The Daughters of Zelophehad: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah.

“Who?  What?  What in the world!?”

“Who is Zepho- Zelod- whatever it is?”

I wonder how many of you have heard of these six people before?  They actually are important in Old Testament history, or at least the daughters are – and have importance even in the New Testament, as we’ll see shortly.

I decided Friday afternoon, instead of sitting down and watching Netflix for a while before I went to work, that I would read some more in the Bible.  Always so much better than Dr. Phil or Katie, or even what we actually prefer to watch on Netflix.  My reading was in Numbers, so I started where I had left off that morning with ch. 26, but I only got as far as 27:33:  Now Zelophehad the son of Hepher had no sons, but daughters; and the names of the daughters are Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 

This is part of the second census taken in Israel, a census designed to ensure that those who had rebelled 38 years earlier and refused to enter the land, even after favorable reports from Joshua and Caleb, had all died as a judgment on their rebellion, Numbers 26:63-65.  Their rebellion had caused the rest of Israel to wander in the desert for an extra 38 years.  The girls are mentioned in three other places in the  OT:  Numbers 27:1; 36:11 and Joshua 17:3, always together and always in the same order.  Zelophehad is mentioned one additional time, in 1 Chronicles 7:15, as having no sons, but only daughters.  They aren’t named there.

A second reason for this census is that it forms the basis for the future division of the land.  This was to be done according to the size of each tribe as determined by this census, Numbers 26:52-56.

I’d noticed before that all the girls’ names ended in -ah, and had wondered if it was some form of JAH, the name of God.  This is often the case.  I decided to find out.   I was disappointed.  It wasn’t.

As I looked at the meanings of the girls’ names, I wondered what story there might be behind them.  Names often carry significant meaning in the OT.

I had to wonder, though.  Mahlah means “sickness”.  Who names their daughter, “Sickness”?  Noah means “movement.”  This, by the way, isn’t the same name as the Noah who built the Ark to escape the Flood.  Even though it seems that way in our translations, the Hebrew words, though very similar, are different.  The Noah of Genesis 6, his name means “rest.”  Hoglah is thought to mean “a partridge.”  It’s uncertain.  Milcah means “Queen” or “Counsel.”  And, finally, Tirzah means “delight” or “delightful.”

So, nothing about God.  And I have no idea, if it were even possible, how to weave any kind of “story” from these very different names.

However, it isn’t the names or their meanings that make these young women important.

We’ve mentioned that this second census was in part about the division of the Land of Promise, or the inheritance, the heritage, of each family as it would be passed from generation to generation.  Each of the three other appearances of these girls has something to do with “inheritance.”

In Numbers 27:1-11, the daughters come to Moses and the leaders Israel and tell them that their father, Zelophehad, had not died with those who died in Korah’s rebellion, Numbers 16, but had simply died naturally, leaving no sons behind.  Why, therefore, they ask, should his name disappear from Israel?

This question resulted in the LORD commanding that the inheritance of one who died without sons should pass, first of all, to daughters.  If no daughters, then the LORD commanded other arrangements to be followed.

In Numbers 36, another problem arises with their inheritance.  The leaders of the families of the children of Gilead, one of the daughters’ ancestors, came to Moses and the leaders of Israel and mentioned that if the daughters married outside their tribe (Manasseh), then the inheritance would move from Manasseh to whatever tribe they married into.  The heritage of Manasseh would be diminished.

This wasn’t just a matter of greed.  Inheritance and heritage were considered almost sacred in Israel.  After all, the original land division had been made by lot.  This doesn’t mean that they simply “rolled the dice,” but rather that the boundaries of each part of the land had been determined by the Lord.  Solomon later put it like this, The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD, Proverbs 16:33.  This doesn’t give us license to decide things that way – the flip of a coin, etc.  It’s just how the LORD told them to do it.  He hasn’t said that to us.

