Chapter twenty-seven reveals at least two things about the laws of the Old Testament.
First, those laws are often at variance with the cultures around Israel. It is true that the laws of the Old Testament many times mirror neighboring cultures, but that should not lead us to the notion that Israel took those laws from those cultures, appropriated them for themselves, and said they got them from God. This view will not allow for the great differences between Israelite law and that of other ancient societies.
In Mesopotamian law, daughters did not inherit property from their fathers; only sons inherited. This was also generally true in Israel. Zelophehad, however, a descendant of Joseph, had no sons. This meant that the daughters would receive no inheritance in the “promised land.” This, they believed, was unjust. Why should their father’s family lose the promise of God just because he did not father sons?
It was unfair, and God agreed, making this part of inheritance law different from other cultures.
That brings us to the second point: how laws appeared in the Old Testament. Though laws were handed down from God to Moses at Sinai, these laws would not address every issue that would arise. Cases, like that of Zelophad’s daughters, would arise and require amendments to existing laws, and development of additional laws. In no case should the specific law of God be overturned, but new laws based on old ones could be formed.
The Bible does not address every issue. It does, however, contain enough of the thinking of God that if we give it our attention, and make the will of God the will of our heart, we will begin to think like God and know how to address matters God didn’t specifically address.
Was this story just about being fair to the girls?
I don’t think so. In fact, the girls do not ask for this judgment for their own benefit. It is simply about the promise of God. Should a person lose his divinely promised inheritance through no fault of his own? “No,” is the answer. The promises of God are sure, and you can depend on them.