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Aaron Demsky





The Daughters of Zelophehad: A Historical-Geographical Approach





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Aaron Demsky





The Daughters of Zelophehad: A Historical-Geographical Approach








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The Daughters of Zelophehad: A Historical-Geographical Approach

The Samaria ostraca and a close look at biblical verses help us locate Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah, in the territory of Manasseh.


The Daughters of Zelophehad: A Historical-Geographical Approach

The Daughters of Zelophehad (Dalziels’ Bible Gallery),

Immediately after a census of the wilderness generation is taken (Num 26), listing the various households that will inherit land, Moses is approached by five sisters, the daughters of the deceased Zelophehad:

במדבר כז:א וַתִּקְרַבְנָה בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד בֶּן חֵפֶר בֶּן גִּלְעָד בֶּן מָכִיר בֶּן מְנַשֶּׁה לְמִשְׁפְּחֹת מְנַשֶּׁה בֶן יוֹסֵף וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֹתָיו מַחְלָה נֹעָה וְחָגְלָה וּמִלְכָּה וְתִרְצָה. כז:ב וַתַּעֲמֹדְנָה לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה וְלִפְנֵי אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן וְלִפְנֵי הַנְּשִׂיאִם וְכָל הָעֵדָה פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר.כז:ג אָבִינוּ מֵת בַּמִּדְבָּר… וּבָנִים לֹא הָיוּ לוֹ.
Num 27:1 The daughters of Zelophehad, son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, of the Manassite families, came forward. The names of his daughters were Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 27:2 They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, 27:3 “Our father died in the wilderness… and he has left no sons.
כז:ד לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם אָבִינוּ מִתּוֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ כִּי אֵין לוֹ בֵּן תְּנָה לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ.
27:4 Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”

The women here are motivated by their desire to perpetuate their father’s name, i.e., to ensure that the territory of Zelophehad will exist and continue into the future. Thus, they wish to be allotted the land he was supposed to inherit.[1] Moses consults with God, and their request establishes an official precedent that when a father leaves no male progeny, daughters should inherit the family portion.

The story continues in Numbers 36:1-12, when the Gileadites, part of the tribe of Manasseh, express a concern that when these women marry, their husbands and sons will inherit the land, and it will become part of the territory of another tribe. Moses accepts this concern and adds a requirement that the daughters of Zelophehad marry men from their own tribe, so that the tribal land stays in the same tribe.

The end of the story is told in Joshua 17, after the Land of Israel had been conquered, when the daughters appear before Joshua and Eleazar the priest, and ask for their promised inheritance:

יהושע יז:ד …וַיִּתֵּן לָהֶם אֶל פִּי יְ־הוָה נַחֲלָה בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אֲבִיהֶן. יז:הוַיִּפְּלוּ חַבְלֵי מְנַשֶּׁה עֲשָׂרָה לְבַד מֵאֶרֶץ הַגִּלְעָד וְהַבָּשָׁן אֲשֶׁר מֵעֵבֶר לַיַּרְדֵּן. יז:ו כִּי בְּנוֹת מְנַשֶּׁה נָחֲלוּ נַחֲלָה בְּתוֹךְ בָּנָיו וְאֶרֶץ הַגִּלְעָד הָיְתָה לִבְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה הַנּוֹתָרִים.
Josh 17:4 …So, in accordance with YHWH’s instructions, they were granted a portion among their father’s kinsmen. 17:5 Ten districts fell to Manasseh, apart from the lands of Gilead and Bashan, which are across the Jordan. 17:6 Manasseh’s daughters inherited a portion in these together with his sons, while the land of Gilead was assigned to the rest of Manasseh’s descendants.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad and their request for equal rights of heritance in the patriarchal society of biblical Israel (Num. 27: 1–7) has engendered much discussion in modern scholarship with contemporary interest in the history of women’s rights.[2]

Instead of focusing on those important issues, I will explore the historical-geographic aspect of the text: Given that personal names of eponymous ancestors often represent geographical areas, can we identify where Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah are located? I would argue that the story reflects the historical reality of five localities that were associated with the sisters in proximity to each other from the period of the settlement until the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century.[3]

Identifying Ancient Sites

Geographical historians use four basic principles for identifying biblical sites:

  • Arabic Toponyms—The preservation of biblical place names in the Arabic vernacular. This principle was first proposed in the early 14th century by Rabbi Estori Haparhi in his monumental Kaphtor vaPherah.[4]
  • Topography—The importance of topography especially noting natural borders and road systems shaped by mountains, rivers and wadis. In other words, if a biblical narrative describes a place on a hill near a stream, or along the sea coast, we can look for locations to day that fulfill those criteria.
  • Documents—Agreement and clarification of written sources whether they be the Bible and contemporary ancient documents, or even texts from a later period e.g. the 6thcentury CE Rehov mosaic mentioned below.
  • Archaeology—Archeological corroboration, i.e., material finds from a site must be dated to the same period ascribed by the written sources to assure their identity.

