Numbers 27: Lessons on Spiritual Inheritance, Leadership, and Succession

Introduction: Frequently, criticism malign the Bible with false charges. Among other false criticisms. Many incorrectly assume that it endorses evil human institutions. It doesn’t. Here, the daughters of Zelophehad, within the tribe of Manasseh, complained to Moses and Eleazar that the male-oriented inheritance rules from that time would have left them no inheritance in the Promised Land. Moses turned to God in prayer, and God told Moses to give the women their inheritance. This was a revolutionary moment in probate law. It showed that God is fair and just. In the same story, Moses had to prepare for a successor. In that time, the common practice was for the leader to pick their son. This is sadly still common in some churches today. But Moses turned to God in prayer, and God selected Joshua to succeed him. The lesson from both of these accounts is to let God guide any important question in your life. Among other things, this includes questions of fairness, equity, inheritance, leadership, and succession.

1. Our Spiritual Inheritance in Heaven Comes through God’s Mercy and Grace. Nu. 27:1-11.

  • The daughters of Zelophehad complain about their missing inheritance. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, female descendants of Zelophehad complained that a male-oriented system of Jewish probate law would have left them no inheritance after their patriarch died: “Then the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph, came forward; and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 2 They stood before Moses, before Eleazar the priest, before the leaders, and all the congregation at the entrance of the tent of meeting, saying, 3 ‘Our father died in the wilderness, yet he was not among the group of those who gathered together against the Lord, in the group of Korah; but he died in his own sin, and he had no sons. 4 Why should the name of our father be withdrawn from among his family simply because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s brothers.” 5 So Moses brought their case before the Lord.’ 6 Then the Lord said to Moses, 7 ‘The daughters of Zelophehad are right about their statements. You shall certainly give them hereditary property among their father’s brothers, and you shall transfer the inheritance of their father to them. 8 Further, you shall speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘If a man dies and has no son, then you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter. 9 And if he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10 If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11 And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his nearest relative in his own family, and he shall take possession of it; and it shall be a statutory ordinance to the sons of Israel, just as the Lord has commanded Moses.’’” (Nu. 27:1-11). Moses and Eleazar did not assume that God had ordained or blessed every human institution. God showed that He is fair and just. He did not endorse a system that would have left the female descendants with no inheritance.

Zelophehad’s daughters petition Moses and Eleazar1

  • Zelophehad’s daughters’ unearned inheritance. Zelophehad’s daughters demonstrated that, through faith, you can receive an unearned spiritual inheritance. Zelophehad’s tribe, Manassah, was blessed more than any other during the 38-year wilderness march. Through faith-led obedience to God (Lev. 26:3, 9), their fighting men grew from 32,200 (Nu. 1:35) to 52,700 (Nu. 26:3), a 63.66% increase. As a result of their larger population, they were also blessed with a greater share of the Promised Land (Nu. 26:54). Yet, for five reasons, neither the tribe nor the daughters had any legal right to this inheritance. First, Manasseh was not technically Jewish because his mother Asenath was Egyptian (Gen. 41:50). Joseph’s marriage to her was prohibited under Jewish law (Dt. 7:3). His marriage could have disqualified his children from their inheritance. Second, Manasseh was not entitled to one of the 12 divided lots of land. It was not one of the original 12 tribes. By grace, God selected it (out of the normal birth order) to replace the tribe of Levi, which was to receive no land as a nation of priests. Third, as Joseph’s second son (Gen. 41:52), it was not entitled to the first-born inheritance. Fourth, Zelophehad died because of his sins in the wilderness, which could have caused his heirs to lose their inheritance (Nu. 27:3). Finally, under Jewish law, property was inherited through men, not women. But God rewarded Zelophehad’s daughters for asking in faith for their father’s share of the land. Through grace, God granted them an unearned spiritual inheritance (Nu. 27:7). What does this story show about God’s grace?

