Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
The story of the five daughters of Zelophehad provides legitimation of a limited right of Israelite women to inherit land. It also places specific marriage restrictions upon any women who inherit under this right. The story celebrates women’s boldness and at the same time offers comfort for men who have the misfortune (from the Bible’s androcentric point of view) to have no sons.
Zelophehad has five daughters, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah; he has no sons. Zelophehad is part of the generation of Israelites who departed from Egypt under Moses’ leadership and died during the forty years in the wilderness. His five daughters belong to the new generation that would enter and possess the promised land. (Their mother is never mentioned.)
According to God’s decree, the promised land is to be apportioned according to the “number of names” of members of the second generation counted in the census recorded in Numbers 26 (see 26:5-56). Since only men were counted in the census, however, Zelophehad’s daughters would be left without an inheritance.
Let the Women Speak!
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah come forward to appeal this regulation, stating their case in front of the sacred tent of meeting in the presence of Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and indeed the whole community (Numbers 27:2). They argue that their father’s name (lineage) should not be cut off from his clan just because he had no son and that they should be permitted to inherit his land portion (27:4) in order to avoid this potential injustice to their father’s name (and property). The story presumes a culture that recognizes a connection between landholding and preservation of a male name in a family lineage.
Moses consults God, and God announces the decision to Moses: the proposal of the daughters of Zelophehad is to be implemented (27:5-7). The text then moves beyond the particular case to report God’s further generalized regulation for order of inheritance: when there are no sons, daughters shall have first inheritance rights, followed by other male relatives in a set sequence (27:8-11).