corner graphic   Hi,    
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

Bible Commentaries

The Pulpit Commentaries
Numbers 36



Verses 1-13



Numbers 36:1

The chief fathers. The same phrase is more correctly translated in Exodus 6:25 "heads of the fathers." It is, however, probable that הָאָבור (fathers) is a contraction for בֵּית־הַאָבוֹת (fathers' houses). The fathers' house was the next recognized and familiar division below the mishpachah (family). Probably the fathers' house included originally all the descendants of a living ancestor, who formed the bond of union between them; but this union no doubt survived in many cases the death of the common ancestor, whose authority would then devolve upon the oldest efficient member of the house. The families of the children of Gilead. "The mishpachoth of the Beni-Gilead" certainly did not include the Machirites, who were somewhat sharply distinguished from the other Manassites (see above on Numbers 26:29; Numbers 32:39 ff.); it is even doubtful whether they included the Gileadites proper, who took their name (and perhaps traced their descent) from Gilead, but not from his sons. It may be confidently assumed that the Machirites, who had received an extensive and remote territory beyond Jordan, had nothing whatever to do with this application. It was the other section of the tribe, the mishpachoth of the six sons of Gilead, who were yet to receive inheritance by lot in Canaan proper, to whom the matter appeared so serious that they came to Moses about it.

Numbers 36:2

My lord. אֲדֹנִי. The singular form is constantly used in Hebrew, as in other languages, together with the plural personal pronoun (see at Genesis 23:6). The deference now paid to Moses (cf. Numbers 32:25, Numbers 32:27) is in marked contrast to the treatment he had received from the former generation. Only Aaron (and that under the influence of terror—Exodus 32:22; Numbers 12:11) and Joshua (Joshua 11:1-23 :28) had addressed him as Adoni before.

Numbers 36:3

Whereunto they are received. Literally, as in the margin, "unto whom ( לָהֶם referring to the men of the tribe) they shall be."

Numbers 36:4

When the jubilee of the children of Israel shall be. It is remarkable that this is the only reference by name to the Jubilee ( יוֹבֵל, jubeel; not jubilee, which is the vulgar form of the same word derived from the Latin jubiheus) to be found in the Scriptures. Some allusions more or less doubtful have been pointed out in the prophets, but the only one which seems incontrovertible is in Ezekiel 46:17, and belongs to the ideal regime of that vision. Jeremiah's right of redemption over the lands of his family was probably due to the fact that they were priestly lands (Joshua 21:18; Jeremiah 1:1; Jeremiah 32:7-9), and as such incapable of permanent alienation. It is, therefore, doubtful whether the Jubilee was ever actually observed, although the principle upon which it rested, the equity of redemption which no Israelite could divest himself of, was undoubtedly acknowledged (see notes on Leviticus 25:1-55). Then shall their inheritance be put unto the inheritance of the tribe whereunto they are received. It is again remarkable that the one explicit reference to the Jubilee should be only to an indirect consequence of its practical working. The Jubilee could not really transfer the property of the heiress to her husband's tribe, but it would in effect confirm that transfer, and make it permanent. In practice no property would be considered to have finally changed hands until the year of Jubilee, when an extensive re-settlement took place, and when all titles not successfully challenged would be considered as confirmed. Since the title of the heiress's children could not be challenged, and since any intermediate disposition of the land must then determine, the Jubilee would seem to effect the transfer of which it compelled the recognition. It is, however, none the less strange that the Manassites should have laid such stress upon the practical effects of a piece of legislation which had never yet come into use. It seems to point to the conclusion that the same thing had been customary among them in their Egyptian homes, and that they were acquainted, at least by tradition, with its actual working.

Numbers 36:5

The tribe of the sons of Joseph. "The tribe (matteh) of the Beni-Joseph." There were two, or rather in effect three, tribes of the Beni-Joseph; Moses referred, of course, to the one which had come before him.

Numbers 36:6

Only to the family of the tribe of their father shall they marry. The direction is not altogether plain, since the tribe (matteh) contained several families (mishpachoth), and in this case one or more of the families were widely separated from the rest. Probably the words are to be read, "only to the tribe-family of their father," i.e; only into that mishpachah of Manasseh to which their father had belonged. Practically, therefore, they were restricted to the family of the Hepherites (Numbers 26:32, Numbers 26:33). This is made almost certain when we remember that the territory of the "family" was to be apportioned within the tribe in the same way, and with the same regard to relationship, as the territory of the tribe within the nation (see on Numbers 33:54).

Numbers 36:7

Every one … shall keep himself to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. This was to be the general rule which governed all such questions. Every Israelite had his own share in the inheritance of his tribe, and with that he was to be content, and not seek to intrude on other tribes. Accordingly the decision in the case of the daughters of Zelophehad is extended to all similar cases.

