The daughters of Zelophehad paved the way for future generations of women in the nation of Israel. These were five women who displayed extraordinary courage, wisdom, and faith and in doing so, guaranteed land rights for vulnerable women. While the laws they helped establish are no longer applicable to Christians living under grace, their account still holds many modern-day applications.
What Does the Biblical Text Say?
Before diving in, let’s read the biblical record.
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. … 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 27:1-23
What is the Historical Context?
Israel has been wandering in the desert for the last forty years after escaping Egypt. That generation had mostly died off and the nation of Israel was preparing to enter the promised land.
In Numbers 26, God commands Moses and the high priest, Eleazar, to take a census. The census will determine how many men above the age of 20 are fit for war. It will also determine how much land each tribe will inherit, traditionally passed on from father to son.
Enter the five daughters of Zelophehad.
Who Were the Daughters of Zelophehad?
The daughters of Zelophehad were the direct descendants of Joseph, specifically from the tribe of Manasseh. Their father, Zelophehad, had died while Israel was wandering in the wilderness and left behind five daughters: Malah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. He had no sons.
Since land was passed on from the fathers to sons, these five women found themselves in a conundrum. When Israel would enter the promised land and land was distributed among all the tribes and its people, they would not receive anything. As a result, their father’s name would disappear from the clan since there was no son to carry the name on. It would also threaten his daughters’ economic well-being since wealth was tied to the land.
The women, probably in consultation with each other, decided to do something about it.
What Bold Actions Did the Daughters of Zelophehad Take?
Remember that at this time the people of Israel are nomads. They have been wandering the wilderness for 40 years. Therefore, important meetings were held in front of the tent of meeting. These meetings would be comprised of Moses, the high priest, and the chiefs of each clan. Now, each of the 12 tribes had several clans. That was about 55 clans in total.
For all intents and purposes, this was the seat of government. And it was during one of these meetings that Malah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah decided to go before these 57 men who hold the power within Israel. The text mentions that the congregation was also present.
Imagine the courage?!
It would be intimidating enough to go before the pastor and all the elders of a church, but what these women did was more courageous than that. It is akin to them approaching the US President after the state of the union address in front of the entire congress while it is broadcasting on live TV. It was no small feat.
What Did the Daughters of Zelophehad ask for?
In today’s economy, land is not necessary to achieve economic independence. One goes to college or learns a trade and finds a job that will help pay the bills. However, in agricultural economies, such as was the case with Israel in biblical times, land was the key to financial well-being. Anything that one would produce to barter, trade, or sell was closely tied to the land.
Land was also tied to lineage. The intention behind inheritance rules was for the land to remain within families and its generations that would follow. Since Zelophehad did not have any sons, his family name, per se, would be lost.
Therefore, when Israel entered into the promised land and divided up each territory, the daughters of Zelophehad asked to be included in the inheritance.
Four Lessons Learned
In my articles about Abigail and the Wise Woman of Abel, we explore the importance of using wisdom when approaching leadership. How and what you say matters and it can make a big difference in achieving a positive outcome. We see the same pattern emerge here among the daughters of Zelophehad.
I believe that these women were being astute and chose their words carefully. In their stated reason for requesting an inheritance, they mentioned the loss of their father’s name. They didn’t mention the difficulty they would find themselves in as unmarried women (Numbers 36 tells us they were unmarried) without land.
I don’t doubt that losing their father’s name mattered greatly to them, but I would venture to say that it was not the only reason. Any woman whose primary caretaker was gone (their father) and who did not have a husband could quickly become destitute (think of Ruth and Naomi). Their economic well-being after their father’s death must have weighed heavily on them.
And yet they didn’t mention their own well being. Why? I believe these women were being astute. They knew the loss of a family name was something the male leadership could easily empathize with. It was the key factor to win over the hearts of the leadership and making sure their requests were not easily dismissed. And they weren’t. Moses brought it before God and God confirmed that what they had requested was a good.
The lesson here, choose your words carefully and find the common ground.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION: When we bring a request before someone (the PTO, elders at a church, your boss), it is important to think carefully about how to approach it. Our first inclination, especially if we are nervous, is to blurt everything out, but that may backfire. Before going to the meeting, in prayer and with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, think about who your audience is and identify the common ground. Then use that as your starting point unless the Lord directs you otherwise.
