There are two separate stories in this chapter, though they both relate to preparations for entering the Promised Land.
The first is the story of Zelophehad’s daughters, who are, impressively, all given names (Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah). This story has gotten a certain amount of clout among liberal bloggers I read, who read it and say “Aha! Look! God can change his mind on laws he’s given if you present a case that they’re unjust! This allows us to challenge other unjust laws in the Bible!”
When I first read the blogs on this, I was fairly impressed with that interpretation as well. The problem now is that I’ve actually read all the laws listed prior to this and in none of them does God ever explain how inheritance works. This is literally the first time God has spoken on it.
There’s been plenty of talk about inheritance, and the standard assumption is that only sons inherit. Without a son, you pass your good, lands, and rights on to your younger siblings and nephews. In other words, it’s all very patriarchal.
What Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah are protesting isn’t a divine mandate, it is generally accepted cultural custom. And I think that’s the “liberal” message to get out of this – do not confuse generally accepted cultural custom with the word of God.
We do that all the time. The idea of wives as “homemakers,” for example, didn’t really emerge until the 1800s among upper class people. Women not having to work was a sign that you were wealthy. What counts as acceptable clothing for different genders has varied wildly across cultures and time. No modern Christians or Jews dress like people did in ancient Israel. Democracy, capitalism, all the American systems we treat as divinely ordained – no, they’re human creations, the best we can do in a messed up world.
Never confuse the status quo with the law of God. Because, as Zelophehad’s gutsy daughters found out, God’s will may be the opposite of what society expects.
The second story is the appointing of Joshua as Moses’ heir. I don’t have a lot to say about that. The only thing that particularly sticks out is how it’s made clear that Joshua receives only “some of [Moses’] authority” (v 21), but to know God’s will, he can’t see God in person the way Moses did, instead relying on Eleazar and the Urim, the obscure divination device that the priest had (v 22). This means, intriguingly, that from now on all voices from God are explicitly being interpreted by a human.
Are all priests infallible as well? Or can they misinterpret the will of God? Is that why the phenomenon of prophets eventually appears?
The Japanese: uttae “lawsuit, complaint” (v 5), shoyuuchi “land of one’s own” (v 7), somuku “to go against, to disobey” (v 14), shiki suru “to command,” ninmei suru “to appoint” (v 16), gaisen suru “to return in triumph” (v 17), gen’i “authority” (v 20).