When you think of women’s rights activists, who do you think of? Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Gloria Steinem? Do you picture women picketing, holding signs, staging protests?
What about Bible women? Can you imagine women in biblical times taking a stand for women’s rights? What about Old Testament women, early women, back in the days of Moses?
Last week we looked at Moses’s sister Miriam, a prophetess and a leader among the Hebrew women. This week we study the daughters of Zelophehed, five young women who took a stand and set a legal precedent for property rights for women.
Unless you’ve spent a lot of time studying the Old Testament, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tizrah. They’re first introduced in Numbers 26 when Moses is conducting the second census of Israel. The purpose of the census was to determine their military strength as well as to distribute the family land grants in Canaan.
At the time, women held no property rights. When a man died, his inheritance went to his sons. If he had no sons, it went to his brothers. But the five daughters of Zelophehed felt this was unfair. So together as a group, they went to Moses to express their concerns in order to change the laws.
We’re told that they stood before Moses, Eleazar, the priest, and the other leaders of the congregation. It says they stood by the doorway of the tabernacle of meeting, and presented their case.
They explained that their father had died in the wilderness, but, they clarified, he was not part of the revolt against God. He died of his own sins, and he had no sons. Then they asked, “Why should the name of our father be removed from among his family because he had no son?” They close with their request. “Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.”
This petition by five Hebrew sisters is one of the earliest lawsuits on record.
How did Moses react? Like any good leader or judge, he took the matter to God.
I love God’s response to Moses. “What Zelophehad’s daughters say is correct. You are to give them hereditary property among their father’s brothers and transfer their father’s inheritance to them.”
And just like that, a new law was added to the books, and women were granted the right to inherit property.
The case wasn’t completely closed just yet, though. In Numbers 36, we’re told that the men of Israel contested, calling for a review of the case. They pointed out that if the women were to marry outside of their tribe, it would cause complications for the property distribution.
Moses heard their case, and again, took it to the Lord. He came back and announced that the daughters could marry who they wished, but they were only to marry within the family of their father’s tribe so that the inheritance wasn’t changing from tribe to tribe. The girls agreed, and each one married within their family tribe.
Notice anything interesting in Moses’ declaration? The women had free choice over who they married. We tend to think of biblical marriages being arranged, but here Moses clearly states that the women made the final marriage choice.
So what can we take away from these daughters of Zelophehad?
First, that it’s ok to take a stand for our rights. God didn’t condemn these young women for bringing their case before Moses. He confirmed it. He allowed them to have a part in shaping the laws used by the Hebrew people for generations to come.
But note how they took their stand. They didn’t stage a protest. They didn’t get all the women to sign a petition. They certainly didn’t work the other women into an angry frenzy. No, they prepared their speech. Then they meekly stood in the doorway of the tabernacle of meeting and, together, they presented their case. And when the case was brought back, they abided by the stipulations.
It’s interesting that the Bible lists each of their names multiple times, and that the order in which the names are listed changed. Which lets us know that God felt it was important for us to know their names, and that they were equal in importance. It wasn’t a case of one of the sisters being a spokesperson for the others. No, they spoke as one.
Finally, the story of Zelophehad’s daughters confirms that God treasures women. He doesn’t see us as second class citizens. He knows our name, He supports our right to be heard, and He listens to what we have to say. He loves us, each and every one of us.
Perhaps you’ve not been feeling very loved. For that matter, you feel like you’re not being heard. I encourage you to take your concerns to God. It’s ok to express your frustrations. It’s alright to let Him know you’re upset. He wants to hear from you. He’s waiting to hear from you.
Lord God, we come to you thankful that you are a just God, that you love men and women alike, that you know how name and our needs. That you are always being there for us, and no matter how many times we run away, nor how long it’s been, you continue to welcome us with open arms. Forgive us for the times we get caught up in ourselves and lose sight of You. Gently draw us back to you. We love you so very much! In Christ name we pray. Amen.
That concludes today’s episode of All God’s Women. Tune in next week when we talk about Rahab, a woman with a sordid past who was given a glorious future.
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