As one example of the importance Israelites attached to their heritage, consider the following.  Several centuries later, after the division of the kingdom into Israel and Judah, a man named Naboth owned a vineyard in Samaria, a vineyard which was located next to the palace of Ahab, a wicked king of Israel, 1 Kings 21.  Ahab wanted this vineyard so he could plant a vegetable garden.  He offered to buy this plot of land or trade Naboth for a better one.  Hear Naboth’s response:  “The LORD forbid that I should give the inheritance of my fathers to you!” 1 Kings 21:3.

The leaders’ concern was legitimate.

The daughters last appear in Joshua 17:3-5, where they claim that which was given to them by the LORD.

There is something else in this portion.  Apparently the daughters were the only ones among some of the tribes who “got it right.”  As Israel was preparing to enter the Promised Land, they had to face opposition even before they got there.  On the east side of Jordan were two kingdoms which came out against them in war:  Sihon, king of Heshbon and Og, king of Bashan.  The LORD enabled Israel to be victorious, carefully note Deuteronomy 2:26-3:11.

The land of these two kingdoms was excellent grazing land.  Some tribal leaders came to Moses and requested this land because they had a lot of livestock.  After some discussion, Moses agreed.  So the tribes of Reuben, Gad and “the half-tribe of Manasseh” received their allotment of land on the east side of the Jordan, though the Promised Land lay west of the river.  This division caused trouble in the not-too-distant future, to say nothing of later on.  See Joshua 22.

“The half-tribe of Manasseh”???

Yes.  We read in Joshua 17:5-6 that ten shares fell to Manasseh, besides the land of Gilead and Bashan, which were on the other side of the Jordan, BECAUSE the daughters of Manasseh received an inheritance among his sons, and the rest of Manasseh’s sons had the land of Gilead (emphasis added).  Apparently, for the purpose of the division of the land, the daughters were considered the children of Manasseh.  They were of that tribe.

So, except for the concern of these daughters for their father, Manasseh would have had no land in the Promised Land itself.  This, however, isn’t their only, or even perhaps the more important, contribution to the nation of Israel.

From this point, the daughters disappear from Scripture.  Their influence, however, lives on.

How so?

As we come to the NT, we see something curious.  There are two genealogies given for the Lord Jesus, one in Matthew and one in Luke.  Critics and skeptics have noted the differences between them and exclaimed, “Aha!  You see!  There are contradictions in the Bible!”  These, of course, aren’t the only places they claim that.  The skeptics never stop to consider that there might be a reason or an explanation, especially in the genealogies, for “the differences.”

 What is the reason?

After the summary statement that Jesus was the son [descendant] of David and of Abraham, Matthew follows Abraham’s line through Isaac, Jacob and Joseph down through David and the sons who followed him as kings of Israel and then sons who went into captivity, ending with Jacob, who  begot Joseph the husband of Mary. We’ve dealt with Mary and the birth of our Lord in an earlier post on Matthew’s genealogy.

As we read through the genealogy this time, though, we run into a problem,  We go through all the “begots,” which simply means that A was the father of B, until we get to verse 11, which reads Josiah begot Jeconiah and his brothers about the time they were carried away to Babylon.


Also known as Coniah and Jehoiachin, he was not one of the good kings of Judah.  In fact, he did evil in the sight of the LORD, according to all his father had done, 2 Kings 24:9.  You can read about his father and the great sin he committed in Jeremiah 36.  Coniah reigned just three months before Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah and took him prisoner.

Jeremiah gives us more about him, as well as the problem he brings with him to the genealogy in Matthew.  In Jeremiah 22:24, God says, “As I live,” says the LORD, “though Coniah the son of Jehoaikim, king of Judah, were the signet on My right hand, yet would I pluck you off; and I will give you into the hand…of Nebuchadnezzar.”  In v. 30, Jeremiah wrote, Thus says the LORD, “Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not prosper in his days; For none of his descendants shall prosper, sitting on the throne of David, and ruling anymore in Judah.” 

Here is another verse skeptics misread.  They look at the word “childless” and point to 1 Chronicles 3:17 and even Matthew 1:12, where Coniah does indeed have sons and shake their heads:  “Contradictions, contradictions.”  If they would actually read the text, they would discover that it refers to the throne of David.  Coniah would be “childless” as far as any of his descendants ever sitting on that throne.

