Female Inheritance in Ancient Israel

Q. What evidence is there for female inheritance in Nuzi? What are the benefits and draw backs of using epigraphic evidence from the Near East to inform our understanding of female inheritance in ancient Israel?


Part 1

The epigraphical evidence of inheritance, drawn up by the paterfamilias in Nuzi, belonged to the affluent of that society. They concerned the inheritance of property and other issues surrounding their death and burial. These inheritance wills were inscribed as evidence of the paterfamilias’ instructions to the designated heir. In this regard, where women inheriting in the Ancient Near East (hereafter ANE) are concerned, Zaphira Ben Barak says, “Nuzi stands out from the rest”. 1

Given the similar evidence in this regard between Nuzi and ancient Israel, is it sufficient to reach our goal, namely, to inform our understanding of female inheritance in ancient Israel? Can a simple comparison between the two satisfy this quest? The comparison made here, in part 1, shows that method as not meeting the need. 

However, the evidence-based approach in part 2 will show, once a critical analysis of modern approaches to studying the Bible based upon modern archaeological discoveries, it does achieve that goal. This works by tying the archaeological evidence to the comparisons made between the epigraphical evidence from Nuzi and the HB. Finally, a law passed in the name of equal standing for sons and daughters in Israel made the difference between the two societies. It shows the daughter’s status in Israel, no longer shrouded in mystery, unlike Nuzi, made ancient Israel’s daughters equal to its sons. 

One of the crucial issues faced in the ANE was that of ancestral distress: a father not only having a first-born son but also one who would quality as a suitable heir: one the paterfamilias could trust to conduct the obligations responsibly. 2 This auspicious position entailed taking care of the father in life and after death, to execute his will. Then, the heir was required to perform the rites intricately linked with the cult of the dead, with the associated items of mortuary provisions. In this way, the role of the dead was to provide for the living, who would benefit from ancestral blessings of fecundity for family and fields.

The second conflict was the daughter’s status, a dispute throughout the ANE with little information available. 3 A social principle, but not a law, throughout the ANE was, therefore, daughters were not equal to sons. In Nuzi, daughters were considered incapable to conduct the rites of the dead and attend thereafter to the future requirements of that cult. 4

The foundational social principle in Nuzi and Israel prescribed that the first-born son inherited. 5 As in Israel, however, there is no law in Nuzi that first born sons inherit. Further, Nuzi understood ‘kinship’ as follows: kinship relationships were more than blood relatives. Christopher Wright states, “the paterfamilias had the power to create binding relationships.” 6 This might be between, for example, two individuals. By this, all members of that society recognised kinship as one of natural and therefore lawful descent. The two central questions, then, the ones that guide this research in part 1 are: in what way did the paterfamilias satisfy this social law in Nuzi in relation to the matter of a first-born son inheriting, and how did they overcome the dilemma where there was no son to inherit?

It was, of course, impossible for a family to guarantee to produce a biological son to fulfil this requirement. They therefore had to bring about new ways of functioning. To resolve the challenges in this regard, innovative social construction ensued. The populace invented new models of understanding. These prototypes increased the use of the development and management of available human resources. The Nuzi epigraphical evidence shows, these, in principle, were correct. According to Nuzi’s epigraphical evidence, the individual paterfamilias applied them as required. However, they were deviant models. 

Nuzi’s epigraphical evidence therefore bears witness, to show the innovative ways that society resolved the dilemma. Where there was no son to inherit one remedial action taken to resolve the situation was to adopt a trusted household slave. To enact this contractual agreement an adoption ritual was conducted. The paterfamilias adopted the slave. Once enfranchised with the status of ‘son’ the slave’s status changed: it was a legally binding agreement with the paterfamilias. This enactment supplied the missing link: a surrogate husband and father for the paterfamilias’ biological daughter. It gave her the opportunity of inheriting and in turn, hopefully, giving birth to a son who would then inherit the estate and just as importantly, in Nuzi society, carry-on the father’s name and inherit his estate. 

