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The daughters of Zelophehad are very significant in the Bible, yet many Christians have no idea who they were or their role in God’s plan of redemption. To understand, let’s back up to the time when the Israelites had left Egypt and came to the border of the Promised Land.

A Generation of Wilderness Wanderers

Moses sent 12 spies into the Promised Land to “preview” the land that God had said He would give them.  Sadly, only two came back with faith that they could enter.

The other ten spies reported of giants in the land — Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Canaanites (Num 13:29), and Anakites (Num 13:33). Because of their report, the people wept and murmured against Moses (Num 14:1ff).  And because of their lack of faith, God prohibited them from entering the land and caused them to wander for 40 years in the wilderness.  When the 40 years had passed, those 20 years and older had died, not having entered the Promised Land. Only those under 20 entered in.

Because the people had not hearkened to the voice of the Lord (Num 14:22), only two adults—the two faithful and trusting spies— were permitted to enter the land (Num 14:30).

Zelophehad was of that generation of untrusting Israelites. He died in the wilderness without any sons but leaving behind five daughters.

Ancient Laws of Inheritance

In ancient Israel, inheritance laws stated that land and possessions were to be passed through the male line. Therefore, Zelophehad’s daughters were not eligible to receive their father’s land and possessions.  So they went to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the princes of all the congregation with a petition. They requested that they be allowed to inherit their father’s land as a way to preserve his name.

Numbers 27:4-5, 7  Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he hath no son? Give unto us therefore a possession among the brethren of our father. 

Moses responded exactly as we should respond in all matters.  He “brought their cause before the LORD.”

Num 27:5  And the Lord answered Moses:  The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them.

And the Lord answered Moses:

Num 27:7-8  The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them.  And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.

Inheritance Laws

God was not changing the inheritance laws but rather providing an exception within the law.  Land was intended to pass from father to son to maintain tribal possession. Therefore, God allowed daughters to inherit the land if they married within their own tribe (Num 36:6-9).  In this way, the land could pass from the father to the son-in-law through marriage and still remain in the tribe of the father.

Num 36:6-9  “This is what the LORD commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, saying, ‘Let them marry whom they think best, but they may marry only within the family of their father’s tribe.’   {7}  “So the inheritance of the children of Israel shall not change hands from tribe to tribe, for every one of the children of Israel shall keep the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers.  {8}  “And every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the children of Israel shall be the wife of one of the family of her father’s tribe, so that the children of Israel each may possess the inheritance of his fathers.  {9}  “Thus no inheritance shall change hands from one tribe to another, but every tribe of the children of Israel shall keep its own inheritance.”

Why the Daughters of Zelophehad are Significant

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad explains how the genealogy of Jesus, recorded in Luke, is actually the genealogy of Mary.   In verse 23, we read…

Luke 3:23  And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli,

This says Joseph was the son of Heli, but in Matthew, we are told Joseph was the son of Jacob. There’s a simple explanation.  The word “supposed” in this verse is the Greek word nomizo.  It means:  to do by law, to accustom, to deem, or to regard— to be reckoned by law, not by birth.

We can reason that Heli was Mary’s father and he had no sons. The Bible confirms that Mary had a sister (John 19:25)  but mentions no brothers.  If that were the case, Heli would have adopted Joseph as his son (reckoned by law) for the purposes of inheritance.  And because Joseph was also from the Tribe of Judah, Mary met the requirements of the exception in the inheritance laws.

In Summary – The Daughter of Zelophehad

Because of the daughters of Zelophehad, God provided an exception to the rules of inheritance. It was requested by Moses on behalf of the daughters (Num 27:1-5), granted by God (Num 27:6-11), defined by God (Num 36:6-9), and instituted by Joshua (Josh 17:3-6).

The exception in the law explains why the genealogies for Jesus in Matthew and Luke differ in their beginnings (Abraham and Adam), the sons of  King David (Solomon and Nathan), and the father of Joseph (Jacob in Matthew, Heli in Luke)..  They appear to both be genealogies through Joseph, but they are not. Because Mary married within her tribe (Matt 1:16), in accordance with the law, Joseph could be reckoned by law to be the son of Mary’s father Heli (Luke 3:23). The genealogy in Luke belongs to Mary and that accounts for these differences:

  • Matthew’s genealogy begins with stating Jesus’ legal right as Messiah — “the Son of David” (Matt 1:1). The genealogy continues, starting with Abraham, and concluding with “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matt 1:16).
  • Luke’s genealogy is in reverse order. It begins with Mary (although Joseph’s name is listed) and gives Jesus’ ancestors back to Adam.  
  • Matthew’s genealogy, through Joseph, lists the son of King David as Solomon. Luke’s genealogy, through Mary, lists King David’s second surviving son, Nathan.
  • Matthew’s genealogy supports Jesus’ legal right as Messiah through His earthly father, Joseph — a descendant of Abraham, King David, and King Solomon.  Luke’s genealogy supports Jesus being the Son of Man, God born in the flesh — a descendant of the first man Adam — and born of a woman — His mother, Mary.

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