Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
(3) Our father died in the wilderness.—The preceding chapter records the fulfilment of the sentence of exclusion pronounced on the generation which came out of Egypt after the completion of the twentieth year of their age. The argument used by the daughters of Zelophehad appears to be that their father was not one of those who signally provoked the Divine displeasure, so that he might justly have forfeited for himself and his descendants a share in the possession of the promised land. “He died,” they say, “in his own sin.” There is a Jewish tradition that Zelophehad was the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath day, and was stoned (Numbers 14:32). The more common interpretation of the expression is that he committed only the ordinary sins of human frailty (see Numbers 5:6), and that he died “the common death of all men,” and was “visited after the visitation of all men” (see Numbers 16:29), and consequently did not entail upon his posterity any special punishment for the sins which he had committed. In obedience to the directions contained in the preceding chapter (Numbers 26:52-56), the land of Canaan was to be portioned out, in accordance with the results of the census which had recently been taken. amongst the males who were upwards of twenty years of age; and consequently the daughters of Zelophehad, would not have shared in the inheritance. Keil (in loc.) quotes several instances in which the sons of mothers who possessed landed property were received through that inheritance into the family of their mothers, and included in the tribe to which the mothers belonged. In this case the desire of the daughters of Zelophehad was that their father’s name should be perpetuated—i.e., that their sons should be enrolled as descendants of Zelophehad, and should succeed to that portion of the land which, under ordinary circumstances, would have fallen to his sons, had he left any behind him. Bishop Wordsworth observes that, inasmuch as we are to regard the inheritance of Canaan as being a figure of the heavenly possession, the answer which was returned to the inquiry of Moses respecting the daughters of Zelophehad may be regarded as an indication that “in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female,” and that women, no less than men, are “heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).
Then came 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: and these are the names of his daughters; Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.
The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father's brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them.(7) Thou shalt surely give them . . . —The pronoun them is in the masculine gender in the Hebrew. Either the reference must be to the sons of Zelophehad’s daughters, or the daughters must be regarded in the light of sons.
And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.(8) If a man die, and have no son . . . —On the general law of inheritance which is here laid down, see Selden’s De Successionibus, London, 1636, and Keil’s Archœol., 2, s. 142.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Get thee up into this mount Abarim, and see the land which I have given unto the children of Israel.(12) Get thee up into this mount Abarim.—The position of this command, in immediate connection with the answer returned to the request of the daughters of Zelophehad, is very remarkable. They were to enter into the land of promise, and their descendants were to inherit it. The great lawgiver himself was to be excluded on account of his transgression. He does not, however, shrink from recording the sentence of exclusion in immediate connection with an incident which brings out that exclusion into greater prominence. The fulfilment of the announcement made to Moses is related in Deuteronomy 32:48-52. The mountains of Abarim form the Moabitish table-land, the northern portion of which bore the name of Pisgah. It is here that we must look for Mount Nebo, which is sometimes described as one of the mountains of Abarim (Deuteronomy 32:49), and at other times as the top of Pisgah (Deuteronomy 3:27; Deuteronomy 34:1).
And see the land which I have given unto the children of Israel.—“The law,” says Bishop Wordsworth, “led men to ‘see the promises afar off, and to embrace them’ [rather, to see and greet the promises from afar, Hebrews 11:13], and it brought them to the borders of Canaan, but could not bring them into it: that was reserved for Joshua, the type of Jesus.” It must not be overlooked, however, that, although he was shut out during his lifetime from entering into the land of Canaan, Moses was permitted to stand with Elijah upon the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3).
And when thou hast seen it, thou also shalt be gathered unto thy people, as Aaron thy brother was gathered.(13) Gathered unto thy people.—See Genesis 25:8, and Note. In the case of Moses, as in that of Abraham, the expression cannot be understood in reference to the place of his burial.
For ye rebelled against my commandment in the desert of Zin, in the strife of the congregation, to sanctify me at the water before their eyes: that is the water of Meribah in Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.(14) To sanctify me . . . —See Numbers 20:12-13, where the same expression is used.
Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation,(16) Let the Lord . . . —We have a remarkable instance here of the true greatness of Moses, as a type of Him whose words were, “Weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28). Instead of indulging in excessive grief, or in unavailing remorse, the mind of Moses was intently fixed upon the welfare of those for whose sake he had been willing that his own name should be blotted out of the Book (Exodus 32:32); and instead of appointing one of his own family, or the man of his own choice, as his successor, he commits the matter to God, and prays that He will appoint one who would be a true shepherd to the flock.
Which may go out before them, and which may go in before them, and which may lead them out, and which may bring them in; that the congregation of the LORD be not as sheep which have no shepherd.(17) Which may go out before them . . . —The expression going out and coming in is used here, as in many other places, to denote the ordinary life of man (Deuteronomy 28:6; Deuteronomy 31:2). Leading out and bringing in (literally, causing to go out and to come in), as a shepherd in respect of his flock (John 10:3-9), denotes the direction of the conduct of others.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Take thee Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay thine hand upon him;(18) In whom is the spirit . . . —The definite article is not used in the original. The word translated “spirit” appears to denote spiritual endowment and qualifications.
And lay thine hand upon him.—It is to be observed that the spiritual qualifications of Joshua did not supersede the necessity of an outward consecration to his office. Nay, more; it seems that special qualifications for the office were bestowed in connection with the imposition of the hands of Moses, for it is written in Deuteronomy 34:9 that “Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him.”
And set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight.(19) And give him a charge . . . —Comp. Deuteronomy 31:23, “And he gave Joshua the son of Nun a charge, and said, Be strong and of a good courage.”
And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall ask counsel for him after the judgment of Urim before the LORD: at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation.(21) After the judgment of Urim . . . —See Exodus 28:30, and Note.
At his word . . . —i.e., Joshua and the children of Israel were to abide by the decision of the high priest, which was obtained by means of Urim and Thummim.