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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 27

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


The narration of only two events makes up this chapter. These are:

(1) the new legislation that came because of an appeal by the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27:1-11), and

(2) Joshua’s appointment as leader of Israel upon God’s announcement of the impending death of Moses.

The principal critical conceit with reference to this chapter is that which would relegate it to the status of a very late interpolation into the Pentateuch following the exile.(F1) The basis of such an error is the acceptance of a false premise. The false premise was stated thus by Gray: “There is no trace of such a right (the right of females to inherit) prior to the times of the exile.”(F2) That proposition is false, and so are all postulations based upon it. “In Egypt, where Israel had dwelt so long, inheritance passed through mothers, and under an extenuating circumstance, that is (exactly) what is being allowed in the text (here).”(F3) (For more on this, along with a Biblical example to the contrary, see under Numbers 27:5.) In addition, Keil cited another example from pre-Mosaic times in the instance of Jarha (1 Chronicles 2:21-22).(F4) Furthermore, the critical imagination that the post-exilic priesthood of Israel would have been in any manner whatever inclined to legislate on such a subject is ridiculous. The kings of Israel, long before the exile, ruthlessly and effectively destroyed the whole concept of the “unalienable ownership of the land,” as pertaining to the original tribes in perpetuity. The appeal, along with the arguments presented by the daughters of Zelophehad, would have been an impossibility during the period of history to which some critical scholars would arbitrarily assign this chapter.

Another favorite critical mistake in the interpretation of this chapter appears in this remark by Dummelow: “Moses receives intimation of his approaching death, and Joshua is appointed leader in his place.”(F5) The word “intimation” is not a correct designation of the information received by Moses about his impending death. Synonyms for intimation are hunch, hint, premonition, suggestion, etc.(F6) The Sacred Text flatly declares that God said unto Moses, “thou shalt be gathered unto thy fathers,” just as his brother Aaron died because of sin at Meribah. Back of Dummelow’s remark that Moses received an intimation of his death is the critical axiom that “God never said anything at all to Moses, or to anyone else”! Christians should not be deceived by that type of denial.

Verses 1-5


“Then drew near 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, at the door of the tent of meeting, saying, Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the company of them that gathered themselves together against Jehovah in the company of Korah: but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from among his family, because he had no son? Give unto us a possession among the brethren of our father. And Moses brought their cause before Jehovah.”

Some have complained that the genealogical information here given would seem to cover only about eight generations, which “is hardly in accord with the 470 years (sojourn in Egypt) required by the narrative; some links however may have been dropped.”(F7) Of course, this is an abbreviated list, as are doubtless many of the others in the Pentateuch. We should ever bear in mind that Moses had no intention here of furnishing us with an auditor’s record of all the things related. “The names of this passage are those of clans (or places), which is sufficient to show that this is not a history of certain individuals, but a mode of raising a legal point.”(F8)

Although no clear-cut legislation conferred rights of inheritance upon daughters, Cook informs us that the right surely existed long before the events of this chapter. Note:

“A father, whether or not sons had been born to him, had the power either before or at his death, to cause part of his estate to pass to a daughter; in which case her husband married into her family, rather than she into his; and the children were regarded as of the family from which the estate had come. A Biblical example of this is Machir, one of the ancestors of Zelophehad; although he had a son Gilead, he left also an inheritance to his daughter, the wife of Hezron of the tribe of Judah, by reason of which their descendants (including Jair) were reckoned as belonging to the tribe of Manasseh (Numbers 32:41; 1 Chronicles 2:21 ff).”(F9)

Jamieson is probably correct in his surmise that these daughters of Zelophehad brought up the subject of their inheritance because at that very moment Moses and the High Priest, and all the princes of the people were gathered in the tent of meeting, or near it, making plans to divide up the land of Canaan among males only, with their father’s house left out because there had been no sons of his to register. Consequently, they seized the opportunity to bring the matter to the attention of all the leaders of the people, which they effectively did.(F10)

“But he died in his own sin” (Numbers 27:3). This admission by the daughters of Zelophehad apparently refers to the general sin of all the children of Israel who refused to go up and possess Canaan (Numbers 14:26-30).(F11) They did not claim that their father was without sin, but that he was not guilty in the matter of Korah’s outright rebellion against Moses (and against God).

Verses 6-11

“And Jehovah 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 and ordinance, as Jehovah commanded Moses.”

It is of interest that the Hebrew text in the seventh verse here uses a masculine pronoun in the reference to the daughters of Zelophehad. Adam Clarke called this an error “due to some careless scribe,”(F12) but Jewish scholars believed a purpose lay behind such usage: “Because when a woman assumes an inheritance, she is like a man for all legal purposes; therefore, this verse refers to them in the masculine sense rather than in a feminine gender.”(F13) We believe that the Jewish viewpoint should be accepted.

“The daughters of Zelophehad speak right” (Numbers 27:7). “Speak right” here is awkward; and it appears Orlinsky is correct in rendering this clause, “The plea… is just.”(F14)

Current information has completely destroyed the critical allegations that would make this chapter a late addition dating near the end of the 7th century B.C. As Smick said:

“The custom of inalienable property (as mandated here) (and which required daughters to inherit in some cases) is now known to have been in practice LONG BEFORE the time of Moses, as the false adoptions of Nuzu testify (C. H. Gordon in O.T. Times, p. 101).”(F15)

The law of the inheritance of daughters (in cases where they had no brother) was that the land should pertain to their father’s brothers in perpetuity; and in case he had no brothers, it went to his uncles; and if there were no uncles, the “next of kin” inherited. The purpose of all this was to keep the land of Canaan within the tribes to whom it was originally allocated; that this was the case appears in Numbers 36 where the law was amended to prevent any marriage of the inheriting daughters outside of their tribe. The civilization of the ancient Jews was built upon the land; and it was a great crime for a Jew to part with his inheritance. The incident of Ahab and the vineyard of Naboth highlights this and also shows how mercilessly the evil kings of Israel destroyed the whole concept of inalienable ownership of the land.

Verses 12-14

“And Jehovah said unto Moses, Get thee up into this mountain of Abarim, and behold the land which I have given unto the children of Israel. And when thou hast seen it, thou also shalt be gathered unto thy people, as Aaron thy brother was gathered; because ye rebelled against my word in the wilderness of Zin, in the strife of the congregation, to sanctify me at the waters before their eyes. (These are the waters of Meribah of Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.)”

Here we do not have some kind of subjective premonition or “hunch” on Moses’ part to the effect that he might die. Oh, no! “Jehovah said unto Moses” It is difficult to imagine a more specific commandment. (1) Get up (into Abarim and see the land). (2) Then you will die (when you have seen the land). (3) How? (Your death will be as Aaron’s). (4) Why? (You have failed to sanctify me before the people at the waters of Meribah).

These words prepare us for an account of Moses’ death, but the last nine chapters of Numbers and all of Deuteronomy come between this announcement of it and the actual record of it in Deuteronomy 34:1-8.

“This mountain of Abarim” Basing his conclusion on Deuteronomy 32:49, Plaut identified this mountain as, “Nebo, some 2,740 in altitude.”(F16) All the older commentaries also agree with this. “It was certainly Mount Nebo, which is the same as Pisgah.”(F17) It is somewhat amazing that earlier in Numbers (Numbers 21:11) this area is said to lie “beyond the sunrising,” indicating that the perspective of the whole Pentateuch is that of one stationed in the Promised Land. After God’s promise to Abraham that his posterity should have Canaan, the perspective of all Israel forever afterward was that of being inside Canaan, as indicated by the statements in Exodus, even while Israel was in the wilderness, that the “Great Sea” (the Mediterranean) was the “Western Sea.” Of course, this is a peculiarity, but it does not mean that a late date should be assigned to any of these books.

“At the waters of Meribah” (See Numbers 20:2-13 for a comment on this episode.) “As both Aaron and Moses sinned at Kadesh against the commandment of the Lord, so they were both of them to die without entering Canaan.”(F18) But how did Moses sin there? He violated the commandment of God. But HOW did he do this? Did he not speak to the rock? Of course, he did, but he ALSO struck it twice. His sin was in going BEYOND the Word of God. But protesters say, Yes, but God did not tell him NOT to strike the rock! The discerning person, however, can see that when God commanded “Speak to the rock,” the meaning most certainly was “Do NOT strike it!” Is it not also true that when God commands his servants to “Sing,” the meaning most certainly is: “Do NOT beat drums; do NOT ring bells; do NOT play man-made instruments of music; do NOT whistle, etc.” We believe that when God commanded his servants to take the bread and drink the cup of the Lord’s Supper that meaning also included the PROHIBITION of any other edibles upon that sacred table other than the bread and the fruit of the vine. What would be wrong with angelfood cake and coffee, instead of bread and the wine? After all, the Lord did NOT say, “Do NOT use cake and coffee!” That is true, of course, but neither did he tell Moses NOT to strike the rock. Some will never understand this, but it is felt that the humble and the contrite heart will have no trouble at all understanding it.

Verses 15-23

“And Moses spake unto Jehovah, saying, Let Jehovah, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; and the congregation of Jehovah be not as sheep which have no shepherd. And Jehovah said unto Moses, Take thee Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay thy hand upon him; and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight. And thou shalt put of thine honor upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may obey. And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before Jehovah: at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation. And Moses did as Jehovah commanded him; and he took Joshua, and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation: and he laid his hands upon him, and gave him a charge, as Jehovah spake by Moses.”

“And thou shalt put of thine honor upon him” Joshua was not to have the same place in Israel’s history as Moses had. The word here rendered “honor” has the meaning of “authority,”(F19) and in some of the affairs of the Chosen People, Joshua was subordinate to the High Priest. In the whole conception of the Theocracy, this was an essential element.

“In whom is the Spirit” The American Standard Version departs from precious versions in capitalizing Spirit, whereas in the KJV, for example, it is written “spirit.” The ASV follows the Douay in this. It does not appear that God guided all of His people with the Holy Spirit during that dispensation of his grace, but it cannot be denied that he did so in the instance of Joshua, and of Moses, and of all the holy prophets. Peter tells us categorically that “holy men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20). Also see 1 Peter 1:11. Therefore, we believe the ASV is certainly correct in making this passage a reference to the blessed Holy Spirit himself. This is very important, because it means that Joshua, who in all probability is the so-called “editor” to whom a few passages in the Pentateuch are usually assigned was INSPIRED of God no less than Moses.

Whereas God spake directly with Moses, Joshua sought to know the will of God through the high priest who consulted the “Urim” (Numbers 27:21). This is apparently an abbreviation from “the Urim and the Thummin,”(F20) those mysterious articles carried in the breastplate of the High Priest (Exodus 28:30), which in some unknown manner were consulted with regard to God’s will on certain matters. Little is known about them or their use.

It should be noted that Moses offered no complaint when God told him of his impending death. He did not protest, or plead for any change or delay in the sentence. His only thoughts appear to have been concerned with the safety, the leadership, and the continued progress of Israel. What a noble and self-effacing attitude.

“Go out before them… come in before them… lead them out… bring them in” (Numbers 27:17). These are the metaphors of a shepherd. God Himself was the Shepherd of Israel, and when Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd,” no bolder claim to absolute Divinity on our Lord’s part could have been stated.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 27". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/numbers-27.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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