This led to the right for Matka, an adopted household slave, to marry the father’s natural born daughter Taduni. In the case of the daughter, her and her adoptee husband were granted joint ownership: to “… bear the feudal duties of the fields” and, “should a natural born heir, “a son be born to the adoptive father,” (he would) be recognised as the direct descendant of the paterfamilias (as) recognised through his daughter, and “becomes the chief heir and take his inheritance of the land.”  7

No will was straight forward. As in the case of an adopted son and a natural born son it was typical that restrictions applied, wherein, the natural overrules the adoptee: the will changes automatically and disinherits the ‘adoptee.’ The child, as the daughter’s natural son, thereby related directly to the deceased grandfather. 

There are connections here between the Nuzi and HB texts. The HB has a similar process in relation to manumission and adoption. One, Jarha, an Egyptian household slave of Sheshan married Sheshan’s daughter and acted as a surrogate father for purposes of extending the family line. 8 Sheshan’s daughter’s children inherited whatever property Sheshan’s daughter originally inherited from him, and consequently, it was passed down to the ancestral heirs of the deceased Sheshan. (1 Chr 2:34–35). 

The paterfamilias adopted their paternal kin by the same agreement: to fulfil the role of surrogate husband for a paterfamilias’ natural daughter. In Nuzi, a paternal nephew, Sennima, was chosen by Surihi-lu the estate owner to marry his daughter Gilimninu. 9 There is similarity between this and the case in the HB, concerning Laban and his two daughters. This marriage in the case of Leah and Rachel to Jacob consisted of cross cousins. 10 (Gen. 29: 16-20.) The story reveals household customs practiced in the ANE, and links and customs in Harran, to their primary Sumerian source, ancient Babylon, Nuzi and Emar, and as well to Canaan and Israel. 

Two facets of a single story are raised here: the deceit of Laban, a paterfamilias without, at that time, sons to inherit. 11 In the marriage of his daughters and for our study here the struggle the daughters faced was to inherit in their father’s house. Rachel took matters into her own hands and stole Laban’s ‘gods’ the household images (Gen. 31: 30; Jdg. 18: 20-24). This inferred in that society if a daughter held the images, which represented the ancestral spirits that protected the members of a household, they had the right to inherit them so long as there were no sons. 12

In Nuzi, by the will of the paterfamilias, their daughters were accorded the status of honorary ‘men and sons.’ Nuzi, it seems, was by this time at an advanced stage in their development. 13 According to Ben Barak, “If there are no sons, a daughter may be made “male and female” as the traditional phrase runs: “To the law she then is a son.” 14 A document in the museum in Baghdad bears evidence, where a father, Unaptae, (a senior official of the crown,) whose wife’s name is Sakatu, adopts his daughter, Silwataru, as ‘son’ and therein made her chief and the father’s sole heir. 15

However, reading the authoritarian prescriptive, the society did not consider daughters were legally fit to take on the position in relation to the patrimony. 16 There is no connection to this practice in the HB. This shows the largest difference between Nuzi and the HB concerning practices that allowed daughters to inherit. These practices in Nuzi became acceptable and more widely spread and by them, the threat to the stability of the society’s social structure dissipated. 

An indication detected of how widely the status of the daughter changed in Nuzi in some instances, is where daughters inherited outright, even over the choice of sons available. This occurred when a paterfamilias had huge wealth in the “city and various cities large and small.” 17 The usual practice was to see his male kin, the paterfamilias paternal brothers, the next in line as first legitimate heir, if there were no biological sons to inherit. Notwithstanding, the father recognised his daughter as the direct descendant and his grandchildren born of her. 

A second Nuzi tablet similar to the above (held in the Yale collection), also adopted his three daughters as sons, and willed everything to them. 18 It appears from this that an adopted son in law, albeit the fear remained, the paterfamilias’s own kin might instead, favour the interests of his own paternal household. 19 The paterfamilias therefore opposed the interests of his natural, paternal brothers, even though their family interest gave them a declared interest in the patrimony of their brother. 

There are several cases in the HB, where daughters inherited. 20 One, a prominent case, an example of daughters inheriting on the grounds that they were to marry their paternal kin. To inherit, it required initiative and even immediate action on the part of daughters so as not to let the opportunity pass. The father of the five daughters of Zelophehad was dead. He had no sons to inherit his estate in the new land of Canaan. (Num 27: 3). 

