaders, and God’s endorsement of the Daughters’ proposal indicate that God intended for this to be the way these cases would be handled.
The case of the Daughters does not end there, however. The story is split in half, and the second part is told in Numbers 36: the leaders of the clan of Manasseh come to Moses and raise a concern with the previous ruling. They tell Moses that, “The Lord commanded my lord to give the land by lot to the sons of Israel as an inheritance, and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of Zelophehad our brother to his daughters. But if they marry one of the sons of the other tribes of the sons of Israel, their inheritance will be withdrawn from the inheritance of our fathers and will be added to the inheritance of the tribe to which they belong; thus it will be withdrawn from our allotted inheritance. When the jubilee of the sons of Israel comes, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe to which they belong; so their inheritance will be withdrawn from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers,” (Numbers 36:2-4). Again, the primary concern is the fair adjudication of the Promised Land; if Zelophehad’s daughters inherit their father’s land and then marry outside the tribe of Manasseh, the land will be considered part of the husband’s land when the year of Jubilee comes and renews land claims. Thus, Zelophehad’s land will be kept in his daughters’ possession, but will leave the tribe of Manasseh and be counted part of the husbands’ tribe. Again, Moses takes the claim to God and God responds with an affirmation of the claim: “The tribe of the sons of Joseph are right in their statements. This is what the Lord has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, saying, ‘Let them marry whom they wish; only they must marry within the family of the tribe of their father.’ Thus no inheritance of the sons of Israel shall be transferred from tribe to tribe, for the sons of Israel shall each hold to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. Every daughter who comes into possession of an inheritance of any tribe of the sons of Israel shall be wife to one of the family of the tribe of her father, so that the sons of Israel each may possess the inheritance of his fathers. Thus no inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another tribe, for the tribes of the sons of Israel shall each hold to his own inheritance,” (Numbers 36:5-9). Notice how this works; God does not roll back the previous decree for Zelophehad’s daughters, but instead provides a restriction to the previous case law. If daughters inherit their father’s estate in lieu of a son, they must marry within their father’s clan so that the land does not shift to another tribe. So we see that not only does the Law change and update based off of case law in order to best serve the community, it also preserves the older versions of the law to coexist with the updated law. This might seem odd to a modern society; why keep the older version of the law instead of simply removing it? This was, however, a very common practice in the cultures of this time, who tended to value consistency and the preservation of holy texts even if they were contradicted by later statutes. One Hittite law from this time read “If anyone blinds a free person or knocks out his tooth he shall pay 20 shekels of silver (they used to pay 40 shekels of silver) and he shall look to his house for it.” Similarly, the Book of Numbers seems to preserve this change in case law to both honor the holiness of God’s decrees and (possibly) illustrate why this change was taking place.
The immediate concern that might be raised in reading this article might be for preserving the integrity of God’s Word; if a claim is being made that the Law changed based off of case law, doesn’t that violate the idea of God’s Word being inspired? Not at all. God affirms both the claims of the daughters and the clan leaders, and intends these changes be made for the positive; indeed, they are showing their adherence to the principles of the Law by ensuring that the promises made to Israel are being properly honored and preserved in future generations. God intended the Law to be useful for the community and adapt to the new needs of Israel and provided the way to do so. There is a clear procedure illustrated in these two case laws. The leaders of the congregation (political leaders like Moses, priests like Eleazar, and the elders of the clans) are present, and they appeal to God and His principles to ensure that the Law is still being properly honored. The idea of the Law being modified through case law doesn’t invalidate the inspiration of the Torah, but instead upholds God’s intended purpose for the Law.
So, what does this story do for us? First, it highlights the deep contrast between the Exodus generation and the Conquest generation. While the Exodus Israelites had fought tooth and nail against God to avoid going into the Promised Land, their sons and daughters are taking extensive steps to ensure that the Land will be divided fairly and equitably under God’s promises. They have such faith that God will lead them to victory, as Joshua and Caleb had promised, that they’re already dividing the spoils and making sure everyone gets their proper share! The story’s split nature, which bookends the stories of conquest and success that the new generation has in chapters 28-35, seem to demonstrate that all the events in between them should be read in this light; this new generation is far more faithful than their fathers, and they are going to be earnest in their zeal to fulfill God’s promises! Indeed, Gilead (the clan of Manasseh that Zelophehad belonged to) has already conquered their portion of land from the kingdoms of the Amorites, which perhaps gives another insight into why this particular example is so important to settle at this point in the narrative. Second, however, this story shows us how God continued to provide for His people even after the Law was handed down. Using God’s wisdom and the principles handed down by Moses, the leaders of Israel were to pursue justice and righteousness for the people. As will be seen in the prophets, fair legal rulings should have been critically important to a people serving the true Judge, and the prophets excoriate Israel’s leaders, judges, and priests for failing to later uphold these standards of right conduct. Last, it reminds us that God is faithful and merciful to all His people. These five women could have been abandoned and left to fend for themselves, and in many contemporary cultures of the day would have been. Yet God sees their faith and righteousness and ensures that they, too, will share in the promises made to the nation of Israel. We should be able to have faith that God will similarly uphold His promises to us, the inheritors of the promises to Israel, and will bring all His faithful people into the blessed land of rest.