“Give Us an Inheritance”: Patriarchy and the Five Daughters of Zelophehad

I had reason recently to read the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in Number 27 and 35, and…

I lost you right there, didn’t I? Because you’re thinking, “Zelo…who? I can’t even say that.” (Ze-lof-e-had. Now you can say it.)

Illustration of Zelophehad's daughters petitioning Moses and Elazar from

The Daughters of Zelophehad from “The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons”

Right, so, back to his daughters.

In Numbers 27, we find a story in which Zelophehad has died without any sons, but with five daughters–Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah. No surviving sons poses a problem for inheritance purposes: who gets the land if there are no sons but there are daughters? Israelite law is constructed around inheritance through sons, after all.

Zelophehad’s daughters go to the tent of meeting (we’re still in the wilderness here–this is before the story of crossing the Jordan River in the book of Joshua) and, we are told, say to Moses and Elazar (this is also after Aaron’s death, and Elazar is his son and successor), “Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the group that rebelled against Yahweh–among Korach’s group. He died on account of his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from among his family [i.e., his specific tribe] because he didn’t have a son?! Give us an inheritance among our father’s brothers.” In other words: our father died, but our family shouldn’t disappear–so give us the portion of land our father would have received.

(Sforno, a medieval commentator, notices that this is sort of an interesting request, as no one has any land yet–they’re still in the wilderness, after all!–but the idea is that the tribes’ areas will be determined on fixed boundaries, and Zelophehad’s portion of that would instead pass to the daughters. If you’re a lawyer: Zelophehad had something like a future interest in the land. His daughters are asking that Zelophehad’s future interest be apportioned among them.)

The Torah says that Moses takes the case to Yahweh, who says, in essence, “They have a point! Here’s the rule: die without sons? Daughters can inherit. If the person dies without sons or daughters, “you will give his [the father’s] inheritance to his brothers” (Num. 27:9). The text goes on to go through some of the other possible situations–if no brothers, then to uncles, etc. (On an even cheerier note, we move from this passage to Yahweh telling Moses he’s never going to cross over the Jordan River.)

Why is this passage important?

In the social structure of the biblical period, Zelophehad’s daughters won’t have access to wealth that might make them attractive marriage prospects. An inheritance is important in creating marriages, and women weren’t generally given any real autonomy.

The lack of real autonomy is another reason this passage is important. Silvina Chemen observes, in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary: “The achievement of Zelophehad’s daughters was a landmark in women’s rights regarding the inheritance of land, from those days up to now” (p. 986). Setting aside the question of whether this specific story actually happened, there’s some truth to Chemen’s statement: the biblical text here preserves a memory and, more importantly, imposes a norm that affords women more latitude than might otherwise have existed in Israelite society.

So, that’s great, right!?

Well…

It’s an advance. But it’s a demonstration that we can’t find perfect precedents in the Torah, and we have to be careful about how loudly we trumpet out such claims.

It’s easy to read Numbers 27 and think, “Hey, look! Some kind of nascent feminism!” But that needs to be tempered by what we find in Numbers 35, in which Zelophehad’s tribesmen–the elders of the tribe of Gilead–come to Moses and raise a problem with the whole plan. The complaint, is, in essence, “Hey! Yahweh told you to give these five women their father’s land. What if they marry out of the tribe!? We’ll lose a portion of the land promised to us, and we can’t even get it back in a jubilee year, because it won’t have occurred through sale of property! Not cool, Moses. Not cool.”

The answer to this? Yahweh, apparently on his own (angry male desert god), tells Moses that Machlah, Tirtzah, Choglah, Milkah, and Noa may marry anyone they wish–so long as they marry into a clan within the tribe of Gilead. And not only that–but any time we have an inheritance to the daughters because the father has no sons, those daughters must always marry into their father’s tribe.

Sounds just, right?

I’m not so convinced. It’s just in the sense that it preserve the guaranteed tribal lands–but it’s not fair in that it’s not exactly Exhibit A for ensuring women’s autonomy. “Marry anyone you like–but only from the 1 tribe of 12 that we’ve chosen for you.”

An essay, again in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, suggests that this illustrates a fully just outcome, balancing the needs of individuals against society and creating justice for all of the society’s members (Lisa Edwards and Jill Berkson Zimmerman, pp. 1032-33). Edwards and Zimmerman say, “We honor the sisters’ ability to speak up, and their grace to concede when their gain is shown to be against community interests” (p. 1033).

Recognizing and striking a balance between individual and group needs is always a problem in drafting law. It doesn’t ever really go away, whether you’re writing national legislation or resolving individual cases in a state-level trial court. That tension is part of governing.

But let’s do a close reading here. In Numbers 27, the five women go to Moses and Elazar–in front of the entire community, since they go to the Tent of Meeting–and make an express plea that they be able to inherit so that their father’s name not be lost from his tribe. This is very important: the daughters have already announced their intent to do what Numbers 35 instructs them to do. Despite what they say, the leaders of the tribe of Gilead in Numbers 35 don’t need to come to Moses and Elazar about Zelophehad’s daughters. The women have already agreed that the reason for inheritance is to keep their father’s name in the tribe–and his name is propagated by his property!

So then, what is happening? The men of Gilead are concerned that they might lose control over property and over women. The five daughters are, then, raised disingenuously: it’s not about these women–it’s about all women who might inherit. This isn’t really a public policy issue balancing the five daughters’ interests against broader social interests.

This is, as I read it, a patriarchal move. I don’t see this as grace in concession to others’ needs on the parts of the five daughters–not in the way I think Edwards and Berkson Zimmerman mean it, in any case. It reads to me as a coercion: the five women already committed to keeping the land in the tribe in Numbers 27, but here they are again, being dragged into this complaint by the tribe’s elders. Crucially, there’s nothing in the text that suggests that any of these women were breaking their commitments; but one suspects that if they didn’t agree a second time, the rule might have turned out differently. The five women face losing their inheritance if they don’t concede, and their loss of theoretical liberty is loss of actual liberty for future women.

I find the whole thing troubling, because Numbers 27 read alone doesn’t tell the entire story. The entire story, it seems to me, continues to enshrine real power in men: at the end of the day, the leaders of the tribe of Gilead have preserved for themselves–and for all other male tribal leaders–control over resources and over other persons.

Progressive for its time? Perhaps. But we should be–once again–careful of this as an example for our own times.

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