In the time of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness a situation developed that gives us a good deal of insight into God’s feeling about gender equality. We first read about it in the 27th chapter of Numbers. A man named Zelophehad, belonging to the tribe of Manasseh, the son of Joseph, failed to give birth to any sons. Instead God blessed him with five strong-hearted daughters — Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. It was absolutely wonderful except for one important problem: Zelophehad had no one in his family who could legally become the rightful heir of all that belonged to him.
This situation emerged because it was the law of God in Israel that the inheritance of property should ordinarily pass to sons (or to male relatives if there were no immediate sons in the family). This was spelled out in God’s law as written in Deuteronomy 21:15-17, or here in Numbers 27:10ff. Thus it was common practice for inheritance to be passed on through the oldest son. This principle was further illustrated by the blessing of the father being passed on to the son, as in the case of Abraham and his son, Isaac, or Isaac and his son Jacob, etc. And so it is, from a heavenly perspective that Jesus is the anointed Son of God, and also, as to the human perspective, the son of David.
The matter of male prominence in this way has definitely become a very delicate issue in our times. In their attempt to uphold the current cultural norm of gender equality in the broadest terms, there are many Christians these days who have been inclined to ignore this biblical distinction. Rather than seeking to understand the significance of all of this more deeply, they have tended to argue that the Old Testament has a bias toward patriarchy and paternalism. Furthermore, such are inclined to conclude that this apparent sense of inequality was simply the result of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).
However, here is an incident in the Book of Numbers that appears to point toward a different explanation. On one hand, this passage, and the follow-up one in Numbers 36, affirm what appears to be a basic principle throughout the entire Scripture — namely that God has given males a greater responsibility for societal leadership. Both in the New and Old Testaments there are many allusions and specific instructions to this effect. On the other hand, here is a passage that demonstrates clearly that God is not always rigid in this application of his law.
What is particularly beautiful about Numbers 27 is that the daughters of Zelophehad had the courage to approach the highest court in the land to consider whether they might qualify, in view of the obvious male vacuum, to receive their father’s inheritance. It is commendable that they came in good conscience and with honest hearts to seek God’s blessing in this way. And to Moses’ credit and the very grace of God, he took their request seriously, inquiring of God, to get the best answer for these bold but gracious women. God’s answer was that when a man had no sons through which to pass on his inheritance, if he had daughters, the inheritance should rightfully go to them.
Later (in chapter 36), the same daughters come back to Moses again with a question of what might happen to the property rightfully inherited by the tribe to which they belonged if they, in fact, married a man from another tribe (since the property would ordinarily be given to the tribe to which the husband belonged). Moses’ counsel and command was that property could never be transferred to another tribe. This meant that these women were free to marry anyone they wished — as long as they married someone in the tribe to which they belonged.
These passages uphold the biblical principle that God does in fact value women as much as he values men. (Otherwise he would not have agreed to give them the inheritance.) This truth has also been illustrated so beautifully by the many instances of Jesus’ special regard for women in the New Testament. There we also read (as in Galatians 3:28) that God makes no distinction between male and female as far as rights of salvation are concerned. That is to say, women have the same rights of inheritance in Christ as their male counterparts.
At the same time, it is evident in various passages of the Bible that he has ordained a certain order between the sexes in particular relationships — specifically in marriage (i.e. Ephesians 5:21-31) and in the matter of formal church leadership (i.e. 1 Timothy 2:12-15). Yet even in those contexts, there is room for a wide range of application as long as the basic principle of God’s order is maintained.
Though I consider myself far from being an expert on the nuances of this delicate subject, I can’t help but think passages like these give us an amazing sense of the balance between God’s sensitivity and care for women while also affirming what he has ordained from the beginning.