Sometimes sisters became famous because of a brother. Like Miriam and her famous brother Moses, or Dianna and her twelve famous brothers, the sons of Jacob. Other sisters are always thought of in famous pairs. Like Mary and Martha, Ruth and Orpah, or Rachael and Leah. But one set of sisters remains virtually unknown although their courage changed history for most of the world.
The sister’s names were Mahlah, Noah, Tirzah, Hoglah, and Milcah. (Yes, there is a woman in the Bible named Noah). They were born sometime after Moses parted the Red Sea and reach adulthood before the walls of Jericho fell down. We could say these ladies changed things because of their “courage” but the American slang word “moxie” may fit their character better. What they did was certainly courageous, but they were not battling against an enemy or even a threat. Rather, they saw a social norm that needed to be changed and respectfully, persistently pushed the authorities with clarity and reasoning until the mountain moved.
Their story is found in the twenty-seventh chapter of Numbers. Miriam was dead. Aaron was dead. Of the three siblings, only Moses remained and soon he, too, would join the others. But before he departed, he sat in order both the leadership and the laws that would govern the new nation. Part of those laws concerned the way the new land into which they were marching would be divided. Who would get what and under which conditions needed to be settled or when the war started the twelve tribes might stop fighting the enemy and start fighting each other.
Things were proceeding in a very orderly fashion when the sisters shook things up a bit. The Bible says they “stood before Moses, before Eleazar the priest, and before the leaders and all the congregation, by the doorway of the tabernacle of the meeting.” In our culture that would be a bit like walking into the Oval office or testifying before congress. The “door of the tabernacle” was where serious business was conducted and laws handed down. In a male dominated culture, women didn’t usually show up there—and especially not single women. And, most especial single women who wanted to talk about a new idea no one had ever thought of before.
Moses’ plan was to give the conquered land to family groups determined according to genealogies traced through the men. So-and so, the son of such-and-such would receive x-number of acres until all the land had been parceled out. It seemed like a good plan to Moses and the elders. After all, it was the way things had always been done. Then the girls showed up at the door and things got complicated.
Mahlah, Noah, Tirzah, Hoglah, and Milcah had no father or brother or husband through which they could inherit. And, their problem had larger implications. What about widows or other single women in the future? Moses hadn’t thought about that and he wasn’t exactly sure how to solve the problem. So, he did what everyone should do in such circumstance. He took the question to the Lord.
God’s answer left no room for doubt. “The daughters of Zelophehad speak what is right; you shall surely give them a possession of inheritance among their father’s brothers, and cause the inheritance of their father to pass to his daughter.” It was a radical idea for the times but the Jews obeyed generation after generation.
Although surrounded by cultures where women were little more than chattel for men to move about or discard as they pleased, the law of female inheritance rights glared in sharp contrast to the “norm” but it always had ramifications far into the future. Even to us. Our own law and American constitution are rooted in English common law and the English common law finds its roots in the Old Testament including the law of female inheritance rights.
Because these five sisters who stood up for what they believed right, thousands—even millions—of people have been touched. But, what about us today? Have you considered the far-reaching nature of causes you champion? Is there an injustice you need to speak out against or a new idea just waiting to be said? You could make a difference for generations to come.
You will find the story of these five sisters in Numbers 26:33; 27:1-11 and Joshua 17:1-6.