THE BLOG
07/12/2013 12:38 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2013

Is God a Feminist?

The answer depends on who you ask.

According to the Midrash Sifre from the third century, the famous five Zelophehad daughters thought so. These young women chose the Tent of Meeting, the place where God revealed himself, as the location for petitioning Moshe and the top Hebrew leadership about their right to inherit their father's property. They thought, "The compassion of ordinary people is greater toward males than females; however, The World Creator has equal compassion for both men and women." In reality, the daughters sought God's intervention when they beseeched Moshe and said, "Give us the land" (Numbers 27-4).

Unable to refute their sophisticated legal argument, Moshe argued the case directly to God, who immediately approved the plea and granted their father's property. Their strong argument demonstrated, 3256 years before Barbra Streisand's Yentl, that women can be top-notch scholars.

Seven years following God's intervention on behalf of these five sisters, Joshua, the new Hebrew leader, conquered the land of Israel and distributed it according to God's instructions as given to Moshe. When Zelophehad's daughters reminded Joshua about God's earlier decision (Joshua 17-3), Joshua not only returned their father's land but also gave them half the territory belonging to Menashe, one of the twelve tribe of Israel!

Research has confirmed the huge parcel of land attributed to the five Zelophehad daughters. Pieces of pottery found in 1910 by Harvard University, in the old Israeli city of Samaria, explicitly mention their names written in old Hebrew; researchers date the pottery from 850 B.C.
More recently, in 1992, Dr. Arie Bornstein showed the text on the pottery includes delivery certificates written by the Israeli king's administration for goods delivered as taxes by land owners. Based on this information, Bornstein created a map showing the five properties of the Zelophehad daughters, comprising a total of 727,000 acres, or land equal to more than half of that owned by the large Menashe tribe.

Why did Zelophehad's daughters receive half the tribe's land when they were only five among the 52,700 members of the Menashe? Rashi in Numbers 26-64 contrasts male and female relationships with the land of Israel, commenting, "The power of women is greater than that of men." In this text, we see men commenting, "Let us go back to Egypt," while women (including the Zelophehad daughters) said, "Give us land." Beyond these differences in outlook, we should be aware that men, and not women, participated in the sin of the spies, in which the spies sent by Moshe to scout the Land, persuaded the people of Israel to give up their mission to conquer the land. Only the women of that time stayed faithful to God's promise to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: upon their exit from Egypt, he would help establish the people of Israel on their own land.

The five Zelophehad daughters symbolize the power of women to transform a sublime ideal into practice. This ability requires strong faith, an intimate understanding of reality, and the ability to overcome prejudice and stereotypes without surrendering to despair.

Zelophehad's daughters taught the lesson of women's power to every generation that followed.

Yaacov Cohen, is Co-founder and CEO of harmon.ie, an enterprise mobile software company and the proud father of five daughters.