Survivors — Enterprising Women Hidden in the Book of Joshua

I received a lovely Bible Study resource from Rosalie Sugrue. It is a three study series and I am beginning by sharing the third of the three studies. I will publish another next month and the first one in the following month. To have them more quickly contact Rosalie directly  at 

Enterprising Women Hidden in the Book of Joshua
Three Bible Studies on Justice Issues
By Rosalie Sugrue

These Bible Women, along with many others, are further explored by
Rosalie Sugrue in her devotional work ‘Sophia & Daughters’ and the novel ‘The League of Lilith’ available on-line at Amazon Books and other outlets.

Introduction to the three studies:  The book of Joshua is pretty much ignored apart from the famous Battle of Jericho when the walls came tumbling down. Joshua was Moses successor. Though Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness he was not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Joshua is a very male book concerning battles, slaughterings and land distribution. Women barely reach person status in this book. A clear distinction is made between warriors and all the people and it is equally clear all the people does not include women. But tucked away within the pages of this violent Old Testament book are three surprising stories about enterprising women. Each woman is a survivor who helped change the course of Hebrew history.

Spirited Sisters – A Fearless Five
Joshua 17:3-6

The third female story in Joshua appears in chapter 17 and concerns a group of spirited sisters. The Bible calls them The Daughters of Zelophehad (Ze-lo-fe-had). I prefer to call them Mahlah and Sisters but whatever we call them, theirs’ is a fascinating story, a great story.
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah were a family of daughters. From what we can glean they were well adjusted girls and doubtless their parents were proud of them. However, to die without a son, was to die without an heir. This is no problem to the landless but the Children of Israel expected to inherit land. The pedigree of Zelophehad was sound. He was a direct descendant of Joseph but the descendants of Zelophehad were destined to be landless. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah were not women to take this sitting down. We first meet the fearless five in the book of Numbers.

Compare: Numbers 27:1-11 with Joshua 17:3-6
What differs in these two accounts?

At a first glance this could be the same story but closer examination reveals two different incidents. The verbal granting of a request is one thing, executing it is another. The Fearless Five were determined to have the promise fulfilled. It is not enough to take a stand for justice. Action is required. This may take further petitions. Mahlah and her sisters persisted in their determination to achieve justice.

Question: Did you hear this story at Sunday School?

The Daughters of Zelophehad (illustration from the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster)

Any ideas why not?

Children’s Bible Stories tend to reflect the well-known lectionary texts. The Bible contains a wealth of material most people never come across. Not only is our lectionary confining, for centuries it has been male-chosen. It is important to realize that most of the Bible is written from a male perspective. Even Bible-stories written for children usually carry an unintended male bias. There are few inspiring female roles offered for girls.
As the sisters are unmarried it is likely all are under twenty. The younger ones may have been quite young children. The death of Zelophehad is recorded. As there is no mention of a wife we can presume the sisters are orphans. Their story reveals a united set of sisters who appear to manage on their own. By standing together they commit to making things work out. They are young women determined to improve matters. They identify the injustice, marshal their arguments and make a deputation to the boss. Their audacity is breath-taking. Moses was sufficiently taken aback not to reply in haste. Moses ‘brought their cause before the Lord.’

Share times when a problem has motivated you to:
a) stand with your family
b) work for justice with other women
c) consult God.

Read: Numbers 36:1-13
Why did Moses impose this particular marriage stipulation?
How do you react to this? (for then, and for now)
What marriage restrictions do you want in our culture?

Land disputes are the greatest contributor to warring the world over. There is power in owning land. Land ownership offers security and wealth. Some people believe land cannot be owned. Land should be regarded a part of the wholeness of creation. We are guests on its surface. Humankind can be seen as God’s tenant farmers. However land is viewed it evokes powerful emotion.

Is land of greater spiritual significance to Maori than Pakeha?  Please note that this resource was written for congregations in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Is there a parallel question that you would ask in your context?

The sisters did not couch their request in spiritual terms. Their concern had more to do with survival than spirituality. Land earths our being. We develop affinity for the landscape we feel at home in. Owning land gives security along with a sense of belonging, roots, and connectedness.
Jesus was of the landless class and he was not concerned over his lack of land but he leaves us in no doubt that injustice is a spiritual matter. Jesus befriended outcasts and supported the marginalized wherever he went. Even if land is not a personal concern of ours injustice should be.
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah were ordinary young women and yet amazing. Not only was their request granted, the law of the land was changed in response to their action. Often Biblical women are identified merely by location or relationship to a named male. In this case the pedigree is listed and each sister is named. Their names occur four times. The daughters of Zelophehad are mentioned in three different books – Numbers (26:33; 27:1-11; 36:1-13), Joshua (17:3-6), and 1Chronicles (7:15). The impact of Mahlah and Sisters is remarkable.
Chapter 26 of Numbers lists the genealogy of Jacob’s heirs. The descendants are numbered as 601,730 enrolled Israelites. Of the 107 names listed only eight are female, five being the daughters of Zelophehad. This family of females features out of all proportion, showing the importance given them by historians of the time.
The Fearless Five are fine role models for all daughters, and all sons. They show that injustice should be challenged and ordinary people can make a difference.

Reflect on:
A person – who by deed or example, made a difference in your life
An incident – where your actions made a difference for another
An injustice – your group could tackle

Pray together:
Lord grant us: the serenity to accept the things we cannot change; the courage to change the things we can change; and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

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5 Responses to Survivors — Enterprising Women Hidden in the Book of Joshua

  1. sugruerm says:

    Beautifully presented (I am amazed that you could track down a picture) thank you. Just one error my email address does not begin with ‘Rosalie’ – it is

  2. Maren says:

    Fixed it — that’s how my email presented it. Sorry. I certainly hope folks reach you for this wonderful resource.

    • Oh dear, still not right – my email wouldn’t post in the above comment. start with my surname, sugrue, followed by a dot then my first name initials (rm) for Rosalie May

  3. Maren says:

    Trying again and sending to Marie Lucca who wants to get in touch with you.

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