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The daughters of Zelophehad: A biblical example of strong womanhood


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Tom Thomas - published on 08/27/21

The five daughters of Zelophehad advocated for their rights and changed Israel's laws of inheritance.

Do you know the story of the daughters of Zelophehad?

“They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, “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. 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.”

Numbers 27:2–4

A book of censuses

Today the casual reader hardly expects to find a modern view of women in the ancient Book of Numbers.  However, a closer look reveals that the book contains much more than the travails of the Lord’s people Israel through the 40 years journey in the desert.

In the two recorded censuses in Numbers, Israel only counts men. Women and children were not considered significant to count, as they could not go to war. Therefore it is astonishing that in the census in Numbers 26, as the tribe of Manasseh is mentioned, we find the names of the five daughters of Zelophehad: “Now Zelophehad son of Hepher had no sons, but daughters: and the names of the daughters of Zelophehad were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah” (Num 26:33).   

The daughters of Zelophehad approach Moses

However, the daughters of Zelophehad are not merely listed in Scripture. A speech they make before Moses and the elders is recorded in precise detail! (cf. Num 27: 1-11). This surprising example of female leadership comes at a time and place when women and children were not considered significant to be even counted!

Distraught at facing the aspect of losing their father’s inheritance as he has no son, yet emboldened, these five daughters chose to approach Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and all of the congregation assembled at the tent of the meeting. It is only for important matters that they assembled at the tent of the meeting. A truly remarkable and bold move for those times for the five women to approach this august gathering. 

The Daughters of Zelophehad from the Dalziels’ Bible Gallery

One can imagine the silence of those gathered there as the women came to a place they were not supposed to be. The aging Moses, standing with the elders in the assembly, is stunned by the appearance of the five daughters of Zelophehad. The Dalziels’ Bible gallery beautifully captures the scene (above).

The daughters challenge the law, asking, “Why should the name of our father be taken away from his family because he had no son?” (Num 27: 4). And then follows their request to Moses: “Give us a possession among our father’s brethren” (Num 27: 5).

Women seeking justice

This is the first instance in the Bible where women seek justice for themselves. And we can see that Moses listened to them. However, he could not give a ready answer. Moses turned to the Lord, who gave the answer that the daughters of Zelophehad were right (Num 27:7).

It was declared that if a man dies and has no sons, then his inheritance should pass to his daughters. If he has no daughters it should pass to his brothers; if he has no brothers to his father’s brothers; and if his father has no brothers, then to his kinsman. 

The laws of inheritance are changed

Therefore the laws of inheritance were rewritten based on the request of the daughters of Zelophehad. Indeed, we see in the last chapter of Numbers (cf. 36:2-8), the laws of inheritance were amended so that the inheritance would not leave the family.

This landmark incident is considered one of the very first legal cases. In fact, it has been quoted in property inheritance law cases. For example, in the American Bar Association Journal, Henry C Clark has referred to this case as an early declaratory judgment in the property rights of women (February, 1924).

What a lesson from the Book of Numbers! The five daughters of Zelophehad teach us to not merely accept injustices. Even those considered to be the most insignificant can cry out for mercy to the Lord through His elected representatives when faced with injustice, and their voices will be heard when their leaders are just.

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah—your bravery and example stands out for us over the ages. Your father Zelophehad is remembered, for he raised valiant and faithful daughters who could approach the Lord and attain the justice they sought.  You are an inspiration not just for other women who are oppressed today, but for all who face injustice. You are examples of fortitude and courage: thank you!

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