Noah was the great-great-great-great granddaughter of the patriarch Joseph. Her sisters were Mahlah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They were the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, the son of Joseph (Num. 26:28-33).
After four decades of living as nomads in the Sinai wilderness, it was time for the people of Israel to settle in the land of Canaan.1 The fertile region was to be divided among all Israelite tribes except the Levites, who would be supported by the tithing system as they rendered spiritual service to the nation.2
The land was partitioned according to tribes and families, and the head of each family was to pass his inheritance on to his sons. But Zelophehad, the great-great-great grandson of Joseph, died in the wilderness and had no sons (1 Chron. 7:15). Although he did have five daughters, there was no provision in the law for a man’s daughters inheriting an estate.
An Exceptional Case
Realizing their father’s legacy was in jeopardy, Zelophehad’s daughters took action. Despite the firmly established patriarchal society in which they lived, the five sisters stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the tribal leaders, and the entire community. They made the following appeal: “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” (Num. 27:4 NKJV).
Such an unprecedented request caught Moses off guard. He didn’t know what to do. So he brought their case before the LORD, and this is what the LORD decreed: “The daughters of Zelophehad speak what is right; you shall surely give them a possession of inheritance among their father’s brothers, and cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them” (Num. 27:7). Moreover, additional provisions were made for others who might otherwise get overlooked in inheritance claims (vv. 9-11).
The Promise Fulfilled
After Moses’ death, as the Israelites began inhabiting the Promised Land, the daughters of Zelophehad reminded Eleazar and Joshua that God had commanded Moses to give them an inheritance (Josh. 17:4a). “Therefore, according to the commandment of the Lord, he gave them an inheritance among their father’s brothers” (v. 4b). Accordingly, the territory of the tribe of Manasseh was significantly increased (vv. 5-6). Noah and her sisters, to ensure the property remained in the family, then married sons of their father’s brothers (Num. 36:10-12).
A Historical Moment
Contrary to modern-day misconceptions, women in ancient Israel were not second-class citizens to be suppressed and mistreated with God’s approval. To better appreciate the true state of affairs, one needs only to understand the plight of women in the ancient world in general, where male domination was the norm.
Among contemporary Greeks, females had few rights in comparison to their male counterparts. Since they were considered by nature inferior to men,3 women were not allowed to inherit or own property. In the early Roman Republic, females were under the authority and control of their fathers and husbands. Because they were deemed incapable of acting for themselves, ladies were legally obliged to have a male tutela (“tutor”) to ensure property was kept in the male-dominated family.4 Among the ancient Egyptians, where equity between the sexes was afforded some consideration, men still held the positions of authority and controlled their respective households and land ownership.5
Even though it was very much a man’s world, Jewish law elevated women to a unique status. Wives, mothers, and widows were to be protected, supported, and treated with dignity and respect (Ex. 20:12; Lev. 19:3; Deut. 5:16; 10:18; 18-21; 27:16; Psa. 146:9; Prov. 18:22; 19:14; 31:10-31; et al.). Any injustice, contempt, or maltreatment of women among the Jews was contrary to and in violation of the divine will.6
Lessons to Learn
Of the approximately two million Jews who entered the Promised Land (Num. 26:2, 51, 62), how is it that only one family had no sons? If we concede the providence and foreknowledge of God, this certainly made the allotment of property much less complicated according to customary birthright conventions. But what about the daughters of Zelophehad?
· God expects his people to step out in faith and take action (Jas. 2:17). He doesn’t work through apathy, passivity, or laziness. Noah and her sisters took initiative in the pursuit of fairness.
· God expects his people to trust him enough to confront fear (Psa. 27:1). Noah and her sisters, in a male-dominated culture, had the courage to take a stand for what is right.
· God expects his people to put the interests of others before themselves (1 Cor. 10:24). Noah and her sisters were not selfishly demanding their perceived rights but seeking to preserve the legacy of their father and provide a future for their families.
· God will always do what’s right (Deut. 32:4). Noah and her sisters were a test case, and the Lord turned a potential injustice into a blessing, not only for these five ladies but for many others who might otherwise be neglected.
· While God has designated different roles for men and women, neither is superior to the other; both are equally valued in his sight (Gen. 1:27). Noah and her sisters provide a clear demonstration of this fundamental truth.
Hopefully we can appreciate that the celebrated ark-builder was not the only hero of faith named “Noah” in the biblical record. Noah, the daughter of Zelophehad, along with her four sisters, impacted the world in which they lived and future generations as well. They remain worthy of our gratitude and recognition.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 The ancient land of Canaan roughly corresponds to present-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel.
2 Num. 18:20-31; Josh. 13:7–19:48.
3 Aristotle, Politics 1.1259b.
4 William Smith, William Wayte, and G. E. Marindin, eds. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (London: John Murray, 1890). <Link>
5 Bob Brier and Hoyt Hobbs, Ancient Egypt: Everyday Life in the Land of the Nile (New York: Sterling, 2013): 89 <Link>; Robert C. Ellickson and Charles DiA. Thorland, “Ancient Land Law: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel,” Faculty Scholarship Series 71:321 (1995): 354-56. <Link>
6 The Talmud prescribed that a Jewish man offer the daily prayer: “Thank you God for not making me a Gentile, a woman, or a slave” (Menachot 43b-44a). When divorce became prevalent among the Israelites (Deut. 22:19, 29; Lev. 21:7, 13, 14), it was permitted only because of “hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8), serving to protect women from unscrupulous husbands and the precarious charge of adultery (Deut. 24:1-4; cf. Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22).
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