Confession: Though I have made a handful of attempts to read the Bible all the way through, the book of Numbers gets me every time. Whenever I crack the book open, I inevitably find myself skimming through it, my mind wandering as the numbers and names start swirling around the page. Yet each time I attempt it, I dive in further, exploring the stories dotted throughout the book.
When we look closely at Numbers, we can find incredible stories of spying, uprisings, and the appointment of new leadership. Amid some of these better-known stories, there is one that’s greatly enriched my soul. Tucked in between a census and instructions for the offering lies a story for women that’s just waiting to be engaged. Numbers 27:1–11 describes the actions of five women who dared to challenge the law in order to increase the rights of all women.
An Unexpected Decision
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah were the daughters of a man named Zelophehad. Upon his death, by law, all of his possessions would go to his son, except Zelophehad had no sons. The only legal alternative was for the inheritance to be given to another male family member—perhaps an uncle or cousin.
The sisters had been raised in the wilderness, excited for the day when their community would reach the Promised Land. However, with the passing of their father, there would be no inheritance for the sisters. The Promised Land held very little promise for them.
Rather than silently bemoan their fate, the women went to work. Banding together, they went to the tabernacle and pled their case before Moses and all the leaders of the nation. Instead of deciding in that moment, Moses took the case before God. In response, Moses received this word from the Lord: “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and turn their father’s inheritance over to them” (Numbers 27:7, NIV).
The sisters won their case! Their father’s inheritance would not skip over them. This was a major victory, not only for them but for all the other women who could find themselves in the same predicament. God changed the law on behalf of women because of the voices of women.
Of course the property rights available to women because of the sisters’ efforts were still not fully equitable. The right was only available if there weren’t male heirs. Yet it cannot be denied that this step toward equality must have had major ramifications in the hearts and minds of the people of Israel. These five sisters join the ranks of other strong biblical women like Deborah the judge, Jael the warrior, Lydia the entrepreneur, and Priscilla the early church leader. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah won a legal case for the inherent value of women.