Now Zelophehad son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, had no sons but only daughters, whose names were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah. (Joshua 17:2-4)
I’m a firm believer that literature, as a form of art, contains patterns for life that get repeated time and time again. The Bible for most Christians is at very least a well-loved and highly-regarded form of literature.
Feminists often argue that the Bible is misogynistic, shackling, and demeaning. I would disagree–I would argue instead that the way the Bible is interpreted and applied can be misogynistic, shackling, and demeaning depending on who’s in power.
That said, there is a story in the Old Testament that argues for the love of a Father for both genders.
Zelophehad was an Old Testament man about the time of the Exodus. He is mentioned in the following passages:
- Numbers 27:1-11
- Numbers 36
- Joshua 17:3-6
- Numbers 26:33 (just a passing mention for the desert equivalent of a census, not pertinent to this post)
- 1 Chronicles 7:15b (just another passing mention for the desert equivalent of a census, again not pertinent to this post)
Numbers 27:1 begins the tale of Zelophehad. We don’t know much about him, other than he died in the desert as a result of his own disobedience and he did not take part in any rebellious acts. He had no sons. In those days, this was a tragedy, but it wasn’t the worst tragedy since he did have children in the form of five daughters.
It is interesting that only three daughters have feminine names: Mahlah (Hebrew form of Arabic for powerful, narrow, tender), Milkah (queen), and Tirzah (delight). The other two have masculine names–Noah (rest, peace, comfort) and Hoglah (his festival or dance).
With no information on the father, we don’t know much. It is most interesting that two of the daughters have masculine names. It makes me wonder if after several daughters he so devoutly wished for a son that he started giving masculine names as a deep petition, a verbal expression of a strong desire to express his masculinity through masculine offspring.
At any rate, with no sons, he would have no property. Without property, his memory would be forgotten. It would be like he never existed. His daughters had other plans. They argued that they should receive their father’s portion of the inheritance. It was a risky and courageous move–women had well-defined roles and stepping outside those roles could result in community censure or even death.
Moses did not know what to do. So he went to the LORD with their request. In a move most feminists don’t seem to know exists in the Bible, the LORD stated their request was right (and just, although He didn’t say that). Further, in verses 8-11 He gave Moses the exact words to use to present the ruling to the people, who more than likely weren’t pleased to have a little less land to share.
Numbers 36 shows just how land hungry the Israelites really were. They challenged the LORD’s ruling, arguing that their tribe would lose land to the other tribes if the daughters ever married (verses 1-4).
Moses starts to give the LORD’s ruling in verse 5 with the end in verse 9. I can almost see Moses shaking his head and the LORD sighing deeply in between 4 and 5, but I digress. The LORD says that the daughters have to marry within their tribe if they marry. He also extends the ruling to cover any daughter who inherits from her father. Verses 10-12 indicate that the daughters of Zelophehad obeyed the LORD.
I suspect Joshua 17:1-6 happened between Numbers 36:1-9 and Numbers 36:10-12. In Joshua 17:1-2 the land for the tribe of Manasseh is being subdivided. In Joshua 17:3, we see poor sonless Zelophehad’s five daughters still without their land after the death of Moses. They proceed to petition Joshua, Eleazar the chief priest, and other leaders in verse 4 for the land the LORD had commanded Moses to be given them. Joshua consented.
It almost seems like an effort to prevent women from their due. But again, the LORD intervenes through Joshua to give the women what is legally and rightfully theirs. Admittedly, it was in their father’s name, but given the perversity of the Israelites, the LORD probably knew that had it been given to a woman in the name of a woman, the Israelites His people would have bolted; they just weren’t ready for the kind of equality we have today.
Makes me wonder: how many other stories of true equality are buried deep in unexpected places in the Bible?