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B'Midbar/Numbers 27:4 Give us a possession in the midst of the brothers of our father.
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This short imperative phrase is the climax to the arguments made by the five daughters of Zelophehad before "Moshe, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting" (B'Midbar 27:2, NJPS) to claim the right to an inheritance in the Land. The first word of the phrase, - the Qal imperative ms form of the root , to give, with a paragogic hay - is very clear. They are demanding that their claim should be acknowledged; that they should be given a portion of land in their father's name. For what exactly are they asking? The word - a fs noun from the root , "to seize, take, hold" - is usually translated as 'possession'. According to David Clines, means a "possession, inheritance, property"1, while the more common - from the root , "to inherit, take possession of, hold as a possession" - means an "inheritance, possession, inalienable hereditary property."2 That may sound like a tiny difference - and the words do have significant overlap - but the is a gift or grant, as from a sovereign, and only becomes an inheritance when it passes to the next generation. This is critical because of the Year of Jubilee; at the Jubilee, land returns to its inalienable owner. Essentially, the daughters of Zelophehad are not asking for themselves, but for their children, for whom the portion of land would be their inalienable and ancestral holding, secure to them and their families for all time.
What is their argument - why do they think that they can make such a strong claim before Moshe and the assembly of the people? Let's go back a verse and a half and hear what they said. They started with the bald statement that their father died in the wilderness. He was one of the exodus generation, one of the adult males held responsible for the decision, thirty eight years ago, to hear the bad majority report of the ten spies sent to scout out the Land from Kadesh Barnea. And, as they go on to say, he "died for his own sin" (v. 3, NJPS). The judgement ofHaShem that "none of the men who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed Me, shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers; none of those who spurn Me shall see it" (14:22-23, NJPS), fell on him.
In between, however, Zelophehad's daughters remind Moshe and the elders that "he was not one of the faction, Korah's faction, which banded together against the L-RD" (27:3, NJPS). Why is this significant? Because those people not only died but "they and all that belonged to them ... perished from the midst of the assembly" (16:33, NJPS) - the equivalent of being cut off from their people, without trace or inheritance. TheSforno comments that "the sole punishment for [Zelophehad's] sin was that he would die, but not that his possessions would be denied his heirs."
The Torah will later confirm personal responsibility for sin - "Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime" (D'varim 24:16, NJPS) - and echoed by the prophets: "every one shall die for his own sins" (Jeremiah 31:30, NJPS) and "The person who sins, he alone shall die. A child shall not share the burden of a parent's guilt, nor shall a parent share the burden of a child's guilt" (Ezekiel 18:20, NJPS). Zelophehad has, in the words of Bekhor Shor, "paid for his sin by his death."
Zelophehad was different, however, from most of the exodus generation: he "left no sons" (B'Midbar 27:3, NJPS). Whilst they had sons who would inherit their share in the allocation of the Promised Land, Zelophehad did not. However lovely daughters may be - and they are lovely, indeed - in those days, they could not inherit. Under the normal rules, the inheritance would pass to the nearest male relative and so Zelophehad's name and status as a landowner would cease to exist, just as if he had been one of Korah's faction. This is the crux of the daughters' argument: "Let not our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no son!" (v. 4, NJPS). He has already paid for his sins with his own life and not being able to enter the Land; don't punish him twice and give him no legacy or ancestral line for grand-children as if he had been one of Korah's rebels.Hirsch puts these words in the daughters' lips: "Why should the name of our father, just because he left no son but only daughters, not be counted in the family and entirely disappear? Let us be counted in the place of our father ... and give us the portion of the possession which he, were he alive, would have had the right to receive amongst his brothers, as Hepher's sons."
The daughters appeal to Moshe not directly for themselves, although they would of course initially benefit from having a land possession to work and from which to generate income, but for the sake of their children, who would carry the name and inalienable ancestral property rights of their grand-father. Jacob Milgrom explains the basic assumption that "a name exists as long as it is attached to land." The Jubilee returns land to its ancestral owner or, if he has died, to his heirs. The daughters complain that "the property that would have gone to their father will go to his brothers instead and the family holding in his name will be lost" (Friedman).
We can see from this discussion that the possession of an inalienable holding was of paramount importance. The action of returning land to its ancestral owners in the Jubilee prevented the permanent accumulation of land - and hence, wealth - in the hands of a very few, so guaranteeing a society in which no-one can be denied the rights of basic land ownership and the ability to generate a living for themselves. The Torah contains rules valuing the sale of land, either in the event of poverty or for commercial reasons, on the basis of how many years remain until the Jubilee. What is really being valued and traded is the yield of a certain number of crop cycles rather than land itself, because that will always revert to the original owner or their family in the Jubilee. Houses, vehicles and other commodities are traded on the same basis today. A house may be sold on a fifty year lease; at the end of that time, operating ownership returns to the owner of the freehold and the current resident must find alternative accommodation. A vehicle may be leased for two, three or perhaps five years; the lessee drives and uses it as if it were his own, paying 'rent' each month and probably an up-front deposit. At the end of the lease period, the vehicle must be returned to the lessor and the lessee is left with nothing.
Biblical Greek uses two words to describe things that are temporary as against things that are permanent. Temporary things are described using the adjective , perishable or corruptible. Things that a permanent are described as , imperishable, incorruptible or eternal. Rav Sha'ul uses both words in one verse when he observes that, "Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable" (1 Corinthians 9:25, ESV). He compares athletes competing in the Isthmian Games (held every two years, almost on the doorstep of Corinth) with believers. "Competitors did everything," comments Anthony Thistleton, "to win a crown, even a garland (traditionally made of pine leaves) that fades and disintegrates." He points out that "Runners and athletes will go to extreme lengths for a transitory prize and a reputation that lasts only momentarily," while the followers of Yeshua are, "invited to exercise and self-control on the journey that leads to lasting glory."3
Peter uses the same two words to describe our status as believers in Yeshua: "you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of G-d" (1 Peter 1:23, ESV). Our very nature has changed from temporary and subject to decay and corruption - we might say, mortal - to permanent and proof against decay or corruption. How has this happened? "Through the word of G-d," Peter says and quotes from the prophet to prove his point: "for 'All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the L-rd remains forever.' And this word is the good news that was preached to you" (vv. 24-25, ESV). Wayne Grudem explains that "this heavenly inheritance is 'imperishable', meaning that it is not subject to decay, unable to be worn out with the passage of time ... unpolluted by sin and containing nothing unworthy of G-d's full approval."4 Hearing and receiving the word of G-d - the imperishable seed - makes our inheritance in Messiah Yeshua not only permanent but inalienable, for "the gifts and the calling of G-d are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29, ESV).
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 12.
2. - Cline, page 268.
3. - Anthony C. Thistleton, 1 Corinthians - A Shorter Exegetical & Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), page 146.
4. - Wayne A. Grudem, 1 Peter TNTC, (Nottingham, Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), page 62.
Further Study: Joshua 17:3-6; Matthew 6:19-21; James 1:16-18
Application: What kind of holding do you have? Are you holding something that is begged, borrowed or chas v'shalom - stolen from someone else? Are you hoping to inherit someone else's blessing, hanging on their coat-tails, so to speak? Do you worry that your holding is or may go beyond it's best-before date? There's only one kind of deal in town - the real deal - and it always comes directly, personally and permanently from the Owner Himself. Speak to Him today and make sure you know where you stand!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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