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Who are the Daughters of Zelophehad today?

January 4, 2012

Having indicated that I might do a series on gender roles this past fall, with apologies I thought I’d take a brief and belated look at Numbers 27 instead. I want to talk about this passage because I refer to it more often in debate than I’ve seen in the literature and I wonder if I’m wrongly seeing something illustrative and informative here.

In Numbers 27 we join Moses in the midst of preparing the Hebrew tribes for the promised land and we see five great-great-great-granddaughters of Manasseh approach him a problem. Their father Zelophehad died in the wilderness and left them no brothers, and this was a problem because according to custom the family rights and property were passed on through sons. Here they were on the cusp of the promised land and at the long end of deliverance and their father was now tragically destined to have his line disappear from Manasseh’s clan. His daughters would not receive the inheritance promised to them despite their sin; the promise that he and they had together been hoping toward.

It is left to the imagination whether this son-less death had happened before, but for whatever reason in this case the deceased’s five daughters – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah – feel compelled to bring their case before Moses. What is interesting to me is that in their short presentation (v. 3-4) the daughters seem to anticipate objections which have nothing to do with the gender constructs of the time but rather with the question of judgement.  The women are bold before Moses because their father “was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the LORD, but he died for his own sin.” They seem willing to grant that perhaps their family name might disappear if it was because of a specific act of judgement by God in the desert, but Zelophehad died like everyone else and so they feel led to seek an exception to the rule of male-inheritance rights. It doesn’t hurt to ask, right?

But here’s the thing that I wonder in light of prevalent interpretations: If a created rule of “male headship” exists then it would  hurt to ask, wouldn’t it? If they are questioning a divine order, shouldn’t the answer to their question be a sympathetic “no”?  Instead, Moses inquires of the Lord and learns that “what Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly … turn their father’s inheritance over to them.” Not only that, Moses is directed to make a new rule out of this provisional case: If there are no sons the inheritance goes to daughters; if no children at all then it goes to the brothers, uncles, or nearest relatives  of the deceased. Certainly we see in these latter provisions that the pattern of male-inheritance rights is generally upheld (see also Num. 36!), but doesn’t this also make the daughter-clause unnecessary? Why weren’t they given into the care of their relatives rather than given responsibility for their father’s inheritance of promised land? The relative innocence of Zelophehad and the circumstances of impending entry into the promised land combined to compel his daughters to question the gender norms, and they were not turned away.

I do not want to build an argument from silence, but when we combine this with a fuller account of the relative fluidity of some of the gender roles in the Bible (see for example Deborah, Priscilla, Junia, the prophetesses of Corinth, the husbands of Ephesus and the trainees of Timothy’s church) I’d like to suggest that we do get the sense that the oft-supposed universals of male headship may not be all they are sometimes made to be. It would of course be presumptuous to claim that Moses’ ruling in the daughters’ favour necessarily opens up all other roles that might otherwise be reserved for men, but it at least lends credence to the question. Even if Moses ends up affirming a general pattern of male headship he nonetheless seems to undermine the notion that such a pattern is to be universally enforced.

Where gender studies talk about nature (i.e., “sex”) and nurture (i.e., “gender”), biblical studies will also talk about created order and legitimate variations of male and female faithfulness in different contexts. Much of the debate has to do with what are the universals and what are the contextual variants, of course, but I find it illustrative that on this occasion there was at least a small degree of variance provided by the Creator when it came to the generally assumed gender-role pattern. So might a drastically different situation show an even greater degree of variance? More specifically: Do we not see in the life, death and resurrection of Christ an even greater extenuating circumstance than the death of Zelophehad?

