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The Bible’s women’s rights activists

For International Women’s Day let us remember the biblical story of the five daughters of Zelophehad, who got an unfair law changed and were the world’s first recorded women’s rights campaigners.

The story in Numbers 27.1–11 is set during Israel's 40-year period of wandering in the wilderness. The promised land had been spied out, and the Israelites were gathered on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho. The land was apportioned according to the names of the men in the census, as recorded in Numbers. 

One of these men was Zelophehad. Zelophehad had no sons but he did have five daughters.  They were called Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, and they had been born during the Exodus (Numbers 26.33) before Zelophehad died.

In the early days, women could not inherit. When Zelophehad died, leaving his five daughters, they wanted to inherit their father’s property. The Bible records their determination because ‘stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting’ (verse 2, NIV). They spoke boldly and explained the injustice of the situation before Moses, and Eleazer the priest.

The daughters explained that Zelophehad had been loyal to Moses, and had not taken part in Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 27.3). They said, ‘Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives’ (verse 4, NIV).

As a result it was agreed that not only could they inherit, but in addition the anomaly in the law was actually changed so that ‘If a man dies and leaves no son, give his inheritance to his daughter’ (verse 8, NIV). We read that later they did receive their inheritance in the promised land (Joshua 17.3–6).  

The daughters of Zelophehad were perhaps the world’s first recorded women’s rights campaigners.  However, it was not the only case of female inheritance in the Old Testament. Job gave inheritance to his sons and his daughters (Job 42.15), and we also read of Achsah, who requests and receives an inheritance of land and water resources (Judges 1.9–15).

Afterlife of the story

The story of Zelophehad’s daughters resonated in British history during some debates on succession to the throne. In the 1140s it was quoted to back up the claim for Matilda, only surviving child of King Henry I, to inherit the throne.Matilda was never formally declared Queen of England, and was instead titled ‘Lady of the English’. However, her son succeeded to the throne as Henry II in 1154. So in England the story established the principle that women can inherit the throne, and inheritance can go down the female line. This paved the way for the Tudor princesses Mary and Elizabeth to be heirs after the death of their brother Edward VI. In Scotland the story of Zelophehad’s daughters was quoted in debates about whether it allowed King James V’s only child Princess Mary to become queen, which she did as Mary Queen of Scots in 1564. 

Modern echoes

The story has also influenced modern literature. The idea of a man with five daughters is used as a theme in the story Fiddler on the Roof. The fiddler is a pious Jewish dairyman called Tevye, living in the Ukraine. He has five daughters called Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Shprintze and Bielke, who each need a dowry.  

Jane Austen also picks up the idea in her book Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813. Mr Bennet inherited his estate under a legal entail that stated he could only leave the estate to a male relative. The plot revolves around the fact that he had five daughters, called Jane, Mary, Catherine, Lydia and Elizabeth, who could not inherit.

On International Women’s Day let’s remember the daughters of Zelophehad. 

Author: Neil Rees, 8 March 2022 (Last updated: 9 March 2022)

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