In one of his many encouragements to New Testament believers to be diligent students of the Old Testament, the apostle Paul writes: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). A great example of this can be found in the surprising ending to a largely unknown book of the Old Testament.
Numbers is not among the best known books of the Bible, and there are several reasons for this. First, it is located on the far side of Leviticus. Those attempting to read through the Bible from cover to cover often get lost in Leviticus. The terrain seems far too rough and the going far too dry. Second, those who do make it through Leviticus are hoping for an oasis to appear in Numbers. But the census in the opening chapter and the camp arrangements to follow crush their hopes, so the pursuit often stops there.
Third, it is not only laypeople who find the book of Numbers so difficult. Scholars, too, stand puzzled by this book that seems to be a confusing conglomeration of census lists, directions for marching and camping in the wilderness, laws and priestly ceremonies, travel narratives, stories of apostasy, great acts of God’s judgment, battles, speeches, and a set of glorious prophecies for Israel by a mercenary false prophet (who got it right this time). The contents are important, but the reason for putting them together in this order is not especially obvious.
The final chapters illustrate this puzzle very well. Chapter 26 provides a census of the new generation that is to enter the land. The old generation has now passed away. Chapters 27–36 provide various instructions about how life in that land is to be structured. The land is to be divided among the tribes, each receiving by lot a portion of the land according to its numbers, each according to its need.
Through the generations the land will be passed on from father to sons. The census list of chapter 26 draws our attention to a certain man, Zelophehad, who has five daughters but no son (v. 33). Customarily, daughters receive generous gifts from their fathers at their marriages, while sons receive inheritances at their fathers’ deaths. The land goes to the sons, and the daughters are incorporated into their husbands’ tribes. For a man without sons, his land would normally be transferred to the nearest male relative upon his death, with his own name perhaps dying out and his line cut off.
The daughters of Zelophehad are deeply concerned over what will become of their father’s name: “Why should the name of our father be taken away from his own clan because he had no son?” (27:4). This little narrative occupies a position of great importance in Numbers, being the first to be told following the second census, while its aftermath forms the conclusion to the book. So all that is found in the final section of Numbers is bounded by the story of these five “wise virgins” (as Matthew Henry called them) who seek to perpetuate the name of their father.
The daughters of Zelophehad bring their concern to Moses, and Moses immediately brings it before the Lord. God’s answer is swift and direct: “The daughters of Zelophehad are right. You shall give them possession of an inheritance among their father’s brothers and transfer the inheritance of their father to them” (27:7).
In the final chapter of the book, we see that there is still potential for Zelophehad’s name to be taken away, for if the virgin daughters of Zelophehad marry, their lands will go with them into the marriages and will become part of their husbands’ possessions, to be inherited by their sons. If the daughters marry outside their tribe, the tribal possession of Zelophehad will then be diminished, and his name and possession could at last be taken away, just as the daughters initially feared. This calls for a further ruling, and Moses orders that the daughters of Zelophehad may marry whom they will, but that it must be within their own tribe (36:6). In this way, “every one of the people of Israel shall hold on to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers” (36:7). This is the point of the story, for the principle is stated twice again (36:8–9).
The problem posed and the solution offered in the closing chapters of Numbers might seem rather strange to us, but like much of the Old Testament, we have before us the shadow of a much greater reality, one we will warmly embrace when the light of the New Testament falls upon it. The promised land of rest is a shadow of our eternal inheritance, secured through the priesthood of Christ (Heb. 3–4). Like Zelophehad, we will die in this wilderness (unless Christ returns in our day), but death will not separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:38). No one who trusts in Him will lose his—or her—inheritance.