  • Through faith in Jesus, you also may receive a spiritual inheritance. Like Zelophehad’s daughters, you have no legal right to an inheritance in heaven. Because of our sins, none of us are righteous before God (Ps. 14:2-3; 53:2-3; Ro. 3:10, 23). Furthermore, “the wages sin is death...” (Ro. 6:23). Like Zelophehad’s daughters, your eternal inheritance is an act of His mercy and grace: “For by grace you are saved through faith; and it is not of yourselves: it is a gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9). The daughters of Zelophehad obtained this inheritance by petitioning Moses. Are you thanking Christ for your inheritance in the Promised Land? (Jo. 3:16; Ro. 10:9-13).

  • Our spiritual inheritance brings restoration and righteousness. God commended Zelophehad’s daughters for their faith in seeking their inheritance in the Promised Land (Nu. 27:6-11). They also spoke out of righteousness because what they asked for was the fair result of an unjust set of male-oriented inheritance rules. As a result of their faith and their righteousness, God restored their family’s inheritance. Our first father Adam also destroyed our right of inheritance through his sins (Ro. 5:12). As a result, we too were once dead to our sins (Eph. 2:1). Moreover, by not being part of the original 12 tribes, we have no blood right to the Promised Land. Yet, through our faith in Christ, we are resurrected, made righteous and grafted into the line of inheritance as “children of God” (Lk. 20:36; Gal. 3:26; Col. 2:13). In short, Zelophehad’s daughters were an example to us by their faith. Like Zelophehad’s daughters, we too have been given mouths to speak in faith. But what have you done with the voice God has given you? Are you petitioning God for the disadvantaged, the poor, and the powerless to receive their spiritual inheritance? Or, do you seek only a worldly inheritance for yourself?

2. Being Restored to Righteousness, We Must Also Petition for Others.

  • Zelophehad’s daughters challenged injustice. Under the probate laws of that time, women in the middle east had no right of inheritance. God previously killed Judah’s son’s Er and Onan after they both refused to give Tamar, Er’s wife, an heir (Gen. 38:7-10). Tamar’s son would have provided for her, continued the family name, and given the line of the Messiah an inheritance (Matt. 1:3). God did not establish this system of inheritance. But He made sure that the men were punished when they refused to provide for an innocent woman under their own system. In this story, for the first time, Zelophehad’s daughters challenged this system of inheritance. Instead of simply judging under the law at that time as he had the power to do, Moses asked God for His guidance. Because God is just, He ordered that women be given a right of inheritance (Nu. 27:8-11). His response was revolutionary for that time. Giving the daughters 100% of the father’s estate broke the norms of Middle Eastern probate law. Indeed, under the Koran (circa 610 A.D.), if a father dies with no sons and only one daughter, she only takes one-half of the estate. With additional daughters, the total percentage going to the daughters will decrease further. The rest of the estate will go to male relatives of the deceased father. The Bible proclaims that: “[w]ith righteousness, He will judge the needy, with justice He will give decisions for the poor of the earth.” (Is. 11:4). Ignorant critics often claim that the Bible is sexist or against any social change. These verses refute that view.

  • Guided by the Holy Spirit, you also should advocate for the inheritance of the poor. God commended Zelophehad’s daughters for fighting inequality. The Bible also repeatedly tells us to advocate for the poor, the disadvantaged and against social injustice. For example, Jesus taught that, on the Day of Judgment, He will ask what each person did for the poor and the needy: “I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matt. 25:40). He instructs that “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (Jam. 1:27). He also expects you to: “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Mic. 6:8). He also wants you “learn to do good, seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, [and] plead for the widow.” (Is. 1:17). Like Zelophehad’s daughters, you also should plead or petition for those who are weak and powerless in society. Yet, you should not be rebellious in seeking change. For rebellion in God’s eyes is like witchcraft (1 Sam. 15:23). Zelophehad’s daughters did not protest against Moses or occupy the Tabernacle. Our leaders are appointed by God (Rom. 13:1-2). Thus, not all change or demands for change are proper before the Lord. Today, people have protested for abortion rights and for other rights that are contrary to the Bible. In petitioning our leaders against inequality or injustice, how are we to know if a cause is right before the Lord? (Ps. 119:105). Likewise, how can we know what change is right? (Jam. 1:27).