With these principles in mind, we can begin the search, going from the most obvious identifications to the most complicated.


Tirzah is a city mentioned several times in the Bible, already as a Canaanite site that was conquered by Joshua (12:24). Its name might be an anachronism. Most significantly, it was the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the time of Jeroboam I until Omri built Samaria (1 Kgs 14:17; 15:21; 16:17). For example,

מלכים א טו:לג בִּשְׁנַת שָׁלֹשׁ לְאָסָא מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה מָלַךְ בַּעְשָׁא בֶן אֲחִיָּה עַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּתִרְצָה עֶשְׂרִים וְאַרְבַּע שָׁנָה.
1 Kgs 15:33 In the third year of King Asa of Judah, Baasha son of Ahijah became king in Tirzah over all Israel — for twenty-four years.

The city has been identified with Tel el Far`ah (north), a site that was excavated by Roland de Vaux on and off between 1946 and 1960.[5]

It sits prominently at the head of Wadi Far`ah that descends into the Jordan Valley which ends near the Damieh bridge (the biblical City Adam, Josh. 3:16). Travelers coming from the north-east would cross the Jordan at this point and ascend this wadi on their way to Shechem, and this is probably what Genesis envisions in the stories of Abram and Jacob entering the land (Gen 12:6, 33:18).

The archeological evidence shows that Tirzah fell to the Assyrians and became their base camp when conquering the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C.E. The city’s Israelite inhabitants were exiled by the Assyrians and lost forever.


The name “Mahlah” likely reflects the biblical Abel Meholah (Judg 7:22, 1 Kgs 4:12, 19:16), located in the Jordan valley.[6] The first part of the name, “Abel,” is being used as a determinative, i.e., a term that is added as way to further clarify a site. In this case, Abel is an ancient Hebrew term for a “brook” that remained only as a locative term (i.e., only in geographical names), and indicates that Meholah (Tel Abû Sûs) is “on the water,” which, in this case, refers to the Jordan River or possibly Wadi el- Malih that may preserve a metathesized Meholah.[7]

One important native of this city was עַדְרִיאֵל הַמְּחֹלָתִי, Adriel the Meholatite (1 Sam 18:19), son of Barzilai (2 Sam 21:8), who married Saul’s daughter Merav (1 Sam 18:19).[8] Another native was the prophet Elisha (1 Kgs 19:16).

The Samaria Ostraca: Hoglah and Noa

In 1910–12, Harvard University excavated at Sebastia, ancient Samaria (Shomron), the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel from its founding by Omri until the destruction of the kingdom. They discovered 63 dockets written in ink in paleo-Hebrew script on broken sherds. Published in 1924, these became known as the Samaria ostraca. This sensational find sheds further light on the clans of Manasseh and especially on the descendants of the daughters of Zelophehad.

This collection is divided into two groups according to the date formula of regnal years 9-10 or 15, 17 of unknown North Israelite king(s). Scholars date them either to the reign of Joash, or more likely, to that of Jeroboam II around 780 B.C.E. These laconic inscriptions tell us about royal administration and tax collecting and distribution.

Some of the inscribed Israelite names allude to their heterodox religious beliefs. For instance, they still use the title ba`al for the God of Israel (see Hosea 2:18-19) or bear the unusual name Egelyo “the calf of God,” probably alluding to the local sanctuaries at Bethel and Dan; they also tell us a bit about the Hebrew dialect spoken in the Northern Kingdom.

The taxpayers are sometimes recorded with additional identification like their village and clan affiliation in addition to their name. Happily, the clans referenced in the ostraca bear the names of five Cisjordanian clans of Manasseh as known in the Bible—(Av)iezer, Heleq, Asriel, Shechem and Shemida (Num 26:30–32)—as well as that of two of Zelophehad’s daughters, Noa and Hoglah.


Noa is recorded in the Samaria ostraca (# 50):

The ostracon reads: “In the year 15, for Gomer from Noa, Obadiyo, for Abiyo”

As the ostracon adds no geographic point of reference, all we know is that during this period, Manasseh had a clan named Noa, but not where it was located.


Another sister clan, Hoglah, is mentioned in two ostraca (# 45, 47), along with a tax-payer from the village of יצת (yṣt). This text is cracked, and its right side is missing, but it can be reconstructed according to repeating formulae that appear on other ostraca:

[In the 15th year, from H]ogla[h], for Hanan. Baara from […], from Yeset”

Virtually all historical-geographers have identified Yeset with the present-day Arab village of Yasid, located on the road crossing Samaria from Jaba to Ein Bidan. The inclusion of Hoglah and Yeset together on the tax document is generally explained that the village of Yeset was in the territory of Hoglah.

