Zelophehad’s daughters pioneered significant changes in the rights of Hebrew women. Traditionally, Hebrew culture directed the property of a family to be passed along only through male heirs. Women, on the other hand, generally remained in the protection of their own families or married into the protection of another.
Nestled in the pages of Numbers, however, lies the anecdote of Zelophehad’s daughters. The story reveals God’s concern for women and a noteworthy change in how women were treated as heirs.
Zelophehad was a Hebrew who lived during the time of the exodus from Egypt. While wandering with the people in the wilderness, God blessed him with daughters but no sons before he died (Numbers 27:1– 11). As the people approached the Promised Land, Moses and Eleazar began plans to parcel out land assignments to the men of each Hebrew family.
Since Zelophehad’s family did not have a male heir, his allotment was likely to be lost—until the daughters boldly approached Moses and asked him to consider their case. They said,
“Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers” (Numbers 27:4 NRSV).
While Moses undoubtedly had many concerns related to leading millions of people, he took time to bring the women’s request to God— who responded favorably to their appeal. This gift of land became legal precedent and indicated the inherent value in women as well as men in the kingdom of God.
The daughters of Zelophehad’s new inheritance created a fresh legal problem. Since the transfer of land and inheritance from one tribe to another was prohibited (Numbers 36:7), what would happen if the daughters (from the tribe of Manasseh) married someone from outside their tribe? To avoid this issue, Moses amended his instructions to require that all women who inherited land in this way marry from within their own tribe. (Read the whole story in Numbers 26.)