–Ask for What is Just
Clearly, from God’s response, He agreed that women should inherit their father’s land if the father had no sons. However, why didn’t God just say that when He gave Moses instructions on how to divide the land?
52 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 53 “Among these the land shall be divided for inheritance according to the number of names. 54 To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance; every tribe shall be given its inheritance in proportion to its list. 55 But the land shall be divided by lot. According to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit. 56 Their inheritance shall be divided according to lot between the larger and the smaller.”Numbers 26:52-56 (ESV)
In Numbers 26:55 God was very specific about how land was to be distributed, but He made no mention of what to do when there were no sons left to inherit. God certainly knew it was a problem beforehand, but He waited for the women to ask. Why?
I believe it was to give these five women the opportunity to ask. Since my daughters were young, I have taught them to self-advocate by not doing it for them in certain situations. They have learned very early on that they have a voice and should use it when they need something. I believe that is what God did here.
When these women used their voice, they guaranteed that future Israeli women who did not have brothers would be left an inheritance. But they also left an example for us all in the Biblical account on how to use our voice. I believe that God’s message to us women in this account is to use your voice to ask for what is just.Lesson from the Daughters of Zelophehad — I believe that God's message to us women in this account is to use your voice to ask for what is just. Click To Tweet
PRACTICAL APPLICATION: Is there something in your life that you feel is not right? Are your needs as a woman not being met? Are the needs of someone else not being met? In humility and wisdom, ask. It doesn’t matter if you are the lowliest person in the room. Your voice matters.
–Be Women of Faith
Remember that this account occurred before Israel had entered the promise land. No one owned land at this point, it was a promise God had made. So when Malah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah approached Moses, they did it in faith.
Do you remember why Israel had wandered in the desert for 40 years?
Because of their lack of faith. When the twelve spies returned from their 40-day mission in the land of Canaan (Numbers 13-14), they gave a doubtful report on their ability to take the land. Upon hearing it, the people grumbled and looked upon it as an impossible task. That first generation’s main problem was their lack of faith and trust that God would deliver what He had promised.
Not so with the five daughters of Zelophehad! Yes, they were bold, and yes they were courageous, but their courage came from a place of faith and trust in God. They were asking for a right to inherit land that had not even been captured yet. They could have waited until the land was captured and then approached the leadership. They didn’t. They believed God at His word and acted upon it even before they saw any evidence.
Let’s be women with that kind of faith!
PRACTICAL APPLICATION: Is there something you know God has put in your heart to do but you haven’t acted upon it? Maybe you are waiting for all the pieces to fall in place? Don’t. Before any big decision, there should be a time of meditation and prayer and for confirmation of the direction you are to take. But once you know it is from God, move, regardless of whether all the pieces are in place or not.
–A Woman’s Perspective Matters
The leadership structure in this account is made up of only men. Moses, the priests, and the chiefs from each tribe and clan are all male. They are gathering together to make decisions that pertain to Israel, but they are missing the female point of view. It is doubtful, that on their own, any of them would have considered how to divvy up the land when a man had only daughters.
It is not necessarily a fault of their own. Men and women approach problems from a different point of view because their experiences are different. However, this account should serve as an example for church leaders made up of only men.
Even if church doctrine dictates that only men are to serve as elders, at the very least women should be invited to these meetings to provide a female perspective. Decisions that affect an entire congregation will undoubtedly be biased in favor of men if the female point of view is not considered. And it is clear from this account (and others) that God is deeply concerned about the needs of women.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION: Are you in a position of leadership and serving a group of people that is diverse? Have you asked those that you serve, what their needs are? If you are head of the women’s ministry, are you assuming you know what everyone’s needs are or have you taken the time to listen to the voices of the elder women vs younger, married vs unmarried, white vs women of color? If you are mom and have sons, have you asked your husband on his opinion on what the boys may need from his perspective? You will never be able to meet every need, but expanding your view and perspective will certainly make you a better leader.
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