Did you know that before 1974, all women in the United States—single, widowed, or divorced—were required to have a man cosign credit applications?
The first legislation that required equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender, was in 1963.
Suffragists in the 1800s had an uphill battle, but having no voting rights was the least of their problems. Mothers could make no claims on their children if the marriage went sour. They had no recourse if their husbands wanted a divorce or sold all of their property—until the Act Concerning the Rights and Liabilities of Husband and Wife in 1860 which guaranteed joint guardianship.
Before earning the vote, the most pivotal law for women was New York’s Married Women’s Property Act of 1848. Prior to that, no married woman was allowed to inherit, own, or control property. It was her husband’s.
That law paved the way for more legislature favoring women, such as the Homestead Act of 1862. This allowed women to own the title to new land in western territories. By 1900, all states allowed women to own property. But it was property they paid taxes on—to a country that didn’t yet let them vote.
These situations of gender inequality weren’t fair, but they make for good novels.
Otherwise, we’d never have Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice and similar stories based on the premise that daughters can’t inherit their father’s property.
We also wouldn’t have the novel Lioness by Barbara Britton.
Given our contemporary society, it might seem surprising that the USA took so long to allow women to have financial autonomy. But it’s probably not so shocking 4000 years ago, during Biblical times. In the days of Moses, only sons could inherit the land. There was no provision for women to own property.
But five orphaned girls changed that. Read about it in Numbers 27. The oldest daughter of Zelophehad summons all her courage to ask Moses for their dead father’s land—a thing unheard of in a male-dominated culture. Would Moses laugh? Or turn them away? Shame them for asking? Or worse?
But Moses goes to God for an answer. God grants them the land, and institutes a new law: “If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.”
God–the ultimate Defender of the poor and oppressed, Champion of widows and orphans.
Author Barbara Britton brings this story to life in her book Lioness: Mahlah’s Journey. Last time I featured her new release Defending David.
Before Defending David came along (February 2022), there were the Daughters of Zelophehad, part of the Tribes of Israel series, books 4 – 6:
Before those three, the Tribes of Israel series began with:
- Providence: Hannah’s Journey, based on II Kings 5
- Building Benjamin: Naomi’s Journey, based on Judges 19-21, set during the time of Israel’s war with the tribe of Benjamin
- Jerusalem Rising: Adah’s Journey, based on Nehemiah 1-8, which recounts the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall after Israel’s captivity
Check out the Lioness book trailer on Barbara’s Amazon page here. Click on the second video. Then come back to learn more about these five orphaned sisters who found favor with God and Moses. Mahlah, Noah, and Milcah are the oldest three.
Lioness Back Cover Blurb
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 cast her in 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.
Lioness: Mahlah’s Journey (Daughters of Zelophehad #1 & Tribes of Israel #4)
I love plunging into little known Old Testament stories and getting the feel of what life was like back then, in the early days God’s covenant people. Barbara Britton is a master of making this happen, with just the right amount of evocative imagery that places you front and center with the protagonist. In this case, Mahlah, daughter of Zelophehad–someone I didn’t remember! Somehow I bypassed this story even with numerous Bible readings over the years.
The Israelites are en route to the Promised Land when Mahlah’s father dies with no male heir, leaving Mahlah and her sisters without male protection, and without land of their own.
While God is doing big important things like sending manna and quail daily, defeating enemies, and moving His people cross-country, these supposedly insignificant girls and their plight do not escape the Almighty’s attention.
The action is fast paced and the characters seem like real, distinct people. Not only does Barbara hone in on Mahlah’s story while staying true to the Biblical text, she also stays true to the cultural context without projecting modern day attitudes about the empowerment of women onto the Biblical account. Though Mahlah is a strong and admirable character, one who takes initiative with resolve and integrity, the focus remains on God’s power and what He is able to do as Champion of the weak and oppressed.
When you get to the end, be sure to read the Numbers and Joshua passages straight from the Bible.
Blurb for Heavenly Lights: Noah’s Journey (Daughters of Zelophehad #2 & Tribes of Israel #5)
Noah bat Zelophehad has tended her father’s herds and flocks since she was a girl. With God’s gift of land, she plans to make her sisters wealthy with livestock. But when a conniving clansman takes a liking to the bold shepherdess, his scheme may snatch her from the fields she loves.
