I was reading along in the book of Numbers, and in chapter 27 there is a story about five daughters who come to Moses with a petition. They are the daughters of Zelophehad (I know, right!?!?!?) and they ask Moses and other leaders to consider something that they think is unfair. I had to look into this, and so here is my take on this story. The text reads:
27:2 These women stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the tribal leaders, and the entire community at the entrance of the Tabernacle. 3 “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. 4 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.”
We can hear the question in the minds of Zelophehad’s daughters: “Does God make inheritance contingent upon pedigree rather than faithfulness?” Now, let me pause to say that when the girls claim that their dad “died because of his own sin” they are not referring to any particular rebellion, like Korah’s actions, but they are referring to natural consequences given the notion that sin leads to death and all persons die because all persons sin. And now we move on. If the answer to their question was yes, then the manner of distributing the land contradicted the condition for entering the land.
You see, Zelophehad was a member of the generation that was told by God that they would die in the wilderness, but while Korah’s descendants and other families, whose patriarchs actively rebelled against God would enjoy an allotment of land, Zelophehad’s family would not. Why? Because of a legal oversight preferring sons over daughters, which struck at the heart of God’s covenant with Abraham, which promised not only land but also the continuing relationship of God with Abraham’s children (Gen 15:18; 17:7). So Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirza placed the notion of legal ancestry through males against their faith in God’s promise and obedience to the covenant. Moses and the leaders act in their favor! The text reads:
27:5 So Moses brought their case before the Lord. 6 And the Lord replied to Moses, 7 “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.
So what do we learn in this passage? God could not simply reject the daughters because life circumstances did not give a son to their father. The certainty of the covenant did not depend on favorable life circumstances for the patriarchs but on the faithful character of God. The book of Numbers presents these daughters as examples of true Israelites.
I wrote this with help from: D. Ulrich, The Framing Function Of The Narratives About Zelophehad’s Daughters, JETS 41/4 (December 1998) 529–538
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