We’ve come to the last chapter of the book of Numbers. We’ve worked our way through this book, which has told the story of what happened after the Israelites left Mount Sinai and headed through the wilderness to the Promised Land. And this book has recorded the unfaithfulness of the people and the faithfulness of the Lord. From the beginning, the people complained and moaned; and they rebelled against the Lord and against his appointed leaders; and when they came to the Promised Land the first time, they doubted the word of the Lord and they refused to obey his command to go in and take the land; and instead they talked about returning to Egypt. Again and again and again the people disobeyed and were unfaithful.
And so, that first generation died in the wilderness without entering the Promised Land. They were unfaithful. But the Lord was faithful, because he continued to guide them and to protect them and to provide them with food and water, while they remained in the wilderness. And when the time was right, he brought the next generation to the border with the Promised Land. And in the last few chapters of the book, the Lord has been preparing them for life in the Promised Land, by describing for them what the boundary of the land would be and how they were to divide it among the tribes and clans. And he commanded them to set aside towns for the Levites to live in. And he commanded them to set aside cities of refuge to which they could flee for refuge from the avenger. The Lord was saying to the Israelites:
When you come into the Promised Land, this is what you’re to do.
And by giving them these instructions, he was making clear to the people that their wandering was almost over and very soon they were going to take possession of the land.
Today’s chapter, the final chapter, might seem a bit of an anticlimax. Instead of reading in this last chapter that they crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land and took posssession of it, we’re confronted with a legal dispute, which refers back to a ruling that was passed in chapter 27. Back in chapter 27, the daughters of this man, Zelophehad, came to Moses and to Eleazar the priest and to the leaders and to the whole assembly to explain to them that their father had died without leaving any sons. His only descendants were these fives, unmarried daughters.
So, could they — his five unmarried daughters — inherit their father’s share of the Promised Land? If not, then their father’s name would disappear from his clan and tribe forever. Without a share in the land, without a family farm named after him, it would be like he and his family had been cut off from Israel forever. But if they were allowed to inherit their father’s share of the land, then his name would be preserved. Well, at that time, Moses brought their case to the Lord; and the Lord agreed that the five daughters should be allowed to inherit their father’s share in the Promised Land.
That’s the background to today’s passage. And while it may seem that this legal dispute is an anticlimax to the book, it is, in fact, a fitting way to end the book, because the legal dispute contained in this chapter is once again about ownership of the Promised Land; and it once again anticipates how the people will soon enter the land and begin to live in it.
Although this chapter records a dispute which arose before they entered the Promised Land, it shows that the people were already thinking about the land and what it would be like for them to live in the land. They were already thinking about how the land will be shared out among the tribes and passed down to the next generation. They’re like prospective buyers who are viewing a house; and as they go round it, they’re thinking about what it will be like when they move in and who will have which bedroom. They’re thinking about where their son’s bed will go and where their daughter’s desk will go and where the sofa will be placed in the living room. Though they haven’t taken possession of the house, they already own it in their mind. And though the Israelites haven’t yet taken possession of the land, they already own it in their mind.
Verses 1 to 4
In verses 1 to 4, we read how the family heads of the clan of Gilead, who were from the tribe of Manasseh, came to Moses and the leaders to remind them of what was agreed back in chapter 27 about how Zelophehad’s inheritance could go to his daughters. However, suppose one of these unmarried daughters marries a man from the tribe of Judah. Well, in that case, this married couple will own two plots of land: the plot of land in Manasseh which she inherited from her father; and the plot of land in Judah which her husband inherited from his father. Well now, when they die, their son — who would be regarded as a member of the tribe of Judah — will inherit both plots of land, so that the land that was once part of Manasseh will now be part of Judah. Land allotted by the Lord to Manasseh will now become part of Judah. Manasseh’s inheritance would be reduced; Judah’s inheritance would be increased. And that’s not right.
In verse 4 they mention the Year of Jubilee, when debts were pardoned and land was returned to its original owner. However, not even the Year of Jubilee will sort out this problem, because the Year of Jubilee was about returning land that had been bought and sold, not land that was inherited.
Verses 5 to 9
So, that’s the problem, the legal dispute. What’s the solution? Well, the Lord announced the solution to Moses who explained it to the people in the following verses. According to the Lord, what the family heads were saying was right. So, while the daughters are free to marry whomever they want, nevertheless they must marry within their own tribe. Since they’re from the tribe of Manasseh, they may only marry men from the tribe of Manasseh. No land is to pass from tribe to tribe. According to verse 8, this rule was not just for these five daughters, but it was to be the rule for every daughter who inherits land in any of the tribes of Israel. And then the prohibition against transferring land to another tribe is repeated in verse 9: no land is to pass from tribe to tribe.
So, that’s the solution: to prevent land from being passed from tribe to tribe, women who have inherited land must marry within their own tribe.
Verses 10 to 12
According to verses 10 to 12, the daughters of Zelophehad did as the Lord commanded so that their inheritance remained in their father’s clan and tribe.
And the chapter ends with the statement that these are the commands and regulations which the Lord gave through Moses to the Israelites at that time. And the final word of the chapter and of the book is the word, ‘Jericho’, which anticipates how they will very soon cross the Jordan and take possession of the city of Jericho and then, the rest of the Promised Land.
The Lord promised to give his people an inheritance in the Promised Land of Canaan. And, according to verses 7 and 9 they were to ‘keep’ their inheritance. The verb translated ‘keep’ can also be translated ‘cling to’; and it was used back in Genesis 2 to describe how a man and his wife are to cling to one another. So, just as a husband and wife are to be united to one another in a permanent bond, clinging to one another always, so the people of Israel were to be united to the land in a permanent bond. And since that’s the case, the land was not to be transferred from one tribe to another.
Of course, we know what happened, don’t we? We know how the people sinned against the Lord again and again and again. And because of their sinful rebellion, the Lord uprooted them from the land and sent them away into exile. Their bond with the land was broken; and they were sent away.
That’s what happened to them. But the good news of the gospel is that all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ receive from the Lord an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade; an inheritance that is kept in heaven for all who believe in him.
Because of their sinful rebellion, the Israelites lost their inheritance in the land. However, our inheritance in the new heaven and earth is guaranteed; and it can never be taken from us. And the guarantee is not based on us or on anything we do, because we are no better than the Israelites. We are no more obedient than they were or more righteous than them. We sin against the Lord just as they sinned against the Lord. But our inheritance and our right to possess eternal life is based on the obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was obedient to his Father in all things. He kept God’s law perfectly and on our behalf, doing for the Father what we ought to have done. And then, out of obedience to his Father, he laid down his life as the ransom to set us free from condemnation.
And so, through faith in Christ, God’s one and only obedient son, we who believe are delivered from condemnation and we’re counted as righteous in God’s sight, so that even though we may have done everything wrong, he regards us now as if we have done everything right. And so — because of Christ and his perfect obedience — we will never lose our inheritance or be sent away from the presence of God. Instead — because of Christ — our inheritance is guaranteed and it’s kept in heaven for us. And so, if you believe in the Lord Jesus — who obeyed his Father on our behalf; and who laid down his life for us — then you will inherit eternal life in the new heaven and earth; and no one and nothing can snatch it from you. It will never be taken from you and given to another. It is yours forever; and it’s yours because of Christ.