Only one person understands Noah’s gifts with the animals—Jeremiah, the mute shepherd who has been her field companion for years. After the walls of Jericho collapse, God stays silent in the battle of Ai, leaving Jeremiah wounded and Noah’s marital status in jeopardy. But, Noah remains faithful to God and her animals and trusts that she will be able to forge a future with her sisters, even when enemies abound.
Will the daughters of Zelophehad be able to settle their land together or will Noah get left behind.
This story is another great blend of fact and fiction bringing Old Testament events to life. Before starting to read, I wondered how the story would proceed with one of the characters being a deaf mute. Would it slow down the story? Would the dialog lag? But nothing is lagging here.
As usual, Barbara Britton puts us in fast motion, sweeping us into early Old Testament events from the perspective of this unique family of five daughters. They (and we) witness the after-effects of the fall of Jericho, the battle against Ai, Achan’s sin of plundering forbidden goods, and Rahab’s deliverance. Having studied the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua, I couldn’t help but be drawn to this time when God is establishing His own people in a world of godlessness.
Some of that godlessness is within their own tribe of Manasseh. Noah and Jeremiah (the deaf mute), both shepherds together, find themselves at the mercy of Jeremiah’s evil brother Keenan, who wants Noah for a wife–but only because of the land she will inherit. His scheming brings about a terrible twist over halfway through the tale, and raises the stakes greatly for both Noah and Jeremiah. I didn’t see it coming, but it made perfect sense. And kept my heart pounding.
As God is shaping the tribes of Israel into His own people, His punishment of evil (Achan’s sin) is juxtaposed with His continual graciousness as a Champion of the weak, the outsiders, and the marginalized. I enjoyed seeing it all through Noah’s eyes, with her unfaltering faith in God despite His silence at times–which rings true. I feel like I know these five sisters.
Blurb for Claiming Canaan: Milcah’s Journey (Daughters of Zelophehad #3 & Tribes of Israel #6)
When the tribal elders make marriage a requirement for claiming her land, Milcah bat Zelophehad must find a betrothed straightaway. The only problem in finding a husband is that all her suitors were slain while conquering the land of Canaan. Men avoid her in order to stay alive.
After praying to God to send her a bold suitor, a man from her father’s clan plummets from a tree right on top of her. Is this God answering prayer or a foolish antic by Eli, the war-scarred brother from one of her clan’s rival families?
Will settling in Canaan sort out Milcah’s troubles, or have her woes just begun?
Now it’s Milcah’s turn. The fourth daughter of Zelophehad has one year to find the right young man to marry–one with whom to share her inheritance of the land. God’s land.
But she never would have picked Eli. She finds herself stuck in an arranged marriage (engagement, rather) with someone she doesn’t respect. How can this be God’s plan? In fact, it seems that God’s blessings are often mixed with difficulties and confusion.
Traveling from the wilderness to Jericho was one thing, but now it’s time to settle the land. The Israelites had already conquered Canaan, but moving in isn’t so easy. The tribe of Manasseh stakes their claim in the north, near the pagan city of Megiddo—where townsmen are wary of Hebrew strangers whose army recently defeated their king.
Again, Milcah is amazed at God’s blessings evident in her parcel of land, but it comes with challenges, including the immediate need for dozens of workers to help with harvest. And thieves who arrive in the middle of the night. And wondering if and how Eli will rise to the occasion.
I appreciate the choice of scenes. Historical fiction offers the temptation to include numerous unnecessary details for the sake of a vicarious historical experience. But the author disregards much of the traveling drudgery and unessentials, and instead highlights key episodes between Milcah and her opponents, for dramatic effect. She offers enough detail for readers to engage and appreciate what it might have been like to live during that Old Testament time, straight from the book of Joshua.
Through it all, I enjoyed the five sisters’ camaraderie–though it wasn’t without its own conflicts. A favorite scene is their festive grape stomping. Even with husbands, the sisters’ bond is strong. They are there for each other to uphold the honor of their father, family, tribe, and God.
Join me for some Q & A with Barbara Britton.
