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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 36

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verses 1-13

The Imperishability of the Tribes, and the tribal Inheritance in Israel; or the Limitation of the Right of Marriage of Heiresses

Numbers 36:1-13

1And the chief fathers of the families 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 chief fathers of the children of Israel: 2And they said, The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for an inheritance by lot to the children of Israel: and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of Zelophehad our brother unto his daughters. 3And if they be married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the children of Israel, then shall their inheritance be taken from the inheritance of our fathers, and shall be put to the inheritance of the tribe whereunto1 they are received; so shall it be taken from the lot of our inheritance. 4And when the jubilee of the children of Israel shall be, then shall their inheritance be put unto the inheritance of the tribe whereunto they are received: so shall their inheritance be taken away from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers. 5And Moses commanded the children of Israel according to the word of the Lord, saying, The tribe of the sons of 6Joseph hath said well. This is the thing which the Lord doth command concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, saying, Let them marry2 to whom they think best; only to the family of the tribe of their father shall they marry. 7So shall not the inheritance of the children of Israel remove from tribe to tribe: for every one of the children of Israel shall keep3 himself to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. 8And 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 enjoy every man the inheritance of his fathers. 9Neither shall the inheritance remove from one tribe to another tribe; but every one of the tribes of the children of Israel shall keep himself to his own inheritance. 10Even as the Lord commanded Moses, so did the daughters of Zelophehad: 11For Mahlah, Tirzah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Noah, the daughters 12of Zelophehad, were married unto their father’s brother’s sons: And they were married into4 the families of the sons of Manasseh the son of Joseph, and their 13inheritance remained in the tribe of the family of their father. These are the commandments and the judgments, which the Lord commanded, by the hand of Moses, unto the children of Israel in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho.


[Numbers 36:2. De Wette: our; but the suffix refers to the speaker, the head and representative of this Gileadite family.—A. G.]

[Numbers 36:3. The construction is irregular; but the sense is clear. Keil, Knobel, refer להָםֶ to מָּטֶה, the tribe regarded according to its numbers. It refers rather to the daughters, the tribe which should be to them, into which they should marry.—A. G.]


This closing section of the book of Numbers may seem in the eyes of modern critics, as a mere unimportant notice, or incident; but it forms, viewed in its typical tendency, and according to the character of the Book of Numbers, a proper and fitting completion of the organization of the people of God, the hosts of Jehovah. Under the form of an occasional and special law, it establishes the typical perpetuity of the tribes of Israel and their inheritance in Canaan. The essential elements have already been considered in the comment upon chap. 27. The conditional gift of Canaan to Israel for all time is here presupposed. The consequence of this grant was the division of the land among the particular tribes by lot. Jehovah gave to each tribe its inheritance by lot. And as the inheritance must remain in its integrity, so also must the tribe; and indeed as the tribe, so also the individual family and the individual household, as the ordinance with respect to the levirate marriage, and the year of jubilee, clearly prove.
But now this fixed destination seemed to be endangered, by the law recently enacted, in regard to the inheritance of daughters; and the chief fathers of the Gileadite branch of the tribe of Manasseh, bring out this danger in the interests of their tribe. If the daughter-heiresses of Zelophehad married, out of their own tribe and carried over with them their inheritance, then their inheritance would be actually lost to the tribe at present, and definitively and permanently lost through the law of the jubilee, since at that time it would fall to the legal foreign heir.
Even although it had been purchased by the Manassites in the interval, [They rested their statement of their case upon what they correctly supposed to result from the distribution of the land by lot. What was so directly given by God could not be alienated. Keil: “Strictly speaking, the hereditary property would pass at once, when the marriage took place, to the tribe into which an heiress married. But up to the year of jubilee it was always possible that this hereditary property might revert to the tribe of Manasseh. If the marriage were childless, it would do so.” In other oases the year of jubilee would confirm the alienation of the inheritance. If the tribe had purchased it of the heiress, the year of jubilee would relinquish the title so acquired, while it would not disturb, but ratify the rights of the husband of the heiress. The year of jubilee afforded no relief in the case supposed.—A. G.]

Moses solves the question according to the divine direction, by regulating the marriage of heiresses; they may marry to whom they think best, only to the family of the tribe of their father. The right, therefore, to freedom in marriage is limited or conditioned by the order and necessities of the popular, social or national life. It is then related, Numbers 36:10-12, that in accordance with this direction, the five daughters of Zelophehad were married to their father’s brother’s sons, i. e., literally their cousins. [The Hebrew term, however, though ordinarily used to denote a father’s brother, is used in a wider sense, so that it admits of being rendered a friend or kinsman—those of their own kin or tribe.—A. G.]

It is with this theocratic conception as with the law of the jubilee, and other similar institutions. They melt away in the light of reality, but with that their typical and ideal significance appears all the more clearly. The inheritance which God gives remains sure not only to the people of God as a whole, and to the tribes in particular, but even to the individuals which compose the tribe. The antiquity, and the genuineness of these records is clear, not only from this law, but from many other similar institutions. The conclusion sets before us a definite lawgiving in the plains of Moab, which commences with the new census in chap. 26. [These are the commandments and the judgments. The words include all that was enacted after the Israelites reached the plains of Moab, and to which the history of Balaam serves as an introduction. Keil: “He, places the lawgiving in the plains of Moab by the side of the lawgiving at Mount Sinai (Leviticus 26:46; Leviticus 27:34), and brings it to a close, though without in any way implying that the explanation (בֵּאֵד Deuteronomy 1:5) further development and hortatory enforcement of the law and its statutes and judgments, which follow in Deuteronomy, are not of Mosaic origin.”


The book of Numbers closes with an apparently incidental and unimportant regulation of the law: but here as with the analogous incidents of the blasphemer (Leviticus 24:10) and the history of the Sabbath-breaker (Numbers 15:32), a great universal, theocratic thought is brought out and presented under a particular and isolated historical fact. In the first case it is the holiness of the name of Jehovah, as He is the covenant God of Israel, and represents the Israelitish religion itself; in the second case it is the sacredness of the Sabbath as the central point of the Israelitish religious service, its worship and its feasts; while here it is the thought of the sacredness of the Israelitish inheritance in its division among the tribes—in a typical sense the unchangeable and everlasting assurance of the divine inheritance for the people of God, in its consecrated membership.


The secure position of the tribes by the law. The sacred nature of family, tribal and national types. The species of animals, not to speak of the races of men, a thought of God. This true even of the characteristics of individuals. Still this definiteness does not exclude the growth of new national types, for the creative power of God is still working in the existing world, as is evident from every individuality as a new microcosmic creation. (Traducianism, creationism and the theory of pre-existence are only relatively true.) The relegation of the divine creative energy to the inconceivable past is opposed to the belief in the living God. God, in His wisdom, joins the living principle to the genealogical pre-conditions, and preserving the original types, forms new varieties.
[Here, however, we must not lose sight of the reason of this special provision, in any statement of a general law with respect to the permanence of types, in consistency with the origin and growth of new varieties. The provision here, like all the other arrangements peculiar to the Jewish people, lies enclosed in the ends for which that people existed. It was necessary to the ends designed, and is to be considered, 1. In its connection with the whole genealogical history and life of the people, and 2. In its typical bearing, with respect to the inheritance of God’s people.—A. G.]


[1]Marg. unto whom they shall be.

[2]Marg. be wives.

[3]Marg. cleave to the, etc.

[4]Marg. to some that were of the families.

Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 36". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/numbers-36.html. 1857-84.
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