The Daughters Victorious
By Rabbi Shlomo (Stanley) Wexler
Gefen Publishing House, 2001, 456 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - September 21, 2010
This intriguing novel is based on the sparse report of a puzzling case brought to Moses by five sisters, who had no brothers. They wanted the then existing law denying women a share in the land of Canaan be changed and that they receive their father Zelaphchad's share of the land that the Israelites left Egypt to conquer. Virtually no information about the case is given in the Bible. Numbers 27:3 and 4, in the translation of The Jewish Publication Society, has them argue:
Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the company of them that gathered together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons.
Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give us a possession among the brethren of our father.
This brief wording raises many questions. Who was Zelaphchad? Why did he die in the wilderness? What is the significance of he not participating in Korah's rebellion? What was his "sin"? Why shouldn't the daughters inherit their father's share of land? Is it significant that the names of his five daughters are mentioned three times in the Bible?
Then there are questions that go beyond the Torah words. How did Zelaphchad behave during the period of Egyptian slavery? Did Moses know him? Was he a good man? Who were the daughters? Were they married? This petition was advanced at the end of the forty-year desert wondering; why wasn't it presented earlier?
Besides answering these and a host of other questions, Wexler focuses his drama on three main plots: the inequality of women in ancient times, both in regard to inheritance and otherwise; the ardent love of Zelaphchad's family for land in Canaan, the future State of Israel; and the strong desire to study and know Torah. There are also many sub-plots, such as the love life of the five sisters and the clashes between them and the clashes between the tribes.
In view of the limited biblical information, Wexler had to decide how to flesh out his story. He settled on gathering material from the ancient midrashic and talmudic elaborations on the tale. But he also used his own inventive mind.
The ideas and events that he inserts are clever, attention holding, and challenging. Some of his inventions may raise questions in readers' minds, and this is good, for all good novels should do so. An example is his description of Zelaphchad's reaction to God's decision to kill all males between the ages of twenty and sixty because of the false report of ten spies who returned with a poor description of Canaan. Why, he asks, should innocent people, like himself, die because of ten misguided people and the foolish group who accepted their report? Zelaphchad's reasoning seems right.
Additionally, while the Torah states that some people who refused to accept the decree went to wage war against the Canaanites, Wexler's description of Zelaphchad's reaction raises the question again that he, and not God or Moses, may have been right. Zelaphchad argued that when the Israelites stood at the Red Sea, the leader of the tribe of Judah, Nachshon, took matters into his own hands, entered the Sea, and God saw that he had good intentions and split the Sea. Why shouldn't the Israelites show their love for Canaan by moving to conquer it; shouldn't God see that their intensions are good and come to their aid?
Other incidents may bother some readers, such as members of the tribes of Joseph praying at his coffin for help in attaining their desires. Still others may argue that Wexler used anachronistic material when he assumed that later procedures and attitudes existed during the forty-year desert wondering.
Questions such as these do not mar the novel in any way. They enhance its enjoyment, just as discordant notes enhance a symphony. Readers will therefore enjoy the story. They will be intrigued about how the issue of discrimination against women is handled. They will finish the novel asking themselves, Was the case of the daughters of Zelaphchad decided correctly? Were the daughters treated fairly? Why did it take a generation to reverse the decree? How is it possible for the people to reverse God's decree?