Questions about the Daughters of Zelophehad series
How did you first decide to try Biblical fiction?
Barbara: I love to teach Bible stories, especially to children. For several years, my ministry to the Christian school my sons attended, was to teach chapel every Friday. My husband gave me this advice—don’t just tell a Bible story, tell the kids why that story is in the Bible. No small undertaking there. You would think I would easily make the leap from teaching Bible stories to writing about them, but that wasn’t the case. When I felt the prompting to write, I wrote several sweet books for young adults. None of them sold. My fourth book was a story similar to the story of Naaman in II Kings 5. My fourth manuscript sold to a Christian publisher. I had no idea that there was a Christian publishing world. I had a lot to learn.
In general, how do you choose an Old Testament character or story to develop? Do you go looking for stories or do they pop up as you’re reading Scripture? Are you looking for an interesting female character? A unique perspective on a familiar situation? A little-known tale?
Barbara: I have found Bible stories by reading the Bible and by other Christians mentioning a story. I had no idea that the daughters of Zelophehad existed until a fellow leader in my Bible Study mentioned the girls. I had recently finished a read-through-the-Bible challenge and couldn’t recall the sisters. I went back to the Bible and found their remarkable story in the books of Numbers and Joshua.
Most of my stories follow a female character because the little-known characters I studied happened to be girls. My upcoming release has a male character because he is the overlooked hero. I gravitate toward the Old Testament as Christians aren’t as familiar with those stories. I also think it would be challenging to write a story surrounding Jesus.
I also try to bring out spiritual themes in my stories. This habit goes back to my husband’s advice to bring out what the story is trying to teach us about God and Christian living.
More specifically, how did you decide to write about the daughters of Zelophehad?
Barbara: After a friend brought the sisters to my attention in our Bible Study, I researched the story and found a lot of Scripture about the five sisters. Their ask for land was bold in Bible Times. The problem with their story is that there are five sisters. How was I going to bring the sisters to light with unique personalities and quirks and not confuse the reader with their similar sounding names. I almost didn’t write their story.
I only planned to write Lioness. When I finished with the girls, I realized they wouldn’t receive their inheritance of land until Canaan was conquered. I decided to write two more books and travel with the sisters through the book of Joshua. Each sister found a husband and received a piece of the Promised Land.
Of course you stick to the story as Scripture reveals it. But there’s plenty of detail to fill in with characters, dialogs, and situations from your imagination. What are some of those things you needed to fill in for Lioness (Or Heavenly Lights or Claiming Canaan)? What scene was particularly challenging to write?
Barbara: I always say, God has the best storylines. I was able to stick closely with Scripture when writing Lioness and Heavenly Lights. When the daughters of Zelophehad received their land, we weren’t told exactly where that land was located. We knew it would be in land given to the tribe of Manasseh. I decide to settle the sisters near a city of idol-worshiping people whose king had been killed. This way, I could show how God-fearing girls lived in a land of unbelievers. For the daily living scenes, I had to pull from practices and customs in the Bible.
As I mentioned previously, I did not plan to write a second or third book. My hero Jeremiah couldn’t speak or hear. I had to work out how Jeremiah would communicate to people in Heavenly Lights. My hero in Claiming Canaan was not written as hero material in the series. Eli needed to show the daughters of Zelophehad that he had overcome his nefarious ways. If you’re writing a series, plan ahead and coordinate your characters and their journeys. This will make your writing life easier.
While writing Lioness, how much of the story and character development went according to your original plan and how much evolved?
Barbara: I have an easier job as an author when there is plenty of Scripture to follow. The narrative for the daughters of Zelophehad is fairly specific for their ask for land and then the subsequent tension with their tribesmen over who the girls could marry. We are also given the details on events happening with the tribes of Israel as they traveled the wilderness. What a blessing for me to have all that narrative. I could focus my attention on developing the personalities and habits of the sisters. I made sure that each girl had specific talents and used their temperaments to influence how they would speak.
Barbara: Mahlah had four sisters in her care. Her concern for the safety of her family made her bold. Mahlah wasn’t bold in essence, but challenge one of her sisters and Mahlah became a mighty warrior—a lioness. You could tell when Mahlah was out of her comfort zone because her eye would flutter. Mahlah sought peace for her family, but it took a toll on her health.
