3 Now Zelophehad the son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, had no sons, but only daughters, and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 4 They approached Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun and the leaders and said, “The Lord commanded Moses to give us an inheritance along with our brothers.” So according to the mouth of the Lord he gave them an inheritance among the brothers of their father. 5 Thus there fell to Manasseh ten portions, besides the land of Gilead and Bashan, which is on the other side of the Jordan, 6 because the daughters of Manasseh received an inheritance along with his sons. The land of Gilead was allotted to the rest of the people of Manasseh.
7 The territory of Manasseh reached from Asher to Michmethath, which is east of Shechem. Then the boundary goes along southward to the inhabitants of En-tappuah. 8 The land of Tappuah belonged to Manasseh, but the town of Tappuah on the boundary of Manasseh belonged to the people of Ephraim. 9 Then the boundary went down to the brook Kanah. These cities, to the south of the brook, among the cities of Manasseh, belong to Ephraim. Then the boundary of Manasseh goes on the north side of the brook and ends at the sea, 10 the land to the south being Ephraim’s and that to the north being Manasseh’s, with the sea forming its boundary. On the north Asher is reached, and on the east Issachar. 11 Also in Issachar and in Asher Manasseh had Beth-shean and its villages, and Ibleam and its villages, and the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, and the inhabitants of En-dor and its villages, and the inhabitants of Taanach and its villages, and the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages; the third is Naphath. 12 Yet the people of Manasseh could not take possession of those cities, but the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. 13 Now when the people of Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not utterly drive them out.
14 Then the people of Joseph spoke to Joshua, saying, “Why have you given me but one lot and one portion as an inheritance, although I am a numerous people, since all along the Lord has blessed me?” 15 And Joshua said to them, “If you are a numerous people, go up by yourselves to the forest, and there clear ground for yourselves in the land of the Perizzites and the Rephaim, since the hill country of Ephraim is too narrow for you.” 16 The people of Joseph said, “The hill country is not enough for us. Yet all the Canaanites who dwell in the plain have chariots of iron, both those in Beth-shean and its villages and those in the Valley of Jezreel.” 17 Then Joshua said to the house of Joseph, to Ephraim and Manasseh, “You are a numerous people and have great power. You shall not have one allotment only, 18 but the hill country shall be yours, for though it is a forest, you shall clear it and possess it to its farthest borders. For you shall drive out the Canaanites, though they have chariots of iron, and though they are strong.” – Joshua 17:3-18 ESV
When reading the Scriptures, there will be times when certain names and events are mentioned that seem to come out of nowhere and make no sense in the context. Today’s passage is a case in point. As the author describes the allotment of the land of Canaan to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of Joseph, he suddenly mentions the five daughters of Zelophehad. He even provides the names of the five women: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. And it’s almost as if he expects his audience to be well acquainted with these women and their story. Seemingly, out of nowhere, these women appear, making what appears to be a very bold demand of Joshua, Eleazar the priest and the leadership of Israel.
“The Lord commanded Moses to give us an inheritance along with our brothers.” – Joshua 17:4 ESV
This is one of those situations where, if we are not familiar with the rest of the Scriptures, we will find it difficult to understand what is going on. Are these women making up their story? Have they joined forces to fabricate a lie in an attempt to deceive Joshua and finagle a portion of the land for themselves? First of all, it is important to understand the situation in which these women found themselves. They were the sole remaining heirs of their father. He had no sons. And in that culture, the inheritance passed down through the sons. So, any allotment of land would have gone to the sons of Zelophehad, not his daughters. But years earlier, these women had seen the handwriting on the wall and had understood that with their father’s eventual death, they would be left unprotected and unprovided for. And when the people finally entered the land of Canaan, they would have no right to a portion of the land. So, they had appealed to Moses, Eleazer the priest and the leadership of Israel.
1 Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad the son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, from the clans of Manasseh the son of Joseph. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 2 And they stood before Moses and before Eleazar the priest and before the chiefs and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, saying, 3 “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin. And he had no sons. 4 Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.”
5 Moses brought their case before the Lord. 6 And the Lord said to Moses, 7 “The daughters of Zelophehad are right. You shall give them possession of an inheritance among their father’s brothers and transfer the inheritance of their father to them. 8 And you shall speak to the people of Israel, saying, ‘If a man dies and has no son, then you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter. 9 And if he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10 And if he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11 And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. And it shall be for the people of Israel a statute and rule, as the Lord commanded Moses.’” – Numbers 27:1-11 ESV
Their father had died in the wilderness, leaving them, in a sense, destitute. They were unmarried and without the protection and provision of a male figure in their lives, a necessary requirement in their culture. But they had been brave and bold enough to appeal their case to Moses and the leadership of Israel. And Moses had wisely taken their case to God. Their whole argument was based on the fact that their father had been a good man and his death had not been the result of sin against God. So, why should the legacy of his name fail to carry on just because he had daughters instead of sons? And God agreed with the logic behind their argument, telling Joshua, “The daughters of Zelophehad are right. You shall give them possession of an inheritance among their father’s brothers and transfer the inheritance of their father to them” (Numbers 27:7 ESV). Not only that, God used their case as a precedence for a new law concerning inheritance. From that point forward, the inheritance of any man who had no sons, was to pass on to his daughters. And if a man was childless, his inheritance was to go to his brothers. If he had no brothers, it was to go to his uncles. And if he had no uncles, his inheritance was to go to his nearest living relative. God had taken the plea of these five women and turned it into case law, providing for His people a statutory requirement concerning the issue of inheritance.
It is important to notice that these women were the ones who came to Joshua and reminded him of the decision handed down by Moses as he had received it from God. Had they not spoken up, there is a good chance that they may have forfeited their right to a portion of the land. These woman showed extreme faith by making their initial appeal to Moses, but also in bringing their God-decreed right to their father’s inheritance before Joshua, Eleazar and the leadership of Israel. And their faith and fearlessness to stand up for their rights was rewarded with “an inheritance among the brothers of their father” (Joshua 17:4 ESV). We can only imagine that this decision was not well-received by their uncles. When Joshua apportioned part of the land to these five women, the brothers of Zelophehad lost out. Their portion of the inheritance diminished as a result of the womens’ request. But it was their God-given right to enjoy their fair-share of the inheritance and enjoy the blessings of the land promised by God.
The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is the positive side of this chapter. But then the chapter ends with a somewhat sad recounting of the descendants of Joseph, the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim, coming to Joshua and complaining about the inadequacy of their allotment of land. Perhaps it was based on God’s decree to give a portion of their land to the five sisters. But whatever the case, the descendants of Joseph demanded that they were too large in number to live in the land that they had been given. But part of their problem was that they viewed portions of the land as uninhabitable. Part of it was occupied by well-armed Canaanites. The rest was forested and would require work on their part to clear and cultivate it. But Joshua challenged them to do just that. Not only that, he expected them to do what God had commanded them to do and drive out the Canaanites from the land. Yes, the land was filled with enemies and part of it was covered by forests, but it was not a case of too little land, but too little faith on the part of the people of Joseph. Trees can be cut down and Canaanites can be defeated. What God had given to them was more than enough. But the full enjoyment of their inheritance was going to require that they do their part. Joshua reminded them that they had been blessed by God and were “a numerous people and have great power” (Joshua 17:17 ESV). They saw their size as a problem, but Joshua challenged them to see it as a blessing from God. Their superior numbers would give them an advantage over their enemies, and a workforce large enough to clear the trees and cultivate the land. God had adequately provided for their needs. But they were going to have to make the most out of the gift given to them by God.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.