Numbers 36:11

Mahlah, &c. It is a curious instance of the inartificial character of the sacred records that these five names, which have not the least interest in themselves, are repeated thrice in this Book, and once in Joshua (Joshua 17:3). It is evident that the case made a deep impression upon the mind of the nation at the time. Their father's brothers' sons. The Hebrew word דּוֹד is always translated "father's brother," or "uncle;" and that seems to be its ordinary meaning, although in Jeremiah 32:12 it stands for uncle's son. There is no reason to depart from the customary reading here. No doubt the daughters of Zelophehad acted according to the spirit as well as the letter of the law, and married the nearest male relatives who were open to their choice. The Septuagint

Numbers 36:13

The commandments, הַמִּצוֹת. This is one of the words which recur so continually in Deuteronomy and in Psalms 119:1-176. It is found four times in Psalms 15:1-5, and in a few other passages of the earlier books, including Le 27:34. The judgments. הַמִּשְׁפָטִים. A similar formula is found at the conclusion of Leviticus (Le Leviticus 26:46), where, however, "the commandments" represents a different word ( הַחֻקִּים), and a third term, "the laws" ( הַתּוֹרֹת), is added. It is difficult to say confidently what is included under the "these" of this verse. Comparing it with Numbers 33:50, it would seem that it only referred to the final regulations and enactments of the last four chapters; but as we have no reason to believe that the later sections of the Book are arranged in any methodical order, we cannot limit its scope to those, or deny that it may include the laws of chapters 28-30. For a similar reason we cannot say that the use of this concluding formula excludes the possibility of further large additions having been subsequently made to the Divine legislation in the same place and by the same person, as recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy. All we can say is, that the Book of Numbers knows nothing about any such additions, and concludes in such sort as to make it a matter of surprise that such additions are afterwards met with. The continuity, which so clearly binds together the main bulk of the four books of Moses, ends with this verse. This fact does not of course decide any question which arises concerning the fifth book; it merely leaves all such questions to be determined on their own merits.


Numbers 36:1-13


The decision here recorded, and expanded into a general law, was wholly intended to preserve to each tribe and each family its own inheritance in the land of promise inviolate and undisturbed. Spiritually it can but point to the inheritance "incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away" (1 Peter 1:4), for which we look. That there was any special intention in connection with this law to preserve intact the inheritance of Judah, or that it has any bearing on the tribal relationship of the earthly parents of the Divine child, is extremely unlikely. It would certainly appear that Mary had no patrimony, even if she had no brothers. Consider, therefore—

I. THAT THE OBJECT OF THE DIVINE LEGISLATION WAS BY ALL MEANS TO PRESERVE TO EACH ISRAELITE HIS FULL INHERITANCE IN CANAAN. Even so the final end of the dispensation of the gospel is that every one of the elect may obtain for ever that fullness of joy and of life which is prepared for him; to this end all things are made to work together.

II. THAT IN ORDER TO SECURE THIS, NOT ONLY THE INDIVIDUAL POSSESSION: BUT ALSO THE JOINT INTEREST OF EACH IN THE TERRITORY OF HIS TRIBE WAS JEALOUSLY GUARDED FROM INVASION. Even so there will, no doubt, in the future reward be many elements of common as well as of individual happiness, and some of these common to those who have lived and suffered together as members of the same particular Church; these also will be preserved inviolable. Whatever special graces have been developed in the common Christianity of any Church will doubtless be reflected in the immortal state.

III. THAT EACH INDIVIDUAL WAS TO KEEP TO HIS OWN LOT, AND NOT SEEK AFTER ANY ALLEN INHERITANCE. Even so every one of us should cultivate the grace given him, and seek the reward set before him, not coveting the gifts which belong to others, not aspiring to the glory to which he is not called.

IV. THAT EACH TRIBE WAS, IN LIKE MANNER, TO KEEP TO ITS OWN INHERITANCE, AND NOT TO INTRUDE UPON ITS NEIGHBOURS. Even so the different branches of Christ's Church, so far as they by the will of God divide the field between them, are strictly forbidden to invade one another's heritage.

V. THAT THIS WAS SECURED EVEN AT SOME COST OF LIBERTY OF CHOICE ON THE PART OF INDIVIDUALS. Even so the necessity of not intruding upon the portion of others must and does involve considerable self-restraint, and the sacrifice perhaps of cherished desires, on the part of individual members of the Church.

And note that this case so carefully recorded appears trivial, and unworthy of the space it occupies in Holy Writ. Nevertheless, it was not trivial, because it involved a most important principle, and because it was settled by an act of perfect obedience. And note again that the operation of the Jubilee, which Was so graciously designed for all Israelites, threatened in this case to aggravate an evil, which, however, was averted by Divine provision. There may be cases in which even the grace of the gospel may threaten hardship to some; but if there are, God will find a remedy.

It would not be right to press the example of Zelophehad's daughters in a social sense, but we may draw the general moral lesson—

1. That if any have exceptional opportunity of bestowing advantage on others, they should not consult their own fancy nor make an arbitrary choice, but be guided by the general good of all.

2. That none should put themselves forward in order to secure exceptional advantage, but let it fall to those for whom God has designed it.


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Numbers 36:4". The Pulpit Commentary. 1897.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, June 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
Commentary Navigator
Search This Commentary
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology