Way back in the halcyon days of last Friday, we found out that Zelophehad, son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh had only daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 

Daughters of Zelophehad by Bonnie Lee Roth

Daughters of Zelophehad by Bonnie Lee Roth

Given the clearly agnatic inheritance assumptions we’ve seen modelled thus far, it seems that this would be the end of the Hepherites. But Zelophehad’s daughters, upset that their father’s name should end, ask Moses to grant them their father’s inheritance.

Moses decides to bring their case before God, who writes up some quick inheritance laws to help out in just such a situation:

  • If a man has no sons, his daughters should receive the inheritance.
  • If he has no children at all, the inheritance goes to his brothers.
  • If he has no brothers either, it should go to his father’s brothers.
  • If his father also had no brothers, it should go to “his kinsman that is next to him of his family” (v.11).

I find it interesting that this didn’t carry forward in many Christian countries, as fans of Downton Abbey well know (read this great article for an explanation of how that came about).

Noa(h)

David Plotz named his daughter Noa after this chapter. Of the name he writes:

In English, the girl’s name Noa sounds identical to the name of Noah the ark builder. But in Hebrew, they’re totally distinct names, spelled and pronounced very differently. Noa the girl is pronounced “No-a,” just as we say it. But Noah the boy is “No-ach” in Hebrew, making it a much harsher sounding name.

Yet the spelling distinction doesn’t exist in my text, nor in any other that I’ve found through a quick BibleHub comparison. In both the cases of Zelophehad’s daughter and the guy who got so drunk that he passed out naked, my Bible has “Noah” with an H.

It’s not a particularly important point, but I do find it interesting.

Sin

When explaining that their father died without sons, the women say that he: “died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin” (v.3).

So what was that sin?

The emphasis on “his own sin” seems to suggest that he didn’t fall under the collective punishment that came with the 40 year wilderness sentence. According to the JewishEncyclopedia, rabbinical literature seems to favour the theory that Zelophehad was the Sabbath-breaker from Numbers 15. Blogger Dovbear has a great explanation of the argument in favour of this association.

Another tradition has it that Zelophehad was one of the gun-jumpers who decided to dismiss God’s 40 year sentence and headed into Canaan without permission in Numbers 14.

Sneak Peek

Once he’s done dealing with the uppity women, God sends Moses up to the mountain of Abarim, from which he can see the promised land. After this, Moses will die because of his rock abuse in Numbers 20.

David Plotz asks:

Is this very cruel or very kind? Is it excruciating for Moses to have to see what he wants more than anything in the world but cannot have? Or is this gaze consolation for a dying man? I can’t decide.

Moses begs God to appoint a successor, “that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep which have no shepherd” (v.17). Interestingly, Moses has a son, so the leadership – at least at this point – is clearly not hereditary. (Unless Moses’ kids are excluded because of their mixed heritage?)

It’s not quite a meritocracy, either. Joshua, son of Nun, is chosen because he is “a man in whom is the spirit” (v.18). In other words, he gets to be the leader because he has the same prophetic status as Moses.

But despite clearly being a very theocratic system, it’s not a system ruled by clerics/priests, exactly. Though he is to “stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgement of the Urim before the Lord” (v.21).

This could mean, as some interpretations have it, that Joshua has the option of consulting Eleazar whenever he doesn’t know what to do. But it could also mean that he must consult Eleazar before making big decisions, functionally putting the high priest above the secular monarch.