Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
SUCCESSION AND INHERITANCE

IN ancient Israel there was no such thing as a written will or testament. But before he died, a father used to 'set his house in order' ( 2 S 17: 23; 2 K 20: 1; Is 38: 1), i.e. he gave verbal instructions about the distribution of his property cf.( Dt 21: 16; Si 14: 13; 33: 24). However, he had to conform to law and custom. Only two legislative texts refer to inheritance ( Dt 21: 15-17 and Nb 27: 1-11, taken in conjunction with Nb] 38: 6-9), and they concern particular cases. They need to be supplemented by incidental information from the biblical narratives, and these narratives are not always easy to interpret.

The fundamental rule is that sons alone have a right to the inheritance. Among the sons, the eldest had a privileged position1 and received a double share of his father's goods ( Dt 21: 17; cf. 2 K 2: 9, metaphorically). The same provision is made in the Assyrian laws, at Nuzu and at Mari. The law safeguards the right of the eldest by forbidding the father to show favour to the son of the wife he prefers at the expense of the eldest son ( Dt 21: 15-17). (This law retrospectively condemns Abraham for expelling Ishmael [ Gn 21: 10f.] and David for preferring Solomon to Adonias [ 1 K 1: 17, cf 2: 15].) Probably only the movable chattels were shared, and the house, with the ancestral holdings, would be allotted to the eldest, or at least not divided. This would keep the family property intact, and might explain the text of Dt 25: 5 about brothers who 'live together'.

In the early days of Israel, and, indeed, as a general rule in Mesopotamian law-codes, the sons of concubines who were slaves had no share in the inheritance, unless their father had given them equal rank with the sons of free-born wives, by legal adoption. Sarah did not want Ishmael, the son of the slave- woman, to share the inheritance with her son Isaac ( Gn 21: 10), and in the event Abraham left his goods to Isaac, and only made presents to the sons of his concubines ( Gn 25: 5-6). But Sarah pretended she had forgotten her promise that Hagar's children should be recognized as her own ( Gn 16: 2): Ishmael therefore, had a right to the inheritance, and Abraham was down- hearted at sending him away ( Gn 21: 11). The sons of the slave-women Bilhah and Zilpah were given equal rank with those of Rachel and Leah ( Gn 49: 1-28) and had an equal share with them in the land of Canaan, which

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1
On the rights of the eldest son, see pp. 41-42.

-53-

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