The Daughters of Zelophehad: girl power

Daughters of Zelophehad ©MicahHayns

Numbers 27

One of our family treats is going to see musical theatre, and we recently enjoyed seeing Trevor Nunn’s production of Fiddler on the Roof at the Playhouse Theatre in London. It was wonderful. The story, for those who don’t know it, revolves around Jewish patriarch Tevye and his five daughters, all who need husbands and dowries, which Tevye, as much as he pleads to God (remember ‘if I were a rich man’), can’t afford.

One man, five daughters, no sons. This is a rather similar situation for Zelophehad, who who lived at time when the Israelites were in exile, wandering in the wilderness with Moses as their leader.

Now Zelophehad son of Hepher had no sons, but daughters: and the name of the daughters of Zelophehad were Mahlan, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah

Numbers 26.13

Five women that you’re unlikely to have ever heard of but whose chutzpah transformed the lives of women down the centuries.

Zelophehad was the son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, son of Joseph (another great musical!), son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham.

Sons. It was a classic patriarchal society and every father needed a son in  order to ensure the family line continued, and land was apportioned accordingly as inheritance. Now Zelophehad had died and the tradition was that if a man had no sons then his land and possessions would be inherited by his brother, and his family name would be lost.

But these women had another idea.

The daughters of Zelophehad came forward 

Numbers 27.1

They decided that this wasn’t good enough and so, as a group, they ‘came forward’ to argue their case before Moses, Eleazar the Priest and the other elders. Their argument was forthright, concise, personal, persuasive and ends with their plea:

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.

Numbers 27.4
The Daughters of Zelophehad, illustration from The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons. Edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer. 1908.

And Moses prays about it. And the Lord speaks to Moses.

The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance.

Numbers 27.4

The daughters are right. Wow. The inheritance laws are duly changed and from then on daughters could inherit if there were no sons – provided they don’t marry someone outside of their fathers’ clan.


We cannot underestimate the importance of the actions of these brave women in changing the lives of so many others down the generations.

Gender inequality in inheritance law and land ownership rights is still a current issue and One of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) of the United Nations is Achieve Gender Equality and Empower Women and Girls and a sub-category of this is Realising Women’s Right to Land in the Law. The report makes interesting reading on why land rights for women is still vitally important:

It’s never easy to ‘come forward’ to tackle injustice and to speak up for something you believe in. Sometimes it’s easier to do this in a group that on our own isn’t it? The sisters might not have had the courage to speak to Moses on their own, and it’s unlikely they would have had a hearing. Let’s give thanks for women’s groups and support networks which have been so important over the centuries for standing up for justice for women and children. I’m involved in a wonderful clergy women’s support group, and frankly couldn’t do without it.

The Women’s Institute Prayer

The Women’s Institute Prayer. The Women’s Institute (WI) was formed in 1915 to revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. Since then the organisation’s aims have broadened and the WI is now the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK. The WI celebrated its centenary in 2015 and currently has almost 220,000 members in approximately 6,300 WIs

Author: clarehayns

College Chaplain and Welfare Coordinator of Christ Church, Oxford | Mum of three boys | wife of a juggler and magician | Council of Reference of ZANE - | enjoys board games, dog walking, films, eating out.

4 thoughts on “The Daughters of Zelophehad: girl power”

  1. As someone who works with women to support them to find their voice in systems that were historically setup for men (including COE) I loved hearing this story. Creating groups of mutual support and encouragement to help us step forward with confidence is essential…

    Liked by 1 person

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