The Land YWHW Is Giving (Deut 18). Women’s Property Rights in Ancient Israel.

Patricia Erlandsen Semester 1 Test 3. June 2021

Introduction, Thesis Statement, Literature Review and Bibliography.

The twelve tribes


There is a theory that ancient Israel was inequitable in that it was a patriarchal society 1 This is at variance with the Psalmist: “God is fair and just.” (Ps 25:8 translation????) This inconsistency leaves the believer in a quandary as the patriarchal theory suggests daughters fail to meet the mark. One reason for this stance of gender bias is the Hebrew Bible is not sufficiently nuanced to account for the experiences of ancient Israelite women in their households, and in the wider community. 

This leaves the believer with unanswered questions, such as, do only sons inherit land in ancient Israel? Is the locality of the household always patrilocal? Do the daughters always have to leave their home, and join their husband’s household? These questions and many more in the same vein, not mentioned here, reveals a gap in modern interpretations of the Hebrew Bible and as a result, God’s character the biblical principle of a just God is repudiated (Ps 89:14). The reading in Num 27: 1-11 where the Daughters of Zelophehad petition Moses, and the leadership assembly for recognition of their rights in the matter of inheritance and land suggests that the Daughters of Zelophehad thought the same. The situation was complex, leading to the question of this thesis: were women passive bystanders in Ancient Israel in the matter of inheritance and who held the legal title and rights to the land, and the choice of an heir?  

This thesis will argue that the present patriarchal model of ancient Israel’s society is defective and, the son’s inheritance of the father’s house, without any conditions, as deficient as it does not reveal the conditions imposed upon the heir, due to the women holding the legal title to the land, and with it the rights to its distribution. 2

The women’s lives, in ancient Israel were enmeshed in a net of personal, communal, and administrative responsibilities through the essential matters of life: birth, marriage, and death. These complex matters, managed well, helped establish a sound social structure for the ancient Israelite society. This means the women were involved at the base level of delivering a stable society, enveloped in the endogamous marriage relationship through close kinship ties. 3 “Technically, land could not be sold in the world of the Bible.” 4 Therefore, each household dwelt securely on the portion of land inherited from the deceased father, within their own tribe’s geographical borders, with the mother of that household holding the land distribution rights. The households were tied in a co-operative communal knot of mutually common purpose, and in covenantal relationship with YWYH, ancient Israel’s “divine Patron,” and owner of the land. 5


The literature review will show the conversations taking place surrounding the theme of this thesis and their relevancy. The paper will be set out under three headings: 

(1) Who is discussing the social structure of Ancient Israelite Society, and the women’s rights regarding inheritance, and land distribution

(2) Who is discussing inheritance by Daughters in the ANE, and Ancient Israel 

(3) Case in point: the Daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27: 1-11). 

(4) The social structure of ancient Israelite society, and the women’s rights regarding inheritance, and land distribution:

The scholars quoted here are in discussion about ancient Israel’s society. Naomi Steinberg stresses the exclusivity of the endogamous marriage arrangement as important due to its interrelatedness to the women endorsed by YWYH who occupy the central role as it she who bears the heir; this establishes direct linage of Abraham, and Sarah’s forebears. 6 The women’s centrality to the economic survival of the household is also established due to the mother elect bearing the heir, selected by YWYH. It is the mother also who holds the legal title to the land, and its distribution rights. 7 The ‘father’s house’, (bet ab,) the smallest basic unit of social organization, and its patriline, are under scrutiny in my thesis, due to it not being the only residence in Israel. 8

The households of Israel, and women’s life-matters are intimately intertwined with birth, marriage, and death. In giving birth, mothers “predominantly named their children,” 9 When married, daughters were granted land as dowry; in the matter of conflict between heirs, mothers mediate. 10 Upon their husband’s death, widows continued to exercise their land rights. 11

The view of Israel as a patriarchal society is contested: it is not a biblical term but rather, a “social-science theory.” 12 Naomi Steinberg identifies Israel as a patrilineal society “without exception.” 13 Cynthia Chapman builds on the differentiation by showing a “neatly schematic patriline,” when, on occasions, the male descent line splits laterally and records mother’s lines: the “House of the Mother” (Bet em,) hence revealing the uterine family “nested” in the father’s house (Bet ab). 14

Chapman also discusses the patri-matriline of Jacob’s uncle, as the ‘house of the father of his mother’ (bêt-’ăbî ’immô) and his ‘father’s house’. 15 This scenario may provoke a political struggle, whereby the daughter’s father’s house was never left entirely, but instead, could provide for the mother a “support base” in “her sons bid for succession in his father’s house.” 16 This shows land inheritance does not run along straight descent lines of the patrilineal ‘father’s line’ as the basic unit according to the patriarchal assumption. 

