Numbers 36 – Laws Concerning Women Heirs
A. The problem of female and tribal inheritance.
1. (1-2) The background.
Now the chief fathers of the families of the children of Gilead the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of the sons of Joseph, came near and spoke before Moses and before the leaders, the chief fathers of the children of Israel. And they said: “The LORD commanded my lord Moses to give the land as an inheritance by lot to the children of Israel, and my lord was commanded by the LORD to give the inheritance of our brother Zelophehad to his daughters.
a. The LORD commanded my lord Moses to give the land as an inheritance: This passage is a reference back to Numbers 27:1-11, where the daughters of Zelophehad were concerned that their father’s inheritance would vanish because there were no sons in their family.
b. Was commanded by the LORD to give the inheritance of our brother Zelophehad to his daughters: God, through Moses, declared that if a father had no sons, the inheritance should then go to the daughters.
2. (3-4) The problem raised by the solution regarding Zelophehad’s daughters.
Now if they are married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the children of Israel, then their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our fathers, and it will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry; so it will be taken from the lot of our inheritance. And when the Jubilee of the children of Israel comes, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry; so their inheritance will be taken away from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers.”
a. If they are married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the children of Israel, then their inheritance will be taken: If the land was given to the daughters, then when the daughters married, the land would then go to their husband’s tribe – and eventually, the original tribe’s lands would become depleted.
i. “At issue is not a complaint or a grievance against women per se so much as a concern for the continuity of the lines of inheritance within the tribes.” (Allen)
b. So their inheritance will be taken away from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers: Solving the problem of Zelophehad’s daughters had created another problem – how to keep the property in a tribe through the generations.
i. This illustrates an important principle – that there are rarely perfect solutions to problems; there are usually answers that are trade-offs in other areas. Maturity can make and accept the right decisions even when they aren’t perfect, “cost-free” solutions.
ii. Cole observes that the land in question would not return to the original tribes in the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:13-55): “The Jubilee statutes applied only to purchased property and not to property that had been inherited, such as that which accrued to the daughters of Zelophehad.”
B. God’s answer to the issue of daughter’s and tribal inheritance.
1. (5-9) How to keep the land within the tribes.
Then Moses commanded the children of Israel according to the word of the LORD, saying: “What the tribe of the sons of Joseph speaks is right. This is what the LORD commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, saying, ‘Let them marry whom they think best, but they may marry only within the family of their father’s tribe.’ So the inheritance of the children of Israel shall not change hands from tribe to tribe, for every one of the children of Israel shall keep the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. And every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the children of Israel shall be the wife of one of the family of her father’s tribe, so that the children of Israel each may possess the inheritance of his fathers. Thus no inheritance shall change hands from one tribe to another, but every tribe of the children of Israel shall keep its own inheritance.”
a. But they may marry only within the family of their father’s tribe: The solution was simple – if a daughter in a family received an inheritance of land, she must marry within the tribe. Since the tribes were large enough, this was not understood to be a significant burden.
i. “The women are permitted to marry whomever they choose—a surprising turn, as we usually think of women being chosen in biblical times! Perhaps the fact that they inherited land made them active rather than passive agents in marriage. But they must choose their husbands from within their own clans.” (Allen)
ii. The interests of the individual woman were not always given more regard than the interests of the tribe; the larger community. This principle has many applications in the present day when the rights and interests of individuals seem to be regarded as far more important than the rights of the larger community.
b. Every tribe of the children of Israel shall keep its own inheritance: The repetition of this phrase in both Numbers 36:7 and Numbers 36:9 is for emphasis. If a daughter married outside the tribe, she had to forfeit the inheritance. This was because the tribe had inheritance rights, not only the individual. A daughter’s individual right of inheritance was not the only nor the greatest consideration.
i. “And the principal reason why God was solicitous to preserve tribes and families unmixed was, that the tribe and family too out of which the Messiah was to come, and by which he should be known, might be evident and unquestionable.” (Poole)
ii. Clarke quotes Ainsworth for a point of application: “By this example, and the law of inheritances in the Holy Land, the people of God are taught to hold fast their inheritance in his promises, and their right in Christ, which they hold by faith; that as the Father hath made them meet to be partakers of the inheritance among the saints in light, Colossians 1:12, so they may keep the faith and grace which they have received to the end.”
2. (10-12) The application of the principle to the daughters of Zelophehad.
Just as the LORD commanded Moses, so did the daughters of Zelophehad; for Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, were married to the sons of their father’s brothers. They were married into the families of the children of Manasseh the son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in the tribe of their father’s family.
a. Their inheritance remained in the tribe of their father’s family: In their case, not only did they marry within the tribe, but they were married to the sons of their father’s brothers – their cousins. This obviously kept the land inheritance within the tribe, and even within the larger family unit.
3. (13) Conclusion to the book: In the plains of Moab, by the Jordan.
These are the commandments and the judgments which the LORD commanded the children of Israel by the hand of Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan, across from Jericho.
a. By the hand of Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan: The book of Numbers began in the wilderness (Numbers 1:1). It now finished on the threshold of the land of Canaan.
i. “Throughout there is manifest the forward movement of God along the highway of His own purpose. This forward movement is not of man but of Jehovah. The book is a revelation of the sure procedure of God toward the final working out into human history of the regeneration of humanity, the first movements of which were recorded in the close of the Book of Genesis, the central forces of which came in the Incarnation of the Son of God, and the final victories of which are not yet.” (Morgan)
b. Across from Jericho: As the children of Israel stood across from the city of Jericho, we should consider what it took to take them from Egypt to this place across from Jericho.
i. From their encampment at Mount Sinai, God gave Israel the opportunity to grow from being a slave people to becoming a people suited for God’s Promised Land. He taught them how to be ordered, organized, cleansed, separated, how to give, and how to receive the tools to advance into the Promised Land. He blessed them, reminded them of His deliverance, and gave them His own presence.
ii. Then, as the nation set out from Mount Sinai to the land of Canaan, they found themselves struggling with the flesh – they murmured, complained, and rebelled; most of all, they failed to enter by faith into what God had set before them – and a generation of unbelief was condemned to perish in the wilderness.
iii. After that, God led the nation for some 38 years in the wilderness, with much motion but no progress – enduring more episodes of rebellion and murmuring, but essentially waiting until the generation of unbelief had died and a generation willing to trust God for big things had come to maturity.
iv. So they set out towards the land of Canaan again and faced the same challenges of the flesh – but dealt with them better this time until they made their way to the threshold of the Promised Land.
v. By spiritual analogy, many Christians die in the wilderness because they will not trust God and will not enter into what He has promised them. Sadly, many Christians live more in the wilderness than on the threshold of the Promised Land.
vi. It would take courageous faith to move the children of Israel from across from Jericho to the Promised Land. Staying on the shores of the Jordan River was better than being in the middle of the wilderness but it wasn’t the land of Canaan yet. They came this far by faith and would need faith to take them the rest of the way, under the leadership of Joshua.