Identifying Milkah

We thus have geographical information on three of the sister locales: Tirzah, Mahlah (Abel Meholah), and Hoglah (near Yeset/Yasid). As for Noa, we have no geographical information.

The fifth sister, Milkah, is not the name of a known city or village nor does it appear in the Samaria Ostraca, and thus its identification is disputed. Several scholars have identified it with the similar sounding Khirbet Mirkah in the vicinity of Tel Dotan in northern Samaria.

This identification, as defended by Arye Bornstein,[9] would suggest an extensive inheritance for Zelophehad’s progeny in northern and western Manasseh ( כל ארץ חפר [I Kings 4:10] Eretz-Hepher – “The Land of Hepher” in Bornstein’s terminology), relatively far from the other identifiable territories. I suggest therefore that Milkah should be sought further south, close to the identified territories of Hoglah and Tirzah.[10]

My reasoning is based on a few key points:

1. Yeset and Hoglah—We noted above that Yeset, which has been identified with the village of Yasid. is in the territory of Hoglah.

2. Hod and Milkah—The Chronicler (1 Chr 7:14–19) informs us that the first “offspring” of HaMolekhet, a variant of the name Milkah,[11] is Ish-Hod. The first term “Ish” is certainly not part of the clan name, and the phrase means “the men of Hod.” Hod, then, is in the territory of Milkah.

3. Hod and HaYehud—Ostraca #51 lists Aha HaYehud[i], i.e., Aha the Yehudite, as a local taxpayer. I suggest that Yehud should be identified with the town of Hod mentioned in Chronicles.[12]

“In the tenth year for… Aha the Judaite…”

4. Nebi Yehudah and Yeset—Yigael Yadin proposed that “HaYehud” referred to a local site known from the Byzantine period as Kfar Yehudit. The name is preserved in the Arab site or weli called (Nebi) Yehuda, east of Hoglah’s Yeset.[13]

Putting all this together, Hod, which is part of Milkah’s holdings, should be located near Yeset, part of Hoglah’s holdings, so that the two sister clans were near each other.

The Rehov Mosaic

A further piece of evidence that confirms this suggestion for the location of Milkah comes from the 6th century C.E. Rehov mosaic, found in the fields of Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv in the Beth Shean valley, and published in 1973. The Mosaic contains the earliest known version of passages from the Tosefta and Talmud Yerushalmi, codified in Tiberias, ca. 30 kms to the north of Beth Shean. The last three lines are an addendum:

העיירות המו[ת]רות בתחום סבסטי
These are the permitted villages in the district of Sebaste.[14]

This refers to cities where one is permitted to eat food usually restricted because it was grown during the Sabbatical year or was not tithed.[15] In the Byzantine period, these roadside townlets were settled by either gentiles or Samaritans, so absolved from these restrictions—in the inscription’s terms, their food is “permitted.”

The eighteen or nineteen sites listed, most of which can be identified through present-day Arabic toponyms, are located on the circular roadway crossing the administrative district of Sebaste.[16] Of interest for us is that, in this list, both Yeset and Kfar Yehudit are adjacent.

When we consider the topography of the area, we see that the territories of Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah are located on a stepped eastern side of the Samarian hill with Hoglah at ca. 675 meters, Yehudit at ca. 425 and Tirzah at ca. 175 meters altitude. The portions are in the same order in which they are typically listed in the Bible: Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah.

Thus, it seems most likely that Milkah’s territory should be located between those of her clan sisters Hoglah and Tirzah. Along with the inheritance of Mahlah (Abel-Meholah in the Jordan Valley) and Noa (unknown), these territories form a contiguous strip of land from the Jordan valley to the western foothills of Samaria, running north of Wadi el Murashi that divided them from the male clans of Manasseh, the so-called “uncles” mentioned above.

Five Daughters: Five Geographical Locations

In answer to our initial question regarding the historical-geographic realities behind the story of Zelophehad daughters, indeed, the story reflects a real settlement cluster in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, with clans/cities with these names. Biblical, epigraphic, geographic, and archaeological data converge here, filling in many of the gaps, and giving us a picture of the Manassite settlement until the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the exile of many of its inhabitants in the late 8th century B.C.E. These clans, and their connection with each other, were preserved in Jewish memory through the story of Zelophehad ben Hepher and his five daughters.


August 2, 2019


Last Updated

June 3, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Aaron Demsky is Professor (emeritus) of Biblical History at The Israel and Golda Koschitsky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, Bar Ilan University. He is also the founder and director of The Project for the Study of Jewish Names. Demsky received the Bialik Prize (2014) for his book, Literacy in Ancient Israel.