3. Leave a Spiritual Inheritance for Others.

  • Store your wealth in heaven and for your descendants. Zelophehad left behind an estate. Without that estate, these laws would be meaningless, and his heirs would have received nothing. Some Christians assume that storing wealth is wrong under any circumstances. They rely upon Jesus’ statement that we should not store up your treasures on Earth for ourselves (Matt. 6:19-20). Yet, this does this mean that you can neglect providing for your descendants after your death. King Solomon, the wisest man ever to live, proclaimed: “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children . . .” (Prov. 13:22). God also gives us wealth so that we can tithe with it to fund His Church on Earth (Mal. 3:8-10). It is only “[t]he love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Tim. 6:10). These examples establish that storing wealth for descendants can be acceptable as long as it is not rooted in coveting or a love of money. Life insurance is one example where you can provide for your descendants without benefiting yourself. Yet, if you store other kinds of wealth for your descendants that leads to greed, slothfulness, or covetousness, it is not of God.

4. Godly Leaders Cannot Lead Through Self-Righteousness. Nu. 27:12-14.

  • Moses as the Law giver was judged by his own standards. God told Moses that he could not enter the Promised Land because of his prior disobedience: “12 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go up to this mountain of Abarim, and see the land which I have given to the sons of Israel. 13 When you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, just as Aaron your brother was; 14 for in the wilderness of Zin, during the strife of the congregation, you rebelled against My command to treat Me as holy before their eyes at the water.’ (These are the waters of Meribah of Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.)” (Nu. 27:12-14). Moses later pleaded with God to change the punishment, but God would not do so (Dt. 3:25-26). The punishment was harsh, but it served a purpose. Moses gave the Law, and he symbolized it. Although he was the most humble man on the planet (Nu. 12:3), the Jews provoked him to anger after 40 years of complaints (Ps. 106:32). Out of wrath, he grumbled that the Jews were “rebels” (Nu. 20:10). Yet, he previously proclaimed that grumbling was a sin (Ex. 16:8). He also previously warned that rebellion was a sin against God. Moreover, he also rebelled against God. God meant for him to draw the water out of the rock. His name meant to “draw out.” He was also drawn out of the water at birth. God told Moses to “speak to the rock” to cause it to pour forth water (Nu. 20:8). Yet, instead of speaking with the power God gave him, Moses struck the rock twice out of anger (Nu. 20:11). By his grumbling and his accusations, he was guilty of breaking the standards that he set. According to Jesus: “in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” (Matt. 7:2). Ultimately, he was not able to avoid breaking the law. Like us, he was a sinner. Moreover, by breaking even one law, he broke them all (Jam 2:10). No one is righteous enough under the Law to be saved (Ro. 3:23). Are you judging others? If so, are you willing to be judged by the same words that you use to judge others?

God judged Moses and prevented him from entering the Promised Land2

  • A leader cannot lead with anger. By striking the rock twice out of anger (Nu. 20:11) Moses failed to glorify God (Nu. 27:14). Moreover, even if Moses had been commanded to strike the rock, he should have done so only once. Christ was both the Rock and the water of life within it (Isa. 26:4; Jo. 4:14; 6:36; 7:37-38). He was stricken once for us (Is. 53:5-12). He did not need to die twice. When you are born again, your old self and your old desires should pass away (Ro. 6:6). Yet, there are times when your old self, like with Moses, will appear (Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:9). “[T]he flesh profits nothing.” (Jo. 6:63). Here, Moses acted out of anger. God will not accept your works or the works of a leader when the leader acts out of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21). Moses was a poor witness for God when he acted out of anger. If you quarrel with others or complain, what kind of a witness are you?

