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Zelophehad's Daughters | Guest Post by Cynthia Kunsman

A n acquaintance of mine asked me what I knew of some of the ideas that neo-patriarchy had about unmarried women living alone. I explained that some sectors within patriarchy maintain that Numbers 30 requires unmarried adult women to have an assigned male overseer who is accountable for her and her affairs. Others in these circles maintain that all woman require a male as her a protector at all times to remain both spiritually and physically safe. Some actually extend this concept to support their idea that a woman who works outside the home (for a man other than father or husband) commits a form of adultery by serving the vision and efforts of another man.

My friend pointed out the account of the Daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27:1-11. They asked me why I had never cited this example in the past as evidence against patriarchy’s overtly paternalistic take on Numbers 30, and I did not have a good answer! Perhaps because it takes me a while to process the dramatic events of the previous chapter where the sons of Korah are swallowed up alive into hell for rebelling against Moses’ leadership, I glossed over the significance of this account. I did not remember anything about these daughters, and I didn’t recall their father’s name. I certainly know them now! (That’s the cool thing about Bible Study: I expect to discover a new thing that I’d passed over before or understood only marginally, and I expect that this will happen for the rest of my life.)

Numbers 27 introduces the Daughters of Zelophehad to us: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, also tracing their lineage. Zelophehad was the great, great grandson of Manasseh, one of Joseph’s two sons. These daughters went to the Tent of Meeting and spoke directly to Moses, Eleazar (the priest), the leaders of the tribes and the congregation. They explained to Moses that their father who had borne only daughters died in the wilderness, but that he did not participate in the rebellion of the Sons of Korah. The daughters asked if their father’s name must die out because he had borne no sons and requested to be granted their father's portion of the inheritance that was set aside for Manasseh’s heirs. Verse 5 tells us that Moses brought the case of Zelophehad’s daughters directly before God.

God ruled that Zelophehad’s daughters were entitled to receive their father’s inheritance and established that if a man dies and leaves no son, that man’s inheritance should be passed to the father’s surviving daughters. If he had no daughters, the inheritance should be given to the man’s brothers or the nearest relative to keep the inheritance within the family.

If unmarried women must be assigned to a male governor who oversees their process of sanctification and protection, how is it that these daughters who were the offspring one of the house of Joseph who remained faithful to God were treated so favorably? God tells Moses to give their father’s inheritance directly to them. God doesn’t use this as an opportunity to spell out the rule that women must be assigned to a man for decision making, bestowing the inheritance upon an elected man whom God assigns to them. God doesn’t instruct Moses to find a “male covering” for these unmarried women.

Consider that these daughters also had recourse to approach Moses directly. They did not need a man or other representative to speak to Moses for them. Many women who follow strict patriarchy are denied status to even read Scripture or pray in church sanctuaries, addressing the congregation. Some churches don’t even let a woman speak to remind everyone about the “pot providence” (in place of what most people refer to as a “pot luck” meal) in the basement after the conclusion of a worship service! Yet the Daughters of Zelophehad spoke confidently and directly to Moses who took their plea directly to God. God rewarded them and established these standards for all of Israel.

In full context within close proximity to the Numbers 30 passage, does Numbers 27 support the model for women taught by many within neo-patriarchy? I think not. The account of the Daughters of Zelophehad discounts the claim that all women require male oversight and protection. Property and inheritance require good stewardship, and stewardship requires a certain degree of authority and personal autonomy. God Himself rewarded the faithful daughters with their father’s inheritance, and He did not discriminate against them because of their gender.

Cynthia Mullen Kunsman, RN, BSN, MMin , ND

(Discussing the phenomenon of
Spiritual Abuse in Evangelical Churches)
The truth is incontrovertible, malice may attack it,
ignorance may deride it, but in the end; there it is.
                                                      Winston Churchill 

"For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth."
                                                        Paul to the Corinthians


  1. Very nice bit of overlooked biblical history! I've certainly never considered that story in that light before. (Possibly because none of the complementarians I know are quite that misogynistic...) Thanks for unearthing it.

    I'd mention the Rechabites, but I'm saving them for a post of my own...

  2. We could also mention the daughters of Job after his restoration. Only the daughters are mentioned by name, and they were given inheritances of their own.

