Someone once said a picture is worth a thousand words. Let’s look at this one, considering all its details.
Do you remember its story? This is a scene from the lives of our last set of sisters—all five of them. Often simply referred to as “the daughters of Zelophehad,” they do have names: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. The actions represented in this picture were momentous. They forever changed Israel’s laws of inheritance.
The back-story begins after Korah’s infamous rebellion as the tribes of Israel prepared to enter the Promised Land. If you recall, each was to be allotted territory according to its population, and so God instructed Moses to conduct a census. Zelophehad’s name is included among the listed clans of Manasseh, with a note of explanation:
“Now Zelophehad the son of Hepher had no sons, but daughters…” (Numbers 26:33).
Zelophehad’s death in the wilderness posed a thorny problem: As only men were counted in the census, what would happen to their father’s apportionment since he had no sons? Could these sisters assume heirship?
Presenting their case
The five brought the matter before Moses, Eleazar the priest, tribal leaders, and the whole community (Numbers 27:2), clearly stating their case: “Our father died in the wilderness; but he was not in the company of those who gathered together against the LORD, in company with Korah, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be removed from among his family because he had no son? Give us a possession among our father’s brothers” (verses 3-4).
Moses delegated up and presented the matter to the Lord, Who in turn ruled in their favor. Daughters could inherit a father’s portion (verses 6-11) but with certain limitations which safeguarded against the possibility of moving of land from tribe to tribe (Numbers 36:1-9).
Sisters of influence
Of the three sets of sisters presented in this series of posts, the daughters of Zelophehad were the most influential. Their petition precipitated inheritance law reforms that at least one source feels still have relevance today.
I find the following quote somewhat subjective, and present it in that light: “The daughters of Zelophehad had filed one of the earliest reported lawsuits on record. Jurists still turn to it for opinions and have declared it the oldest decided case ‘that is still cited as an authority.’ In the American Bar Association Journal of February, 1924, there appears an article by Henry C. Clark in which this decision of the daughters of Zelophehad is quoted. It is described as an ‘early declaratory judgment in which the property rights of women marrying outside of their tribe are clearly set forth’” (All the Women of the Bible, Edith Deen, 1955, page 63).*
For more information
Now you know the story contained in this illustration of Zelophehad’s five daughters. (For a more detailed explanation of all the legal intricacies involved in this case, see Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, Numbers 27.)
*Note: I attempted to access this particular issue of the Journal. At this time, I cannot verify the authenticity of the above citation. I am assuming it is correct.