Instead, it shows the naivete of the patriarchal assumption that those most affected, the mothers, daughters, and disinherited sons, have no say or reward in its outcome, yet they willingly play a subjective role in its success. Accordingly, the son who inherited the land of his deceased father did not inherit its legal title. 17 In the first instance, the land ownership and all rights, Moses assigned to YWHW, Israel’s divine patron with Israel as YWYH’s client. 18 In the second instance the land distribution rights, Moses assigned to the mother. 19

Carol Meyers contests the patriarchal model, by identifying the ancient society of Israel as a “Heterarchy.” 20 Benjamin agrees with this. 21 The alternative model to patriarchy is compelling. 22 Meyers says patriarchy manifests itself in two ways: the clans are under the father’s control, by extension, “the organization of an entire society in ways that exclude women from community positions”. 23

The heterarchical model, alternatively, allows for “different power structures” to exist at the same time, rather than “fixed, hierarchical gender patterns” allowing for “autonomous actors in multiple aspects of household and community life.” 24 Benjamin explains women could hold legal title to the land and its distribution rights. 25

Madeline Gay Mcclenney-Sadler identifies five different patterns of marriage in the family structures represented in the ‘father’s house.’ 26 These five, all nestled within Israel’s endogamous clans, reveal an interpersonal, intertwined, clustered knot of familial relationships. Mcclenney-Sadler goes on to discuss the plausibility of Israel practicing a matrilocality (living near the relatives of females) hence a one-sided patrilocal society was defective. 27 The patrilocal model is unsupported by the anthropological and documentary evidence and the different kinship terminology used. 28 She questions the idea of simplified inheritance from father to son and the heir decided by the father as being the norm. 29 Benjamin concurs, asserting, “ancient Israel was not matrilineal, but it was also not rigorously patrilineal.” 30

Benjamin’s proposes, by making a comparison between the similarity of Sargon and Moses’ birth motifs, shows the way Sargon delegated to the woman, Enheduanna, to distribute land use rights to the women of Akkad; he sees the similarity in the way Moses does the same to the women in Deuteronomy. 31 In this, Benjamin shows conclusively, both Sargon and Moses bestow upon their peoples to supply an enduring need; the need for survival in the world of Bible – how to acquire land but also how to manage it. 32 In this way, the women the land, and sustainable practice are entwined. 

Robert A. Oden states, “all of Israel’s approved marriages, to some extent, were endogamous”  (Genesis 12-36). 33 This brings this idea under the scrutiny of daughters leaving their mother’s house and consistently joining the father’s house. In some instances in the endogamous marriage relationship, daughters stayed within the protection of their ‘mother’s house. 34

The “house of the mothers” comes to the fore when Chapman questions, why, in those cases of a daughter marrying out, the house of the mother, her daughters, and their uterine brothers becomes centrally involved in the matter of an eligible daughter, whose groom would marry into her household? This anomaly reiterates the point that the will of the father was not the only determinant in matters relating to inheritance. 

(2) inheritance by Daughters in the ANE and Ancient Israel 

In the ANE sons inherited the father’s estate upon his death. Zafrira Ben-Barak shows documented evidence of women in the ANE inheriting land and women holding legal title to the land and its distribution rights. 35 Ben-Barak cites three distinct situations, attested to in different periods, and in four different societies: daughters may inherit with sons but as inferiors, or they may inherit with sons on an equal basis.” 36

The ANE legal title to the land and its distribution rights were held by the king: he represented the divine assembly who owned the land; as a rule, the distribution was assigned to a body of elite individuals who held the administrative rights. 37 Benjamin brings to the fore the similarity in the motifs of Sargon’s and Moses’ birth stories. 38 Based upon this and Sargon delegating to the woman Enheduanna to distribute land use rights to the women of Akkad. Benjamin makes comparisons between the two and concludes: “Moses appoints the women in Deuteronomy to hold legal title and to distribute land rights in ancient Israel.” 39 This just ruling puts the onus on the fathers of the households to care for the land and women, “as Deuteronomy envisions.” 40  Benjamin justly deduces, “only those fathers can endow their households with life as abundant as the life with which Sargon and Enheduanna endowed Akkad”. 41 However, a difference in point is, unlike the rest of the ANE, YHWH alone is the divine Patron of Judah. 42

A plain reading of Numbers 27: 1-11 appears as if the daughters of Zelophehad bring a petition to Moses to inherit their father’s land. However, Benjamin says this is an example of women asking Moses to allow them to exercise their land rights independently. 43 In other words, it is a dispute about the preservation of the land rights of households. 

We have considered the parallels and comparisons of Benjamin with the ANE documents, between Sargon and Moses’ birth motifs; the dynamics involved in Israel’s endogamous marriage relationships, and finally, Moses’ granting the women of Deuteronomy to hold legal title to the land and its distribution rights. The various authors quoted discussing women’s inheritance and their land distribution rights frame my research topic in such a way as shown there are variances involving marriage, locality, and the diverse ways in which various players are involved in Israel’s ancient society which Chapman liberally covers. 

In the instance where Moses passed a “statute and ordinance,” or more literally “a statute of ordinance” (Hebrew: חֻקַּת מִשְׁפָּט). This means the evidence for inheritance in Israel is broader than here as it looks like a technical expression, which is only used here and in Numb 35:29. The similar expressions חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט and חֹק וּלְמִשְׁפָּט occur in Exod 15:25 and 1 Sam 30:25, respectively. This means a form-critical study which focuses on this particular type of commandment, will be carried out in the future to ask, what makes it distinctive and how does it compare to other types of commandments? 

Finally, my thesis shows Israel’s ‘patriarchal’ society cannot be seen as simple as the father’s house and son’s linear descent providing for the inheritance needs to the full extent of that society. The hidden nuances and the complexities involved in such a diverse society provide justification for why my research should be undertaken. 

Proposed subjects for future research is the future investigation into “statute and ordinance.” There is found to be a gap here. Further research would bring greater depth to what makes it distinctive and how does it compare to other types of commandments? Finally, with increased knowledge of the women in the Hebrew Bible the modern reader is the winner here and the justification of the just character of God and the future work of feminist theology of the Bible will only bring a greater depth of understanding for all interested participants. 

to be continued


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