It has often been said that the Bible is a book that must be mined for its treasures. The more work you put into the serious study of Scripture, the greater you will be blessed by what you find.
That is true of study, but it is often equally true of simply reading Scripture. Often, as you slog faithfully through some of the seemingly mundane portions of Scripture, you come across a story sandwiched in the mundaneness that breaks the pattern. Such is the case when it comes to Numbers 27 and the account of the daughters of Zelophahad.
The story of the daughters of Zelophahad can be read in Numbers 27:1–11 and 36:1–13. Some basic background is necessary in order to feel the full import of these texts.
According to the Mosaic law, land inheritance was to be passed on only to sons, not daughters. Daughters were not entirely excluded from inheritance—they were provided for by means of dowry at marriage. There was, however, no provision in the law for land inheritance upon her father’s death.
The reason for this is that land must remain in the family. If a daughter received inheritance, it would be passed on to her children, who would not continue the family name. In fact, if she married outside her own tribe, it would result in land being passed from one tribe to another. Because such land was inherited rather than sold, it would not revert to the original owner at Jubilee. God did not want land to be permanently lost by families, and so he designed his law in such a way that land could only be transferred to sons and thereby remain in the family. In the absence of sons, the land was to be passed to a close male relative.
But God’s law, when originally given, did not necessarily cover every eventuality. There are times in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy where Moses had to take specific cases to the Lord for clarity, because the existing law did not speak clearly to those cases. This is what we find in Numbers 27.
Zelophahad had died in the wilderness without sons. He had five daughters, each of whom was unmarried. There was, therefore, something of a quandary. According to existing law, daughters received no inheritance at their father’s death. If they married while he was alive they would receive dowry, but Zelophahad’s five daughters were unmarried, and now their father was dead. His inheritance would be given to his closest male relatives and they would be left with no husbands and no inheritance. This scenario had not been covered in God’s law, and so they brought their case to Moses.
The result is that God amended the law to include this situation and granted the daughters of Zelophahad land inheritance. This case was to act as precedent for future generations.
And so the story of the faithful generation continues. God continued to prepare them for conquest, and when we reach Numbers 36 the people are on the cusp of Canaan. They are about to enter, but suddenly we are reintroduced to Zelophahad’s family. Another question of inheritance has arisen.
God did not want land inheritance to be lost. Land was always to remain in a family. However, now that Zelophahad’s daughters had been guaranteed land inheritance, what would happen if they married outside their own tribe? Would their inheritance then be passed to their children and so lost to the family?
Once again, the Lord amended his law to deal with this situation. This time, he instructed that the daughters of Zelophahad must marry within their own clan so that the inheritance was not lost to their father’s family.
As I read these chapters recently and reflected on them, several lessons came to mind.
First, it is interesting to see that these women understood the concept of sin. When they came to Moses, 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” (v. 3). While they were careful to distance their father from the open rebellion of Korah, they nonetheless admitted that he “died for his own sin.”
We are not told exactly what Zelophahad’s sin was, but the fact it was not the sin of Korah seems to suggest that his sin was simply the general unbelief of the exodus generation about the conquest of the Promised Land (chapters 13–14).
Regardless, his daughters recognised that their father had died because of his sin. They were part of the faithful generation and did not try to hide the sin of their father. They were aware that sin had consequences and understood the failure of their father to be a warning to them against unbelief.
Significantly, these young women did not assume that their father’s sin was final. They did not assume that God was through with their family because their father had sinned. Yes, their father had sinned and suffered God’s judgement for it, but they were prepared to believe God for future blessings. By God’s grace, they succeeded where their father had failed. As we will see, they believed God for the conquest of Canaan, whereas Zelophahad had died for his unbelief.
Let us learn from the daughters of Zelophahad that failure need not be final. God is gracious, and though we must take his warnings against sin seriously, we must likewise take his promises of forgiveness and cleansing seriously.
Further, let us learn that failure need not necessarily be generational. It can be argued from Exodus 20:4–6 that those who fail to worship God as they should usually pass their misconceptions of God to their offspring, but we learn from Zelophahad’s daughters that this is not irrevocably the case. It is quite possible, by God’s grace and with deliberate prayer and effort, to succeed where our parents have failed.
Even as they reflected on the fact that their father had died for his unbelief, these women were women of faith. Notice their request: “Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers” (v. 4). The significance of this is that they hadn’t yet taken Canaan. The Promised Land was still in their future, but unlike the previous, unbelieving generation, these young women believed God. They assumed that Israel would take the land and wanted their part in it.
It is a wonderful thing that these women wanted inheritance in the land. Inheritance always has in mind future generations. These women understood that they could not take their inheritance with them when they died, but they wanted something to give to their descendants. They had faith that God’s blessings in the Promised Land would be received, and wanted to pass those blessings to their children.
We need to learn this lesson from the daughters of Zelophahad. It is easy to become so self-focused that we live this life only for what we will receive ourselves. We may earnestly seek God’s blessings, but only for how they will benefit us. Like Hezekiah, we may be content with peace and security in our own lifetime, regardless of what may happen in the lives of our descendants (2 Kings 20:16–19).
Zelophahad’s daughters teach us the need for multigenerational thinking. God wanted to give Israel the Promised Land, but not only for that generation. He wanted succeeding generations to inherit what that generation conquered. Zelophahad’s daughters wanted to be a part of that heritage.
The appeal made by these ladies was based on God’s revealed Word. God was concerned about daughters, for he had already provided a means of inheritance for them in the dowry, but he hadn’t spoken clearly to the issue of unmarried daughters.
We must not miss the significance of their submission to God’s word. Historians tell us that this particular loophole in inheritance law for unmarried daughters had been closed by the surrounding pagan cultures for a thousand years before Israel showed up. God’s law in this regard was hardly revolutionary. The pagan nations that Israel would conquer had already provided for such circumstances in their own laws.
Zelophahad’s daughters might have appealed to the more “advanced” laws of the pagan nations. If the Canaanites provided for unmarried daughters, why would God not do the same? But that is not how they approached the matter. Instead, they humbly came to Moses as God’s appointed leader and sought direction. Their attitude was one of submission: They would submit to whatever God said.
We see a similar pattern in chapter 36, where the family of Zelophahad again bring their request to Moses for direction from God’s word. Of course, in either instance, God, being omniscient, could have provided in his original law for these circumstances. Instead, he graciously gave his children opportunity to bring their requests to him so that they could marvel in his grace as he answered.
Let us learn from this that God invites us to bring our burdens to him, but that we must do so with an attitude of submission to his word.