Over the last few weeks I’ve been doing blog posts about women whose stories are in the Bible, but may not be that well-known. I’ve included artwork that illustrates those stories. Each story is one that was featured in presentations I did at a women’s retreat near the end of October. Here is another one of those stories.
In ancient times there lived a man named Zelophehad. Along with the other Israelites his family was on the long journey from Egypt to the land God had promised. Zelophehad knew when they arrived in that longed for place he would inherit property along with the other sons of Israel.
Zelophehad had five daughters Hoglah, Noah, Tirzah, Mahlah and Milcah. Because he had no sons his daughters helped him run the family business. He owned vast herds of sheep and goats. He had many tents and servants.
Unfortunately before any of his daughters married Zelophehad died unexpectedly. Hoglah, Milcah, Noah, Tirzah and Mahlah were still in mourning when their uncles and male cousins appeared demanding that the five daughters turn over all their father’s livestock and tents to them. They told the young women that when the Israelites reached the promised land the property that had been set aside for their father would now be divided up amongst themselves.
The women were frightened and asked what was to become of them. Their male relatives suggested they might have to split up and hire themselves out as servants to different families. It would be unfortunate but necessary because of a law established by their leader Moses that stated if a man died and he had no sons his nearest male relatives should inherit everything of his.
Hoglah, Milcah, Noah, Tirzah and Mahlah decided if indeed that was the law it was unfair. They would need to go and see Moses and ask him to change the law. Their male relatives responded with scorn and sarcasm. Despite this the five sisters began the journey to where Moses held court for his people every day.
When they arrived they asked to see him and although it was unprecedented for Moses to give women an audience he chose to hear the petition brought forward by the Daughters of Zelophehad. He listened to their story and told them he would ask God for advice and get back to them. When he returned to the sisters he said after prayerful consideration he had decided……….that they were right. The law was unfair. He would change it and in the future if a man died and he had no sons his daughters could receive his inheritance. The daughters of Zelophehad went home happy for the settled future they had secured for themselves and their descendants.
Although Moses had died by the time the children of Israel reached the Promised Land his successor Joshua honored the commitment Moses had made to Hoglah, Milcah, Mahlah, Tirzah and Noah and they did inherit the property that was to have been their father’s.
The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is found in the Old Testament (Numbers 27:1-11, Joshua 17:3-4). Each of the five daughters is named individually in these texts.
The account of the Daughters of Zelophehad has been referenced in many court cases as justification for women being accorded legal rights.
The story of Mahlah, Hoglah, Noah, Tirzah and Milcah is one I love. In 1999 I wrote a full length musical along with Craig Cassils about the story called the Daughters of Z . My Steinbach church Grace Mennonite performed it. I have written a children’s picture book about the Daughters of Zelophehad and a longer version for older children both of which I am trying to get published. One of the reasons I am so determined to have this story shared more widely is because although I attended Sunday School and church and Bible camp faithfully as a child I never heard it and yet I find it one of the most powerful stories in the Scriptures.
This 1897 drawing of Hoglah, Milcah, Tirzah, Noa and Mahlah by Charles Foster was in a book called Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us. The Daughters of Zelophehad teach me how important it is to stand up for what I believe in, how doing that can change not only my future but the future of others. What am I doing now that will leave a legacy for the future for my children, my grandchildren, my church and community?
Atlanta artist, theologian and designer Lauren Wright Pittman has created this image of the Daughters of Zelophehad showing them as modern day reformers.
The Daughters of Zelophehad teach me that working together as a team with others helps us to achieve things beyond our wildest dreams. How can I facilitate that kind of team building in my family life, my work life, my church life and my community life?
I love this illustration of the Daughters of Zelophehad striding off to see Moses by San Diego artist Sheila Orysiek.
The Daughters of Zelophehad teach me to imagine the impossible is possible and how important it is to live in hope. In our world with all its problems that kind of hope and wild dreaming is vital.
Other posts in this series…………