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
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 (
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,
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.
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
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.