She Who Reigns: Zelophehad’s Daughters

Zelophehad, daughters3

“The daughters of Zelophehad… came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, ‘Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the Lord, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27:1-4)

Throughout the Ancient Near East law codes expressly allowed daughters to inherit. Sumerian, Nuzi, Ugarit, Elam, Hittitite and even Hammurabi’s laws ordained that a daughter could inherit the property of her father (Milgrom, p.482). Unlike it’s centralized urban neighbors, the Bible describes the early stages of Israel’s society to be a tightly knit clan structure with the foremost goal of preserving land inheritance by not allowing it to pass to another clan. “Because the land tangibly symbolized God’s covenant with his people, each family received a share of the land and the assurance of God’s perpetual oversight” (Ulrich, p.535). To lose the land was to annul the Abrahamic covenant which promised not only the land to each local lineage group or mispaha (clan/family) but also a continuing relationship with God throughout the generations (Gen 15:18; 17:7).

Bold Moves

By requiring that their father’s land be preserved in his name, Zelophehad’s daughters expressed their faith in God’s promise to keep the covenant even if the circumstances were unfavorable (Ulrich, p.536).

Aschkenasy, as well as many other commentators, suggest that Zelophehad’s daughters’ “tone is subdued, self-effacing, and not provocative. They speak of their father, not of themselves, reminding Moses that he was a meritorious person who did not take part in the rebellion against Moses. The women make sure that their claim stays within the patriarchal legal system, so they ask that their father’s name be not removed from the annals of history… Instead of openly challenging the patriarchal legal system, the daughters couch their request in the language of patriarchy, emphasizing that they want land for their father’s sake… The sisters’ careful and shrewd speech is calculated not to antagonize the patriarchal authorities. While their request does question the status quo, they do not openly dispute the logic behind the law that bans daughters form sharing in their father’s inheritance” (p.130-131).

I take issue with this characterization of the five sisters as demure and diffident in the face of the male authorities. There are several clues within the text and archaeological evidence that the daughters held a great deal more power than it would appear at first glance. Let’s take a closer look.

After Miriam was punished with leprosy for confronting Moses, after Korah challenged Moses’ authority (Num. 16) resulting in 14,700 men dying of plague, and after experiencing yet another plague that killed 24,000 Israelites for their dalliance with the daughters of Moab (Num. 25), it would take a very brave person to step before Moses and suggest that the laws of God might need some improvement. It is just this circumstance in which the daughters of Zelophehad stood before Moses, the High Priest, the chieftains of all the tribes, and the entire assembly of people to demand a heritage. “[T]heir question involves not just Moses’ opinion but a suggestion that a direct decree of the deity is inadequate and should be revised” (Sakenfeld, Women’s Bible Commentary, p.50). Their bold act could easily have been construed as rebellious, even anti-Israelite; hardly the behavior of “subdued, self-effacing” daughters. Moses and Eleazar the High Priest were at a loss for words after the five daughters spoke but they dutifully inquired of God and were told that the sister’s claim was just. “By divine degree they get more than they have asked for, for God tells Moses that the daughters’ estate shall be hereditary. Moreover, their case will assume the rank of legal precedent… According to this new law, the daughters’ position in the line of paternal inheritance is secondary to the sons’ position, but proceeds that of other male relatives” (Sterring, p.91).

Legal Innovation and Revolution

Given the legal and religio-political milieu of the time, it is remarkable that Zelophehad’s five daughters demanded this innovation in the law. The institution of levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-10) already provided a means by which the father’s name could be preserved as demonstrated by the story of Ruth and the case of Judah and Tamar. So then, why the need for the daughters to actually take possession of the ancestral land? Since “land-tenure in early Israel consisted of corporate management by the local lineage group” (Osgood, p.41), as long as the inheritance was controlled by the mispaha it didn’t really matter which particular clan member took possession of the land. However, the sisters required a revolutionary change to the law. “The concern expressed by Zelophehad’s daughters reflects an individualistic mentality, aimed at preserving the ‘name’ of the pater familias, and not a clannish or tribal mentality that would be more concerned with retaining land within the larger, socioeconomic unit” (Levine). Though requesting individual rights the daughters acted as a united front relying on each other for support. It is from this position of strength that they commanded Moses to secure the perpetuation of their father’s name: “Give us a possession among the brethren of our father” [emphasis mine].


