Moses was a feminist. For his time, at least in one important legal decision. And five women forced his hand. Here’s how it worked, according to Edith Deen, author of the classic “All of the Women of the Bible.”
Up until about 3500 years ago in the Near East, women had no property rights (no surprise there). When a man died, if he did not have sons, his daughters inherited nothing.
Until that one sunny day in Egypt long ago, when Zelophehad, the father of five daughters* and no sons, passed away. The daughters — especially inspired because a census was being taken to determine who would receive property in the Promised Land when it was conquered — pressed their case. No property in Egypt, none in the Promised Land.
The women asked this question of Moses: (which was diplomatically quite astute, as it would appeal to all men who had no male children): “Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give us a possession among our father’s brethren.” (RSV, Numbers 27:4)
Moses took the matter to God. And God ruled in favor of the daughters, causing Moses to write a new law, saying if there were no brothers or sons, daughters would receive the inheritance. A short time later, that ruling was broadened to say that women could marry whoever they choose, provided they marry within the family of their father’s tribe. That case was quoted as recently as 1924 (American Bar Association Journal), as a declaratory judgement.
By today’s standards, this ruling would still be pejorative, favoring sons over daughters and proclaiming that women must marry within their tribe. But it was a major step then, giving considerably more financial and legal status to women than they had known before.
The daughters’ names are Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. (These are five of the 188 named women in the Bible.) Cheers to them!