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Deeper Commentary


Num 36:1 The heads of the fathers’ households of the family 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 princes, the heads of the fathers’ households of the children of Israel-
They raise the matter of the special agreement and interpretation of the law given in Num. 27. They perhaps raised it again after hearing the discussion about the dividing up of the land in Num. 35 and wished to ensure that this special clarification was going to be upheld. For as noted on :3, this was to be a departure from social norms, in allowing land to be passed on through the female line.

Num 36:2 They said, Yahweh commanded my lord to give the land for inheritance by lot to the children of Israel; and my lord was commanded by Yahweh to give the inheritance of Zelophehad our brother to his daughters-
Examples of spiritual ambition are inspirational; just as soldiers inspire each other by their acts of bravery. Achsah followed her father Caleb’s spiritual ambition in specifically asking for an inheritance in the Kingdom (Josh. 14:12; 15:18); and this in turn inspired the daughters of Zelophehad to ask for an inheritance soon afterwards (Josh. 17:4). And so it ought to be in any healthy congregation of believers. Ponder the parallel between Is. 51:1 and 7: “Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord… hearken unto me, ye that know righteousness”. To know God’s righteousness is to seek / follow it; of itself, it inspires us to ambitiously seeking to attain it.

I suggested on Num. 27:3 that we can identify Zelophehad as the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath.

Num 36:3 If they are married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the children of Israel, then their inheritance will be taken away from the inheritance of our fathers, and will be added to the inheritance of the tribe unto which they shall belong: so will it be taken away from the lot of our inheritance-
In most societies of the time, a woman didn't get her father's inheritance, but instead was intended to marry into another family. The inheritance of land passed through the male line. But these women had been perceptive, and realize that the inheritance was going to be eternal, and so they wanted their father to have his name preserved in association with his inheritance- otherwise he would as it were lose his inheritance because he had no sons. And so they were granted their request. We see from Ezra 2:61 another case of how this worked out in practice. God cannot be accused of being against women; His legislation valued every human person to a degree unseen in any contemporary legislation.

Num 36:4 When the jubilee of the children of Israel shall be, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe whereunto they shall belong: so their inheritance will be taken away from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers-
This is not the only example of where the Mosaic law was structured so as to intentionally need further interpretation and clarification. It was designed to provoke relationship with God, rather than as a legalistic total statement of how to live in every part of life. One wonders why this statute had not been included within the Law of Moses. Perhaps God had reserved it in potential, waiting the initiative of these women?

Num 36:5 Moses commanded the children of Israel according to the word of Yahweh, saying, The tribe of the sons of Joseph speaks right-
What was important was that the man's inheritance should pass on in his own name, or that of his family. As discussed on :10, the reasoning behind this was because it was God's intention that Israel should eternally inherit their allotments in the land, at the time of resurrection.

Num 36:6 This is the thing which Yahweh does command concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, saying, Let them be married to whom they will; only into the family of the tribe of their father shall they be married-
This verse is alluded to by Paul in 1 Cor. 7:39, where we read that a Christian widow can marry whom she will but only to someone “in the Lord”- in the same way as the women here could marry whom they wished, but only in the tribe of their fathers, unless they would lose their inheritance permanently. It could be that Paul is teaching that marriage within the faith, to those also “in the Lord” by baptism into Him, is so important that doing otherwise may cause us to lose the promised inheritance of the Kingdom. Marriage within the faith is indeed an important principle and ignoring it often has terrible spiritual consequences. But note that she was free to marry whom she wanted- in a culture where arranged marriage was the norm, God valued the dignity and free choice of the woman.

If we deny our covenant with God by marrying into the world, we have effectively cut ourselves off from Him. The command for widows to marry "whom she will; only in the Lord" (1 Cor. 7:39) is alluding back to the command to Zelophehad's daughters to marry "whom they think best", but only "in" their tribe, otherwise they would lose the inheritance (Num. 36:6,7). The implication is that those who do not marry " in the Lord" will likewise lose their promised inheritance. And this rather strange allusion indicates one more thing: the extent of the seriousness of marriage out of the Faith is only evident to those who search Scripture deeply. As man and woman within Israel were joint heirs of the inheritance, so man and wife are  joint heirs of the inheritance of the Kingdom  (1 Pet. 3:7). 

