According to Jewish Tradition, Moses received two Laws on Mount Sinai: the Written Law, which was inscribed on tablets of stone, but also an Oral Law, which was transmitted orally and which interpreted and expanded upon the former. This Oral Law was eventually written down around the year 200 CE and became the foundation for the Talmud.
This Oral Law was necessary because, although the Law as written may seem like it goes on forever when you’re trying to read the Bible cover to cover and hit Leviticus, there’s a lot of stuff the Written Law doesn’t cover; and even more areas where situations arose that Moses never dreamed of.
I have to admit, when I first heard about it, the idea of altering the Law of Moses as written in the Bible seemed pretty strange and possibly sacrilegious. Which it shouldn’t, because certainly Christians have been selective about which portions of the Law we consider binding to us today. But the Bible itself gives us an example of this kind of modification, in the story of five girls who stood up to demand their rights.
Their names were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah; and yes, unlike many women of the Bible, we are told their names. Their father was a man named Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, who had died during the period of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness.
The Israelites were now preparing to enter the Land of Canaan, and the plan was to divide the land between the Twelve Tribes and then divide the tribal lands among the families and clans of that tribe. Perhaps it might seem presumptuous for them to be thinking of this before they’ve actually conquered Canaan, but it never hurts to plan ahead.
These girls, however had a problem. Under the existing Law, whatever property Zelophehad was entitled to would be inherited by his sons, and it was understood that the sons would bear responsibility to take care of any unmarried sisters. But Zelophehad had no sons; just lots of girls. (It’s been suggested that both Teyve’s five daughters in Fiddler on the Roof and the five Bennett girls from Pride and Prejudice owe a bit of inspiration to Zelophehad’s family). So under the system as things stood, the Daughters of Zelophehad got nothing.
So the five girls went to the Tent of Meeting to put their case before Moses and Eleazar (the High Priest after the death of Aaron) and the whole assembly:
“Our father died in the desert. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the LORD, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.” (Numbers 27:3-4 NIV)
Korah was a guy who had challenged Moses’ authority some time earlier and led a revolt against him. God put down the revolt by having the earth open up and swallow the rebels. The girls want to make clear to Moses that their dad was not one of these malcontents.
But what does it mean that “…he died for his own sin”, (or “…in his own sin” as the King James puts it)? Some rabbinical commentators have suggested that he was guilty of some other sin like gathering sticks on the Sabbath for which he was punished. I think the daughters are simply saying that, whatever sins their father might have committed, they had nothing to do with the treasonous Korah and that their father certainly didn’t deserve to have his family name blotted out.
And note that this is the girls’ chief argument. They aren’t asking it for themselves; they are asking Moses and the leaders of the people to think of their father and of his family name.
Two things are noteworthy here: The first is that these girls, (and since none of them were married at this time, even the oldest of them was very likely a young woman), had the chutzpah to come to Moses demanding justice. The other is that Moses did not reject these pushy dames out of hand. He listened to their plea and felt it worthy of consideration.
Moses brings their case before the Lord. The Zohar, a collection of Jewish mystical works that includes commentaries on the Torah, says that Moses asks God to rule on the issue rather than deciding himself out of humility; (and Numbers 12:3 assures us that “Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” which to many readers proves that whoever wrote the book of Numbers, it wasn’t Moses). Or it could be that Moses realized this was a potentially divisive issue, and he preferred to let God handle it.
In either case, God confirms the justice of the girls’ request:
“What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and turn their father’s inheritance over to them.” (Numbers 27:7)
The Lord goes on to extend the principle. If a man dies and leaves no son, his inheritance will be passed down to his daughters. Only if he has no children at all will his inheritance go instead to his brothers; and if he himself has no brothers, then it shall go to his father’s brothers, or lacking that, to the nearest relative in his clan. That seems to cover every contingency.
No it doesn’t. Several chapters later, several family heads from the clan of Gilead, (to which Zelophehad belonged), came with another beef. They are worried that if the Zelophehad girls marry outside of their tribe, that the other tribe will get the family lands they inherited. They cite the laws connected with the Year of Jubilee, when all lands must revert back to their original owners; (Leviticus 25:8-17). This economic reset button was intended to prevent the wealth gap between rich and poor from becoming too great and to ensure that tribal lands stayed within the tribe and family lands within the family.
The Lord agreed with the Gileadites and further amended his previous edict to say that the Daughters of Zelophehad were still free to marry whoever they wished, as long as it was someone from their own tribe. Non-inheriting daughters were not bound by this restriction, but ones like the Daughters of Zelophehad, who are carrying on their father’s name and inheriting his property, must marry within their father’s tribe.
The Daughters of Zelophehad seem to have been okay with this. After all, had their father lived, they probably would have been married off to men of his choice with no say in the situation at all. Mahiah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcha and Noah wound up marrying cousins of theirs, sons of their uncles from their father’s side. Unusually enough, we do not get their husbands’ names.
Rabbinical scholars have lauded the Daughters of Zelophehad as wise women who were righteous and who understood the Torah; and Jewish feminists have embraced them as strong, assertive women who stood up for their rights and won acknowledgement from the Patriarchs. That in itself is worth remembering them for.