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Five Sisters, One Problem

I love the novel Pride and Prejudice. Although the adult in me can recognise Persuasion as Austen’s better work, the Bennet sisters were the constant companions of my teenage years. Since about the age of 12 I have counted among my favourites the story of Lizzy striving against her father’s indifference, her mother's incompetence and refusing to bow to a world that wants her to take a very definite place in it.

If you are not familiar with the story (and if not, do yourself a favour and pick it up or watch the classic ‘95 BBC version) it is the story of five sisters whose family is in a pretty dire situation. They are living in the early nineteenth century and can’t inherit because they are women. Since the Bennet sisters have no brothers this means that if their father dies then they will have nowhere to live and any source of economic income would put them in hard and vulnerable positions (1).

This story was written almost exactly 200 years ago, but what astounds me is that had it been written in the time of Moses (approx 3500 years ago) the plot would have to be very different. Because in Numbers 27 there is another story of five sisters who have no brothers, they too are worried about their future, but they don’t need Netherfield Park to be let at last, because they have a God who doesn’t restrict by gender when it comes to inheritance.

They are generally called the daughters of Zelophehad, which I guess is a good way to term a group of sisters, but I think that it is also important that we are given each of their names (they are not only given identity by their relationship to their father), Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah.

Up until these sisters come to speak to Moses, they have the same problem as the Bennets. Because under the law if a man had no sons then his land went to his nearest male relations. For Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah when their Dad died this was a big deal, not only because it put them in a precarious state economically and socially but also because God’s gift of the land to the Israelites had a theological significance. A tie to a specific part of the land gave God’s people a tie to his promise.

The sisters come to Moses and explain their problem Moses takes their case to God. We read in Numbers 27:5-8:

Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. You shall also say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter.’

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah are allowed to inherit their father’s land, and more than that, they get the law changed for any other women who might have the same problem. My own thought is that God didn't originally put this provision in the law so that Mahlah and her sisters would have to make their case. Their success gives extra legitimacy to the voice of women speaking their concerns in the Israelite community.

There are a couple of other stories about women inheriting in the Old Testament, they come as a picture of what life should be like in God’s kingdom. A great example of this is at the end of Job when in the final scene, which is a picture of God showering his goodness on Job, his three daughters, Jemimah, Keziah and Keren-Happuch, inherit along with their brothers (2).

It can still seem problematic to us modern readers that women only inherit if there are no sons or in exceptional circumstances, but the law given by Moses isn’t God’s perfect vision for humanity. It is guidelines and rules that will help the Israelites love each other and love God better, but in Christ everything changes. For in Christ daughters and sons come equally to their heavenly Father who has qualified (us) to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light (Colossians 1:12).

1. Women could inherit in 19th Century Britain (Anne deBourgh being an example within the book) but the Bennet sisters are constrained by a gender biased entail, against which they had no legal options.

2. You might also like to check out the story of Caleb’s daughter Aksah in Joshua 15.

Fiona is a follower of Jesus by identity and by trade a teacher of Science. She studied at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

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