Num 36:7 So shall no inheritance of the children of Israel remove from tribe to tribe; for the children of Israel shall all keep the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers-
The law of Moses reasons as if each family of Israel had a specific inheritance which was not to be sold or moved outside the family. Hence the sin of Ahab in obtaining Naboth's vineyard. It would seem that there was some unrecorded list made of each family and which land they were to be given. This looks forward to our very personal and unique inheritance in God's Kingdom, possibly based around spiritual family units. This was "The inheritance of fathers", "your possession" (Lev. 25:27,28; Num. 36:7,8). God had given specific inheritances to His people, that this was not to be sold or traded. The division by lot in Josh. 15:1 presumably meant that the tribal areas were defined and then distributed by lot. And then within those areas, each family was given a specific inheritance.

Num 36:8 Every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the children of Israel shall be wife to one of the family of the tribe of her father, that the children of Israel may possess every man the inheritance of his fathers-
For land inheritance to pass on through the female was unheard of in contemporary legal codes. We are all somewhat in Zelophehad's position. He sinned and died for it, but he has the hope still of eternal inheritance in the Kingdom at the resurrection- in his own name.

Num 36:9 So shall no inheritance remove from one tribe to another tribe; for the tribes of the children of Israel shall each keep his own inheritance-
This repetition of :7 is because it was so important to God that each family kept the inheritance He had spied out for them and given them. The laws about redeeming sold property at the year of Jubilee shows the same special interest of God in this matter. We need likewise to take seriously the fact that Israel's individual inheritance in the land looks ahead to the specific, unique inheritance each of us shall have in eternity. We are being developed in this life so that we can inherit it. God had given each family a specific inheritance and wanted that to remain within the family name; see on Num. 30:1 for other legislation which defends this Divine intention. The fact the legislation about female heirs is repeated twice (here and in Num. 27) reflects the same Divine concern.

Num 36:10 The daughters of Zelophehad did as Yahweh commanded Moses-
The fact God allows His children to live His truth on different levels needs to be grasped firmly by us, lest we become discouraged that others live on an apparently lower level than we do in some aspects of life. Being surrounded by ‘lower levels’ ought to inspire us to the higher levels. Zelophehad had only daughters; usually, in his context, a man would have taken concubines in order to produce sons. The record of his only having daughters is presented in the context of genealogies which show that many Israelite men had more than one wife (1 Chron. 7:15). But Zelophehad wasn’t dragged down by this; God inspired him to maintain the higher level which he had chosen to live by. He didn't use the principle of Jephthah's vow. And his daughters likewise refused to be limited by their status as females, but obtained an inheritance amongst their brethren (Num. 27:1-7).

Num 36:11 for Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, were married to their father’s brothers’ sons-
The names of these women all feature the 'Yah' suffix. This is unusual as most of the names we read at this time at best have 'el' for God, or are just of secular meaning. All these women had accepted the revelation of the Name of Yahweh given by Moses. I say they accepted it because it is clear that many people didn't keep their birth names but acquired other names later in their lives, reflective of their life experience and developed beliefs.

Num 36:12 They were married into the families of the sons of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and their inheritance remained in the tribe of the family of their father-
Considering the low status of women at that time, we see here a commendable spirit of initiative and spiritual ambition for these women to dare ask a male dominated society to change their rules to allow them to have an inheritance. We see too how God and Moses weren’t at all anti-women, and responded positively. Note how the women were allowed to come directly to the decision makers, without needing to appoint a male representative for their case, as was common in surrounding cultures. The value of the human person is consistently seen throughout the Pentateuch. They asked about this matter before the land had been possessed, reflecting their strength of faith that God would fulfil His promise of giving His people the Kingdom; they imagined what it would be like there, and acted accordingly even before they got there, as if the land was already theirs in possession- just as we should.

Num 36:13 These are the commandments and the ordinances which Yahweh commanded by Moses to the children of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho-

"Ordinances" is "judgments" (AV), perhaps referring to judgments expanding and further defining the law, as we have just read about the matter of female inheritance. The contrast may be with the similar comment in Lev. 27:13 concerning the laws given at Sinai. There was clearly some progressive revelation of God's laws and covenant, and now we will come to Deuteronomy, the second law, where again there are additions, clarifications and ammendments. This reflects how the law was not a chain upon Israel, but part of a living dialogue and real relationship between Yahweh and His people. And it is even more evident under the new covenant.