Back in Numbers 27, we found out about Zelophehad – a man who had died leaving several daughters but no sons. At the time, his daughters petitioned Moses for the right to inherit their father’s hypothetical land. Moses – and God – agreed that they should, and revised the inheritance rules accordingly.

Numbers 36Unfortunately, they forgot what we extrapolated from Numbers 30 – that women, as subject to their fathers/husbands, are not citizens. So while they may be granted stewardship of a man’s land if he is deceased, they can never truly own anything. That’s the crux of this chapter.

Zelophehad’s peers – the heads of the Gileadite families – come forward to petition Moses. Since women may only have stewardship of land without access to the tribal affiliations that go with it, Zelophehad’s land will pass on to whomever they marry. If they marry outside of their tribe, those lands will be lost to Gilead forever.

God, having apparently not thought of this earlier, agrees with them, and he determines that an inheriting woman must marry “within the family of the tribe of their father” (v.6). That’s all well and good if the women happen not to have married yet, but there’s no clarification if they are.

  • Would a married woman be excluded from the inheritance?
  • Would she have to get a divorce?
  • Would she only have the lands for as long as she lives, and they must pass on to her cousin’s sons upon her death?
  • Does she only get to keep her inheritance until the next Jubilee and then it passes to the families of her father’s brothers?

There’s no mention that this might even have been a consideration because, luckily (or not?) for Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, they seem to all be available for marriage to their cousins and the question is averted.

Inherited weirdness

I’m quite interested in inheritance laws. I grew up in Switzerland, where the lack of arable land makes a gavelkind sort of inheritance system very problematic. If more than one son inherits the family farm, individual plots would, very quickly, become far too small to support the families they belong to. Because of this, Swiss men who didn’t have the fortune of being first sons were often left up to their own devices – giving rise to the reputation of the Swiss as mercenaries.

This would conceivably be an issue anywhere, given enough time, but the lack of farming land in Switzerland makes it a particularly pressing concern.

I’m curious as to what would have been the practice in ancient Israel. On the one hand, all of Zelophehad’s daughters are named as inheritors, so it does seem as though something like gavelkind is in use. On the other hand, the Jacob and Esau narrative in Genesis 25 and Genesis 27 points to a focus on primogeniture (albeit with the possibility of being revoked or altered).

We also have many stories of brothers splitting off and each founding their own tribe (as Jacob’s sons did) or nationalities (as Noah’s sons did). This seems to suggest a more informal system of inheritance that deals with overcrowding by groups splitting off and finding their own space to settle – something that seems impossible given the rules of the Jubilee (where all property must revert back to the families of the original owner).

I looked up the question and found the following answer from a page on the University of Manitoba’s anthropology department website:

The inheritance of land and other property was channeled along patrilineal lines. Primogeniture, or succession by the eldest son, seems to have been the preferred rule as this institution is explicitly promulgated in one passage ( Deuteronomy 21:15-17), and is implicitly assumed in many accounts of individual cases. However, biblical acknowledgement of primogeniture usually occurs in contexts where the rule is broken as in the life histories of important religious and political figures, including Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and David.

We may interpret these curious accounts in two different ways.

  1. They indicate that the rule had a limited application, perhaps only to intestacy, and could be overridden by gift or will.
  2. Or more plausibly, they attribute special statuses and powers to key characters by portraying them as breaking the rules to which exceptions were not normally allowed.

[…]

The treatment of inheritance through a daughter also provides evidence that marriage may have involved the adoption of a woman into her husband’s lineage and the discontinuation of rights in her natal group. Such an arrangement is indicated in other biblical passages as in the marriages of Eve and Ruth. It is also documented for a number of patrilineal systems including ancient Rome and contemporary Chinese and Arabic societies. An alternative pattern, in which women retain natal identities after marriage, is apparent in many West African patrilineal systems.