While the Israelites struggle to occupy the Promised Land of God, Mahlah bat Zelophehad is orphaned and left to care for her four sisters. But daughters of the dead are unable to inherit land, and it will take a miracle for Mahlah to obtain the means to care for her sisters and uphold the vow she made to her dying mother.
Mahlah must seek Moses, the leader of her people, and request something extraordinary—the right for a daughter to inherit her deceased father’s land. A right that will upset the ox-cart of male inheritance and thrust her into the role of a rebel.
But, God is the protector of the orphan and the widow, and five orphaned daughters need His help. With God, anything is possible. Even changing man’s tradition.
Series: Tribes Of Israel - The daughters of Zelophehad Boo
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Mahlah arched her back. A sky, blue and crisp like a faceted gem, draped over the camp. No trade winds cooled the warmth of the fresh, new sun. She picked up a basket from outside her family’s ramskin tent and wedged it against her hip. Grasping her woven belt, she shifted the leather, so her knife was but a flinch away. She wouldn’t allow any beast in the wilderness to harm her sisters.
“Come on, Tirzah. The dew is gone.”
Tirzah emerged from behind the tent flap. She blinked at the brightness and wrinkled her nose. “Why do I have to gather manna?”
“Because it is your turn.” Mahlah reached to take the hand of her youngest sister. “Hurry now, before Father stirs.”
A gurgling noise rumbled from Tirzah’s belly.
Mahlah stifled a laugh. “We better go before your hunger wakes the neighbors.”
“It won’t.” Tirzah pressed her lips together. Her stone-collecting satchel hung at her side.
“If we stay here and let our kin harvest the closest manna, your rumble will turn into a roar.” Bending low, Mahlah lunged forward and wrapped an arm around her sister. She lifted Tirzah off the ground and twirled her in the direction of the outskirts. “Manna awaits.”
Tirzah giggled. A few sleepy gatherers scowled and clutched their unfilled baskets.
The tent flap flung open. Zelophehad stomped into the small clearing outside their dwelling.
Stiffening, Mahlah faced her father. Heat crept from her neck into her cheeks. She lowered her sister to the trampled path.
Tirzah pressed her weight against the folds of Mahlah’s robe.
“Enough of this silliness.” Her father glowered at her empty basket. “How can I oversee a brood of girls on an empty stomach?”
“I’m sorry we disturbed you, Father.” Mahlah’s heartbeat pounded in her throat. “We won’t take long.”
Head down, Mahlah tugged her sister toward the next tent. Nothing she did of late pleased her father.
Tirzah jogged a few steps. “Are we breaking camp today?”
“We’ll see from the hill.”
Mahlah hurried Tirzah past row after row of ram-skin tents occupied by their tribesmen of Manasseh. The sour scent of the hides filled her nostrils as she hastened toward the fields bordering their camp.
A few women chatted in hushed voices. They, too, needed to collect a day’s worth of God’s provision this morn.
“I’m tired of the desert.” Tirzah scuffed her sandals along the dirt path separating their clan of Hepher from other families within the tribe of Manasseh.
“Shhh.” Mahlah glanced to see if any of the women had heard her sister’s complaint. Not one head turned. Praise be for sleepy neighbors.
“I am weary, too, little one, but someday soon we will have a house to keep and land to farm. You can tend the livestock or weave our garments.”
Tirzah puckered her cracked lips. Her eyes grew wide. “I’d rather cook.”
“Ah.” Mahlah chuckled. “May God grant me the remembrance of your volunteering for labor.”
The desert outside the encampment opened into an expanse of nothingness. The soil and hills and bramble bushes were muted shades of nutshells.
Layers of manna rested on the parched grass. This bread of heaven came in the morning while quail came at night. These provisions were bestowed by their God. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.
Shalom, Adonai. Mahlah stooped to break off pieces of the thin, bumpy bread. With four sisters to feed and an aging father, no complaint would leave her mouth about the lack of variety in God’s gift. Every finely ground tidbit tasted of fire-roasted grain. She accepted the nourishment with pleasure.
“Do we have honey at home?” Tirzah nibbled a piece of the unleavened bread. Her satchel bulged from her labors.
Mahlah nodded. Home. The word sounded strange, as if spoken in a foreign dialect. For the last five years, they had traveled without a mother. A mother who had made their tent a refuge in the desert. On the providence of God, their family moved from place to place. At times, the marching seemed aimless. And aimless is what her father’s direction had become.
Leaving Tirzah at the base of a hill, Mahlah climbed higher and shaded her eyes to survey the camp. Tent upon tent formed a perfect square with the Tabernacle of God set in the center of the tribes of Israel. A cloud hovered over the sacred site. No marching would be done today. Only waiting. Would the rest heal her father’s weariness?
Mahlah gripped her basket and hurried down the slope. Her sandals skidded on loosened pebbles. She left the small stones embedded in her toes, and hurried, hoping her father had not grown impatient. She prayed a full stomach would breed acceptance of their wandering.
“We have enough, little one.” Mahlah tapped Tirzah’s shoulder and trudged ahead. “Let’s go.”
Tirzah gripped her satchel as if a thief might snatch it away. “Slow down. Your legs are longer than mine.”
“Only for a while with as fast as you’re growing.” Mahlah hurried toward their family’s tent.
Tirzah hopped behind her, one footstep to the other, as her manna-filled satchel beat a rhythm against her hip.
Mahlah shook her head at the drumbeat her sister created and grinned. “I will volunteer to eat your manna crumbs.”
Her father rounded the far side of their tent. “Where is my food?” His words pierced the morning calm, drawing the attention of nearby kin. He overturned a water jug. “Again, we have nothing to drink.”
Every muscle in Mahlah’s arms tensed. Her knuckles ached as she gripped the handle of her basket. She slowed her pace. Her mind searched for an excuse as Tirzah slammed into the back of her legs. Sweat pooled above Mahlah’s lip. With one swipe of her tongue, she removed the moisture but tasted salt and grit.
What could she say to calm her father’s ire so his temper did not draw another reprimand from the elders? She stepped forward, her progress hindered by Tirzah’s grasp.
God give me wisdom.
“I’m sure our goats have been milked. Isn’t milk more satisfying than water?” She tried to smile, but her lips quivered.
“Babble!” Their father hurled the stone jar at the ground.
Mahlah flinched. Shards of baked clay decorated the dirt. Her sisters, Hoglah and Milcah, stood in the tent opening, eyes wide and mouths gaping as if they’d encountered an evil spirit.
“You are a fool if you think there is enough to drink. We will wither away like your mother.” Pacing in a circle, their father ripped his turban from his head. “Don’t offer me that awful bread.”
“Father, please.” Forgive him, Lord. Mahlah handed her basket to Tirzah and pushed her younger sister nearer the tent.
“Moses has cursed us all,” her father shouted. “Do you see a bountiful land? What bounty can I claim with no heir?”
Fisting her hands, Mahlah strode toward her father. Hadn’t she worked beside her father and done everything an heir could?
“We are blessed. With life.” Her head covering shifted to one side, but she would not stop to right it. “I beg of you. Go inside and eat. I will send Tirzah to fetch some milk.”
Nemuel, an elder from the tribe of Manasseh, stomped into the open space between the tents. His son, Reuben, lagged, towering over his father.
Her father slipped off his belt and whipped it high. “Moses must answer for our hardship. Who believes as I do?”
Mahlah bit down on her lip. Her family did not need another tongue-lashing from a leader. Her father’s discontent would draw another public reprimand. Nemuel showed no compassion toward his kin, but perhaps Reuben would remember favorably the girls growing up in the tent a few paces from his own.
She stepped closer to her father and feigned lightheartedness. “Hunger has made you like a bear.” She grinned as if they attended a celebratory feast. “Come and eat with your girls.”
A few men approached the clearing. Had they heard the commotion?
“Zelophehad.” Nemuel crossed his arms, splaying the tassels on his garment. “Repent of this grumbling and see to your daughters.”
Swinging his belt high as if harvesting wheat with a sickle, her father remained silent.
Nemuel backed away.
A tiny spasm twitched in the corner of Mahlah’s right eye. She blinked, trying to calm the flutter. Why now eye? She needed to take heed of her father’s actions.
“Lead the way to justice, Zelophehad,” a man yelled from a neighboring tent.
“No.” Mahlah pointed at the heckler. She drew to her full height and fingered the blade on her belt. How dare this sluggard threaten her family?
“Be still,” she said. The spasm in her eye tugged at her cheek.
Her father snapped his belt inches from her toes.
Mahlah’s heart raced, but she did not retreat. She swallowed the lingering taste of fine grain and swept moisture from her eye. “Abba.” She croaked her plea. “Let us sup as a family.” She indicated her sisters huddled outside the tent. “Follow me inside.”
She did not recognize the snarl of the madman beholding her with eyes as dark as a moonless midnight. Where was the loving father who had laughed at his daughters’ antics?
“It is time I take my grievance to the Tabernacle.” Her father strode toward the center of the camp while holding his belt aloft like a scepter. “Moses must answer for my misery.”
Men from the tribe of Manasseh marched after their wayward clansman.
“Father, wait.” Why wasn’t he listening?
“Repent of this wickedness,” Reuben called out, echoing his father’s wisdom. “God’s wrath will find you.”
Should she follow her father? She glimpsed her youngest sisters, Tirzah and Milcah, sobbing into their older sister’s apron. Didn’t their father care about the future of his offspring? Life would be uncertain for women with no protector and no heir.
“What is wrong with you people?” Nemuel chastised the onlookers as he shuffled in the direction of another leader’s dwelling. “You stand and gossip and ignore the Lord’s gift? Gather your manna before the sun is too high.”
Shrill screams came from the direction of Nemuel’s tent. Were others angry with God?