The daughters took the initiative and reasoned with Moses and the elders of Israel why they could not inherit their father’s estate. Moses sought for an answer from YHWH and the daughters won their case, based upon explicit divine instructions (Num 27: 5) In that instance Moses passed a law of intestate succession and raised the status of all the daughters of ancient Israel (Num 27: 8-11). 21

Hiers explains, before Moses passed the law for all in ancient Israel concerning the right for daughters to inherit alongside their brothers, there were traditions in place in ancient Israel. These traditions were known from the customs and practices recorded in the early narratives. It was therefore, understood by all in Israel to have the force of the law. 22

The value of these traditional practices improved once Moses passed this written law. The former biblical texts demonstrate that sons inherited. The general practice there in the narrative shows, Zelophehad’s sons, if any, were the sole heirs. But where no sons, due to the law, it then passed to his daughters, before any other member of the extended family (Num 27: 8-11). 23 In Israel, this law passed by Moses shows the first of two differences between the HB and Nuzi concerning daughters inheriting

The second difference was the daughters of Zelophehad were not free to marry anyone outside their tribe. This is known as an endogamous marriage arrangement. 24 Biblically, until the daughters of Zelophehad, problems arose, because there are no explicit laws or statements of principles in the sources, the only evidence available is from various places at different periods.  25

In Nuzi, the sons and the daughter’s freedoms, obligations regarding duties, influences, or restrictions were the same and both had the same stipulations in respect to two principles that influenced the paterfamilias. To ensure the reality of the situation worked for the society, the ability and character of the heir to carry off their responsibilities was paramount. 

Part 2 

Epigraphical evidence provides reliable types of historical information for the establishing of ancient history. The epigraphical evidence of over 3,500 cuneiform tablets found at Nuzi allows a comparison of them with the HB. In relation to the evidence of the inheritance by daughters in Nuzi and in Israel convergences occur. This element of parallelism shown in part 1 reveals some benefit to this kind of approach. 

The junctions that occur help to fill in components either omitted or sketchily drawn in the HB. On the other hand, the archaeological approach also opens additional advantages in the exploration of the world of ancient Israel. The results go beyond theoretical thinking to an enlivening experience of the reality of its ancient world. Elizabeth Bloch-Smith explains how it brings to ancient Israel and its neighbours, substance through this engagement with the realia of the ANE. 26 Understanding their everyday lives allows these discoveries of the past to function as teaching agents, adding significance to the ancient context.

Contemporary archaeology, by extension, therefore, brings a modern context to the ancient findings. This raises awareness, that, when applied to ancient discoveries, it carries archaeological findings to the fore in interpreting Ancient Israel. Margarita Diaz-Andreu illuminates why it is labelled as “material culture” in as much as, it concerns the daily living of people. 27 Unlike the traditional interests of past archaeological digs, these “material remains,” generated by diverse groups include rich and poor, males and females, adults and children, and urban and rural populations. 28 As physical manifestations of society, they enable a reconstruction of ancient Israelite society from the smallest constituent parts. 29 However, these more intimate details do not necessarily inform our understanding of female inheritance in ancient Israel. 

One example of how using the comparison method to determine inheritance by daughters is difficult. Scholars differ on whether the patriarchal age predated the Nuzi materials. Also, while the Nuzi materials are no longer considered important for the chronology of the OT, there is no question that they provide some of the best available evidence for common social, economic, and legal practices in the ANE. 30 These practices were widespread and deeply entrenched throughout the Syro-Mesopotamian sphere of influence. 31 Thus, the continued value in biblical studies concerning Nuzi derives from its illustration of the background against which the HB was written.

The comparison method informs us of the differences between the two countries regarding the delivery and execution of wills and property. The epigraphical evidence from Nuzi shows the wills of paterfamilias recorded on hard or durable material of the elite members of Nuzi, written to cover anomalies in a Nuzi paterfamilias’ will. The paterfamilias of the HB, on the other hand, delivers his deathbed wishes within the hearing of those who belong to his house. They, in turn, function as witnesses. Moses, at his passing announced Joshua as the inheritor of his leadership position within the hearing of all Israel. (Deut 31). 

