Question: "Who were the daughters of Zelophehad?"
Answer: The daughters of Zelophehad were five sisters named Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah (Numbers 27:1) who came to Moses with a concern over how the Promised Land was to be divided in relation to their family. In Numbers 26:52–56, Moses was given instructions from the Lord on how to divide up the land for inheritance, but these sisters had a unique situation.
The daughters of Zelophehad came to the door of the tent of meeting, where judgments were issued, to talk to Moses, Eleazar, the leaders, and the congregation. Their father had died in the wilderness, and he had no sons (Numbers 27:2–3). Since only males had been counted in the census of Numbers 26, the daughters of Zelophehad saw a problem—with no father and no brothers to inherit a portion of the land, they would be left destitute. The daughters proposed to Moses that they be allowed to inherit their father’s portion of the land. They asked, “Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives” (verse 4).
Since this situation was unprecedented, Moses asked God for direction (Numbers 27:5). The Lord’s response was just: “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them.” In other words, God ruled in favor of the daughters. They could inherit their father’s portion of the land as a way to provide for themselves and preserve the memory of their father.
The case of Zelophehad’s daughters set a precedent and expanded the legal rights of women. Due to the ruling regarding the daughters of Zelophehad, women were included in the list of eligible heirs of property. The following became the inheritance order: son, daughter, brother, paternal uncle, and nearest clan kin. Property was not to be transferred outside of one’s tribe.
In Numbers 36, we once again hear about the daughters of Zelophehad. This time it is in relation to whom they could marry. A potential problem loomed: if the daughters, who were now landowners, married men outside their tribe, they would join their husbands’ tribes and take their father’s property with them. This would diminish the property allotted to Manasseh, the tribe of Zelophehad (Numbers 36:1–3). Further, the land would not revert back to Manasseh during the Year of Jubilee (verse 4). The land allotment for each tribe could change significantly, due to intermarriage with other tribes.
God gave a simple solution to the potential problem. God instructed that the daughters of Zelophehad could marry anyone they wanted within their father’s tribal clan (Numbers 36:7). No inheritance was to pass from tribe to tribe. The five sisters complied with this ruling and married their cousins on their father’s side (verses 10–11). This kept the land allotment intact. Again, a case involving the daughters of Zelophehad set a legal precedent for the rest of Israel to follow.
Throughout the Bible, God shows special concern for the widow and the orphan. We read over and over how God makes special provisions for them, as He did for the daughters of Zelophehad.