Why Conclude with the Daughters of Zelophehad?
The end of the book of Numbers seems to neatly wrap up the desert wandering portion of Israel’s sacred saga by presenting a travelogue (33:1-49) that, from a geographic vantage, constitutes a summary of everything that transpires from the 12th chapter of Exodus onward. The text then sets up the people for entry into Canaan by laying out the land’s boundaries, and enumerating the tribal leaders and their allotted holdings (33:50-34:29).
The Levites are dealt with individually (chapter 35), as they do not receive a standard tribal area but are granted forty-eight cities including six cities of refuge for perpetrators of accidental manslaughter. These cities’ functions and attendant rules are laid out and the chapter then finishes with a pronouncement about the ideological and theological implications of murder.
Having already eschewed the tidy narrative closure that was in the offing, the text then throws us a literary breaking ball. Chapter 36, the last chapter of Numbers, picks up the tale of the Daughters of Zelophehad [Bnot Z], which was ostensibly laid to rest in Numbers 27:1-11. For at least a millennium, readers have asked and answered why the Torah sundered the Bnot Z account and ends the whole book of Numbers with its reprise, ostensibly unconnected to what preceded in the narrative order. I am adding a new proposal to this exegetical catalogue, by looking at the text within the framework of what ethicists and legal theorists term “Values Hierarchy.”
When a society attempts to put a system of ethics or practices into operation, they can encounter a collision of mutually exclusive values, where the upholding of one ethic or ritual necessitates the abrogation of another. The society is then forced to choose and prioritize. This prioritization results in a values hierarchy, which, when in place, allows the society to adjudicate cases when similar values are in tension.
One well-known post-Biblical Jewish instance of explicit values hierarchy is where the preservation of life is seen to be at odds with strict Shabbat observance. Does one perform labor that violates the Sabbath to preserve life, or sacrifice lives in order to preserve the sanctity of Shabbat? What about animal life? The issue is first encountered in 1 Maccabees 2, and iterations of the question can be found in the Damascus Document, Matthew 12, and numerous Rabbinic writings. At times the determination of priority is related implicitly, or applied in narrow cases (e.g., m. Shabbat 18:3), and at other points articulated in more sweeping terms (b. Yoma 85b). In each of these individual texts, and when they are taken cumulatively, the values hierarchy is still clear:
Human Life > Shabbat > Animal Life
Daughters of Zelophehad I
Heretofore, according to the Torah, only men could inherit their family landholdings. Zelophehad, a Gileadite, dies with no male heirs. His daughters appeal to Moses: “Give us an achuzah (holding)!” Moses takes the case to God, and God finds in favor of the daughters, and a general principle is stated: Henceforth, if anyone dies without a male heir, their territorial allotment may pass to his daughters. Interpreters from the Talmud (b. Baba Batra 119b) to today (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ad loc) trumpet the passage as a victory for sisterhood. I see it otherwise.
While the daughters themselves are portrayed as remarkably direct and effective, I am unconvinced that the text here is concerned about women’s agency. If you read Bnot Z I as an exemplar of biblical proto-feminism, then you see the values in collision as Patriarchy vs. Sisterhood. Since God affirms the words of the daughters, then the values hierarchy would be manifest—Sisterhood > Patriarchy. Nonetheless, I would argue that the values in tension are actually Land Tenure vs. Patriarchy.
The key point is that if the daughters were not to inherit, then the territorial allotment would pass out of the family’s hands, a circumstance the Torah, or its framers, find unacceptable. The only way to preserve the family’s achuzah and nachalah is to allow for female heirs. If we view the passage from that angle, the values hierarchy is Land Tenure > Patriarchy, and the women’s empowerment is secondary, achieved en passant as the only viable solution to the problem. Since the biblical ethos of land tenure is a crux of my analysis, a brief review of the matter is in order.
