In Summary: The ending section of Numbers is concerned with the distribution of land in Israel. The wilderness years are ending, and the people are soon to move into the Land of Promise. We have just finished seeing the counting of everyone, and now they need a plan for going forward.
There are just a few matters to clear up. First is a question on inheritance law. Second is the provision of a replacement leader for Moses.
Replacing Moses takes the second portion of the chapter, and it is interesting to note that there is not a defined procedure for replacing the person who replaces Moses. God appointing Joshua is clear, but there is no procedure in place for replacing Joshua, eventually. Keep in mind, Joshua is old enough to have been through all the wanderings, and to have been a competent spy and military leader before them!
There is time enough to deal with Joshua later, though. He has his own book. The inheritance law question is a valuable one to consider. I suspect that, if Israel was as populous as some commentators assert, the case of Zelophehad’s daughters may illustrate a widespread need.
In Focus: Taking Zelophehad’s daughters in focus, their problem is clear. Israel is, as many of the nations of the time are, a patriarchal society. Inheritance passes from father to son, family lines are reckoned in this manner. That is how property is to be retained within the allotted tribes—by the sons remaining on the land.
As an aside—this is a place to have a discussion on passages that describe the way things were compared with passages that prescribe the way things ought to be. Just because Israel did it 3500 years ago does not automatically make it the way it has to be done today. Leaving your daughters out or expecting them to only have a goal of getting married is not a God-honoring plan.
Zelophehad, though, had died without sons. He had daughters, but no sons. What was to become of his family line? Would they be eliminated? After all, once the daughters married, the property of the Z Family would split up and go the clans of the Z daughters’ husbands.
The daughters of Zelophehad come to Moses, and Moses goes to YHWH. The response? The daughters may inherit, and this is to become the law: if there are no sons, then daughters inherit. Daughters are even given precedence in Numbers 27:9 over brothers.
Moses delivers this new information…and then is told it’s time for him to go and die.
In Practice: What practices should we take from Numbers 27?
First: I think it is important to see the value of all people. It would have been easy to charge off the lack of sons as merely the way life happens, and tell Zelophehad’s daughters to get married and be happy. Instead, they are rightly concerned about a fair economic opportunity for themselves.
Second: I think it is important to see the value of raising questions about policies. It would have been easy to work out a side, quiet deal with clan leadership and not brought this up. Instead, Zelophehad’s daughters raise the point, and a new rule is introduced to avert potential wrong. I think, over time, that rule was misapplied to people’s harm, but that is not Moses’ or anyone in Numbers 27’s fault.
Third: I think it is important to see the value of open communication. If you are an organizational leader, how easy is it to gain access to you for problem-solving? One would assume that this case worked its way up through the Exodus 18 chain, but that is simply a guess. It was possible, though for the problem to get to Moses.
Fourth: I think it is important to see the value in applying fairness to all. This is no one-time exemption but a law shift. It is a law shift that was not common for the time. Typically, ancient cultures were either matriarchal or patriarchal. Either the men held it all or the women did. (There are some cultures where the women owned the property, possibly because the men kept going off and dying in battle. It’s a big study issue.)
Here we have a distinct concept: being the child is more important than being male or female. This should reverberate more for us than it does. There is no difference in the inheritance of God’s people because some are male and others female. None at all.
In Nerdiness: A couple of nerd notes:
1. Take a look at the text and tell me the names of Zelophehad’s daughters? Ready…go! Not there, are they? Why not? Lots of people go unnamed in Scripture. I would suggest that this one family is mentioned instead of individual names because it would have taken too much effort to write all the names. That’s lame, true, but it’s also possible that it’s just not about the individual here, the ruling applies to all of the daughters equally. Also, this is a policy change that extrapolates to multiple people and situations. I expect there were others this hit, so there was no need to detail the “test case” when it hit home across the people.
2. Moses is told it is time to be gathered to his people. That’s the Old Testament conceptualization of death.
3. Zelophehad’s daughters tell Moses that he died in his own sin. That’s a good statement. He died, not because of a specific rebellion, but just because sin kills.