A Story from the Torah That I’d Never Read Before-ah

Get it? Ha.

Today I’m proofreading a book about heroic women of the Old and New Testaments. (This isn’t an innovative, never-been-done-before concept for a book or anything, but as a woman who loves other heroic women, I thought I’d enjoy this job). And lo and behold, I came across a story I’ve never read before. That’s right; SOMEONE STUMPED THE BIBLE BOWL CHAMP! And with that, I am admitting, shame-facedly, that—no—I’ve never read the book of Numbers from the Torah from start to finish. At least, I don’t remember ever doing so.

Anyway, here’s Numbers 27, vv. 1-11 from Peterson’s The Message

1 The daughters of Zelophehad showed up. Their father was the son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Makir son of Manasseh, belonging to the clans of Manasseh son of Joseph. The daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.

2-4 They came to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. They stood before Moses and Eleazar the priest and before the leaders and the congregation and said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He wasn’t part of Korah’s rebel anti-God gang. He died for his own sins. And he left no sons. But why should our father’s name die out from his clan just because he had no sons? So give us an inheritance among our father’s relatives.”

5 Moses brought their case to God.

6-7 God ruled: “Zelophehad’s daughters are right. Give them land as an inheritance among their father’s relatives. Give them their father’s inheritance.

8-11 “Then tell the People of Israel, If a man dies and leaves no son, give his inheritance to his daughter. If he has no daughter, give it to his brothers. If he has no brothers, give it to his father’s brothers. If his father had no brothers, give it to the nearest relative so that the inheritance stays in the family. This is the standard procedure for the People of Israel, as commanded by God through Moses.”

I don’t know any background on this story, except that it includes a girl named Noah (whoa!), and a bunch of bold young ladies who had been left with no inheritance. For crying out loud, why should their father’s brothers inherit everything and leave them with nothing? According to this story, even God himself thought that was a dumb system.

Now, it’s not exactly a story about equality (as this book I’m reading suggests). Rather, TRUE equality would involve equal part of the inheritance, whether or not a father had a son (every child, male or female, getting a fair share). But in some ways, this story is extremely interesting to me because so many of the old laws marginalized women to extreme extent (for example, take a looksy at Exodus 21:7 for a moment). These five women obviously stood up to Moses because they were fed up with what seemed like a really stupid rule. And yet, according to this translation, they claim it is important for them to inherit for the sake of his clan’s name. Nowhere do they claim outright that “we are his daughters, equal shareholders of the family, so we deserve equal parts of the inheritance as well.” Were these gals just really smart rhetors—using a patriarchal system’s rules against itself—or were they actually concerned about the lasting name of their clan? Or furthermore, since I’m no Biblical scholar and don’t know any better, is the father’s name associated with the material estate in a manner that I don’t fully understand (in other words, does name=estate)? I honestly just do not know.

And since I don’t know, ya’ll discuss. What do you make of this story? Anyone read it before?

UPDATE! The gals return in the book of Joshua, chapter 17, vv. 3-4: 

Zelophehad son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, had no sons, only daughters. Their names were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They went to Eleazar the priest, Joshua son of Nun, and the leaders and said, “God commanded Moses to give us an inheritance among our kinsmen.” And Joshua did it; he gave them, as God commanded, an inheritance amid their father’s brothers.

So, boom. Those squeaky wheels got their own chunk of the Promised Land.



PS – I couldn’t help but think of Downton Abbey after reading this story. I mean, this revised Old Testament system is perhaps even more fair than the entail system that is oh-so-encumbering to Lady Mary. Right?

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