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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 36

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This short chapter concludes the Book of Numbers, the whole text of it being concerned with a problem that came up over the Divine permission that had been given to the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27) to inherit their father’s estate due to Zelophehad’s having no sons. Some scholars, seeing the relationship between the legislation here and that in Numbers 27, are quick to disapprove of the separate locations these related laws find in Numbers. Even the usually dependable Adam Clarke offered the opinion that, “Either the first eleven verses of Numbers 27 should come in before this chapter, or this chapter should come in immediately after those eleven verses”!(F1) Too bad that Moses could not keep his diary straight! Numbers is essentially a diary, in which Moses recorded events as they happened, and the reason this legislation and that regarding the daughters of Zelophehad are recorded in different chapters is that the problems came up on different occasions. The first legislation in Numbers 27 allowing daughters without brothers to inherit was brought before Moses on one occasion by the daughters of Zelophehad. The legislation regarding the problem here was in response to an appeal by the heads of the tribe to which Zelophehad belonged, and it related to the question of the possible loss of property by one tribe to another. Evidently, this question came up at some considerable time after the inheritance problem of daughters without brothers, and after sufficient time had elapsed to permit the discussion of the first legislation (Numbers 27) and the crystallization of public opinion as to what the result would be regarding the tribal ownership of properties involved.

One could devoutly wish that scholars would refrain from imposing their opinion upon us as to just where this or that passage in the Bible should be placed.

The device followed by Thompson and others classifying the final three or four chapters here as “Miscellaneous appendices”(F2) is another error, deriving from the hypothesis that “somebody” other than Moses was responsible for the arrangement here. There is no evidence of this. It is altogether reasonable that, as Israel was about to enter Canaan, and the death of Moses was known to be impending, great authority having already been transferred to Joshua, that any special problems that people desired to bring to Moses would have been presented exactly at this time.

The very special and urgent concern of the fathers of Israel regarding the ownership of property indicated that, “The bond between persons and property is much closer and more sacramental than we commonly recognize today.”(F3) Indeed, how true! The rights of private property are sacred according to the Word of God, Commandment VIII of the Decalogue being devoted entirely to the safeguarding of property rights. Contemporary man has attempted some radical revisions of God’s law in this area, but every human effort in that sector has proved again how immutable are the laws of the Eternal. True, we are interested in life, not in things, but things are the support of life. Possessions are the means of the support of life, and a person insecure in property rights is also insecure in life itself. The rights of people vs. the rights of property is an inaccurate conception, because the rights of people also include property rights.

Verses 1-4

“And the heads of the fathers’ houses of the family of the children of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of the sons of Joseph, came near, and spake before Moses, and before the princes, the heads of the fathers’ houses of the children of Israel: and they said, Jehovah commanded my lord to give the land for inheritance by lot to the children of Israel: and my lord was commanded by Jehovah to give the inheritance of Zelophehad our brother unto his daughters. And if they be married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the children of Israel, then will their inheritance be taken away from the inheritance of our fathers, and will be added to the inheritance of the tribe whereunto they shall belong: so will it be taken away from the lot of our inheritance. And when the jubilee of the children of Israel shall be, then will their inheritance be added unto the inheritance of the tribe whereunto they shall belong: so will their inheritance be taken away from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers.”

There were many families of the children of Gilead; and the reading in the RSV is altered to take account of this, giving us, “families of the children of Gilead” (Numbers 36:1).

“My lord… my lord” (Numbers 36:2). There was a vast difference in the respect that this generation of Israelites paid to Moses when compared with the attitude of the generation that came out of Egypt. In all of the Bible, prior to this instance of it, “Only Aaron ever referred to Moses as `my lord,’ and that only because at the moment of his doing so he was under the influence of terror (Exodus 32:22; Numbers 12:11), and Joshua in Numbers 11:28.”(F4)

Martin Noth stated that, “The reference to the year of jubilee (Numbers 36:4) is… out of place.”(F5) Like all such comments about the Word of God, this one also is founded upon a lack of information. Owens labeled the reference as being “unclear,” because, as he said, “At the jubilee the purchased property reverts to the original owner.”(F6) It was a fact overlooked by both Noth and Owens that “Not even the jubilee could remedy the situation discussed here.”(F7) This was true because the jubilee restored only purchased properties, not inherited properties! Therefore, as Cook said, “The jubilee year by not restoring the estate to the tribe from whence it came would in effect confirm the alienation.”(F8) The key factor here was stressed by Plaut: “The jubilee (Leviticus 25:10 ff) applied only to the sale of property, not to inheritance!(F9)