When Jesus comes not only are our family arrangements  declared no longer definitive (see Luke 14:26) but our new-found standing in the family of God is also re-ordered to transcend the roles of ethnicity, class, and gender (see Gal. 3:26-4:7).  (There are those who argue that this is merely a matter of “salvation,” but to me this pretty clearly entails the gifts and service opportunities that come with it.) When the Spirit comes it is indicated in Joel 2 and Acts 2 that both the sons and daughters prophesy in Jesus’ name. (There are those who argue that they had in mind a kind of prophecy that is distinct from leadership and teaching, but I think this splits hairs against the grain of Testaments Old and New.) So in Paul’s epistles are we seeing the maintenance of universal gender roles or are we seeing the gender norms of the time relativized and submitted to something more definitive, namely the reconciling rule of Christ? I think it is the latter, and while Numbers does not provide this point for us, to me it begs the question: Who might be the daughters of Zelophehad today?

To be clear, it would not be my argument that Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah were early radical feminists. They submitted to Moses’ ruling and they also eventually submitted to their husbands. But within patriarchy we see typically “masculine” things submitted to them, and this seems canonically significant. A crass version of secular egalitarianism might argue for “equal opportunity to power” – and this may have some of our sympathies – but in our Christian churches and families we are making an egalitarian claim on the basis of other premises. In Christ both the provisional norms of creaturely context and the perverted subordinations of the fallen world are subverted not in the name of “equal opportunity” but in the name of mutual submission out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5). So it is that our encultured gender norms and roles will often come into play as we seek to be faithful in our time, but it is the law of love (1 Cor. 10) which is universally binding and it is under the headship of Christ that men and women proceed together in that regard.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2012 11:31 am

    I think your argument can be firmed up more in the sense that women did not have property rights because they themselves were considered property according to the cultural norm. Here it might be argued that Moses extends the property rights of the father by passing them through the daughters which will be given to their husbands when they marry. But it doesn’t remove the core question: how can property own property? They certainly have no need to marry if they can take care of themselves.

    I have spoken to men still today that believe we should return to “Biblical” norms where women and children are property. The more they talk: the more absurd it sounds.

  2. January 4, 2012 3:48 pm

    Good point about property Michael. Thanks for that.

    What’s troublesome here is that in my experience a lot of women do not feel comfortable bringing forward honest questions like the daughters of Zelophehad asked because the sense is that it will be seen as insubordination and impious self-promotion.

  3. January 5, 2012 12:50 am

    Jon, agreed…especially many Christian women.

  4. January 11, 2012 4:52 pm

    I think the point you proved is that the Bible is counter-cultural, and that OT federal headship was not entirely like the sort of headship one might find in other nations. Just as Paul’s exhortations on submission in Eph. 6 are counter-cultural… Greco-Roman texts might speak about the submission of certain people to others, but never by addressing the woman first, or the child first. And certainly slaves would never have been addressed at all.

    So the answer to your question about the Pauline epistles would have to be this: no, Paul isn’t upholding “universal” gender roles, because men and women universally behave sinfully. Men behaving like tyrants and treating women & children like property is certainly sinful. Paul undercuts everything a Greco-Roman person might expect in a text on gender roles.

    But this does not mean that gender roles are flattened in Christ, or that the better way is for gender to be meaningless instead of meaningful, or that in the Christian life only the spirit and not physical / sexual / emotional etc. differences matter. The question is what does mutual submission look like. Parent / child interactions are certainly different. Women aren’t children and children aren’t slaves but it seems that submission isn’t a flattened, uniform thing but a defined, multiformed thing.

  5. January 11, 2012 5:24 pm

    Thanks Shep. I definitely want to avoid pretending that this Numbers passage proves more than it does. I also don’t want to “flatten” gender distinctions or roles. This is a notion commonly attributed to egalitarians, but I don’t think it is true. I think that being an egalitarian makes me more attentive to the actual differences between myself and my wife (for example) than I would be if I allowed those differences to be dictated to me and her by some culturally embedded gender norms being passed off as universally prescribed from the creation order. The occurrence in Numbers shows that women are not barred completely from some of the roles culturally assigned to men alone, and I want to use this to ask of Christ and Paul what they asked of Moses: Given that women and men will be different and will display that difference in multiform ways according to personality and culture, why can women not have leadership roles in churches and homes where the conditions are ripe for such a thing? In the Bible I see no universal prescription against such possibilities, and certainly not against such questions. I suppose that’s the point that I’m taking Numbers 27 as an in-road toward.

  6. January 11, 2012 5:51 pm

    Thanks for clarifying. I think I’m tracking with you much of the way, but for further clarification could you give a brief thought on 1. Tim. 2: 11-15? What is Paul up to there, and how does that mesh with what you said? I see you reference that passage in regards to the fluidity of gender roles in the Bible… maybe you can flesh that out for me further?

  7. January 11, 2012 6:02 pm

    Very briefly, but happy to elaborate, I take Paul’s reference to Adam and Eve as an indication of the dynamic that played out in which Adam was to empower Eve and did not, rather than, say, an indication of Eve’s intrinsic susceptibility to deception as a woman.

    And obviously I think the restriction Paul gave applied to the church of Ephesus first, and to other churches by derivation not as a universal rule but as a contextually interpreted and applied imperative. All that to say it leaves openness to such a restriction in similar circumstances elsewhere, but not to the setting forth of a universal prohibition on female teaching or leadership.

    By the way, Shep, disagree with me or not, you are awesome. No one else ever wants to talk about this stuff. I should have spoken to you more in person when I had the chance. You still in Aberdeen?

  8. January 11, 2012 6:44 pm

    Thanks for the elaboration. I’ll have to chew on that a bit while I drive down to Alabama today. I’m currently on Christmas holiday in the states but I return to Aberdeen soon. I too appreciate the conversation. If you are back in Aberdeen at some point I’d love to talk.

  9. January 11, 2012 7:59 pm

    not as good as sunflower seeds but hope it helps the drive

  10. Wade Paton permalink
    January 11, 2012 8:24 pm

    Jon, I appreciate your thoughts here and the further contributions of those posting their comments. Until this post I had not heard Numbers 27 used as a launching point for discussion on gender roles. I agree with you that we cannot force biblical texts to say what they never intended to communicate and rather allow accounts like this one to inspire a dialogue that ultimately glorifies God and edifies the church.
    I think it is critical to remember that what these daughters are requesting is of great significance considering the part that inheritance (land) played in the ongoing fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. The request of inclusion by these women is a bold move. And yet, in this case, it appears that what they ask for is granted to them on the basis of compassion and mercy. The fact that Moses not only hears their request (and inquires of the Lord about it) but then enacts a clarification of the law that becomes broader in its scope of inclusion, not more restrictive is worth bringing to the table in any biblical discussion on gender roles.

  11. Tooke permalink
    January 11, 2012 8:38 pm

    Jon, I greatly appreciate the thoroughness of your research. I thought I would share a practical story that occurred this week. I was scheduled for pulpit supply in an Alliance church this past Sunday, but at 8 am I sprained my ankle and ended up in hospital. Needless to say, this left the church preacherless.

    This congregation has never voted to approve female elders, and has a proclivity towards only male teachers. A female congregant offered to share a message she had prepared, and the (all male) elders approved her doing so, considering the “crisis”. Secretly, I was hoping they would use the time for corporate prayer, but what do I know?

    From the report I have heard “the Holy Spirit moved” through this message. I will know more on Sunday, as I am scheduled to speak their again this week. Here’s my point in all this: We can argue for or against all the rules we want, but can we argue with what God does through whom?

  12. January 12, 2012 8:37 am

    See, it helps if your husband is in more trouble than you for speaking about stuff, then I am free to just say whatever:)

    No, seriously, I will talk Jon. Thanks for the post.

    Did those daughters of Zeolophehad end up losing their inheritance once they married, or did it pass to their sons?

    This whole idea that gender roles are made in us from the beginning, I am assuming most Christians making this claim are talking about Eden, is what weakens their argument. Why no one seems to notice this make me think no one really reads their Bible: First, God makes Adam (unlike the first chapter, but I digress) then he looks for a helper among the animals (like a bumbling academic, but I digress), finally he makes Eve. Voila the helper. But here is the thing, is she subordinate to his headship in the Garden? Even if he is the perfect man, does she really need to submit to him if God hangs with them?

