Justice: Daughters, Inheritances, and Changing Laws

When we treat a text as two-dimensional we read it as a flat text. One of the greatest dangers in studying the Scriptures, but perhaps especially the Law of Moses, is that we tend to read it like a flat text. (I think we’ll understand better what this means by the end of the blog, but for the time being, reading something “flatly” means that we repress and eliminate any differences, forcing everything to say the exact same thing, normally because we mistakenly think that differences are the same thing as contradictions.) So, if we want to study a certain topic we gather all of the texts related to that topic together (which is good!), we may even include some stories from other genres such as narrative or prophecy or poetry (which is excellent!), but once it’s time for us to start sifting, sorting, and studying, we take all of this variegated information which is full of texture and tension and smoosh it flat. This makes the topic into something that’s more digestible. I certainly understand the compulsion to do that: if we think that all Scripture is inspired and comes from the mind of God, then it should all say the exact same thing. Is it possible for someone accept the first two premises and still reject the third? Well, let’s look at a case study to find out!

The Daughters of Zelophehad–Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, if anyone has quintuplet girls and needs some naming ideas!–appear before Moses and Eleazar and present a serious case before Moses (we’ve talked before about case law, here and I plan on talking more about names and land as afterlife in the future):

Daughters of Zelophehad by Yoram Raanan

Zelophehad’s daughters stood before Moses and before Eleazar the priest and before the chiefs and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and presented their case: “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among the company of those who rebelled against the LORD in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin. But he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers!” (Num 27.2–4).

This situation immediately follows the division of the land, the new census (verifying that all of those who were above the “cut off” age when they rejected the land the first time were dead), and Moses’ dictation of which tribes get which land. But Zelophehad had died without any sons. Where, then, goes his inheritance? Deuteronomy 21.15–17 reads:

If a man has two wives, one loved and the other hated, and both loved and hated wives have borne him sons, and the first-born is the son of the hated wife, when he apportions his property to his sons, he may not rank as first-born the son of the loved wife over the son of the hated wife who was the firstborn. Because he must acknowledge the first-born, the son of the hated wife, given him a double portion of all he possesses; since he is the product of his vigor, the right of the firstborn belongs to him (Dtr 21.15–17).

This law has a lot of different implications, but what’s important for us today is that this law limits inheritance to sons. This is the issue that Mahlah et al. bring up! Their father left no sons to inherit the land and–for a people that associated blood descendants living on family land with the afterlife–this is a big deal. So, even though the law in Deuteronomy is inspired, the Daughters of Zelophehad have brought their case before the leaders of the people and Moses brings the case to God:

When Moses brought their case before the LORD, the LORD responded, “The daughters of Zelophehad are right. You should give them possession of an inheritance among their clan and transfer the inheritance of their father to them. Furthermore, make a rule for the people of Israel, as follows, \’If a man dies sonless, then transfer his inheritance to his daughter. If he has no daughter, give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. If his father has no brothers, give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it.'” This is the rule for all of the people of Israel, just as the LORD commanded Moses (Num 27.5–11).

This is fascinating text that helps us understand how laws were changed! But before we talk about this more, let’s look at another shift in how all of this works. Because the story of inheritance has one  more development. In Number 36, the heads of the clans of Israel come before Moses and present their cases. They raise an issue because, although God had indeed commanded that daughters could inherit land and not just sons, God’s new mandate had negative implications for the clan which violated other legislation and promises which had been made:

If daughters are married to the sons of the other Israelite tribes, then their inheritance will be taken from our tribal allotment and added to the allotment of the tribe into which they marry. So it will be taken away from the lot of our inheritance! And when the jubilee of the people of Israel comes, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry, and their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers (Num 36.3–4).

Again, we see that Moses changes the law because–as he says–“The people are right” (Num 36.5). Rather than roll back the previous changes however, he provides a further restriction to these case laws. If daughters inherit, they must marry within the clan of their father so that the land does not shift to other tribes (Num 36.6–9).

When we put all of this together, we see that–for inheritance law–there is a progression:

  • Dtr 21.15–17 — Partible Inheritance for Sons
  • Num 27 — Partible Inheritance for all Children
  • Num 36 — Partible Inheritance for all Children with Marriage Restrictions
Clearly, these laws are different and–just as clearly–there is a progression that explains why they’re different. I use the case for Inheritance Laws and the Daughters because this is one of the few legal changes we have preserved in the text where we’re privy to the details of the case that caused the change. So, let’s see what things we get out of this and what this helps us understand about reading texts with texture, all coming from just this episode:

  1. Laws can and are meant to change based on case law
  2. These changes were intended by God
  3. These changes follow a procedure
  4. Laws were meant to serve a community
  5. Older, out of date laws coexist with the updated laws
The implications for these five points and how we read Scripture is important enough that I’m going to save it for the next blog post. What implications do you see for this law and how we read other laws?
Janet Shafner, Daughters of Zelophehad (her art is awesome. Check it out.)

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

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