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Of Noah and Her Sisters

Noah—that’s the number-one boys’ name in the USA in the year of our Lord 2024, according to BabyCenter.com. I find this particularly interesting considering that “Noah” is also one of the names of the five daughters of Zelophehad found in the biblical book of Numbers. Does her name ring a bell? I hope so—it shows up multiple times.

We first read about Noah and her sisters in the text that records two censuses of the people of Israel. God calls for these countings of the people forty years after the exodus from Egypt as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. Oddly enough, the story where we find the women appears in listings of people having these qualifications: “from twenty years old and upward, by their fathers’ houses, all in Israel who are able to go forth to war” (Numbers 26:2). That is, males, 20+ years old, by their male lineage. The census is organized by clans who descended from Jacob (son of Isaac and Rebekah) to the tenth generation through first-born sons. The descendants through Joseph’s son, Manasseh, appear with these names:

            [Joseph]

  1. Manasseh
  2. Machir
  3. Gilead
  4. Ie’zer
  5. Helek
  6. Asriel
  7. Shechem
  8. Shemi’da
  9. Hepher
  10. Zelophehad

That last one on the list, Zelophehad, has no sons—only daughters. Five of them. As land in Israel must stay within a tribal clan through the males, those possessing land are named. But therein lies the problem: The text says Zelophehad had only Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Like the five women in Jesus’s genealogy, these females stand out in a record of otherwise male lineage. And any time we find named women standing out in an all-male context in the Bible, we need to pay attention.

What happens to the land in such a case? That’s what these daughters would like to know. So they approach the leaders with a proposal: 

“And they [the five] stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the leaders and all the congregation, at the door of the tent of meeting, saying, ‘Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from his family, because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brethren’” (Num. 27:2–4).

These daughters are addressing a powerful group: Moses, God’s spokesperson; Eleazar, the priest; and the leaders of all the congregation.

The daughters explain to them that their father was not aligned with the company of Korah, whom God killed for rebellion (Num 16). Rather, their father died with the entire first generation post-Egypt (except Joshua and Caleb), as God had decreed (14:10, 22–23).

Having established their father deserves to be remembered, the daughters issue a bold imperative: “Give to us a possession among our father’s brethren” (v. 4). Biblical scholar Ronald B. Allen observes, “Their action in approaching the leaders of the nation was unprecedented, a great act of courage, conviction, and faith.”[1]   

One might expect Moses to respond with, “Sorry. Land is a guy thing.” But instead Moses takes their case directly to God for an answer.

And God gives what some might consider a surprising reply: “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘The daughters of Zelophehad are right; you shall give them possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren and cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them’” (vv. 6–7).

The ruling becomes legal code for future generations who have died without male heirs.

One might think, “Okay. Well enough. Done.” Yet the story isn’t over. Readers encounter the names Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah again. In fact, this story is referenced in Numbers 26, Numbers 27, Numbers 36, Joshua 17, and 1 Chronicles 7. And not only that, but in four of the five places where the daughters are mentioned, we find their names spelled out: 

Numbers 26                Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah

Numbers 27                Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah

Numbers 36                Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah

Joshua 17                    Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah

1 Chronicles 7             Mentioned, but not listed by name

The very presence of the females’ names is significant. As scholar Wilda Gafney observes, “The recitation of the women’s names in four of the five texts in which their story is told is extraordinary, given the paucity of women’s names in Scripture. According to Carol Meyers, of the 1,426 personal names that appear in the Hebrew text, 1,315 are or are presumed to be male. That means that there are only about 111 female personal names in the Scriptures of Israel, representing a mere 9 percent of the characters in the First Testament. ”[2]

And these women are not merely referenced, which would be unusual enough. No, their names are spelled out in four of the five times where they are mentioned.

In Numbers 36, we read that the women reappear. As the story goes, male members of their clan have expressed concern that these women might marry outside their tribe. That means any children they had would descend from fathers of other tribes. So, inherited land belonging to Manasseh would go to a different tribe. The solution: The women agree to marry anyone they please, as long as they marry within their clan.

The story of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah has served as inspiration for women through the centuries. Mary Astell, writing in 1730, said, “The World will hardly allow a Woman to say anything well, unless, as she borrows it from Men, or as assisted by them: But God Himself allows that the Daughters of Zelophehad spake right, and passes their Request into a Law.”[3] People in many generations have drawn courage both from the boldness of these women and in God’s affirmation of their request. Their story demonstrates God’s care and justice; and the five names hint that, while Zelophehad had no sons, he left a great legacy.

Through the daughters of Zelophehad God proves himself once again to be the God of what is right. Through these women’s wisdom and advocacy, they became part of the establishment of a new legal code that both corrects an injustice for women and honors their father’s memory.  

I understand Millennials are choosing “strange” baby names to emphasize their children’s individualism. Whatever one might think of the trend, it has potential to help us retell some neglected stories. Perhaps this is just the year to add five names to the list of “girl” options: Mahlah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, and—ironically—Noah.   


[1] Allen, Ronald B. “Numbers” in Barker, Kenneth and John R. Kohlenberger III, NIV Bible Commentary Vol. 1: Old Testament, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992, p. 223.

[2] Gafney, Wilda C. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017, p. 157. Citing Carol Meyers’s essay, “Everyday Life,” in Carol. A Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992).

[3] Astell, Mary. Some Reflections on Marriage (4th ed). London: William Parker, 1730,  

  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/61143/61143-h/61143-h.htm accessed June 25, 2024.

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.

2 Comments

  • Melanie Newton

    I love this account, Sandra. What especially inspires me is what you did not include from the rest of Numbers 36. In Numbers 36:5-12, the Lord commanded through Moses that those five women not marry outside of their clan. The women not only agreed with the Lord’s command, they actually obeyed it (verse 10). They did not fight against the restriction of what they could do within their “rights.” That is just as important today as it was back then. Are Christian women today willing to let God put any restrictions on what they consider to be their “rights?” Food for thought and discussion.

  • Sandra Glahn

    I had wrongly listed the reference as chapter 26 instead of 36—numbers are corrected now. Thank you. I can see that was confusing. I was actually trying to summarize Chapter 36 when I said, “The solution: The women agree to marry anyone they please, as long as they marry within their clan.”

    Thanks for engaging and for your work helping women grow as disciples, no matter what the cost.

    In the case of this section of Scripture, I don’t think these five women would have viewed the limitation as a sacrifice, a giving up of their rights, which is why I didn’t go that direction. Since their initial concern was their father’s legacy, which required keeping the land within the tribe, I imagine for them this new directive aligned with that desire and they were happy to oblige.

    Since I’m here, I’ll add something unrelated to your comment. After I published the post, I began to wonder if the city “Tirzah” was named for the sister in this group who bore that name. And sure enough the geographical location “Tirzah” is in Manasseh. Down in the rabbit hole of research, I even found a map a scholar created after he had traced the names of the sisters and connected three of them with place names in the territory of Manasseh. So their father’s name is remembered in multiple ways through the love they showed.

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