    Ok, so lets say submission is in her DNA right from the day she popped out of Adam’s rib. Can someone please explain how her curse would have even been a curse? Refresher: Part of the curse to the woman ” …and he shall rule over you (Gen. 3:16b)”. Well, wasn’t he already doing this because she was biologically programmed to be under his leadership from the get-go in that perfect world? I love the silence I get on this one.

    I only found this because I was reading all the problems with Genesis 1, 2 and 3 (in the Bible) and noticed that the “headship” argument was really just a curse on her, not her natural role.

  13. January 12, 2012 12:19 pm

    I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post…

  14. January 12, 2012 4:19 pm

    Thanks for that Wade, I agree.

    Great story Tooke! Maybe break a leg this Sunday and it will start a revolution! Just kidding – hope you get to preach.

    Val. I can relate to the frustration on this, and yet as a man probably I shouldn’t overestimate how much I can relate.

    To address the specifics that you raised: No, the daughters of Zelophehad never “lost” their inheritance, but it did pass on through their sons as per custom. In fact the last chapter of Numbers tells us that they had to marry within the tribe so that the inheritance did not go to some tribe other than Manasseh’s after a generation. So it isn’t like Moses overturned the patriarchal arrangement or anything. A missionary to patriarchal nations today would probably have to show similar patience with the structures even while preaching a gospel that, given time, would subvert them.

    Most Christians making the claim about gender roles are doing so based on a number of things, but Eden is pretty central, yeah. This is not only because of Genesis 1-3, however. In his letters to churches Paul refers to Adam and Eve a couple times in order to bolster his directions regarding women and men, and so this adds fuel to the fire for those who see in those roles a creation order (or universal mandate). As I indicated to Shep above I don’t think that this necessarily holds water as an absolute divine directive for all times and places, but nonetheless have to admit that there are signs there for those who feel led to read it that way: Adam is given the command, Eve is called a “helper”, and the curse can be taken as a perversion of a previously healthy leadership into a rule of domination. On further inspection I don’t buy those arguments (helper=ally, etc.), but I have to acknowledge that they are there. And for the complementarian it makes no difference if they were perfect before the fall, because perfection would simply include roles wherein they complement one another in service to God. At the very least we acknowledge this in Adam and Eve’s sexual physiology, and so it isn’t strictly illogical for complementarians to extend that to other areas as well.

    But that’s enough of me defending that argument. I obviously prefer other interpretations. But I’m surprised that complementarians would be silent on that question because if they’ve done their homework they usually at least have an answer. Perhaps the silence is simply an indication that people have accepted a norm more than they have thought through a position. The more this prevails the more there will be fights and quarrels among us rather than good debate and discussion under the peace of Christ, aiming at mutual understanding and appreciation (at least) and reconciliation of views and lives (at best). So let’s patiently keep talking and thinking toward that end!

  15. May 1, 2014 4:45 am

    Some people here seem to start with the premise that women did not have the right to own property, that God offered only men property, and that the daughters of Zelophehad asked something against God’s general decree. (Some even think women were property!)
    But this was at entering Caanan. God actually said people should be listed by father, and then each family should get ground – a large piece for a large family, a small piece for a small family. (Listing by father makes sense, as each family would have only one patriarch. Many families would have had more than 1 wife of the same man.) But God did not give ground to fathers, but to families.
    These 5 sisters asked Moses what God promised: A piece of ground for their family. God gave it.
    The problem is probably that the leaders of the nation, that were dishing out the ground, were, unlike God, not respectful of the claims of women. But God did not need to change God’s mind: In his view, women/ girls were just as much entitled to ground under the same regulations.

    God also said that families without sons have to give the ground to their daughters rather than to other male family. God never said: Sons first, daughters second, others third. But he allows you to favor sons over daughters, just like he allowed fathers to favor one son over others. But he did not allow people to favor other family over daughters. More here:

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