Custom and Law in ancient Mesopotamia (Genesis 21)

Laws from ancient Mesopotamia provide various interesting parallels to the Genesis stories. In particular, numerous regulations illustrate the marriage and inheritance issues found in the accounts of the patriarchs. For example:

Just as Sarai procured an heir for Abram through her maid (Genesis 16 cf. Genesis 30), the Sumerian laws of Ur-Nammu (founder and ruler of Ur’s third dynasty ca. 2044-2006 B.C.) allowed a husband to take a concubine after waiting in vain for his primary wife to bear children. As in Sarai’s case, the primary wife might even have initiated the arrangement.

Hurrian law at Nuzi (mid-second millennium B.C.) and the Code of Hammurabi in Babylonia (early eighteenth century B.C.) allowed a man to adopt as his legitimate heirs any children he may have fathered through a slave woman (see 17:18).

In Sumer, the eldest son inherited the whole of his father’s estate and assumed responsibility for his siblings. But in Assyria and Nuzi brothers divided their father’s estate, with the eldest son receiving a double portion.

Nuzi law permitted inheritance rights to be transferred to a son born to the primary wife after she had adopted her surrogate’s son. In a similar manner Isaac (although born after Ishmael) had the right to be Abraham’s chief heir (21:12).

Noe-Babylonian law included the provision that sons born to a concubine would be subordinate to any sons born to the primary wife and that the combined sons of the primary wife would inherit two-thirds of the estate.

The disinheritance of a son, a practice allowed in certain societies, generally required a court order that might be officially overturned if the father were found to have acted unfairly. Some scholars, based upon such a prohibition in Nuzi’s law, have questioned the legality of Sarah’s demand to expel Hagar and Ishmael (chapter 21), which by analogy may indicate that Abraham lived under similar custums and laws. Indeed, Abraham was hesitant to comply with Sarah’s wish and did so only after divine intervention (verses 10-13).

In each case a formal oath was requested and given.

The oaths were followed by reports of stipulations, frequently including a pledge of non-hostility.

The oaths generally involved ceremonial feast or sacrifices (26:30) and a gift exchange of sorts, particularly if the partoes to the agreement had met in person (cf. 21:27-30).

The Mesopotamian cultural milieu from which the patriarchs emerged helps us to understand patriarchal social structures and practices reported throughout Genesis.

%d bloggers like this: