"The Daughters of Zelophehad" by Elspeth Young
After Moses had led the children of Israel out of Egypt and they had wandered in the wilderness for a significant time, the Lord commanded Moses and Eleazar to, "take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, from twenty years old and upward" (Num. 26:2). This census was done in order to know how many men they had to go to war as well as to help them divide up inheritances in the promised land once they obtained it. Moses and Eleazar numbered every tribe and found that the total number of men over the age of twenty (excluding the Levites who would not receive an inheritance) was 601,730 (Numb. 26) . During this numbering it was noted that one of the heirs of the tribe of Manasseh, Zeolophehad, had no sons but five daughters... Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah & Tirzah (Numb. 26:33).
Facts About Them:
- Their father's name was Zelophehad who was, "the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph" (Num. 27:1). We don't know who their mother was but we do know a little about their great-grandmother and great-great grandmother. Their great-grandmother was a woman named Maacah who was of the tribe of Benjamin, the sister to Huppim and Shuppim, the wife of Machir, and the mother of Gilead (1 Chr. 7:15). Their great-great grandmother was a woman we know only as Manasseh's "concubine the Aramitess" and the mother of Machir (1 Chr. 7:14).
- After their father died in the wilderness these five young women approached Moses, Eleazar the high priest, the princes, and the whole congregation of Israel to petition on their father's behalf. They explained that their father had died in the wilderness-- taking the time to clarify that he had not been among the company of Korah who had been killed by the Lord when they tried to take the priesthood upon themselves without the proper authority (Numbers 16). Since they had no brothers they were afraid that their father's name and inheritance would be lost forever. They said, "Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he hath no son?" and then requested, " Give unto us therefore a possession among the brethren of our father." (Numb. 27:4)
- On hearing their request Moses "brought their cause before the Lord" (Numb. 27:5). In return the Lord told him, "The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them." (Numb. 27: 7)
- Furthermore, the Lord created a new "statute of judgment" for Israel saying, "And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter. And if he have no daughter, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his brethren." (Num. 27: 8-9)
- Some time after Moses received this revelation from the Lord the chief fathers of the tribe of Manasseh approached him with a concern. They were concerned about what would happen to the daughter's inheritances once they married and joined the tribe of their husbands. They said, "And if they be married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the children of Israel, then shall their inheritance be taken from the inheritance of our fathers, and shall be put to the inheritance of the tribe whereunto they are received: so shall it be taken from the lot of our inheritance" (Numb. 36: 3).
- They were especially concerned that when the Jubilee year came around that the land which was intended as an inheritance for Manaseah would be permanently lost to another tribe (Numb. 36:4). This was because the Lord had commanded that every 50th year (the Jubilee year) that all land that had exchanged hands be reverted to the family to which it had belonged to before the transaction (Lev. 25:11).
- Moses again took the problem to the Lord and announced that, "The tribe of the sons of Joseph hath said well" (Numb. 36:5). He explained that the solution the Lord had given him was that the daughters of Zelophehad should, "... marry to whom they think best; only to the family of the tribe of their father shall they marry. So shall not the inheritance of the children of Israel remove from tribe to tribe: for every one of the children of Israel shall keep himself to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers" (Numb. 36: 6-7). He also commanded that any daughter who inherited from her father was obligated to choose a husband from among her same tribe so that the inheritance would stay within the tribe.
- The daughters of Zelophehad obeyed Moses' counsel and they each married their cousins so that, "their inheritance remained in the tribe of the family of their father" (Numb. 36:10-12)
- When the time came for Joshua to divide up the land into inheritances for each tribe the daughters of Zelophehad again approached Eleazar the high priest, Joshua, and the princes and reminded them that the Lord had commanded Moses to give them "an inheritance among our brethren" (Joshua 17:4). Accordingly Joshua gave each daughter two portions of land (making a total of 10 portions) because their father was the first born son and thus entitled to a double portion (Joshua 17: 5-6). Their inheritance was, " beside the land of Gilead and Bashan, which were on the other side Jordan... and the rest of Manasseh’s sons had the land of Gilead." (Josh. 17:5).
- We don't know how old these young women were, but they were probably fairly young because at the time they approached Moses they were unmarried. Women in Old Testament times usually married around 14 or 15 and so it is probable that the oldest daughter was around that age or younger. It is also likely that they had been born while the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness.
- According to Jewish tradition these daughters did not expect to receive an inheritance from their father after he died. Yet then, as James R. Barker writes in "Women's Rights in Old Testament Times", "... one day after their father’s death, according to Jewish tradition, Moses was discussing levirate marriage within the daughters’ hearing. It occurred to them that if a childless widow could preserve her husband’s name through an heir provided by levirate marriage, an heir who would inherit the deceased husband’s lands, justice demanded that a way be found to preserve the name of an honorable man who had only daughters. If daughters could inherit those lands, they could thus perpetuate his name and thereby honor him. They faced an additional incentive, for as a firstborn son, Zelophehad would have himself received a double portion from his father." (Source)
- Perhaps the reason the chiefs of Manasseh approached Moses with their concern about what would happen to the daughter of Zelophehad's inheritances when they married was because one of them was approaching marriageable age. It is intriguing to think that maybe one of the older sisters wanted to be married to a man from another tribe and that is what sparked all the concern over where their inheritance would go when they got married. If that was the case then it makes the fact that all the daughters married men within their own tribes more meaningful... it showed they would follow the prophet and the Lord even when it was hard. Then again maybe this wasn't even an issue and the chief's concerns were because they were just thinking ahead.
There are so many thing I love about this story. Yet I think one of the most important parts of their story is the phrase, "Moses brought their cause before the Lord (Numb. 27:5)." These five sisters felt, or perhaps merely recognized, that something in their society and within their worship was unjust. They recognized that there was room for improvement and that their cultural practices were not in harmony with what they had been taught about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet these daughters recognized that something like a spiritual inheritance was not something that they would receive from Moses but rather from God. So in a real show of maturity, spiritual understanding and bravery these five sisters approached the prophet of the church, the high priest of the temple, and the princes of the tribes of Israel with their concern. They didn't demand that there be change, they didn't agitate others together to support their cause, try to change it by degrees, or make it happen by a show of will or force. They simply brought their concern to the Lord, through the channels He had authorized, and awaited the Lord's decision.
It is interesting that in approaching Moses with their concern these daughters were quick to point out that their father had died in the wilderness and that he hadn't been associated with the rebellion of Korah (Numbers 16). Several years earlier Korah, a Levite, and Dathan and Abiram, of the tribe of Reuben felt that Moses and Aaron had taken "too much upon you... wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord (Numb 16:3)." They especially felt that it was unfair that Moses held the high priesthood and that they could not. They designed to take it by force and by popular agreement and gathered together "...two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown (Numb. 16:2)" and approached Moses with their demand. Upon hearing this Moses lamented,
"Seemeth it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel... and seek ye the priesthood also? For which cause both thou and all thy company are gathered together against the Lord: and what is Aaron, that ye murmur against him? (Numb. 16: 9-11)"As a result of Korah's uprising the Lord caused the earth to open up and swallow the men who had rebelled as well as their tents, wives and children. When the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron saying "Ye have killed the people of the Lord (Numb. 16:41)" they became afflicted with a plague that killed 14,700 additional people before it was over.
This is the story that the daughters of Zelophehad were citing when they approached Moses; almost as if they were saying, "We are not trying to ask for that which we should not, but we would like you to consider our righteous concern." They had come with a righteous desire, one that sprung from concern about their father's name rather than their own status, and were willing to abide by what the Lord's command was. I think their pure intent is evident when later, when the question about what would happen to the inheritance when they married came up, these daughters were willing to abide by the word of the Lord and married within their own tribe. These daughters weren't seeking after status, glory or position they simply wanted to know where they belonged in the Lord's kingdom.
As a result of their inquiry Moses took their concern before the Lord and the Lord told him "The daughters of Zelophehad speak right" (Num. 27:7) and the tradition that daughters could not inherit was changed. This was probably not the first time that a man had died without sons to inherit, but it was the first time that righteous women had the faith and courage to use the proper channels to petition the Lord. It is significant to me that because they approached Moses about their concern, instead of taking the approach Korah did to rally popular support for their cause, they opened up the way for the Lord to give the children of Israel important new revelation concerning the place of women in God's plan. If they had taken any other route then perhaps the Lord would not have been able to bestow so great a blessing upon them as He did.
I think this story is valuable to study because sometimes in our families, congregations and societies we have cultural rules and traditions that are not in harmony with the gospel of Jesus Christ. In many cultures around the world (the US included) there are often cultural traditions that are unfair or detrimental to women and families and which should be abandoned or changed in order to live a "higher" or "gospel culture." In his address "The Gospel Culture" Elder Dallin H. Oaks explained:
"... gospel culture comes from the plan of salvation, the commandments of God, and the teachings of the living prophets. It guides us in the way we raise our families and live our individual lives. The principles stated in the proclamation on the family are a beautiful expression of this gospel culture.
To help its members all over the world, the Church teaches us to give up any personal or family traditions or practices that are contrary to the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ and to this gospel culture. In this we heed the warning of the Apostle Paul, who said that we should not let anyone “spoil [us] through philosophy … after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
When it comes to giving up false traditions and cultures, we praise our younger people for their flexibility and progress, and we appeal to our older members to put away traditions and cultural or tribal practices that lead them away from the path of growth and progress. We ask all to climb to the higher ground of the gospel culture, to practices and traditions that are rooted in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ."Yet I think it is important to note that as we go about becoming more of a Zion-like people we need to be careful that we don't fall into the pattern of men like Korah, trying to affect change through force or popular opinion. Instead true, lasting change comes when, like the Daughters of Zelophehad, we faithfully approach the Lord with concerns and a willingness to follow whatever course He has for us
Because as Elder Boyd K. Packer taught,
Questions to Think About:
“True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior” (Boyd K. Packer, “Do Not Fear,”Ensign, May 2004, 77).When we, and those around us, better come to understand the doctrines of the Gospel of Christ it changes our souls in a powerful way. Our behavior and our perspective on life becomes more in harmony with God... and that spills over into every aspect of our lives.
As alluring as it can seem to jump on the bandwagon of the world's approach to enforce and lobby change-- nothing is as powerful as the Lord's way. The Lord focuses on changing people from the inside out, changing their basic desires and perspectives on the world so that they want what He wants and sees what He sees. That sort of change is one that endures... through generations... and is truly the only type of change that matters.
- What does it mean to you to know that in God's Kingdom both men and and women are equal heirs? How does that knowledge change the way you live your life?
- What cultural or family traditions to you have that you need to give up in order to better live the gospel of Jesus Christ?
- What does this story teach us about how we should approach the Lord and church leaders about our concerns over doctrine or cultural traditions?
- Throughout history the Bible has often been held up as the standard for what is and isn't allowable behavior for men and women in a society. How do you think that these young women's story has affected women's right to inherit property and land throughout history?