None of Coniah’s descendants ever sat on David’s throne.  None of them ever can.  When Nebuchadnezzar deposed Coniah, he put Mattaniah, Coniah’s uncle, on the throne and changed his name to Zedekiah, 2 Kings 24:17.  Coniah went into captivity.  Zedekiah was the last king to sit on David’s throne.  No one has sat there since.


Joseph is a descendant of David through Coniah.

If Joseph’s were the only genealogy we have of Jesus, then Jesus would be prevented from ever sitting on the throne of David because of the curse on Coniah.

Luke, however, gives us a second genealogy, Luke 3, in which he runs David’s line through another of David’s sons:  Nathan, v. 31.  Matthew ran it through Solomon.  Though she’s never mentioned, Luke’s has to be Mary’s genealogy.  Because of the daughters of Zelophedad, Jesus inherits the throne of David through Mary, not through Joseph.  The promise that Gabriel gave to Mary in this regard is interesting.  Telling her that she would bear a Son, he continued, He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.  And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever,…,”  Luke 1:32, 33a.  He didn’t say a word about the throne to Joseph.

So, you see.  Do right, and you never know how the Lord will use it.  These five daughters were only concerned about their father.  They had no idea at all that, generations later, this concern would directly affect the Messiah.


8 thoughts on “The Daughters of Zelophehad: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah.

  1. But Jesus had natural brothers so I don’t see the connection, unless they were NOT Joseph’s children? (Matthew 13:55-56, Mark 6:3, John 7:3-5, Galatians 1:19, 1 Corinthians 9v5)

    • Thank you, Nick, for your comment. I must admit I don’t quite see your concern. Jesus did indeed have natural brothers and sisters, as you mention, at least seven siblings. They were Mary’s children, too, though that’s another whole subject.

      Perhaps the confusion (?) comes from my comments about Jesus never being able to sit on the throne of David as Joseph’s son, though He was the Son of David. This was because of God’s judgment on the wickedness of Coniah, Jeremiah 22:34. God’s solution to this “problem,” though it was no problem to Him, as I said in the next to the last paragraph of the post, “because of the daughters of Zelophedad, Jesus inherits the throne of David through Mary, not through Joseph.” Joseph’s angelic visitor never says anything to Joseph about his son sitting on the throne; that message is given to Mary.

      Thank you again for your comment. I hope this helps. If not, please let me know.

      God’s best to you.

      • I understand why Jesus could not be born of Joseph. I now see Jesus’ brothers are irrelevant, but I think a relevant point is that for Jesus to inherit the earthly Throne of David (as promised in Luke 1:32), Mary *must* have had no brothers. If she had brothers then the inheritance (according to Numbers 27) would pass to them instead. Do you agree?

      • Yes, I agree. Another thing that impresses me about this whole thing is that Matthew wrote of the virgin birth, “All this was done that it might be fulfilled by the prophet…,” 1:22. In fact, he says it three times about different areas of our Lord’s life. Mary herself didn’t just appear one day. Her family was involved, and her ancestry. In fact, clear back in the Garden, God had spoken of “the seed of the woman.” Our redemption wasn’t just the thing of a moment, or some result of “a hastily-called meeting of the Divine counsel,” as one writer so sadly put it. Adam carried within himself the DNA that would result in Mary and then in her Son. Thank you, Lord.

      • Another relevant point is the Ezekiel 17 prophecy … “I will crop off from the top of his young twigs a tender one, and will plant it upon an high mountain and eminent” (v22). I take this as the escape of one of Zedekiah’s daughters, with Jeremiah (43:6-8). The Zarah-line was preserved and west West through Zaragoza (“Zara’s stronghold”) to Ireland where we still see the red hand motif (Genesis 38:20).

  2. Great research and teaching!

    The details of our lives can have some far-reaching effects. Yesterday I explained to my grandkids that if my youngest brother had lived, we would never have moved to California; I’d have never met their grandfather. I’d have married someone else…and they wouldn’t even exist!

    My life would certainly be different. You never know! 🙂


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