May 24, 2007

Numbers 26-27: To my daughters, I leave...

Today's reading is Numbers 26-27 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the second census of the Israelite tribes; the case of Zelophehad's daughters' inheritance; and Joshua's selection as Moses' successor.

Since our ancestors' ancestors developed the concept of private property, one question has been raised on repeated occasions: "who gets my stuff when I die?" In most patriarchal cultures, including ancient Judaism and medieval Christianity, the answer is traditionally, "my sons."

There are two major variants of patriarchal property inheritance. First is primogeniture, by which the eldest son inherits everything and the younger sons are left to fend for themselves. The other variant is partible inheritance, by which all sons inherit part of the father's wealth, theoretically in equal shares. Though it has not been stated explicitly in the text thus far, it seems that the ancient Israelites favoured partible inheritance, with each son gaining a portion of his father's wealth upon his death.

This system works fine most of the time. The main upset, for obvious reasons, is when a man dies without sons.

This is precisely the situation in Num. 26-27. In Num. 26:33, part of the census data, we learn that Zelophehad, a man of the tribe of Manasseh, died with five daughters but no sons. Num. 27:1-11 picks up the story. Zeolphehad's daughters -- Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah -- ask Eleazar the high priest for the right to inherit their father's property, since he had no sons. They make it clear that Zelophehad died in the wilderness, was not associated with the traitor Korah (see Num. 16), and had no sons. They ask Eleazar, "Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he hath no son? Give unto us therefore a possession among the brethren of our father." (Num. 27:4)

Moses brings the case before God, who sides with Zelophehad's daughters. He tells Moses that the daughters shall inherit their father's property instead of his other relatives. (Num. 27:5-7)

God then proceeds to list the chain of inheritance if there are no sons, for the Israelites to use as general guidelines. If a man dies without sons, his property shall pass to his daughters. If he has no daughters, it will pass to his brothers. If he has no brothers, it passes to his father's brothers (ie: his uncles). If his father has no brothers, it passes to his nearest kinsman. (Num. 27:8-11)

We are left with a situation where, if women don't have equal rights, they at least have some rights. According to Biblical law, they are allowed to inherit and own property if they have no brothers when their father dies. Though this may seem like a small concession to today's feminist-conscious society, it was in fact a major accomplishment for ancient women. In many ancient and medieval cultures, women could not inherit from their fathers. The only woman who might own property was a widow, who occasionally inherited her husband's wealth. In many cultures, even if a father died with daughters and no sons, his property would pass to his brothers, kinsmen, or even the state.

One reason for this lack of female inheritance was that women were considered the property, or at least the wards, of the men in their lives. Young, unmarried women were under the protection of their fathers. Married women were under their husbands. At no point in a woman's life, with the possible exception of widowhood, was she considered a person in her own right, able to make her own decisions and manage her own affairs. It is telling that even until the early 20th century, women were not allowed to vote in most western, "developed" countries. It was assumed that whoever their husband voted for, they also supported.

Looking at the historical context, we can begin to understand why women were considered nearly non-entities (or at least, non-public entities). Power and wealth were firmly in the hands of men. Family lineage passed from father to son. If women were allowed to share power and inherit, there would suddenly be many disputes. What if a woman wanted her children to carry her family's name, and not her husband's? What if she tried to overpower her husband? What if she withheld her own wealth from her husbands, leaving her rich and him poor? These were all valid concerns in a society where the public domain was the almost-exclusive domain of men.

Things are obviously different in today's society. Most people in the first world would be appalled to see sexist favouritism in terms of inheritance and power. We expect our women to inherit as much as their brothers (barring family disputes having nothing to do with gender). Women can vote, hold public office, and manage their own money. Many women today maintain their maiden name instead of adopting their husband's, and many children have hyphenated last names, carrying both their mother's and father's family names. Most of my readers will agree, I hope, that these are positive changes, showing a trend towards gender equality.

But, before we become too smug, we must remember that these changes are incredibly recent, taking place in the life spans of many people still alive today. My grandparents can remember when women did not have the right to vote. My parents might remember when a woman was not allowed to own a credit card. Many countries, including the U.S., have still never had a female head of state.

The trend has begun, and accelerated, towards gender equality. And its roots might lie as far back as Num. 27.

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