  3. Great post. I never considered the implications of them bringing a case to Moses independently. I've been too busy focusing on the marriage part (Number 36), which is more evidence that they didn't need a male guardian.

  4. Paula, you beat me in mentioning Job's daughters.

    But don't forget Caleb's daughter.

    She asked for and received land with springs from him when she approached him and asked for it.

    Caleb didn't tell her, "No, I'm giving it to one of your brothers."

    He gave it to her, showing a TRUE father's heart, more in keeping with the Father heart of God which has little to do with the small mindedness of neo-patriarchs.

    And remember Job and Caleb went through their own 'times' before this.

    Caleb wandered 40 years in the desert even though, he, like Joshua, had faith in God from the beginning that they could take the promised land with God's help.
    And, of course, Job went through his own firey trial and came out the other side a little less concerned for male privilege and a little more concerned for the well being of their daughters.

  5. One of our elders, in responding to a woman in our congregation who thought his view of the church wasn't sufficiently patriarchal, made a very helpful comment about using OT symbols as our guide for understanding our various roles in society. His comment was "they're valid... but only if the NT keeps them, and doesn't change them. The NT shows us how to interpret the OT." She didn't like hearing that the NT doesn't uphold the idea that a pastor is priest to the congregation, or that a father is priest in his home.

    I mention this only because I've heard so much OT passage-slinging over the years from patriarchalists, and unfortunately I have heard them try to wiggle out of Zelophehad's daughters. (I don't remember their explanation, though.) This slinging and wiggling has been very frustrating. So I'm glad you're talking about passages like these, Cindy, because we can't just ignore them. And I hope we get better at showing how the NT teaches us to interpret them too.

  6. These comments are all just sweet and beautiful, the workings of a whole new, more comprehensive post!

    I get bogged down in Leviticus until the end of the Pentateuch, perhaps remembering the days in New Testament Survey classes with too much other homework and 10-15 chapters to read. I don't find them as engaging as other books, though I wrestle with them when I read through them. I wish that it were not the case, but alas!


    I wonder how much of the confusion regarding interpretation comes from Covenant Theology. (I know you know all this stuff...)

    In Dispensationalism, the Church came into being at Pentecost. Old Israel had an earthly covenant and the NT Church has a heavenly and better Covenant. In NEW Covenant Theology, the OT Believers were the "elect" but were not considered the Church. Somewhere in Matthew, it says that Jesus will build His church, future tense. The OT Believers were at type of the Church to come, but not in fullness. So the Church becomes Israel but is the New Israel. (The OT believers get added into New Israel.) Grace and the promise of grace to the Believer came with Christ's propitiation, and until then, men only approached God through the Law.

    Under Covenant Theology, the NT Church and Old Israel under the Old Covenant developed over time and are the same body. In other words, the Church began with Adam and grew into maturity in the NT. Covenant Theology believes that Adam was under a Covenant of Grace, and the law was attributed as something of a function of grace, in a way. (Again, the other two theologies reject the idea that God had a formal Covenant of Grace before Jesus came and rose from the dead. Until then, there was only the Law.) There is, therefore, a stronger connection to OT mandates under Covenant Theology than under the other two theologies, and their implications of the Old Law can be interpreted differently.

    What is confusing is that many who profess Covenant Theology (including many who follow neo-patriarchy) admit that works never saved anyone -- that only grace saves. Yet many people in the patriarchy movement slink back into following some form of OT Law or new spins on it.

    That's why I love to find these OT references to these many daughters who were afforded inheritance! It counters some of these other teachings that are presented as absolutes. I would think this one would be tougher to wiggle out of, though. Moses went right to God who made a clear decree, and no representative male covering was ever required. If one would have been needed, both God and Moses would have seen to it that it was recorded!

  7. So good! I love your insights. I did not recall these women either. Yet again, neo-patriarchy is proved to be a pagan invention, NOT one taught in the Scriptures. Please keep posting and I'll keep reading--it's liberating.

  8. Z Woman (Laura),

    I hope you are doing well! How pleasant to see your face. :)

  9. Wow! I really appreciate your bringing up these verses. Thank you! What good ways to counter patriarchy!


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