Inheritance in the ancient Near East (Numbers 36)

Inheritance laws in the ancient Near East played a critical role in preserving a family line and perpetuating its land holdings. Wealth and social standing were tied to landed property, and rules of kinship regulated the land’s division. Customary law held that only sons had the right to inherit, and the firstborn son received a double share of the family estate (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).

In the absence of male heirs, however, daughters could inherit. The early Sumerian law code of Lipit-Ishtar (ca. 1930 B.C.) explicitly stated that if a man died without leaving male offspring, his unmarried daughter would be his heir. In addition, family archives at Nuzi show that when a man had no sons he could deed his estate to his daughter as his principle heir, or mor typically, as joint heir with her husband, who was said to be “adopted” into the family.

Hammurabi’s law code (ca. 1750 B.C.) recorded cases in which daughters were treated as coheirs with their brothers. A daughter’s dowry, consisting primarily of moveable property (personal servants, household vessels, Jewelry and the like), was said to be her inheritance portion.

Special inheritance privileges also were granted to temple priestesses who had no children. They were awarded a certain portion of their fathers’ estates to ensure their financial security, although after their deaths the inheritance shar was revert back to their brothers.

The case of Zelophehad’s five daughters explores the implications of Israelite daughters inheriting their fathers’ lands. The empowerment of these particular daughters as principal heirs was an accommodation to unusual circumstances. The concern was that once they married there would be nothing to prevent their passing along their land holdings in the usual manner to their children and thus into the patrimony of another tribe (Numbers 27:1-11).

The solution was straightforward: These women would be obligated to marry within their own clan so as not to disturb the balance of the tribal allotments (Numbers 36:1-9, cf. 1 Chronicles 23:22). These daughters’ inheritance rights ultimately existed for the purpose of retaining the estate for their future sons. This was similar to the institution of levirate marriage that sought to produce an heir to whom a deceased husband’s property could bequeathed (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).

See also “Custom and law in ancient Mesopotamia” (Genesis 21) and “The rights of the firstborn” (Genesis 25).

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