Rimona is an only child and an orphan. She also is bold in her compassion for others, though not to the degree of Mahlah. Rimona is looking for a loving family whereas Mahlah already has one.
When I crafted the daughters of Zelophehad, I looked at birth order characteristics. Those personality traits helped me make each sister special.
Besides studying the Biblical text closely, what other research do you do? Which tools or reference books come in handy for understanding the culture of that time? Have you ever been to Israel?
Barbara: I have never been to Israel. I would love to go someday. My older son visited while he was in seminary. I told him to take lots of pictures for me.
The Bible is my main text. I cross reference passages of Scripture when writing a story. I use Bible maps to calculate travel times and assess terrain. I also read commentaries on the Scripture passage that I am bringing to fiction. Google is great for questions on family lineages in the Bible. If all else fails, I ask my husband and son who have seminary degrees.
My husband’s second piece of advice when I was teaching chapel was to never bore people with the Bible. He said the Bible was the most interesting book ever. I agree. I hope readers never get bored reading my stories.
Barbara on Writing
Which books and/or authors have most inspired you in your writing journey?
Barbara: I didn’t know there was a Christian publishing world or a Biblical Fiction genre. I thought I was writing Bible-themed YA for the General Market. My first Biblical reads were authored by Tessa Afshar and Mesu Andrews. They write excellent Biblical Fiction.
Debut author Jenna Van Mourik (Jerusalem’s Daughter) champions Biblical Fiction on Instagram with Biblical Fiction Buffs. She is a huge encouragement to Biblical Fiction authors and readers.
You can find debut Biblical Fiction authors, Naomi Craig and Dana McNeely, hosting Biblical Fiction Aficianados on Facebook.
Are you an outliner or a pantser? Explain your novel writing process.
Barbara: I am a plantser. I have a general idea where the story is going, but I learn things about my characters and my story as I am writing the book. The nuggets of wisdom I learn while writing the story can change my plot and characters.
Not everybody embraces fictionalized versions of Bible stories. What concerns do you have about writing Biblical fiction?
Barbara: I try to stick close to the Scriptural narrative. It’s wonderful when there are chapters in the Bible from which to draw a story. Fictionalized accounts of Bible stories can help readers remember Bible passages. I’ve learned so much from passages of Scripture that I glossed over in the past. There are sixty-six books in the Bible, but it’s one story. Reading Biblical Fiction shows me how the whole Bible story is interconnected.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you enjoy Biblical fiction such as Lioness and the Daughters of Zelophehad, you might enjoy my novel, Rain in the Wilderness. I’m seeking a publisher for it. Here’s the blurb:
One night in Bethlehem, Rebekah’s son Matthew is wrenched from her and killed in a massacre of infants ordered by Herod the Great. Thirty years later, as a widow with three grown children, she is still a victim of treachery as the Jews writhe under the oppressive Roman Empire. Her son Jonathan serves a Roman centurion in far off Galilee. Another son, Kaleb, awaits a warrior Messiah and loathes all things Roman, including his brother the traitor. Her kind son-in-law Malchus serves the unscrupulous high priest Caiaphas.
Who will free Israel from Rome’s heavy yoke? Where is the promised Messiah? At the center of controversy, Jesus of Nazareth seems an unlikely prospect. Ruthless debates unite his enemies while dividing Rebekah’s family.
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Barbara Britton Bio
Barbara M. Britton lives in Southeast, Wisconsin and loves the snow—when it accumulates under three inches. She is published in Biblical Fiction and loves bringing little-known Bible characters to light in her stories. Her WWI Historical Until June released in 2020. Barb is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and Romance Writers of America. She has a nutrition degree from Baylor University but loves to dip healthy strawberries in chocolate. You can find out more about Barbara’s books on her website, BarbaraBritton.com. You can also follow Barbara on Twitter, Facebook, or BookBub. Libraries can order her books, too.
Go here for a discussion of her writing and revision process (also 2018).
Join me next time for a visit with author Jennifer L. Wright.
Meanwhile, what Biblical fiction have you read? Is there a Bible story you’d like to see come to life in a novel? Answer in the comments below.