Living With the Future In Mind

1 The heads of the fathers’ houses of the clan of the people of Gilead the son of Machir, son of Manasseh, from the clans of the people of Joseph, came near and spoke before Moses and before the chiefs, the heads of the fathers’ houses of the people of Israel. They said, “The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for inheritance by lot to the people of Israel, and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of Zelophehad our brother to his daughters. But if they are married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the people of Israel, then their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our fathers and added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry. So it will be taken away from the lot of our inheritance. And when the jubilee of the people of Israel comes, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry, and their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers.”

And Moses commanded the people of Israel according to the word of the Lord, saying, “The tribe of the people of Joseph is right. This is what the Lord commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: ‘Let them marry whom they think best, only they shall marry within the clan of the tribe of their father. The inheritance of the people of Israel shall not be transferred from one tribe to another, for every one of the people of Israel shall hold on to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. And every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the people of Israel shall be wife to one of the clan of the tribe of her father, so that every one of the people of Israel may possess the inheritance of his fathers. So no inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another, for each of the tribes of the people of Israel shall hold on to its own inheritance.’”

10 The daughters of Zelophehad did as the Lord commanded Moses, 11 for Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, were married to sons of their father’s brothers. 12 They were married into the clans of the people of Manasseh the son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in the tribe of their father’s clan.

13 These are the commandments and the rules that the Lord commanded through Moses to the people of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. Numbers 36:1-13 ESV

The book of Numbers ends on a rather strange and anticlimactic note. As the people prepare to enter Canaan and begin their long-awaited conquest of the land and its inhabitants, Moses is forced to reconsider a problem he has already addressed. Back in chapter 27, Moses recounted the story of the three daughters of Zelophehad, a member of the tribe of Manasseh. These three unmarried women approached Moses with a dilemma; their father had died without any sons to inherit his portion of the land. As unmarried women, they were prohibited from serving as heirs to their father’s estate, which meant that they would receive no land allotment in Canaan. So, they had taken their problem to Moses for recourse.

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 27:4 NLT

Moses had determined their request to be legitimate and decided in their favor.

“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

But the problem was not over. As the day fast approached when Israel would enter the land and begin its conquest, the rest of the members of the tribe of Manasseh raised a concern about Moses’ previous decision.

“Sir, the Lord instructed you to divide the land by sacred lot among the people of Israel. You were told by the Lord to give the grant of land owned by our brother Zelophehad to his daughters. But if they marry men from another tribe, their grants of land will go with them to the tribe into which they marry. In this way, the total area of our tribal land will be reduced.” – Numbers 36:2-3 NLT

They had spotted a flaw in Moses’ plan. According to custom, if any of these women were to end up marrying a man outside the tribe of Manasseh, their land allotment would automatically become the possession of her new husband. Married women were not allowed to retain land ownership rights. And to make matters worse, in the year of Jubilee, the land would become the permanent possession of the husband’s tribe.

“…when the Year of Jubilee comes, their portion of land will be added to that of the new tribe, causing it to be lost forever to our ancestral tribe.” – Numbers 36:4 NLT

God had already given the people of Israel His commands concerning the Year of Jubilee.

“…you must count off seven Sabbath years, seven sets of seven years, adding up to forty-nine years in all. Then on the Day of Atonement in the fiftieth year, blow the ram’s horn loud and long throughout the land. Set this year apart as holy, a time to proclaim freedom throughout the land for all who live there. It will be a jubilee year for you, when each of you may return to the land that belonged to your ancestors and return to your own clan. – Leviticus 25:8-10 NLT

Every 50 years, the Israelites were commanded to conduct a year-long celebration of redemption. All prisoners and captives were to be set free, all slaves released, all debts forgiven, and all property returned to its original owners.

“In the jubilee year, the land must be returned to the original owners so they can return to their family land.” – Leviticus 25:28 NLT

But the tribe of Manasseh brought up a potential problem to Moses. Since these women were going to inherit the land of their father upon his death, what would prevent them from marrying a man from another tribe and then the land transferring ownership from one tribe to another? In other words, what would happen if the heiress to her father’s property married someone from a different tribe? In that case, the land of their father would become the property of another tribe, and the tribal allotments would become intermixed and confused. Not only that, one tribe’s land allotment would decrease while another tribe’s property expanded. This would set dangerous precedence, leading tribes to marry outside their clans in order to gain additional land rights.

God had a solution to this problem. But this chapter raises another interesting question: Why did God have Moses end the book of Numbers with this story? Why does the entire book conclude with a story about the daughters of Zelophehad? I think it has to do with a couple of things. First of all, the book of Numbers is about the future. From its very outset, it has been a history of the people of Israel and their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, but the real focus was not on the past or the present. The theme of the book is Israel’s future.

As the book closes, the concern behind the question raised by the tribe of Manasseh is about the future. They seem to understand that this problem has long-term implications. The land they are all inheriting is not just for those who are living at that time, but for future generations. There is a future aspect to this matter that causes them to be concerned and speak up.

The other issue is that this is not about the individual. While it was wonderful news that the daughters of Zelophehad would be able to inherit the land of their father, ultimately, it wasn’t about them. It wasn’t even about their tribe. It was about the people of God. And God’s concern was for the corporate well-being of His people. If these women had been allowed to marry whomever they wanted to, the divinely ordained land allotment could have been permanently altered with dramatic consequences for the future. One tribe could have ended up with a greater share of the land, resulting in bitter jealousy and fighting between the tribes. So God came up with a plan by which the daughters were free to marry but within certain constraints. They had to marry someone from within their own tribe. And this held true for all cases.

In our world of independence and self-centered philosophy, this concern for the corporate good is foreign to us. We tend to make it all about ourselves. We are wired to do what is best for the individual. The thought of sacrificing for the team is unheard of these days. Everyone is out for their own good. Even famous athletes model a lifestyle of self-promotion and self-preservation. Business owners display little concern for the needs of their employees or customers. Marriages tend to be contractual agreements between two parties that are driven by self-interest and a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude.

But in the story found in chapter 36 of Numbers, God reminds us that it isn’t all about us. It’s about the family of God. And while we are to live in the moment, we are to keep our eyes focused on the future. If not, we will develop a live-for-the-moment mentality that sacrifices the future for the pleasures of today. The daughters of Zelophehad weren’t willing to do that. They did just as Moses directed them. They obeyed. They understood that God had their best interests and the interests of the people of God in mind. And they lived with their eyes on the future. Which is what each of us is called to do as children of God. It isn’t all about me and my happiness. It’s all about the people of God and the future God has prepared for us. Any sacrifice God calls me to make is for the good of the team.

The book of Numbers ends with the statement: “These are the commands and regulations that the Lord gave to the people of Israel through Moses while they were camped on the plains of Moab beside the Jordan River, across from Jericho” (Numbers 36:13 NLT).

The emphasis is on the future. The people of God are on the wrong side of the river and their inheritance lies on the other side. But before they crossed over and began their conquest of the land, God had given them all the instructions they would need to guarantee success and assure them of a bright and blessed future.

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.