Hebrew Lineage Organization: Inheritance

Ancient Israel supported a complex economy characterized by occupational specialization and long distance trade, both of which supported the growth of urban complexes. Wealth assumed many forms including land, herding stock, and money. Accordingly, ownership and inheritance posed major problems for social continuity and unity. As for other crucial matters, lineage and family served as the fundamental institutionals for resolving them.

The ultimate source of wealth for the Israelites was agricultural land, and the patrilineal order assumed the core responsibility for maintaining ownership and validating tenure and inheritance rights. Territorial rights assigned to tribes included not only administrative authority but also collective rights which allowed their members to own and use tribal lands in perpetuity. Guarantees of tenure were enshrined in the custom of the jubilee year, at which time any lands that had been temporarily alienated through lease or pawn had to be returned to their original owners ( Leviticus 25). Although the biblical text describes collective rights on a tribal level, other ethnographic examples suggest that the effective allocation of farm plots to individual use would have been organized by fairly small lineages operating within an immediate locality, probably through a regular inheritance system.

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.

Additional rules specified a complex order of preferences for the distribution of property in cases in which a man had no sons to succeed him:

  1. to his daughters
  2. to his wife's children by his brother through the activation of the levirate
  3. to his brothers
  4. to his closest partilineal relative.

Inheritance by daughters imposed a particular difficulty, which is acknowledged in several biblical passages. After Moses first promulgates the rule (Numbers), he is confronted with a problem: if females inherit land from their fathers they will pass it on to their children and therefore into the patrimony of another tribe or lineage. His solution is to institute a parallel cousin marriage regulation. Thus a woman who inherits from her father is to marry her father's brother's son so that property will automatically be retained within the wider patriline. A second mechanism for maintaining the continuity of lineage holdings was to marry inheriting daughters to household slaves. Since these dependants had no partilineages of their own, their children were by default incorporated into their mothers' lineages. The arrangement of marriages to slaves created a number of segments that originated with female rather than male founders (see I Chronicles 2:34-36 for an example.) This institution directly mirrors a solution to the reverse problem of a daughterless family among the Akan, a matrilineal people of West Africa.

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.

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created 1995