Daughters of Zelophehad

My father died in 1995. That is when I experienced the harshness of the customary law of inheritance. I remember still, during the inheritance distribution, women and girls sat on one side and men and boys on the other side. I am the eldest in the family of six – four girls and two boys.

As women we didn’t get anything, not even a safety pin or handkerchief. My two brothers and uncles got a share. My father did not write a will.

The custom has changed a little bit since that time, because women spoke up on inheritance, but there is still more to be done.

In some quarters in my country, according to custom, chiefs allocate land to male heads of households, but women do not automatically inherit this land upon a husband’s death.

  • They may be evicted from the land when widowed.
  • Childless widows are evicted, as are young widows who refuse to be physically ‘inherited’ by a male relative of their late husband.

Women are speaking up their voices and are being heard

I frequently speak to people about marriages because in my role I was the first female marriage celebrant officer in The Salvation Army in Zimbabwe.

Joshua 17:3-6

Now Zelophehad son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, had no sons but only daughters, whose names were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. They went to Eleazar the priest, Joshua son of Nun, and the leaders and said, "The LORD commanded Moses to give us an inheritance among our brothers." So Joshua gave them an inheritance along with the brothers of their father, according to the LORD's command. Manasseh's share consisted of ten tracts of land besides Gilead and Bashan east of the Jordan, because the daughters of the tribe of Manasseh received an inheritance among the sons. The land of Gilead belonged to the rest of the descendants of Manasseh.

Zelophehed, who was from the tribe of Manasseh, had five daughters but no sons. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. The name of the third daughter means a partridge or a boxer or fighter.

Zelophehad is part of the generation of Israelites who departed from Egypt under Moses’ leadership and died during the forty years in the wilderness. His five daughters belonged to the new generation that would enter and possess the Promised Land. Their mother is never mentioned. We can presume the sisters are orphans.

According to God’s decree, the Promised Land was to be apportioned according to the ‘number of names’ of members of the second generation counted in the census in Numbers 26:5z-56. Since only men were counted in the census, the five daughters would have been left without an inheritance.

They came forward to appeal this regulation, stating their case in front of the sacred tent of meeting in the presence of Moses, Eleazar the Priest, the leaders and indeed the whole community (Numbers 27:2).

They argue that their father’s name should not be cut off from his clan just because he had no sons and that they should be permitted to inherit his land portion in order to avoid this potential injustice to their father’s name and property. Their request was granted. Moses put justice ahead of tradition.

  1. Their story reveals a united set of sisters who appear to manage on their own by standing together and making things work out. In Zimbabwe, there is a proverb which says, “One tree cannot make a forest—one soldier cannot make a battalion.” Unity is strength—the sisters spoke up as one voice. They did not murmur in the corridors for they were wise and virtuous.
  2. We can learn the power of a proper appeal. They could have taken a “poor me” attitude, “I am a ‘nobody’”, “I am ‘useless’”. You are somebody. You are useful.
    The reviewing of this law probably led to many other families receiving help and an inheritance because of the boldness of these women.
    Proverbs 31:8-9: ‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.’
    William Booth, the Founder of The Salvation Army, in his last address on 9th May, 1912 said:
    While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight; while children go hungry, as they do now I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight, I’ll fight to the very end!
  3. Hoglah together with her sisters knew what was taking place in their community and also the regulations which were in place. Let us open our eyes and see what is happening around us. Let us read unjust regulations and policies that affect us, and speak out.
  4. These five daughters took a risk. It was unusual for women to speak on matters of inheritance or even appear before the assembly. Moses didn’t know what to tell them because that was the first time such a request was brought to him. Risk takers are being called for; people who can stand in the gap.
  5. The five daughters were young people—unmarried—but they spoke up and stood their ground. In our NGO’s let us incorporate these young people. They need mentors and role models. The decisions we make now will affect the future.

But I am glad that when you have received Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and walk in His ways, you become an inheritor of the things of the Kingdom—no-one will take away your inheritance.

Romans 8:16-17:

The Spirit himself testifies with our Spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his suffering in order that we may also share in his glory.

What legacy are we leaving for the next generation?

Hoglah means boxer or fighter.