The Daughters of Tzelofchad and the Elders of Menashe – Identity, Interests, and Differentiation
The first two chapters of Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Genesis discussed the Bible’s interest in teaching us about real-life trade-offs. We already know from our own lives that we truly cannot “have our cake and eat it too.” And because we would prefer to ignore this truth, the Torah makes a point of frequently repeating the notion that we must make choices about what is the most valuable – or alternatively, the least undesirable – course of action. This means that biblical characters rarely live “happily ever after.” They make difficult choices and have to live with the resultant consequences.(1) Yet, had it been otherwise, the Bible would have been a book of fairy tales that would not have had the tremendous transformative and inspirational power that it has had for so much of human history. In the book of Bemidbar, the theme of trade-offs is examined again with the petition of the five daughters of Tzelofchad from the tribe of Menashe and the subsequent counter-petition of that tribe’s elders. These fatherless, brotherless sisters come out of nowhere,(2) questioning an assumed status quo that their late father’s portion in the Land of Israel will go to the male next of kin. They are successful in their petition, and God reveals that the assumption was actually faulty and that it is, truly, daughters who are next in line in such a situation. Several chapters later, the tribal leaders from Menashe challenge the new status quo with their own concern: that if these women marry men from another tribe, their birth tribe will end up losing part of its inheritance. They too are successful, and the women appear to be commanded to marry only within their tribe. But whether this is an actual commandment or not,(3) the story goes on to tell us that the daughters of Tzelofchad do indeed follow God’s preference and marry within their own tribe.
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1 See Redeeming Relevance in Genesis, Chap. 2.
2 Their story appears in Bemidbar 27:1–11. The first we hear of the existence of the sisters and the fact that they did not have brothers is in Bemidbar 26:33, in a general genealogical list.
Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Numbers, written by Rabbi Francis Nataf and published by Urim Publications in 2014.
This chapter was excerpted with permission by the author.