A weakness shows up in the comparison method between Nuzi and the HB as compared to the archaeological approach. That is, using epigraphical evidence to date material remains. 32 Unlike texts, for which dating remains a contentious issue, archaeology enables concentration at a micro level, by concentrating, say, on something as it existed at one point in time but also on a macro level, in the way in which something has developed and evolved through time. 33

Scribal textual additions and revisions blur the textual evidence of the HB. However, material remains remain distinct. 34 Therefore, an advantage of dating through archaeological evidence allows what the comparative method does not do. That is, help to determine at a micro level, what enculturating influences may have influenced ancient Israel over time and in that, it may give further insight into the question surrounding daughters inhering in Ancient Israel. 

This brings us to the possibility of a diachronist transmission of culture between Nuzi and ancient Israel. Is there a possibility of ancient Israel being enculturated by the presence of Nuzi’s societal background? What was the chance of ancient Israel intermingling with the people of Nuzi? Were their time frames compatible for this to occur? If an association occurred, to what degree? Was Israel able, not only to observe, but to actuate some of the dynamics of that culture and especially, concerning daughters inheriting, in a comparable way it occurred in Nuzi? If so, was there any differences between the two and what were they that would change the outcomes? 

Ernst Axel Knauf throws light on Nuzi. 35 Nuzi was a Hurrian city and belonged at least for part of its history to Mitanni, one of the great nations of the Near East at that time. Mitanni equaled the power of Egypt. Hurrian daughters married Egyptian royal children. The Hurrians, an efficient chariot-warrior military power, is credited with the dissemination of Near Eastern and specifically Hurrian customs throughout the area including the patriarchal setting. 36 The Hurrians presence is identified in Canaan and the hill country. They may be the Horites of the HB. 37 The biblical Horites in the mountains of Seir are described as original occupants of the land of Canaan (Gen. 14: 6; Deut. 2: 12, 22). 38

However, is it reasonable to say there is a hereditary relationship between Israel and the Hurrians of Mitanni? Nuzi’s culture and language was Hurrain. 39 Israel’s language was Semitic of the northern central group, closely related to Phoenician and Moabite which it is often placed by scholars in a Canaanite subgroup. 40 Nevertheless, Israel and Hurrian roots were intertwined. 41 The Midianites and Kenites were related to Israel through both Abraham’s and Moses’ children through their wives: Abraham to Keturah and Moses to Zipporah. 42

Over the last 150 or more years archaeologists have discovered a range of associations, such as with Mitanni, between biblical texts and other texts from the larger ancient Near Eastern world. These benefits enrich modern academic biblical scholarship. Prior to this, biblical archaeologists described anything that took away from the biblical investigation of the HB, as myths. 43 Little did these self-appointed gate keepers know, that the HB holds vary many parallels to myths in the evidence uncovered by contemporary archaeologists throughout the ANE. The Pentateuch is particularly rich in its associations with broader Near Eastern literature. 44

When used comparatively, this range of “literary genres, cultural phenomena or motifs, and texts from the larger ancient Near Eastern world” help to interpret the ANE. 45 This means, for interpreting the ANE society, contemporary archaeological evidence no longer wholly relies upon epigraphical evidence concerning the everyday affairs of people. 

There is now evidence available through modern archeology that has exceeded the Nuzi epigraphical evidence. Although not within the parameters of this essay, this means an even broader search by means other than the Nuzi epigraphical evidence could be conducted. This would help to capture greater understanding throughout the ANE of daughters inheriting and increase our knowledge even more. 

This brings us to the possibility of a diachronist transmission of culture between Nuzi and ancient Israel. Looking at the evidence it is difficult to separate what is Hurrian from what is native in the cultures where Hurrians were present. 46This is particularly in the second half of the 2nd-millennium b.c. when there was such cross-cultural activity among the nations of the Near East. 47 A complex of cultural features is attested throughout known Hurrian areas, however, and these features are thereby associated with the Hurrians. 48

Considering the evidence presented here, it is, therefore, more than a possibility that ancient Israel was enculturated into parts of Nuzi’s societal background. Their time frames were also compatible. If an association occurred, to what degree? Was Israel able, not only to observe but to actuate some of the dynamics of that culture and especially, concerning daughters inheriting, in the same ways it occurred in Nuzi? If so, when the daughters of Zelophehad approached Moses and the elders to reason their case can we surmise that ancient Israel would have been aware of the relative freedom the Hurrian women enjoyed. 