5. Guided by the Holy Spirit, You also Must Select Leaders to Replace You. Nu. 27:15-23.

  • God appoints Joshua to succeed Moses. Instead of picking someone from his own family, Moses let God select his heir: “15 Then Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, 16 ‘May the Lord, the God of the spirits of humanity, appoint a man over the congregation, 17 who will go out and come in before them, and lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep that have no shepherd.’ 18 So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him; 19 and have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before all the congregation, and commission him in their sight. 20 And you shall put some of your authority on him, so that all the congregation of the sons of Israel will obey him. 21 Moreover, he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord. At his command they shall go out, and at his command they shall come in, both he and all the sons of Israel with him, all the congregation.’ 22 Then Moses did just as the Lord commanded him; he took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and before all the congregation. 23 Then he laid his hands on him and commissioned him, just as the Lord had spoken through Moses.” (Nu. 27:15-23). Asking the Spirit to guide the selection process means letting Him guide the process from the very beginning. It does not involve asking you to bless a decision that you have already made. It also has no place for nepotism.

Moses lays hands on Joshua to be his successor3

  • Moses let God select Joshua. Moses did not grumble with God’s instructions to find a replacement leader. Nor did he pick his son or a person that he wanted. Instead, just as he let God resolve the property dispute, he let God select the next leader (Nu. 27:15-17). It is also common for church leaders to pick their sons to succeed them. While this may sometimes be the will of the Spirit, it frequently fuels charges of nepotism. The Catholic Church does not let the Pope select the successor. Instead, bishops seclude themselves in prayer as part of a papal conclave. Guided by the Spirit, the bishops cannot leave the room until they reach a two-thirds vote on a secret ballot for a successor. Although the Catholic Church has its problems, it at least tries to allow the Spirit to pick a successor leader. Do you let God guide your decisions? Or, do you only look for Him to ratify your decisions?

  • God is looking for leaders based on their faith, not their pedigree. God selected Joshua (previously named Hoshea) from the tribe of Ephraim, Joseph’s first son (Gen. 41:51; Nu. 13:8, 16). This selection might have been surprising for two reasons. First, like Manasseh, Ephraim was not Jewish because his mother was Egyptian (Gen. 41:50). Second, Ephraim’s tribe had sinned in the wilderness. As a result, the fighting men in their tribe shrank from 40,500 (Nu. 1:33) to 32,500 (Nu. 26:37), a decrease of 19.75%. Yet, God does not pick people based upon their status in life or based upon the sins of their families. Hoshea, his original name, meant “deliverance.” He was the son of Nun, which means “fish.” It is a symbol used for Christ (Nu. 13:8). Moses later renamed him as “Joshua,” which means “the Lord is deliverance.” (Nu. 13:16). Joshua was one of two to have faith when the 10 spies rebelled (Nu. 14:9). His name prefigures Christ. When Joshua was written in Aramaic (the language of Christ), it translates as “Yehoshua.” “Yeshua,” the Hebrew name for Christ, is a shortened version of this word. Joshua, like Christ, knew that God would deliver the Promised Land to them (Ps. 18:2; 68:20). Do you judge the advice you receive from people based upon their status, wealth, or the job of the person giving it?

