Illustration of Zelophehad’s Daughters from The Bible and Its Story by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Brewer, published 1908, currently in the Princeton Theological Seminary Library

In the previous couple of chapters, the Moabite prophet Balaam has been warning Moabite leaders that the Israelites who are now encroaching on their territory are favored and protected by God, and nothing good can come from fighting them or trying to push them out. Our next chapter shows how – despite God’s favor and covenants with them – the Israelites still have major issues with showing any gratitude or at least, common sense when dealing with a jealous God.

Chapter 25 opens with these verses 1-2: “While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods.” And that’s the problem God has with sex in the Bible. Firstly, only married people should have sex in order to keep family lines and inheritances of all kinds clear, and secondly, people who cross culture lines with sexual relationships will be tempted by outsiders to stray from their faith. These are even the Second Generation Israelites, the kids of those who were told they couldn’t enter The Promised Land because they repeatedly didn’t follow God’s dictates. They’ve seen amazing miracles, and their parents escaped slavery because of God’s hand, and here they are in Canaan fooling around with Moabites who are leading them into improper religious practices, in this case worshiping Baal. They never learn.

Yet again, God’s had enough and it’s Punishment Time for the men who participated in the Baal-practices. God tells the Israelites to put the immoral ones to death, and 24,000 men are killed and there’s much weeping and sadness. There’s an Israelite who has the Worst Timing Ever, and in the midst of all this he shows up in camp with a Midianite woman, and Aaron’s grandson Phinehas angrily follows them into their tent and spears them both in one big jab. Phinehas’s zealousness pleases God, who stops the killing and establishes a covenant specifically with his descendants, making them priests into perpetuity (which, I thought they already were as they were Aaron’s descendants as Levites, but now there’s a sort of double-covenant, I suppose). God also calls out the Midianites as enemies to be killed, as the Moabite women involved in this whole situation were Midianite, which must be weird for Moses as his own wife was a Midianite.

Digging Deeper: the Midianites will figure into our readings a lot in coming chapters, so let’s have a bit of review. The Midianites are derived from Midian, son of Abraham and Keturah (remember her?). They’ve settled ‘in the east,’ and at this time are within the region of Moab. So, while they have similar origins to the Israelites, they’re now aligned with the ‘eastern peoples’ like the Amalekites. Modern archaeologists have determined that they worshipped two main gods and some minor ones, the main ones being Yahweh (the Israelites’ God) and Baal-peor. I’ve touched briefly in previous posts that many scholars today believe that ancient Israelites worshiped more than one god as well, and some think that the worship of Yahweh came initially from the Midianites – the Israelites then adapted the practices to their own culture and eventually became monotheistic. Many Christian scholars counter this, but they do admit that Yahweh was basically known as El-Shaddai (the ‘El’ coming from Canaanite worship of a supreme deity, which indicates there were lesser deities) until He instructed Moses on Mount Sinai that His true name is Yahweh. Later in Deuteronomy this is cemented with The Shema: Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One. All this is to say that up until now, the Israelites and the Midianites were pretty much historically and Biblically related – up until now.

In Chapter 26, God wants another census of the Israelite men because a LOT has happened since the last census: smitings, plagues, battles, desert wanderings, etc. They count all men age 20 and up, and after lines and lines of tribal descendants and their numbers, the total is 601,730. God then tells Moses that current and future property boundaries are to be drawn up for each tribe proportional to their numbers, which is pretty fair. Regions are to be assigned to the tribes by lot. The Levites aren’t included in those numbers because they’re always set apart and because they can’t hold property, but they’re counted separately with 23,000. The chapter makes clear at the end that none of these people – except for a few – are from the original Israelite generation that had been cursed to never enter The Promised Land. Those exceptions are Joshua, Caleb, and Moses (who won’t get to settle there as well).

In Chapter 27, five daughters of one of the members of the tribe of Manasseh, Zelophehad, approach Moses. Their names are Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah, and what they do seems extraordinary to me. They speak to Moses at the entrance to the Tabernacle, explaining that their father died in the wilderness and left no sons – only them. They argue that they should receive his portion of the property, and not allow the family line to disappear from the tribe altogether. Moses takes the issue to God, who declares that the women are correct. The women should be allowed to inherit – but only because there are no sons to do so – and the family line should be allowed to benefit the Manasseh tribe. God goes further: if a man has no children at all, his portion should go to his brothers, and if there are no brothers then it goes to his father’s brothers. In that way, the inheritance stays in the tribe, and there’s no loss of status or property.

Things They Don’t Talk About in Sunday School: yeah, daughters of Zelophehad! The story sounds to modern readers like the women are standing up for their rights – and they are – but more importantly to Jewish scholars, they’re standing up for tribal rights. A tenet (oral tradition not in the Talmud) maintains that the daughters were righteous, and perhaps even students of the Torah, and their wisdom shows why their names are even written in the text for posterity. Even so, most researchers believe that this story is actually fiction, written to explain a sort of background to how Jewish inheritance laws came about. They think there was indeed a Zelophehad, as his name appears in the census, but the story with the daughters is likely just a good one.

A Fun Aside: in her book Tevye’s Daughters: No Laughing Matter, Jan Lisa Huttner points out that having five daughters is an interesting literary device that seems to invite comparison. Throughout much of the history of the world, having to provide five separate dowries was a real difficulty for families, and there are lots of stories through cultures where the matter of five daughters’ inheritances is a plot point, whether in the musical Fiddler on the Roof or in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or here in the Bible.

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