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
The Israelites were a patriarchal society in which the male was considered the head of the family, clan, and community. The historical context of the biblical narrative covers a long period of time in which virtually all societies were led exclusively by men. There were occasions when a woman would ascend to the throne as the queen but this was rare and usually only after her husband had died. For the most part, women played subservient roles in society and were relegated to relative obscurity. In most cases, they could not own property, file a lawsuit, testify in court, or hold public office. And because women had few rights and little power, this inequity was rarely challenged.
But the 27th chapter of Numbers presents the surprising case of a group of Israelite women who dared to bring their demands for equal rights before Moses. Sometime after the census was taken and the size of the tribes was determined, the daughters of a man named Zelophehad came forward and presented their case. Their father had been a member of the tribe of Manasseh but he had died sometime during the last 38 years. And the women point out that their father had died without leaving behind a legal heir. He had born five daughters but no son and the women understood the predicament that placed them in. As daughters, they were prohibited from inheriting their father’s goods or property. This posed a difficult dilemma for Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.
When Israel entered Canaan and began the conquest of the land, each tribe would receive its allotment, which would then be divided among the members of that tribe. Since Zelophehad was deceased and had no sons, he would receive no land. That meant that the five unmarried sisters would be left homeless and impoverished. Unless they quickly found husbands, their prospects for survival were dim. So, they decided to appeal their case to “Moses, Eleazar the priest, the tribal leaders, and the entire community at the entrance of the Tabernacle” (Numbers 27:2 NLT).
These five sisters knew they had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so they risked ridicule and rejection by bringing their predicament before the all-male leadership of their community. This action took courage and demonstrates the level of their concern. As the day grew closer when the nation would enter the land of Canaan and begin its conquest of it, these women knew their time was running out. So, they made their desperate appeal.
“Our father died in the wilderness,” they said. “He was not among Korah’s followers, who rebelled against the Lord; he died because of his own sin. But he had no sons. Why should the name of our father disappear from his clan just because he had no sons? Give us property along with the rest of our relatives.” – Numbers 27:3-4 NLT
They wanted everyone to know that their father had not been one of those who joined in the rebellion led by Korah. In other words, his death had not been because of God’s judgment. In their minds, he had died of natural causes brought on by his own sinfulness. This distinction was important because it portrayed their father as a relatively good man who had not disqualified himself through acts of rebellion against God. He had just died and left them with no hope of owning any land in Canaan, and they were appealing for the “court” to make a special dispensation in their case. “Give us property along with the rest of our relatives.”
It seems likely that there were murmurs of disagreement and shock among the men as they heard the words of the five women. This would have been unprecedented and unthinkable to many of them. To do such a thing, they reasoned, would have been without protocol and would establish a dangerous precedence that could disrupt the social fabric. There were likely some among the leadership of Israel who were ready to deny the women’s request with no further discussion. But Moses wasn’t ready to pass judgment or sentence. Instead, he “brought their case before the Lord” (Numbers 27:5 NLT)
As the God-ordained leader of Israel, Moses could have used his authority to settle the matter without debate. But the unique nature of this situation required input from the Almighty. He was not ready to treat this matter lightly or settle it too quickly.
The text does not reveal how Moses brought the matter before the Lord, but it does state that he received an answer.
“The claim of the daughters of Zelophehad is legitimate. You must give them a grant of land along with their father’s relatives. Assign them the property that would have been given to their father.” – Numbers 27:7 NLT
God spoke and He had come down on the side of the five sisters. He ordered that they be awarded a portion of land among their father’s relatives. This news must have come as a shock to the rest of the tribunal and left some of them shaking their heads in disagreement. And one can only imagine how the male relatives of Zelophehad must have felt when they heard God’s decree. This divine decision was going to cost them. It would result in each of them receiving less land in Canaan. So, while the women rejoiced in their good fortune and God’s good graces, their relatives were probably muttering under their breath. But God Almighty had intervened and provided for these helpless women. He had stood by their side and had determined to care for their needs. But He didn’t stop there. This was not to be an isolated incident but, instead, it was to become a permanent part of their case law with additional clauses that covered other potential circumstances.
“And give the following instructions to the people of Israel: If a man dies and has no son, then give his inheritance to his daughters. And if he has no daughter either, transfer his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. But if his father has no brothers, give his inheritance to the nearest relative in his clan. This is a legal requirement for the people of Israel, just as the Lord commanded Moses.” – Numbers 27:8-11 NLT
By boldly speaking up, these five women had appealed their case before God and had helped to establish new legal parameters for other women in their community. Up until this moment, no one had bothered to think about these kinds of cases. No one had considered the plight of the countless women whose fathers had died during the nearly 40 years Israel had been in the wilderness. Many of those women remained unmarried and without any hope of survival once they entered the land of Canaan. Yet God heard their plea for help and He answered.
This story is similar to that of Hagar recorded in the book of Genesis. This Egyptian slave girl served as the maidservant to Sarai, the wife of Abram. When Sarai had been unable to provide Abram with a male heir, she gave him Hagar to use as a surrogate. This innocent young woman was treated like property and forced to bear a son for Abram. But when Sarai saw how quickly Hagar had conceived, she abused and cast out the pregnant mother-to-be. Hagar found herself in the wilderness all alone and with no hope for the future. But God saw her plight and made her a promise.
“Return to your mistress, and submit to her authority.” Then he added, “I will give you more descendants than you can count…You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son. You are to name him Ishmael (which means ‘God hears’), for the Lord has heard your cry of distress.” – Genesis 16:9-10, 11 NLT
And, as a result of this divine encounter, Hagar declared, “You are the God who sees me…Here I have seen one who sees me!” (Genesis 16:13 NET).
God had seen her plight and had intervened. And God had seen the plight of the five daughters of Zelophehad and done the same thing. He is the God who sees (‘ēl rŏ’î). Nothing escapes His attention. There is no one who gets overlooked. He is the God who cares for and intercedes for His own.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
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.