The five named above are the daughters of Zelophehad, who belonged to the clan of Manasseh, the son of Joseph. When they come into focus, their father has died. The people of Israel have been journeying through the desert for a long time and thoughts are beginning to turn to what will happen when they arrive at the Promised Land and how land will be allocated. Unremarkably, the plan is for male heads of households to be given land.
These sisters, the only living descendants of their father, did not think that this was at all fair and appealed to Moses. They appeared before him at the “Tent of Meeting”, where he was accompanied by Eleazar the priest and the leaders and the whole community.
Numbers 27 v3-4 reports their appeal:
“Our father died in the desert. He was not among the followers of Korah who rebelled against the LORD, but he died for his own sin and he did not leave any sons. Why must our father’s name disappear from among his clan? Since he had no son, give us some property among our father’s relatives.”
Moses went away and asked God what he should do and was told:
“The daughters of Zelophehad have a just case. Give them property for their inheritance among their father’s relatives; pass on to them their father’s inheritance. Then say this to the people of Israel, ‘If a man dies without leaving sons, his inheritance is to be given to his daughters.”
If no daughters, then the inheritance should pass back up the collateral male relatives.
Thus these daughters were successful in their appeal – standing up for their inheritance rights and establishing the rights of others in a similar position. It is quite striking that they felt able to state their case so publicly in front of all the leaders and, indeed, the whole assembled community. The community heard that the decision was reached because they had a “just” case. However, some objection was raised because it worried some that if women married outside their clan/tribe, they would take their inheritance with them to a different clan, thus weakening the accumulation of land for that tribe. Moses therefore amended his judgement that when these ladies married it should be to clans within their own tribe. They could marry whomsoever they pleased within that boundary. Not quite to our modern way of thinking, but still much better than being passed around like a parcel. Obediently, they married the sons of their brothers (their cousins).
“Since they married into the clans of the sons of Manasseh, son of Joseph, their inheritance remained within the tribe of their father’s clan.”
The book of Joshua, which can be seen as the continuation of Exodus, with the people of God drawing ever nearer to the reality of the Promised Land. By this time Moses has died and the younger leader Joshua has arisen. The early chapters of the book recount in great detail which tribe was given which part of the land of Canaan, the initial decisions having been made by casting lots. For the avoidance of doubt, the five daughters remind Joshua and the priest Eleazar:
“The Lord commanded Moses to give us some of the land among our brothers as our own.”
Thus these daughters ensured that the promise made to them was not forgotten.
Joshua 17v5-6: “In this way Manasseh received ten shares besides the country of Gilead and Bashan which lies across the Jordan, since Manasseh’s female descendants received a share in the land along with his male descendants.”