However, the suit brought by the daughters of Zelophehad raised the hackles of the chieftains of the tribes who feared the new principal of inheritance.

“The men of the tribe suddenly wonder what this new freedom of inheritance for all women will mean… the men appeal the rights given to the daughters of Tzelophehad in Numbers 27 in front of a smaller leadership cadre this time, and not at the central Tent of Meeting. The daughters themselves… are not present to comment or refute” (Goldstein, p. 87).

Obviously distressed by the prospect that the daughters got an estate, the men of the tribe met behind closed doors (in contrast to the women who presented their position publicly with full disclosure.) They demanded that Moses amend the divine pronouncement.

“The action that the family chieftains have undertaken results in a general law too: heiresses to real estate have to marry inside their paternal tribe. A veritable gentleman’s agreement has been reached. Such a reaction-formation to an achievement of women’s rights is typical of patriarchal society. Whenever men-folk feel threatened and fear that their safety is undermined one way or the other, they try to minimize the imagined damage as much as they can by way of instituting countermeasures” (Sterring, p.94).

Although there is a great deal of truth to Sterring’s comments, the reformulation of the ruling does close a loophole that would have alienated the land if the sisters married outside of the tribe and the inheritance reverted to their husband’s family. Even the Year of the Jubilee, wherein the land reverted to the original owners, would not reverse this kind of disinheritance (Ulrich, p.529).

Yes, But Isn’t It All for the Benefit of the Men?

This takes us back to Aschkenasy’s contention that the sisters were merely propping up the patriarchal legal system that treated them like second-class citizens, if citizens at all. Zelophehad’s daughters chose to marry their uncle’s sons who then would have immediately taken control of the sisters’ land. “It is widely agreed that the story assumes that any ‘inheritance’ held by a daughter when there was no son will become part of her husband’s property when she marries” (Sakenfeld, Zelophahad’s Daughters, p.45). Oddly, the very men who would have inherited the land if the sisters had not petitioned Moses for the allotment, end up possessing Zelophahad’s land anyway. For all the sister’s efforts, it appears the daughters gained nothing. Commentators emphasize that Zelophehad’s daughters were trying to prevent the transfer of their father’s inheritance to another tribe. But this makes no sense since their father had brothers with sons who where next in line to inherit. I submit that the daughters were after something else related to the process of land transfer, something not made explicit in the text.

Their Names

Before we can delve into what the daughters’ real purpose might have been, we need to study their names.

“The list of the five daughters of Zelophehad, repeated in Numbers 27 and 36, is of particular interest. (1) Mahlah… probably derives from the root h-l-h ‘to look forward, expect, hope, entreat.’ (2) No’ah… is of uncertain meaning. It is attested as the name of a town or district in the Samaria Ostraca… (3) Hoglah…has been taken to mean ‘partridge.’ It, too, is attested as a place-name in the Samaria Ostraca… (4) Milkah… a variant of malkah ‘queen,’ is also attested as the name of the wife of Abraham’s brother, Nahor… (5) Tirsah (Tirzah). Such is the name of a Canaanite city-state (Jos 12:24), the hometown of Jeroboam I and the residence of Omri, king of Northern Israel” (Levine, p. 322).

