Sisters, Don’t Be Afraid to Ask: The Daughters of Zelophehad and Women in the Church

I’ll admit it: I never noticed the Daughters of Zelophehad—Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah—until my friend Elyse pointed them out to me. But, now that I’ve seen them, they are some of my favorite women in the Bible. They hold out valuable lessons for the church today.

Meeting the Sisters

They first appear in Numbers 26. The Lord had afflicted Israel with a plague for Baal worship. Twenty-four thousand died before Phineas and his spear put an end to it. Israel now encamped in the plains of Moab, waiting to enter and take the land of Canaan. The Lord commanded Moses and Eleazar to take a census, which Moses would use to divide the inheritance according to the size of each tribe (26:52-56):

Among these the land shall be divided for inheritance according to the number of names. To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance; every tribe shall be given its inheritance in proportion to its list.

In that census, we meet the daughters of Zelophehad (26:33) — “Now Zelophehad the son of Hepher had no sons, but daughters. And the names of the daughters of Zelophehad were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.”

Traditionally, a father’s inheritance would not be passed down to daughters; the leaders divided it among his sons. This created a problem for Zelophehad’s family. His property would go to the nearest relative, and his name would be forgotten. So, his daughters did a brave thing—they asked Moses to allow them to inherit (27:1-4):

Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad the son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, from the clans of Manasseh the son of Joseph. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. And they stood before Moses and before Eleazar the priest and before the chiefs and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, saying, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin. And 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.”

Faithful, Just, and Courageous Sisters

These sisters were women of faith—they believed that the Lord will give Israel the land!

These sisters were women of justice—concerned that their father and his clan received their share.

These sisters were women of courage—they took their concern and request straight to the leaders of Israel.

Vindicated Sisters

Moses took the request before the Lord, who affirmed that the daughters were correct in their claim. In response, the Lord clarified the Law for such a situation (5-11):

Moses brought their case before the LORD. And the LORD said to Moses, “The daughters of Zelophehad are right. You shall give them possession of an inheritance among their father’s brothers and transfer the inheritance of their father to them. And you shall speak to the people of Israel, saying, ‘If a man dies and has no son, then you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter. And if he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. And if he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. And it shall be for the people of Israel a statute and rule, as the LORD commanded Moses.’”

These daughters appear later, in Numbers 36. The heads of the clans from Joseph raised a concern. If the daughters of Zelophehad married outside the tribe of Joseph, the land would be transferred outside the tribe. Moses, according to the Lord’s word, affirmed the concern and instructed (36:6): “This is what the LORD commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: ‘Let them marry whom they think best, only they shall marry within the clan of the tribe of their father.’” The daughters of Zelophehad were free to marry whomever they pleased (a fact that should not be lost on those who think women had no choice in Israelite marriage!). The only restriction was that they should marry within their clan to preserve their father’s inheritance. (That, of course, would not bother them, for it was the very thing about which they were concerned!)

Persistent Sisters

We meet these women again in Joshua 17, after the conquest of the land, as allotments were made to each clan. In an unusual twist, the author inserts this vignette (17:3-4a):

Now Zelophehad the son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, had no sons, but only daughters, and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They approached Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun and the leaders and said, “The LORD commanded Moses to give us an inheritance along with our brothers.” So according to the mouth of the LORD he gave them an inheritance among the brothers of their father.

We don’t know why they approached Eleazar and Joshua. Perhaps the leaders forgot the ruling. Perhaps—like me in my Bible reading—these men overlooked the daughters of Zelophehad. Or maybe some male relatives stepped up and said, “We got this, ladies.” We don’t know why they did it, but we know what they did. They approached the leaders of Israel and boldly said, “The Lord commanded this to be ours.”

In response to their statement, they received what was theirs:

So according to the mouth of the LORD he gave them an inheritance among the brothers of their father. Thus there fell to Manasseh ten portions, besides the land of Gilead and Bashan, which is on the other side of the Jordan, because the daughters of Manasseh received an inheritance along with his sons. (17:4b–6)

What can we learn?

Examples

The daughters of Zelophehad are examples to women in the church. There is no shame in insisting that you receive what the Lord has given you. (Yes, yes, yes; I know. There is a time and place the lay aside our rights for the sake of the gospel. Jesus did this. The Apostle Paul did this. We are all called to do this. But that does not negate the fact that there is no shame in asking—and even insisting—that you receive what the Lord has given to you. Willingly giving up your rights and having another unjustly withhold them from you are two very different matters.)

Through faith in Christ, the Lord makes both men and women equal heirs (Galatians 3:23-4:7). Churches differ in how they interpret and apply the Scriptures in regards to male-female roles in the church and home. If there are offices, roles, and functions which the Lord has restricted to one sex or the other, then we must gladly honor those. But we should not withhold from any believer what the Lord has given to all believers.

Be Bold, Sisters!

Sisters, as you read and interpret the Scriptures, you may see areas of service and church life into which the Lord invites and calls you, but which your local church withholds from you. This may include things like praying or prophesying in the public church service (1 Corinthians 11), giving private correction to a preacher (Acts 18), serving as a deacon (1 Timothy 3:11), or participating in the distribution of communion, collecting the offering or a host of activities not regulated by the clear teaching or implication of principle in Scripture. Each church may have different interpretations and applications of these things. Each church must obey its collective scripture-informed conscience before the Lord. But you have a right to know why you’re allowed to do and not do certain things. You have a right to understand how your church and its leaders interpret and apply the Bible.

Unashamed Sisters

Sisters, do not be ashamed to ask. Don’t be ashamed to go to your elders and say, “As I read the Scripture, it seems like this path of service is open to me. But, as I understand it, I’m not allowed to do this in our church. Can we talk about this?” No good elder is afraid of such questions. No healthy church suppresses such questions, quickly writes them off, or assumes sinful motives in the asking.

(Note: We all should respect the rights of each congregation to worship and assemble according to its scripture-informed conscience, as outlined in its statement of faith and governing documents. It is wrong to knowingly join a complementarian congregation and try to change it without full disclosure. Likewise, it is wrong to knowingly join an egalitarian congregation and try to change it without full disclosure. Those differences and intentions should be stated up-front upon application for membership or acceptance of leadership positions. But where these things remain unclarified and unsettled, honest questions and challenges should be allowed.)

Warnings

Likewise, the daughters of Zelophehad warnings to leaders in the church. When Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah approached Moses, and he took their request before the Lord, the Lord did not rebuke them. Instead, the Lord affirmed them. The Lord took their side.

When the daughters of Zelophehad appeared before Eleazar and Joshua with their claim, what happened? They were not sent away. They were not scolded. They were not accused of heterodoxy or heresy. The leaders did not view them with suspicion or see them as underminers of authority and dividers of God’s people. Joshua did not tell them that feminism duped them. Eleazer did not suggest that if they didn’t like male-only inheritance, then they could find another nation to join. No. The question was brought before the Lord. Their concern was validated. They received what the Lord declared was theirs. They received justice.

Let’s Listen to Our Sisters

No healthy church—and no godly church leader—will respond to honest questions from women with a siege mentality, a defensive posture, stereotyping, apathy, silence, or the systematic silencing of sisters. Honest questions deserve honest answers. (Our Lord and his apostles show us that!)

Brothers, when our sisters ask, let’s listen and respond.

Sisters, don’t be ashamed to ask. It’s what women of faith do.