She scanned the wide path angling by their neighbors’ tents and toward their place of worship.
Reuben’s young son, Jonah, raced toward his father. His tiny arms stretched for an embrace. Reuben’s stoic composure crumbled. He bent low to catch his son.
Mahlah sprinted forward. “Are you hurt, Jonah?”
The boy changed direction and wrapped his arms around Mahlah’s knees, nearly knocking her to the ground.
She steadied herself and gave Jonah a hug. Tears flooded the raven-haired boy’s eyes. Eyes as dark and thick-lashed as his father’s. Had the shouting and arguments upset the three-year-old?
“Shalom, now.” Mahlah picked up the small boy and breathed in the soap scent on his skin. His small chest rose and fell like the sea. Would her father be calmed if a son greeted him like this every morning? If only her father had a son. “Why are you crying?”
The boy turned his head side to side. Was he looking for something or someone?
Reuben tried to coax Jonah to leave her arms. “If he has set his mind on a task, my mother cannot move fast enough to catch him.”
As the wife you recently buried. She silently finished what went unspoken in Reuben’s troubled gaze.
Jonah placed his hands on Mahlah’s cheeks and squeezed. She could hardly talk with Reuben about her father’s behavior while her lips imitated a fish. She shook her head to loosen Jonah’s grasp.
More screams wakened the camp. This time they came from the east and from the west.
Reuben turned toward the Tabernacle.
She glanced in the direction from which Jonah had run. The dirt path moved. She blinked, but the soil still quaked in her vision.
Her skin tingled from toe to scalp. Hardened ground didn’t tremble. She blinked again.
One. Two. Three.
Three snakes slithered toward her toes.
Keywords: Zelophehad, women of the Bible, brave girls, sisterhood, inheritance, Biblical fiction, Historic women, Old Testament heroines, clean teen, Jewish lit
Question 1: 1. Were you familiar with the story of Zelophehad’s daughters before reading “Lioness: Mahlah’s Journey?” Why do you think this story isn’t widely known?
Answer 1: : I wasn’t familiar with the story. Many people aren’t familiar with Old Testament stories. The daughters first appear in a list of names which isn’t exciting.
Question 2: 2. Do you have a favorite character in the book? Which daughter is most like you in personality?
Answer 2: Answers will vary. I am organized and try to coordinate events, so I relate to Mahlah.
Question 3: 3. The daughters of Zelophehad made a bold move going before powerful leaders to ask for their father’s land. Have you done something lately that has taken courage? Possibly made you nervous?
Answer 3: Answers will vary. Every time I send a book out into the world I get nervous.
Question 4: 4. The Bible has several verses about taking care of the fatherless and the widow (Exodus 22:22-23, Deuteronomy 14:28-29, Psalm 68:5, Matthew 25:37-40, James 1:27). Why was this important to God? In what ways can we take care of the orphan and widow today?
Answer 4: Readers may or may not know of God’s protection for the orphan and widow. We serve a loving God. Today, we can support homeless shelters, orphanages, and compassion ministries with our finances, prayers, and our time.
Question 5: 5. Why do you think Hoglah and Basemath journeyed to the pit in Peor? Was Eli to blame?
Answer 5: Ideas will vary. Sometimes we are blinded to truth when our peers are doing something that goes against God’s ways. I imagine peer pressure existed in the days of the Exodus. Hoglah was the middle child. Do you think she felt neglected or unappreciated? Did alcohol play a role in her bad judgment?
Question 6: 6. How would you react to seeing a miracle such as the parting of the Jordan River? Do you think the people of God were accustomed to seeing miracles?
Answer 6: : I think I would be shocked, surprised and elated. The Hebrew people taught the story of the Exodus to their children. God had parted the Red Sea in the Hebrew people’s escape from Egypt. Would the manna and quail be daily miracles? What about the cloud over the tent of Meeting and the pillar of fire at night?
Question 7: 7. Were you familiar with Balaam, son of Beor? He is a bad guy of the Bible. What made this sorcerer so wicked? (2 Peter 2:15, Jude 11, Revelation 2:14)
Answer 7: Balaam offered sacrifices to other gods. He schemed to have the Hebrew people worship Baal. The first commandment says the Israelites shall not worship other gods. There is only One True God.
Question 8: 8. Do you think Shuni and his relatives were rude for showing up at Mahlah’s tent? What could they have done differently to not cause a scene?
Answer 8: Answers will vary. Shuni could have arranged a meeting through a relative of the daughters of Zelophehad. Certainly, his behavior caused problems for the daughters. Did he redeem himself?
Question 9: 9. What was your favorite scene from the book? Share what made it special.
Answer 9 I loved the ending in the tent. I also like the scene at the rock with the cloud.
Question 10: 10. Where do you see the daughters of Zelophehad going? What do you think they are doing now? Who has come to offer for their hands in marriage?
Answer 10: The story of these brave girls continues in the book of Joshua. Adventure waits for Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirza