Zelophehad’s Daughters, Women of Courage

Moses and Zelophehad's daughters

Bible References: Numbers 27:1-11; 36:1-12; Joshua 17:1-6.

Heart of the Story: After Zelophehad died in the wilderness, his five daughters petitioned Moses to receive his assigned portion of the Promised Land. God ordered that the daughters be given the land, instituting a new inheritance law in Israel.  

Story Line: Zelophehad’s five daughters were Mohlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tarzah. They belonged to the tribe of Manasseh. The Bible doesn’t name their mother; perhaps she was deceased. The story takes place while the Israelites were camped on the plains of Moab, beside the Jordan River across from Jericho.

The five daughters approached the Tent of Meeting and stood before Moses, priests, leaders, and the entire assembly. They begin their petition by reminding Moses that their father died in the desert. Quickly, they pointed out that Zelophehad wasn’t part of Korah’s rebellion. The daughters continue by saying that Zelophehad died without having a son; now his name will disappear from his clan. They requested that Moses give them Zelophehad assigned portion of of the Promised Land.

Moses took the daughters’ case before God, who ruled that Zelophehad’s assigned property and inheritance should be given to his daughters. This decree instituted a new new legal inheritance requirement for the Israelites, i.e., if a man dies and leaves no son, his inheritance should be turned over to his daughters (Numbers 27:8-11). A later ruling stipulated that the daughters must marry within their tribe so that the inherited land wouldn’t be lost to another tribe (Joshua 17:1-6).  

Pondering Relationships: The Bible provides little information on Zelophehad. His daughters related to Moses that their father died for his own sin. Possibly, Zelophehad’s sin was his belief 40 years earlier that the Israelites couldn’t conquer the Promised Land. Alternatively, Jewish Rabbi Akiva and midrashic literature proposed that Zelophehad was the man who was gathered kindling on the Sabbath day (Hareuveni, 1989). By order of God, the Sabbath-breaker was stoned to death (Numbers 15:52-36). 

Whatever the cause of Zelophehad’s death, he instilled solidarity, courage and determination into his daughters. Taking no action on behalf of their father’s name and themselves would have been easier and according to Israelite custom. Approaching the entire Israelite assembly and requesting that Moses change the inheritance laws for the Israelites couldn’t have been easy. Perhaps part of the daughters’ motivation was that without property widows and unmarried daughters were reduced to poverty, possibly even to slavery or prostitution.

Even with the newly imposed inheritance laws, Israelite property laws for men and women weren’t equal. When a woman married any property she owned became her husbands. The daughters of Zelophehad obeyed Moses and married their cousins. Property owned by them did not leave the tribe of Manassah.

Reflection: Israelite women achieved certain rights due to the courage of Zelophehad’s daughters; however, they weren’t equal recipients of Yahweh’s promise with male counterparts. That day would come when Paul wrote, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galationss 3:28 NIV). Within your church do you feel as if all people are one?

The relationship between father and daughter is one of the strongest there is. Yet, as we read in the Bible, not all father-daughter relationships are healthy. Read Lesser Known Bible Characters to get a sense of what health and unhealthy father-daughter relationships look like. You can find this book at http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com/

Copyright: Carolyn A. Roth 3/14.

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