6. A Future Leader Must Be Both Filled With and Guided by the Holy Spirit.

  • A Spirit-filled leader is brave and a light to others. God selected Joshua because the Spirit was within him (Nu. 27:18). Moses also stated that the people needed someone to “lead them out and bring them in.” (Nu. 27:17). This meant that the leader needed to be brave and willing to lead the troops into battle from the front and not the rear. When we have the Holy Spirit, we need not be afraid of any person (2 Tim. 1:7). Joshua had already proven himself to be a man of faith, bravery, and a light to others. He previously defeated the Amalekites in battle (Ex. 17:8-13). He and Caleb were also God’s two witnesses who tried to encourage the fearful people to have faith that they could conquer the giants in the Promised Land (Nu. 14:9). Because the Jews would not listen, they would spend 38 years wandering in the desert (Nu. 14:34). “So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.” (Heb. 3:19; Ps. 95:7-11). Only Joshua and Celeb would be allowed to enter because of their faith (Nu. 14:24, 30). We may say that we would do the same as these two. Yet, the people responded to them by trying to stone them (Nu. 13:6-10). Do you bravely share your faith with others? (Ro. 1:16). Is your light a beacon of faith to those around you? (Matt. 5:16). If you act out of anger, doubt, frustration, envy, or selfishness, what kind of a light are you?

  • A Spirit-filled leader is a shepherd to his people. As an additional condition for being a leader, Moses asked for someone who would shepherd the people (Nu. 27:17). A shepherd cares about each individual member of the flock. He uses his staff to discipline those members of the flock that stray away (Ps. 23:4). Neither Moses nor Joshua could have known every member of the nation. Yet, they organized each tribe and each family with deputy shepherds to keep track of and count each person. Today, some leaders stand at a podium and preach to their flock without knowing the people’s names. The deputy leaders also don’t know the people’s names. Accountability only exists for those who seek it. A person could attend in person, online, or not at all. If the person wanders away, there is no staff to bring the person back. This is not the model of a true shepherd. How successful will the flock be at staying together when the predator strikes if there is no leader with a staff to protect them? What defense does the flock have on its own when a predator strikes?

  • A leader must always consult the Holy Spirit. As a condition for being a leader, Joshua was also required to consult with the High Priest and God’s Spirit through a rock called “Urim” in making his decisions (Nu. 27:21). Urim and Thummin were two holy stones given to the High Priest to help him discern God’s will (Lev. 8:8; Ex. 28:30). When God’s Word on a subject is not clear, He has given us the Spirit to discern His will (Jo. 16:7; 13).

  • The laying of hands upon a future leader should never be done in haste. The ordination of Joshua was not complete until Moses publically laid hands upon Joshua (Nu. 27:19). This symbolized the transfer of identity (cf, Lev. 1:4). Making sure that a qualified leader exists to replace a leader is an important part of any organization. Yet, the replacement leader must be carefully selected. Great harm can come to an organization that selects a leader who is not ready or qualified. In the New Testament, Paul warns: “do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.” (1 Tim. 5:22). A prospective leader must be content (1 Tim. 6:6-9). He must be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach.” (1 Tim. 3:2). He also must not be “addicted to wine or be pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.” (1 Tim. 3:3; 6:6-10). He must also manage his own household well (1 Tim. 3:4). A leader must also not be a new convert (1 Tim. 3:6). A leader must also lead by being a servant to others (1 Tim. 6:2). In short, you will know them by their fruits (Matt. 7:16, 20). We are all leaders as a nation of priests (1 Pet. 2:5). Meditate on this list of leadership attributes and ask God to show you where to improve.

7. A Future Leader Must Be Righteous and Unstained by the World.

  • Joshua lived a life of righteousness. Because he was Spirit-filled, Joshua was righteous before God and unstained by the sins of the world. Joshua patiently waited for Moses at Mount Horeb when others gave up hope of his return. He did not participate in the building or worship of the golden calf (Ex. 32:17). He also patiently waited outside the tent of meeting for God to return after He stated that he would not stay because of the people’s sins (Ex. 33:11). Part of the definition of true religion is being “unstained by the sins of the world.” (Jam. 1:27). Have you, like Joshua, stayed unstained by the sins of this world?

  • A leader also learns from the example of his teacher. Joshua was righteous because he stayed faithful. He also learned from the example of his teacher Moses. Jesus said: “A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher.” (Lk. 6:40). Paul implored others to follow him as he followed the example of Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). Are you following someone's example who is following Christ? Are you providing instruction and discipline for someone who is young in the faith to grow in their walk?