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Inheritance Laws in Ancient Israel

Land was a family’s most important economic asset. It could be bought and sold, but inherited land was special.

Hill with terracing and olive trees

In 1Kgs 21:3, Naboth says that he will not sell his “ancestral inheritance.” The implication is that Naboth inherited his vineyard (the one that King Ahab is asking for) from his father, who inherited it from his father, and so on. Even today, it can be hard to part with one’s childhood home. But Naboth is saying more than that.

Land was a family’s most important economic asset. It could be bought and sold, but inherited land was special. In the ancient Near East, if a family sold inherited land for its full price, ownership passed permanently into the hands of the buyer. If a family sold it for a lower price, due to economic hardship and the need to sell quickly, family members were generally allowed to redeem (repurchase) the land at the same or a similarly low price. It was important to give families the chance to keep their inheritance (see, for example, the story about Naomi’s land in Ruth 4).

It is difficult to paint a complete picture of family law in ancient Israel; the Hebrew Bible presents a variety of texts from different times that may be used to reconstruct this law, and it is uncertain whether the rules and concepts in these texts all functioned simultaneously. Several texts suggest that a man’s principal heirs were the sons born to him by his wife (or wives). Sons by other women (concubines, slaves, prostitutes) were not included (Judg 11:2). Daughters were provided a dowry in lieu of an inheritance share but could be granted possession of their father’s estate in the absence of sons. If they were, they were not allowed to marry outside their father’s clan or extended family (Num 27:5-11, Num 36:5-9), in order to keep all property within the clan. After daughters, according to Num 27:11, the next in line were the deceased’s brothers, followed by his paternal uncles, followed by “the nearest kinsman of his clan.”

Upon the father’s death, his heirs could divide the estate immediately, or they could keep it intact for a time, perhaps while waiting for a younger son to come of age. Special rules applied to brothers living on an undivided estate. For example, Deut 25:5-10 stipulates that if one brother married but died childless, another brother was to marry the widow and hope to impregnate her with a baby boy, who would then inherit the share that the deceased had been entitled to.

When it came time to divide, the father’s estate was apportioned into equal shares. Assigning specific shares to each heir was likely done by casting lots. Deut 21:17 suggests that typically the eldest son received two shares and other sons one each. A father could, by virtue of a testament, designate a younger son as the “firstborn” and reassign the right to a double share to him. He could not do so, however, if he was married to multiple women and had previously chosen to “hate” (probably meaning “demote”) the mother of the biologically oldest son. In this case, the oldest retained the status of firstborn (Deut 21:15-17).

Families who fell on hard times and had to sell inherited land retained the right to redeem it. But cunning investors found ways around this. Documents from the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550–1200 B.C.E.) site of Nuzi in Iraq, for instance, show that one particular businessman was adopted as a son by dozens of families in the area. The texts actually record discounted sales of land disguised as adoptions. People in dire straits sold their land to this man for a reduced price and adopted him into their family. In the eyes of the law, the land never left the family and thus was not eligible for redemption. Similar schemes may be the target of texts such as Mic 2:2, which condemn those who defraud others of their inheritance.

Scholars disagree as to whether Naboth is saying that he is not allowed to sell his vineyard or simply does not want to sell it. In either case, Ahab is not offering a reduced price. He wants a fair sale or trade. This would permanently place the vineyard in his possession and eliminate any opportunity for Naboth or his heirs to redeem the land, and thus Naboth insists that it stay in the family.

  • Bruce Wells

    Bruce Wells is professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Wells is the author of The Law of Testimony in the Pentateuchal Codes (2004) and the co-author of Everyday Law in Biblical Israel (2009).