By Pat Knight
As the Israelites prepared to possess the Promised Land, the inhabited territory was apportioned among the twelve tribes, each one receiving an allocation according to population. The location was chosen by lot. Each family was assigned a segment of land that would be passed down through their sons in future generations, ensuring that “no inheritance in Israel is to pass from one tribe to another, for every Israelite shall keep the tribal inheritance of their ancestors” (Numbers 36:7).
Zelophehad, who died during four decades wandering in the wilderness, had five daughters but no sons by which to comply to the new land regulations. During their forty-year trek, the daughters had time to contemplate the consequence of their father’s disobedience. He was a member of the larger Israeli community whose members all died in the wilderness after they unanimously resisted entering the Promised Land, defiantly refusing to trust God’s promise of leadership and protection.
With land division in progress, Zelophehad’s five daughters sought an audience with the nation’s legal counsel—Moses, the judge and law-giver; Eleazer, the priest; leaders of the assembly of Israel—to request their father’s inheritance in the Promised Land. The sisters were courageous, determined to seek justice for their father’s memory by presenting an intrepid defense: “‘Our father died in the wilderness … but he died for his own sins and had no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no sons? Give us property among our father’s relatives’” (Numbers 27:3-4).
Moses, perplexed by the unprecedented details, inquired of the Lord. What better legal representation could the women desire than that of the righteous judge, Almighty God, the defender of justice? His decision was swift and equitable: “‘What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them. Say to the Israelites, if a man dies and leaves no son, give his inheritance to his daughters’” (vv. 6-8). The only caveat was that God specified each of the five daughters must marry men of their own choices from within their father’s tribal clan, so that “no inheritance may pass from one tribe to another, for each Israelite tribe is to keep the land it inherits” (Numbers 36:9). The five noble daughters rejoiced at the outcome and obeyed God by marrying within their own clan. Case closed.
Our Lord, the author of freedom and opportunity, has perpetually championed women’s equality. His Word is replete with examples of women who served Him in prominent positions. God created Eve as a helper and a companion comparable to Adam, establishing a one-man, one-woman marriage and family unit. As a child, God tasked Miriam with strategically placing her infant brother’s floating basket on the Nile River (Exodus 2:4), anticipating discovery by the Egyptian princess, preserving his life, preparing Moses for the future when he would lead the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. As an adult, Miriam served alongside her brother as the first prophetess in Israel.
Deborah was a prophet and the most courageous among the other male judges. She led Israel into victory over the Canaanite army that had doggedly pursued them for over twenty years. Deborah was the only wise judge in Israel from whom the people sought legal decisions (Judges 4:5). She trusted God, sought His will, and obeyed Him. Esther, a Persian queen, saved the Israelite nation from extinction using her quick wit and courage, chronicled in the Bible book with her name.
Rahab, a harlot (Joshua 2:1-21), whose house was located on the city wall in Jericho, hid two Hebrew spies, and later lowered them down the outside wall to escape the king and his henchmen. In the future when Jericho was captured by Israel, a scarlet cord draped on the city wall identified Rahab’s family, a reminder to spare their lives. Rahab was included in the lineage of King David and later the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:5), a poignant reminder of God’s limitless love and forgiveness available to a repentant sinner of any occupation or nationality.
In the New Testament age, Jesus accepted Mary as a disciple who anointed his feet with fragrant oil in recognition of His upcoming sacrifice (John 12:3). Jesus admonished His friend, Martha, to abandon her distracting dinner preparations to join her sister, who sat listening at her Master’s feet, in a room filled with men (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus also allowed women to join His large group of disciples on their journeys.
Lydia, a business woman and a dealer in purple fabric, taught Bible studies, welcomed the apostle Paul as a boarder, and held church services at her house. (Acts 16:14-16, 40). Dorcas was a universally loved woman who befriended and provided for the poor (Acts 9:36-38). Jesus waited at the town well to specifically instruct the Samaritan woman about Living Water that produces eternal life through salvation. Due to her witness among the townspeople, many others came to faith in the Son of God (John 4:6-14).
The apostle Peter explained: “‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’” (Galatians 3:28). In Christ, social, gender, and racial barriers are negated. All who come to God in humility and faith are members of the family of God. There are no exceptions to equality in God’s kingdom on earth or everlasting life in heaven.
Early in their history, God commanded the Israelites to refrain from intermarrying with their neighbors to avoid assimilating their liberal social culture and pagan worship practices. However, God’s chosen people disobeyed, introducing the belief held by other nations that women were merely chattels with no freedom. Consequently, women have suffered oppression and abuse; disenfranchised and powerless in many cultures throughout history, currently requiring legal intervention to reverse the trend. Such inequality was never God’s plan. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
Our heavenly Father initiated emancipation at creation. Spiritual freedom in Christ has always superseded the subjugation and injustice of women that leads to oppression, necessitating legislation and discipline. Jesus Christ has always been the forerunner to accept and empower women everywhere. There are no second-class citizens in God’s kingdom. The Lord was pleased to elevate Zelophehad’s five daughters in status as landowners in Israel, just as He welcomes each one of His faithful daughters into eternal paradise as a child of the King.
“Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). A woman’s physical beauty is elusive, but her spiritual comeliness is permanent, celebrating her noble character. God honors her humility and reverence. Let us strive for both as joy and obedience radiate from our hearts.