Numbers 26:33Obviously, one key point to notice here is that patriarchy is the default, with the case of the daughters of Zelophehad providing an exception to the general rule.
And Zelophehad the son of Hepher had no sons, but daughters: and the names of the daughters of Zelophehad were Mahlah, and Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.
But Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, had no sons, but daughters: and these are the names of his daughters, Mahlah, and Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.
1 Chronicles 7:15
And Machir took to wife the sister of Huppim and Shuppim, whose sister's name was Maachah;) and the name of the second was Zelophehad: and Zelophehad had daughters.
Then came the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph: and these are the names of his daughters; Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.
And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, "Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not in the company of them that gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah; but died in his own sin, and had no sons. Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he hath no son? Give unto us therefore a possession among the brethren of our father."
And Moses brought their cause before the Lord.
And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, "The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father's brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter. And if he have no daughter, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his brethren. And if he have no brethren, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his father's brethren. And if his father have no brethren, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his kinsman that is next to him of his family, and he shall possess it:" and it shall be unto the children of Israel a statute of judgment, as the Lord commanded Moses.
The general rule is that the son inherits, not the daughters. Thus, the inheritance stays within the male-defined family. Nevertheless, if there are no male descendants, if the daughters cannot inherit, the male's name would be cut off. Thus, similar to the levirate law (for raising up heirs to childless men) the daughters of Zelophehad provision permits daughters to inherit for/from their father when they don't have any brothers.
The law did not immediately jump to the father's brethren (although it goes there next), but note that if there are no brethren, it does not go to his sister(s), it goes to his nearest kinsman (which might be the husband of one of his sisters, but it might not be). In addition to the obvious benefit to the daughters of Zelophehad, this law made levirate marriage unnecessary in the case where men died without male heirs - there was no need to raise up an heir by proxy, because the daughters could be heirs.
However, this provision for women to inherit in certain cases could lead to a potential problem. After all, unlike the levirate law situation, the daughters are not receiving a son via a proxy marriage, instead they are receiving land that will permit them to marry. But what if they marry a non-Israelite or a member of another tribe? The land could get redistributed away from a tribe, if that were the case.
Thus, in Numbers 36, further clarification came:
Numbers 36:1-13Thus, the daughters of Zelophehad were generally permitted to marry whomever they wished, but were restricted to marry within their tribe. They ended up marrying their first cousins, which maintained the land within their grandfather's line.
And the chief fathers of the families of the children of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of the sons of Joseph, came near, and spake before Moses, and before the princes, the chief fathers of the children of Israel: and they said, "The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for an inheritance by lot to the children of Israel: and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of Zelophehad our brother unto his daughters. And if they be married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the children of Israel, then shall their inheritance be taken from the inheritance of our fathers, and shall be put to the inheritance of the tribe whereunto they are received: so shall it be taken from the lot of our inheritance. And when the jubile of the children of Israel shall be, then shall their inheritance be put unto the inheritance of the tribe whereunto they are received: so shall their inheritance be taken away from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers."
And Moses commanded the children of Israel according to the word of the Lord, saying, "The tribe of the sons of Joseph hath said well. This is the thing which the Lord doth command concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, saying, 'Let them marry to whom they think best; only to the family of the tribe of their father shall they marry.' So shall not the inheritance of the children of Israel remove from tribe to tribe: for every one of the children of Israel shall keep himself to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. And every daughter, that possesseth an inheritance in any tribe of the children of Israel, shall be wife unto one of the family of the tribe of her father, that the children of Israel may enjoy every man the inheritance of his fathers. Neither shall the inheritance remove from one tribe to another tribe; but every one of the tribes of the children of Israel shall keep himself to his own inheritance."
Even as the Lord commanded Moses, so did the daughters of Zelophehad: for Mahlah, Tirzah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, were married unto their fathers brothers' sons: and they were married into the families of the sons of Manasseh the son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in the tribe of the family of their father.
These are the commandments and the judgments, which the Lord commanded by the hand of Moses unto the children of Israel in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho.
Notice that the tribal affiliation was determined by the father as the general rule. However, also notice that the rule for the daughters of Zelophehad was not the general rule.
In other words, there was no general requirement that men only give their daughters to their fellow tribesmen. Thus, we see Elizabeth and Mary in the New Testament being described as related, even though Elizabeth was married to a priest from the tribe of Levi, and Mary was married to Joseph, of the tribe of Judah. Likewise, women generally were not free to marry whomever they wished. Thus, we see the daughter of Jephthah mourning her single state in Judges, when her father "sacrifices" her evidently by prohibiting her from marrying anyone at all.
Thus, we should not misinterpret the case of the daughters of Zelophehad as some mandate for "racial purity" or call to near incest: it was about maintaining tribal land within the male-defined tribes.
Likewise, we should not misinterpret the case of the daughters of Zelophehad as suggesting that the general rule was that daughters married whoever they wanted. It is abundantly clear from the remainder of the law that the ordinary situation was that the father of daughters decided who they would marry.
The daughters of Zelophehad presented a unique case because their immediate patriarchy had, in God's providence, been destroyed. They had no father and no brother.
It is interesting to note that in this case, however, the daughters of Zelophehad were not simply handed over the trusteeship of their nearest kinsman. Rather, the death of their father and the absence of any brethren left them independent until marriage, like a widow or divorced woman was.
Thus, while patriarchy is a very important and central aspect of the administration of Israel, it is not absolute. Women were always under the rule of the male elders (in terms of tribal rule), but within the context of family rule, they were not always under the rule of men.