Verses 5-9

“And Moses commanded the children of Israel according to the word of Jehovah, saying, The tribe of the sons of Joseph speaketh right. This is the thing which Jehovah doth command concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, saying, Let them be married to whom they think best; only into the family of the tribe of their father shall they be married. So shall no inheritance of the children of Israel remove from tribe to tribe; for the children of Israel shall cleave every one to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. And every daughter that possesseth an inheritance in any tribe of the children of Israel, shall be wife unto one of the family of the tribe of her father, that the children of Israel may possess every man the inheritance of his fathers. So shall no inheritance remove from one tribe to another tribe; for the tribes of the children of Israel shall cleave every one to his own inheritance.”

“The tribe of the sons of Joseph speaketh right” (Numbers 36:5). This has the meaning of, “The plea is just.”(F10) Several of the more recent translations follow this change. The justice of this appeal confirms a number of things:

(1) It is proper and righteous for God’s people to be concerned about inheritance.

(2) Every man should be conscious of what he owes to his ancestors and strive in every honorable way to preserve what has been handed down to him through them.

(3) In the matter of the perpetuation of the common good, even such personal things as marriage should conform to the pattern of benefiting the perpetuation of the common wealth. This, of course, has an application that requires Christians to marry “in the faith.” Henry spoke of marriages that are contracted solely upon the basis of self-gratification and foolish ungovernable passion in defiance of authority and without regard for the results, saying that, “They are against common sense, the interests of society, the happiness of the marriage relation, and what is still more evil, against the religion of Christ.”(F11)

Numbers 36:8-9 here have the effect of extending this law concerning the inalienability of tribal land, and the requirement for heiresses to marry within the tribe of their fathers, “into a general law for every heiress in Israel.”(F12)

It is sadly true, however, that God’s laws were not strictly followed by Israel in this instance (nor in any other, for that matter), and, as Gray noted, “The theory frequently failed in practice.”(F13) This surely seems to have been the case, “For the same cities are sometimes represented as belonging to different tribes. Dibon is Gadite in Numbers 32:34, but Reubenite in Joshua 13:17, Heshbon is Reubenite in Numbers 32:37, but Gadite in Joshua 21:39. Hormah belongs to Judah in Joshua 15:30, but to Simeon in Joshua 19:4.”(F14) All of these instances cited by Wade, however, are irrelevant, because there is no evidence that the lands east of Jordan (where Reuben and Gad settled) came under the same rules as applied to the Promised Land. Furthermore, the tribes of Judah and Simeon seem to have inherited a large section jointly, thus making it proper to say, in some instances, perhaps, that a certain place belonged to either. Without regard to this, however, in the times of the monarchy, the ruthless, greedy kings of the Chosen People utterly rejected the principle of the inalienability of tribal or ancestral lands. The case of Ahaz and Jezebel in their violent seizure of Naboth’s vineyard is an example.

Verses 10-13

“Even as Jehovah commanded Moses, so did the daughters of Zelophehad: for Mahlah, Tirzah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, were married unto their father’s brothers’ sons. They were married into the families of the sons of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and their inheritance remained in the tribe of the family of their father. These are the commandments and ordinances which Jehovah commanded by Moses unto the children of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. The specific mention of the plains of Moab “by the Jordan at Jericho” indicates that this certification for divine authority applies especially to this chapter and that here is not a formal ending of all of Numbers, as some have thought.”

The very problem that surfaced in this chapter is the same one that “resulted in the institution of Levirate marriages (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).”(F15) We appreciate the words of Whitelaw here, as follows:

“It is a curious instance of the inartificial character of the sacred records that these five names of the daughters of Zelophehad, which have not the least interest in themselves, are repeated thrice in this book, once in Joshua 17:3.”(F16)

It is innumerable things of this nature which separate God’s Book from the books written by men.

“Married unto their father’s brothers’ sons” (Numbers 36:11). This should not be read as a restriction to marry only their first cousins; because the meaning here is “unto the sons of their kinsmen,”(F17) that is, members of their same tribe; but, as these tribes numbered in the tens of thousands each, there could have been no restriction to marry only their closest kinsmen. Even the word “son,” as used in the Bible, has many meanings such as: (1) “grandson”; (2) “son-in-law”; (3) “adopted son”; (4) “Levirate son”; and (5) “son by creation”.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 36". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/numbers-36.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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