The Samaria Ostraca are 64 pottery shards inscribed with ancient Hebrew script found in the palace of King Ahab and date from approximately 850 B.C.E. Significantly the ostraca mention place names, some of which are also noted in the Bible. Hoglah and Noah, two of Zelophehad’s daughters are listed as names of districts or towns in Samaria indicating that “the legal innovation associated with the family of Zelophehad must be understood in the context of the plan for the settlement of Canaan put forth in several versions… The clan of Zelophehad truly belonged west of the Jordan!” (Levine, p. 322). Not only does there appear to be a historical basis for the daughter’s legacy, but the land was named after the women, not the husbands and grandsons who supposedly inherited the land.

But the story is not finished yet.

“One more text in the Hebrew Bible alludes to Zelophehad and his daughters… 1 Chron. 7.14-19… v. 18 has a sister of Gildead, Machir’s son, who is called [Mahholeket], ‘she who reigns.’ This name is formed from the same root… ‘to rule, be king’.. the name Milcah derives from… and Milcah is one of Zelophehad’s daughters. We are told about this mahholeket that she bore three sons. They are related through their mother’s name to the tribe of Manasseh… at least one of the women of Zelophehad’s family has succeeded in letting her name survive independently” (Sterring, p.96).

In other words, Zelophehad’s daughters managed to maintain property rights through a matrilineal descent. Despite marrying their first-cousins, the inheritance did not revert to the male line, a feat accomplished perhaps through marriage contracts stipulating that the land allotments were to remain in the matriarchs’ name. Zelophehad’s daughters managed to remain in charge of their own property for generations.


Moses and the elders of Israel may have expected the women to reinforce patriarchy when the daughters spoke out to perpetuate their father’s name. In the end the Zelophehad sisters spoke out against the economic injustice of women being left destitute in the face of the prevailing legal codes. With great courage the daughters stood up to “express in their petition a faith and commitment to the future of the land of Israel that many men have been willing to throw away in an orgy only a little while before” (Schwartz/Kaplan, p.96). Even in our own time Zelophehad’s daughters have been a source of inspiration for feminists.

“In the United States Elisabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), among others, used the daughters’ story to criticize policy and custom concerning women’s affairs in The Woman’s Bible. When women married they lost the right to manage their property to their husbands. She summoned her contemporaries to managed their own possessions and financial affairs, and to accept the responsibilities involved” (Sterring, p.98).

Perhaps women of the United States have achieved some measure of economic equality but one does not need to look far to find women suffering poverty, starvation and injustice at much higher rates than men throughout the world. I could drag out the newspaper reports to document this phenomenon but you could just as easily conduct your own research. Choose your specific cause, but stand up with the Daughters of Zelophehad and proclaim economic justice for all. Your action is the daughters’ legacy.

For Further Reading

Aschkenasy, Nehama – Women at the Window: Biblical Tales of Oppression and Escape (Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1998)

Ben-Barak, Zafrirab – Inheritance by Daughters in Israel and the Ancient Near East: A Social (Legal and Ideological Revolution Archaeological Center Publications, 2006) 

Goldstein, Elyse – ReVisions: Seeing Torah Through a Feminist Lens (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998)

Levine, Baruch A. – Numbers 21-36. The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries (Yale University Press, 2000)

Milgrom, Jacob – “Excursus 63” The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (The Jewish Publication Society, 2003)

Osgood, S. Joy – “Women and the Inheritance of Land in Early Israel” George J. Brooke, ed., Women in the Biblical Tradition (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1992) 29-52.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob – “Numbers: Inheritance and Land Distribution,” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992)

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob –  “Zelophehad’s Daughters” in Perspectives on the Hebrew Bible, Crenshaw, J.L., ed. (Mercer University Press, 1988)

Sterring, Ankie – “The Will of the Daughters” in A Feminist Companion to Exodus to Deuteronomy, (Series 1), Athalya Brenner, ed. Feminist Companion to the Bible 6. (Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994) 88-99.

Ulrich, Dean R. – “The Framing Function of the Narratives About Zelophehad’s Daughters” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41/4 (Dec. 1998) 529-538.


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