The paramount importance of preserving a family or clan’s land holding is developed forcefully in Leviticus 25, a chapter that treats a number of pressing socio-economic issues, including the Jubilee provisions and their ramifications. Here, we see another example of values in tension—Market Forces vs. Social Welfare. In this case, the Forty Acres matter, but not the Mule. If destitution causes movable property to be forfeit, there is no recompense. However, if someone is forced to sell off their hereditary land allotment, it returns to their kinship unit at the Jubilee. Thus, Land Tenure trumps Market Economics. The Torah is unequivocal; וְהָאָרֶץ לֹא תִמָּכֵר לִצְמִתֻת “The land must not be sold irretrievably” (Lev 25:23).
The principle of Land Tenure is so powerful because it is not only about economics, it is also about God. As this verse goes on to explain, God owns the land, and the Israelites are simgerim, sojourners, on it. What God gives, only God can revoke or transfer. More trenchant, the ethos of Land Tenure speaks to the Tanakh’s center of gravity—Covenant. Land and exclusive relationship with YHWH are two of the three pillars of the berit-promises to Abraham and his descendants (see Gen 17:7-8; Exod 6:4-8).
These two promises are integrally connected. God’s relationship with the people is actualized when they attain and inhabit the land, as best expressed in Leviticus 25:38 “I am YHWH your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt to give you the Land of Canaan to be your God.”
Daughters of Zelophehad II
We meet Bnot Z again when Gileadite leaders observe a kink in the new inheritance law. Should The Daughters, or any daughter, inherit land, and then marry outside the clan or tribe, their achuzah would pass to the husband or the husband’s family, thereby permanently diminishing the tribe’s original territorial allotment. They bring the concern to Moses, who, at God’s behest, rules that females who inherit must marry within the larger kinship unit. This dictate secures a tribe’s land holding in perpetuity, mollifies the elders, and all is well.
It is worth noting here, though, that an alternative solution was available. Moses could have legislated that if a woman who has inherited marries outside the tribe, the landholding they carry does not pass to the husband or his family. Instead, it remains as a heritage within the original clan. I am confident that this remedy was not proposed because it would chip away at a husband’s prerogative and more broadly, the institutional patriarchy. Instead, the text protects Land Tenure by restricting, in this case, a woman’s conjugal freedom.
The values hierarchy we can derive from the combined Bnot Z tales is unambiguous—Land Tenure > Patriarchy > Sisterhood, thereby supporting my earlier contention that women’s empowerment was a by-product rather than a priority for the book of Numbers’ tradents. Still, in all, our key “take-away” from the Bnot Z narrative arc is the affirmation of Land Tenure as a transcendent value. With that observation, we can return to our original question.
The Book of Numbers’ Rhetorical Ending
If we accept the proposition that Land Tenure speaks to the Hebrew Bible’s core covenantal principles, we can see the end of Numbers not as disjointed, with a perplexing ending, but as a nuanced yet fully coherent examplar of literary closure.
Within this framework, a number of compelling interpretive implications come into relief. First, it appears that Bnot Z echoes through lore what Leviticus 25 expresses through law. Second, Bnot Z ties up a thematic thread in Numbers where land and theology dovetail. Num 33:30-32 command the people to enter the land and immediately render it theologically suitable for Israelite and Divine habitation by dispossessing the Canaanites, and eliminating their shrines and cult images.
The City of Refuge pericope highlights the need for moral purification of the land to ensure YHWH’s abiding presence (35:31-34). Bnot Z underscores the covenantal link between God and the Land by speaking, not to Divine presence in the land, but to YHWH’s ownership of it.
I suggest that from a structural perspective, the end of Numbers exhibits the rhetoric of kelal and perat (general and specific). Numbers 33 begins with a declaration of the full Israelite collective’s entrance into and possession of, The Land. We then read of the territorial allotment to each and every tribe. Finally, Bnot Z, closes the book of Numbers, and the core of the Priestly Pentateuchal Corpus [P], with the notion that every family, and every individual, through each generation, is to be the beneficiary of the self-same berit (covenant), promises first granted to Abraham and his family.
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Dr. David Bernat is Consultant in Outreach and Development with JALSA, The Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action. He has a PhD in Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies from Brandeis, is the author of Sign of the Covenant: Circumcision in the Priestly Tradition and co-editor of Religion and Violence: The Biblical Heritage. Bernat has held faculty positions at UMass Amherst and Wellesley College, and regularly leads adult education tours to Israel with an historical and archaeological focus.
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