I know Moshe was old, tired, frustrated, perhaps a bit angry. Nevertheless I am left wondering why Moshe found the case of the daughters of Zelophehad so difficult to decide such that he turned to G”d for an answer.
G”d provided that answer, and a rather direct one at that.
The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them. Numbers 27:7 JPS
The rabbis spin it, as usual, both ways. One tradition holds that Moshe seeking G”d’s help was meant to inform future generations of leaders that it was an acceptable thing to do, and one should not be ashamed of seeking G”ds help when one cannot seem to come up with an answer, solution, or decision. Another midrashic tradition views this as a humiliation for Moshe. His inability to come to a decision, or to know what the law should be in this case is punished by G”d through allowing the women to effectively make the decision, and allowing their position to stand. (I think this interpretation is a stretch at best, and so glaringly misogynist as to be embarrassing. I also think it conflicts with the somewhat direct meaning of G”d’s answer.)
We have to put the request of Zelophehad’s daughters into context. It’s not really about any extant real property, it’s a about line of succession, and insuring that their clan will be duly awarded their piece of the promised land when it is apportioned out. The “inheriting” daughter in reality inherits nothing. She is merely a vehicle for the transference of the future inheritance from father to grandson. So, as much as we like to trumpet this story as evidence of early examples in Judaism of extending equal rights and treatment to women, it is simply not so. (It should also be noted that, while inheritance by a daughter is unusual in Ancient Near East culture, it is not without precedence, and in fact Sumerian law, pre-dating the presumed Biblical period by 1000 years or so also allows for an unmarried daughter to inherit when there are no sons.)
The rules of succession stipulated here really provide only a stopgap measure to insure a clan’s continuity. It would also appear here that Zelophehad’s wife was no longer among the living, or else a levirate marriage would be in the offing. It can also be assumed that the five daughters were unmarried. Had they been married, their inheritances would have passed on to the clans of their husbands, and Zelophehad’s inheritance would not have remained in his clan (and that, after all, is what his daughter’s were using as the basis for their claim. How selfless. Ahem.)
Five unmarried daughters? And a dead wife, to boot. How likely is that? No wonder Moshe was puzzled. It was truly an unusual circumstance. Yet the solution seems so obvious, so apparent, that I still find myself asking why Moshe felt it necessary to turn to G”d for the answer. (This is all the more the case knowing that there were precedents for daughters inheriting already dating back a millennia.)
So now the question arises-is G”d a misogynist? G”ds mastery of the subtleties of Hebrew is apparent in G”d’s answer. The instruction is to “transfer (ha’avarta, from the root ayin-bet-resh) the inheritance of their father to them.” The rabbis are quick to point out that, in the following verses, and elsewhere in Torah, inheritances are given (un’tatem, from the root n-t-n in these specific verses) to sons and male relatives and only in the case of women is there merely a transfer. The inheritance is passed through the women, not passed on to them. (The root ayin-bet-resh can mean pass over, pass through, pass by, over step. In verse 7, the verb is in a hifil form, meaning to allow to pass over/through/by, allow to be overlooked, and herein translated as transferred.)
So much for that big moment of gender equality in ancient Israelite thought. Now, whether the misogyny is G”d’s or that of the authors/redactors of the Torah is a question I leave to you.
G”d could certainly have said: “Duh! Look, Moshe, this really is a no brainer. Let the daughters inherit.” (Some might argue this is exactly what G”d did say!) Yet G”d (or the redactors) chose to make women merely the agent of transfer. Imagine how different our world might be if G”d had said (or even the redactors had put in G”d’s mouth the words) “No sons, no problem. Women can inherit. In fact, come to think of it, women are to be treated equally to men in all things, save those circumstances when biology intervenes.” Now that would have been a history-changing idea.
Nevertheless, here I am back where I started. Unsure why Moshe deferred on this particular problem and passed the buck to G”d. Why was Moshe so unsure? Or afraid? Or worried? Or concerned? Did he fear offending someone? Was he afraid of making the wrong choice and thus angering G”d? Could it get any worse for him? Already he wasn’t getting to go into the promised land. Could it simply be that Moshe was simply sick of it all and just said “eff it, let G”d decide?” Was Moshe motivated by fear, boredom, anger, indifference or something else entirely? The text provides no obvious clues. Guess I’ll have to dig a little deeper. Or just let Moshe off the hook. Not sure I’m feeling that generous this week, but who knows. what about you?
©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Pinkhas 5771 – Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
Pinkhas 5770 – Thanking Those Who Didn’t Make It
Pinkhas 5769-Why is This Rebuke Different From All Other Rebukes?
Pinkhas 5768 – Still Zealous After all These Years
Pinhas 5766-Let’s Give Moshe a Hand
Pinkhas 5765-Kol D’mamah Dakah
Pinchas 5762 — I Still Get Zealous
Pinchas 5764/5760-It Just Is!