When Nuzi is discussed, it represents typical Hurrian society. This understanding of Hurrian culture has come through modern archaeological finds. Among the special characteristics worth noting here for our discussion are the position of women and slaves. Hurrian women enjoyed considerably more freedom than in other areas of the Near East. “They could own property, enter contracts, litigate, and participate independently in most areas of public life. Similarly, slaves, though bound to masters or households, had considerable economic and legal rights.” 49 When Nuzi is discussed in relation to ancient Israel, the matter of enculturation of ancient Israel is unavoidable. The assimilation of Hurrian practices and values becomes a possibility that cannot be ignored in the quest here to determine whether the Nuzi evidence can satisfactorily inform our understanding. 

As seen here when comparing only the epigraphical evidence from Nuzi with the HB these do not automatically benefit us to informing us of our understanding of female inheritance in Israel. The cultural landscape then, can widen our understanding of Nuzi. When introduced by modern archaeological findings, this evidence can only occur once examined in their entirety. 

Examining the Nuzi epigraphical evidence shines a light on the deviant practice of Nuzi society declaring their daughters as ‘sons.’ We learn through that through this enactment it stopped the disintegration of the patriarchal society. In the same way, the Nuzi social-scape changes from one of a marginal view to another of deep significance. It is only beneficial however, when the original comparison made between the epigraphical evidence of Nuzi and the HB, (part 1) allows the dissimilarities to arise between the two. 

The most glaring dissimilarity between Nuzi and ancient Israel is, therefore, the adoption of daughters in Nuzi to recognise them as ‘sons.’ Once the benefits modern archelogy brings to the discussion, only then does it become clear. It informs our understanding of female inheritance in ancient Israel. The archaeological evidence of the Nuzi epigraphical evidence clarifies the dilemma of a lack of sons to inherit. The Nuzi epigraphical evidence is then sufficient to allow us to reach our goal to inform our understanding of female inheritance in ancient Israel. However, only with the added information of modern archaeological evidence. 

The difference between the two societies was the daughter’s status in Israel, which was not shrouded in mystery like the rest of the ANE. This was due to the courageous effort of the daughters of Zelophehad. In sum, therefore, we do know conflict and dispute surrounded the status of women in the ANE. 50 However, unlike Hurrian Nuzi, and its ANE neighbours, Israel passed a law to make daughters equal to sons. Thus, the status of the daughters of Israel, once legally allowed to inherit, stood alongside their brothers in prominence, revealing the justice of God. (Numbers 27: 8-11). 


Bartlett, John R. “Chapter 1: What Has Archaeology To Do With the Bible?” 1-14 in Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation, (ed). John R. Bartlett, London & New York: Routledge, 1997.

Ben-Barak, Zafrira. Inheritance by Daughters in Israel and the Ancient Near East: A Social, Legal and Ideological Revolution. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2006. 

Bloch-Smith, Elizabeth. “Archaeology: What It Can Teach Us,” 13-27 in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel, (ed.) Susan Niditch, West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2016. 

Diaz-Andreu, Margarita. “Chapter 6: Biblical Archaeology,” 131-166 in A World History of Nineteenth-Century Archaeology: Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Hiers, Richard H. “Transfer of Property by Inheritance and Bequest in Biblical Law and Tradition.” Journal of Law and Religion 10, no. 1 (1993): 121–55. https://doi.org/10.2307/1051171 p. 121

Knauf, E. A. (1992). Horites. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 3, p. 288). New York: Doubleday.

Weeks, Noel. “Problems with the Comparative Method in Old Testament Studies,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 62.2 (2019): 287-306. 

Wright C. J. H.  Family. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 3, p. 288). New York: Doubleday 

Wright, David P. “Chapter 20: Ancient Near Eastern Literature and the Pentateuch,” in (eds). Joel S. Baden and Jeffrey Stackert, The Oxford Handbook of the Pentateuch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).