In the census of Chapter 26 we found a man who had no sons but who had five daughters. In today's passage we find out why these five daughters were named in a census (in Chapter 26) that was taken primarily for the purpose of military service. A secondary purpose for the census was to help with parceling out tracts of territory once Israel reaches the promised land. This is when it will become important to have a record of the family of Zelophehad, and other men like him, who had daughters but no sons.
"The daughters of Zelophehad son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, belonged to the clans of Manasseh son of Joseph." (Numbers 27:1a) Zelophehad's daughters are direct descendants of the patriarch Jacob through his son Joseph.
Moses gave us these ladies' names in Chapter 25 and names them again today in our current chapter. "The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah." (Numbers 27:1b) I thought it would be interesting to look up the meaning of these ladies' names in Hebrew. I'm assuming they are listed in birth order and it appears that the meaning of Zelophehad's first daughter's name, Mahlah, is "weakness" or "sickness". This makes me wonder whether she was born with some type of disability or lifelong ailment. Or it could be that she was born prematurely and that for a while it wasn't clear whether she would be strong enough to survive. Whatever the reason for her name, it will not disqualify her from the inheritance rights that the Lord is going to give to women who have no male siblings. Being the firstborn, Mahlah would likely receive the share---a bigger share---normally given to a firstborn male heir.
The second daughter's name is rendered as "Noah" but it isn't derived from the same root word as the Noah of Noah's ark. Scholars believe her name meant something like "movement". Maybe she was a very active baby in the womb and her parents named her "movement" when she was born.
The third daughter, Hoglah, has a name that is believed to mean "partridge" or "circling". It's difficult to even make a guess as to why her parents chose this name unless her parents waited to name her until her personality became more evident. As a toddler she might have been quick and birdlike, reminding her parents of a partridge.
Milkah's name means "queen" and Tirzah's name means "delight". Milkah may have had a bossy and imperious personality, a trait that sometimes develops in the spoiled youngest child, and she may have been the youngest child for quite some time until her parents were "delighted" by the birth of their fifth and final child, Tirzah. Many years might have separated the births of Milkah and Tirzah so that the parents thought their family was complete, but at the very end of her childbearing years Tirzah's mother may have become pregnant a final time. This may have been delightful news to the family, causing them to name the final child a name that reflected their delight. In my family I was the unexpected child. My parents had already raised my sister and brother and, although they had tried to have more children, they had gone seventeen years without conceiving again. Then unexpectedly they found out they were expecting me. Were they delighted? According to them they were. Maybe that's how Zelophedad and his wife felt too.
Zelophedad's daughters have been brought up to be strong, independent women. They've been brought up in a household where they were just as loved and valued as male heirs. They believe they deserve the same inheritance as male heirs and the Lord will agree with them. "They came forward and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, 'Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah's followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father's name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father's relatives.'" (Numbers 27:1c-4) The women say, "Our father and his family line were not disqualified from receiving territory in the promised land. He didn't join in with Korah's rebellion. He was of the generation of which the Lord said no man would enter the promised land, so he died here in the wilderness before reaching the promised land. But your fathers also met the same fate. You men of Israel are still going to receive territories in the promised land even though your fathers died in the wilderness. We feel we should too. Our father's name and branch of the family tree should not be allowed to die out just because he had no sons."
Moses doesn't dismiss the women's case because they are women. In many patriarchal societies the women have few, if any, rights. But Moses doesn't treat them as if their case isn't valid. He wants to make the correct ruling. "So Moses brought their case before the Lord, and the Lord said to him, 'What Zelophedad's daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father's relatives and give their father's inheritance to them.'" (Numbers 27:5-7) Inheritance rights normally passed down from father to son. The son would make his living by carrying on his father's occupation. For example, if his father was a farmer, the son would keep operating the family farm. He would live on the farm and raise his own family there and eventually pass the farm on to his own son. But a daughter would marry and be taken care of by her husband. She would move out of her father's house to go and live on her husband's family property. Her children would carry on her husband's name and would inherit her husband's property upon his death. This is why inheritance rights normally passed down the male line. A son would remain on his father's land, in his father's occupation. A daughter would marry outside of the family, take her husband's name, live on her husband's property, raise children up in her husband's name, and then her husband's property would eventually pass to the children.
But what about when a man has daughters and no sons? The Lord makes it clear in our passage today that the man's daughters are to inherit his property. If the Lord had not made this clear, then an uncle or a male cousin of the daughters could come in and take over the property, but a law is established saying that the male relatives of the dead man can not do this. Only if a man dies childless does anyone outside his household have the right to inherit. The Lord has ruled on this case in the women's favor. He instructs Moses to pass these instructions on to the people of Israel: "Say to the Israelites, 'If a man dies and leaves no son, give 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 had no brothers, give his inheritance to the nearest relative in his clan, that he may possess it. This is to have the force of law for the Israelites, as the Lord commanded Moses.'" (Numbers 27:8-11)
Inheritance law for the Israelites is established here in Chapter 27. If a man has daughters but no sons, his property goes to his daughters. If a man is childless, his property goes to his brothers. If he was an only child, or if his brothers have predeceased him, his property goes to his father's brothers if any are still living. If his father had no brothers, or if they have already passed away, the property goes to his male next of kin. This might be a first cousin, for example. Now it is clear how property is to be passed down through the generations in the promised land. The Lord has spoken on this issue and it has become the law.