“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.
And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not in the company of them that gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah; but died in his own sin, and had no sons. Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he hath no son? Give unto us therefore a possession among the brethren of our father.” (Numbers 27:1-4)
A man of the tribe of Manasseh had died in the wilderness, leaving no sons to be counted in the census. His five daughters were concerned that their family would be left out and forgotten because there were no sons to inherit. They came to Moses, requesting that they be given a fair share, since their father had not taken part in Korah’s rebellion.
“And Moses brought their cause before the LORD. And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 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.” (Numbers 27:5-7)
While Jewish custom dictated that the inheritance was passed down through male heirs, God was very specific that Zelopehad’s daughters were to receive the inheritance equals with the other male heirs. Since there would be families who had no male children or occasionally even a childless couple, God chose this time to address what was to be done in such cases.
“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. And if he have no daughter, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his brethren. And if he have no brethren, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his father's brethren.
And if his father have no brethren, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his kinsman that is next to him of his family, and he shall possess it: and it shall be unto the children of Israel a statute of judgment, as the LORD commanded Moses.” (Numbers 27:8-11)
In every case where there was not a son to inherit, the property was to pass to a daughter. If there were no children, the inheritance was to pass to one of the dead man’s brothers if any existed. If he had no brothers, it was to go to one of his uncles. If there were no uncles, then the property was to go to the nearest relative.
Deuteronomy 25:5-10 gave some added instructions regarding such a situation. “If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel.
And if the man like not to take his brother's wife, then let his brother's wife go up to the gate unto the elders, and say, My husband's brother refuseth to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel, he will not perform the duty of my husband's brother. Then the elders of his city shall call him, and speak unto him: and if he stand to it, and say, I like not to take her; Then shall his brother's wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother's house. And his name shall be called in Israel, The house of him that hath his shoe loosed.”
A brother of the dead man was to marry his wife and their first born son would be counted as the son and heir of the dead man. If for some reason the brother refused to marry her, he was to be publicly humiliated for not providing for his own relatives. There were two benefits to this system. Widows and fatherless children would be provided for, and the brothers had a vested interest in helping pick a satisfactory wife since they might have to marry her. They were less inclined to overlook her faults.