The Bible and Women Empowerment: Daughters and the Inheritance of Landed Property

About 3,500 years ago, at a time it was unheard of for women to dream of owning landed property in the nation of Israel, some women dared to ask to be allowed to inherit their late father’s land. In response, God commanded that the requests of the women be granted in their entirety. It was a strange command given to a people long used to the subservience of women and their exclusion from matters of enduring and transgenerational economic importance. The command could only have come directly from God and delivered to a man known and believed by all to be His oracle, Moses. However, the success of the women in receiving such a favourable response from God is directly connected to the strategies they employed in making the request.

Background

A case was brought before Moses the man of God by five sisters, daughters of one man, Zelophehad, who died without a male child. The custom then, as it remains today in many traditional societies, is that women should not inherit landed property. The case was supposed to be simple: upon his death without a male heir, Zelophehad’s property would go to his kinsmen while his daughters would be married off to suitors.

It was, therefore, with uncommon boldness that the five sisters came together to challenge the status quo and break a consensus that had thrived in Israel since the founding of the nation. In Numbers 27: 2-4, it is recorded that the sisters “stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, at the door of the tent of meeting,” and requested that they be allowed to inherit their late father’s land.

Moses, a man the Bible commends as the humblest man to have walked upon the face of the earth, handled the case with uncommon meekness. In his forbearance and willingness to listen to every opinion, Moses asked to be given time to seek the face of God concerning the strange request of the daughters of Zelophehad. A man with a dint of pride and its accompanying impatience would have, in the least, hastily dismissed the women’s requests in order to attend to more important matters of statehood. In fact, the sisters would have risked punishment for daring to make such a request.

God’s response to Moses was as unusual as the request itself, “The claim of the daughters of Zelophehad is legitimate… Assign them the property that would have been given to their father,” said the Lord unto Moses. It was a complete and absolute victory for the daughters of Zelophehad and an enduring ordinance to the freedom that women have in the eyes of God.

Strategies for Success

In breaking the glass ceiling, the daughters of Zelophehad applied certain strategies which today’s Bible-believing women would be wise to learn from in order to ensure all-round victory when they demand change. We shall look at some of these strategies.

First, the women were five in number. Five in the Scripture symbolizes God’s graciousness, goodness and favour towards all of humanity. When women demand their rights as did the daughters of Zelophehad, it must be from a recognition that both men and women are imperfect and that we are all products of grace. Women have been oppressed for centuries, and a demand for that situation to be corrected should not turn into a struggle for superiority. Male or female, we are all equal, fallen children of God upheld by the grace of God. Humility should be the watchword in demanding that the rights of women be upheld. Forgiveness and respect should be foundational in crafting the attitude and language of women at the forefront of demanding a restructuring of the system to make it a more equitable platform for all genders.

Second, it is on record that the daughters of Zelophehad came together to speak with one voice, all five of them. They did not appoint a representative, none chickened out, and neither did some decide that they did not care so much about getting their father’s inheritance. This attitude tells us that unity is foundational while demanding a change in the situation of women in any community. All five daughters were united; the eldest did not seek to be the sole inheritor of Zelophehad’s property in order to malign the rest. Everyone’s interest was considered from the outset, and a common front was presented. Rich, poor, older, younger, educated or not, women will have to work together to liberate themselves from the structures of oppression that have worked against them for centuries.

The last strategy that shall be explored here is the way these five women went about requesting a change of status. It is recorded that the five sisters “stood before Moses, and before Eleazar, the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, at the door of the tent of meeting.” The five sisters did not organize other women to foment a rebellion against the establishment. They did not disrespect, ridicule, grumble against, gossip or harshly criticize the system on the media. Neither did the sisters forcefully seek to wrestle their inheritance off the hands of their father’s kinsmen, who were considered the rightful inheritors. None of the sisters visited Moses or any of the men who would decide their case ahead of time at night to seduce them with their feminine prowess in order to ensure favourable judgement. The sisters did not elect to send emissaries to present their case before the powers that be.

With great wisdom, strength of character and humility, the five sisters “stood” before the most powerful men in their country and before the whole nation and presented their exceptional, never-before-heard case with unmatched dignity and fearlessness. Standing before the whole nation of Israel must have been the most vulnerable thing those women ever did. But they had nothing to fear. They were women of impeccable character. No one could fault them in any way or accuse them of any crime. What a lesson for every Bible-believing woman today in the way we choose to lead our lives.

A combination of factors assisted the daughters of Zelophehad in getting their requests. First, a just and merciful God who was willing to by-pass the traditions of men in order to grant the righteous demands of a late man’s daughters. Secondly, a humble leader who gave an ear to the “absurd” request brought by five fatherless, defenceless women. But perhaps, the foundational reason that moved the heart of God and the mind of Moses was the strategies applied by the daughters of Zelophehad in making their unprecedented and unconventional requests.

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