Numbers 36: Female Inheritance

The solution to inheritance for families without sons isn't as simple as they thought. Numbers 36 relays the compromise made to ensure both the families and the tribes retain their land.


The issue of female inheritance first comes up in Numbers 27, when the daughters of Zelophehad ask to receive their father's inheritance since there are no sons to receive the land. In Numbers 36, the congregation dives into the ramifications of allowing their daughters to inherit land and bring up the issue of what will happen to the land when the women marry.

Traditionally, when a woman marries, she changes her surname to match her husband's. Even if a woman chooses to hyphenate or keep her last name, the children of the couple usually receive their father's name. Similarly, in Moses' era, a woman who married belonged to the tribe of her husband and so did her children. Thus, if the daughters of Zelophehad (or any other women who inherited land), married outside of their tribe, the land would leave the tribe with them.

To prevent this from happening, the tribe of Manasseh (Zelophehad's tribe) brings the issue to Moses. God specifies that women who inherit land must marry within their father's tribe. This prevented the land from moving tribes.

While this may seem restrictive, we have to remember a few important things. During that era, people often married within their kin anyway (e.g. Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah/Rachel). Marrying a 4th cousin would not have been a big deal to them—in fact for some people today this still wouldn't be a big deal. Also, since marriage was a contract the daughter's father would have been in charge of the final decision even without the restriction of tribe. Furthermore, the tribes, which were large enough to provide matches that were not close kin, congregated together. With the exception of the Levite cities scattered throughout the lands, there would have been few men in the region that were from other tribes anyway. Finally, though it is not stated, I don't see why one sister couldn't forfeit her inheritance to one of her other sisters to marry outside of her tribe if she so desired. It seems to me that the decision would be left to the women; if they all decided to marry outside of the tribe, the land would have gone to one of their uncles, but if the chose to keep the land they would also be choosing to marry within their tribe.

Relating to Today

The issue discussed here shows the complexity of problem solving, particularly when coupled with marriage. Giving the land back to the tribe and eliminating the inheritance of that particular line simply because there was no male heir would not have been fair. That family's place in the tribe would be eliminated. However, allowing the land to pass to another tribe wouldn't be fair to the original tribe either. Sometimes there simply isn't a perfect solution. In many cases, the solution is a compromise where each party gets some of what they want but perhaps not everything

We will experience situations that require giving and taking throughout our life. We must remember to approach these situations in fairness. Zelophehad's daughters could have put up a fight about the command to marry within the tribe, but they didn't because they understood the point of view of their tribesmen. We too have to listen to those around us when we are in these situations. Looking past what we want in order to see what is best for everyone is difficult, but when we succeed, we are rewarded.

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