Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏹️

The independent, rebellious spirits of each of Tevye's five daughters in Fiddler on the Roof is perhaps modelled on the five daughters of Zelophehad. Image © MGM

The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father's brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter. / Even as the Lord commanded Moses, so did the daughters of Zelophehad: For Mahlah, Tirzah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Noa, the daughters of Zelophehad, were married unto their fathers brothers' sons.
Numbers 27:7-8 / 36:10-11

Moses is partitioning the land the Israelites are about to conquer. By tradition the land is inherited by sons, and if no sons then brothers. Each tribal leader who came out of Egypt, had one or more sons, except Zelophehad, a descendent of Manasseh, son of Joseph. Zelophehad had five daughters. Seeing their (actually so far imaginary) land slip away from them the five daughters make a petition to Moses that women too have the right to inherit. Moses takes this to God, and God agrees, The daughters of Zelophehad speak right. This confrontation to the patriarchal hierarchy is not to be underrated. A woman's place was in or around the tent, not in counsel. Women had no voice and no rights, indeed were considered property of their husband's family. Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah and Noa take a big risk in stepping forward with their demand. Their courage pays off in more than one way, for not only was their own request granted but the law of inheritance was changed for ever.

The threat to the patriarchy however is too great, and in the last chapter of Numbers a proviso is made that puts the land ownership firmly back in the hands of men: the daughters are forbidden to marry outside their own tribe to prevent the land being passed by such marriage to the tribe of the husband. Instead it stays within the tribe of Manasseh, but immediately on marriage to their cousins it becomes once again the property of men. Nice try though.

The story illustrates the difficulty of change, and the power of the status quo to hold its own in the face of new ideas. But it also tells us something of the nature of the God of Israel. God sees the fairness of the original petition, and grants land rights to women, something unheard of up to this time.1 In the marriage tradition though everything a woman owns becomes the property of the husband, and this law did not change alongside. The only thing the women could have done to retain the land in their own name would be to stay single. We can improve life in one respect, but if other aspects of life are not changed alongside then such change is unsustainable. And yet given time and persistence new ideas do take hold. Starting with Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah and Noa and ending with Emmeline Pankhurst the political world is a better place than it once was. And still we have far to go.

Following this legal adjustment to reinstate the patriarchy, an anecdote some scholars believe was tagged on to the book at a later date,2 the book of Numbers comes to an end with the words These are the commandments and the judgments, which the Lord commanded by the hand of Moses unto the children of Israel in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho.3 The reiteration of the location setting the reader up for the sequel in the book of Joshua, the fifth book, Deuteronomy being a reinstatement of the law, with no narrative continuation.

1 Further reading, The Daughters of Zelophehad: Power and Uniqueness by Rabbi Silvina Chemen,
2 The Five Books of Moses, by Robert Alter (Norton, 2004) p866
3 Numbers 36:13