So far in our study of the relevant biblical laws about maternal lines , most of the restrictions on marriage have been on the male side. There exists one exception to the case where women were free to marry while some men were restricted further than one would expect, and that case involves female heirs. This particular limitation comes as a result of one of the more fascinating stories in the Book of Numbers, and illustrates a different kind of law than many people are used to. To put it broadly, there are two types of laws that we find in the Bible. The first type of law is based on law that is established from above, from God through Moses and enforced by civil and religious authorities. It is that type of law that we have looked at so far. This particular law, though, came about because of a case that wound its way up to Moses through Israel’s appellate process, and it gives a fascinating insight into the different issues that shape the passage of laws.
Let us first provide the citations of the two relevant passages relating to the marriage of female heirs and then comment upon them on how they are relevant to our interest in understanding the importance of maternal ancestry in scripture. The first of these laws is stated in Numbers 27:1-11: “The daughters of Zelophehad son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, belonged to the clans of Manasseh son of Joseph. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah. They came forward and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.” So Moses brought their case before the Lord, and the Lord said to him, “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them. “Say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies and leaves no son, give his inheritance to his daughter. If he has no daughter, give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. If his father had no brothers, give his inheritance to the nearest relative in his clan, that he may possess it. This is to have the force of law for the Israelites, as the Lord commanded Moses.’””
The second law, which dealt with some of the repercussions of this law, is written in Numbers 36:1-13: ”
The family heads of the clan of Gilead son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, who were from the clans of the descendants of Joseph, came and spoke before Moses and the leaders, the heads of the Israelite families. They said, “When the Lord commanded my lord to give the land as an inheritance to the Israelites by lot, he ordered you to give the inheritance of our brother Zelophehad to his daughters. Now suppose they marry men from other Israelite tribes; then their inheritance will be taken from our ancestral inheritance and added to that of the tribe they marry into. And so part of the inheritance allotted to us will be taken away. When the Year of Jubilee for the Israelites comes, their inheritance will be added to that of the tribe into which they marry, and their property will be taken from the tribal inheritance of our ancestors.” Then at the Lord’s command Moses gave this order to the Israelites: “What the tribe of the descendants of Joseph is saying is right. This is what the Lord commands for Zelophehad’s daughters: They may marry anyone they please as long as they marry within their father’s tribal clan. No inheritance in Israel is to pass from one tribe to another, for every Israelite shall keep the tribal inheritance of their ancestors. Every daughter who inherits land in any Israelite tribe must marry someone in her father’s tribal clan, so that every Israelite will possess the inheritance of their ancestors. No inheritance may pass from one tribe to another, for each Israelite tribe is to keep the land it inherits.” So Zelophehad’s daughters did as the Lord commanded Moses. Zelophehad’s daughters—Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milkah and Noah—married their cousins on their father’s side. They married within the clans of the descendants of Manasseh son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in their father’s tribe and clan. These are the commands and regulations the Lord gave through Moses to the Israelites on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.”
Let us first summarize these two laws. In the first case, we have the daughters of Zelophehad suing in order to inherit, and God says it is right that daughters should inherit if there are no sons, in part of a chain of inheritance. It is also curious to note that the young women involved make it clear that their father was not disloyal to Moses–they may have thought that as women they might not receive a fair hearing, but they did. In the second case, a countersuit is brought from the leaders of the tribe of Manasseh of which the young women were a part, with the concern that if the women were free to marry anyone that the land would pass from their tribe to the tribe of their husbands and would permanently be alienated from the tribe of maternal inheritance. God then gave the same reply that it is right that they bring up these concerns, with the result that female heirs were restricted from marrying into other tribes. After that, the legal issues were settled and it became a matter of enforcement.
Having seen that God was fair-minded with the concerns of both the women and their relatives, and that he showed no partiality but respected the way that both parties thought out their cases and made the right implications. To deny inheritance to daughters outright would be to eradicate family lines much faster, and to recognize that a family line could continue through a daughter indicates that the maternal line of ancestry was of importance to God, and that the survival of heirs through the maternal line would keep a family line going in God’s eyes. This is, of course, quite significant when we look at the issue of genealogy and inheritance. However, the way that inheritance law worked meant that a female heir’s land would pass to her own male heirs through her husband and would be associated with his tribe and family, and this would make heiresses a target for those who wanted to increase the holdings of their family and tribe. As a result of these complications, women could inherit, but were then limited as to who they could marry, although the prospects of an heiress bringing land into a family would make such women more than usually attractive because of what they brought to the marriage. Normally, as we have seen, there was a bride price for virgins so men (or their families) had to pay out in order to obtain wives, but in the case where an heiress was being married, there could very easily be a net gain to a family such a woman was marrying into, which would make such young women highly sought after by potential partners.
Ultimately, though the restriction on marriage for female heirs was meant to protect such women. After all, in order to inherit they would have to be without brothers and their father would have to be dead. In a world like that of ancient Israel, women without the protection of near male relatives would not be in an ideal state, and the knowledge that their female relatives were of worth to the family as a whole would encourage cousins and uncles to stand up in defense of their womenfolk. God knew the power of self-interest, and we can see plenty of it here. As it happened, the daughters of Zelophehad, about whom so much ink was spent in scripture, far more than one would expect for some of the more obscure women of ancient Israel, ended up marrying their male cousins, and everyone seems content about how it worked. Women were given the right of inheritance, but their freedom to marry was limited so that they would not become the target of theft by other tribes, and so the needs and interests of the family and tribe as well as the women themselves was taken into account. One can scarcely imagine a better outcome in the world of ancient Israel, or a much more fairness even in our own contemporary legal system.
 See, for example: