Thursday, August 3, 2023

The Marriage and Inheritance of Hebrew Daughters


Dr. Alice C. Linsley

The daughters of the Hebrew ruler-priests are perhaps the least understood biblical population because many remain nameless in the biblical texts. However, these daughters were the brides and mothers who kept the bonds between the Hebrew clans strong. 

The exchange of brides between the descendants of two brothers was common. It is an example of “matrimonial moiety” (see Glossary). The early Hebrew moieties - the Horite Hebrew and the Sethite Hebrew - were tied together by the bride exchange among their rulers.

This is an example of matrimonial moiety, a system whereby kin groups (moieties), such as the lineages of Cain and Seth, are linked by a pattern of recurrent marriage between the clans.

Lamech the Elder was a descendant of Cain. His daughter, Naamah, married her patrilineal cousin methuselah and named their first-born son Lamech, after her father. The maternal ancestry of the Hebrew rulers can be traced mainly through the cousin brides.

Females of High Social Status

Most of the persons named in the Bible are men simply because only men served as priests and the Hebrew were a ruler-priest caste. More male ancestors are named because they assumed governance over their fathers’ territories or become high officials in the territories of their maternal grandfathers. The few wives and daughters who are named have special significance. Naamah, the first woman named after Eve, is an example. She is the key to understanding the cousin bride’s naming prerogative. She married her patrilineal cousin Methuselah and named their first-born son “Lamech” after her father.

Abraham's wife Sarah was of such high social status that she was sought by the King of Egypt. Rarely were such political "marriages" consummated because the ruler already had a queen by whom he received a rightful heir. The more sons competing for the ruler's position, the greater threat was posed to him by assassination.

Sarah and Abraham had the same father - Terah. However, they had different mothers because the high-ranking Hebrew rulers had two wives. The pattern of two wives is found throughout the Bible among the Hebrew rulers. However, the data needed to identify which wife is the first and which is the second is not always available. Some wives are not named. Moses' Kushite wife is an example, as are King Joash's two wives, chosen for him by the priest Jehoiada. 

In Genesis 36, we read about a female clan chief named Anah. She is the mother of Dishon and Oholibamah. Adah, the daughter of Elon the Hittite, married a Horite Hebrew named Esau. Apparently, bride exchanges took place between the Hittite and Hebrew rulers, suggesting that they were close kinsmen. This is likely the meaning of the Hittite recognition of Abraham as a "great prince" among them in Genesis 23.


Daughters received inheritances from their mothers in the form of herds, tents, textiles, sacred objects believed to enhance fertility, jewelry, and servants. Numbers 27:8 makes it clear that daughters could inherit land. If a landowner died without a male heir his land was to go to a ranking daughter. If he died without a son or daughter, his property was to go to his brothers.

The teraphim that Rachel hid in her camel bags were probably figurines of the great patriarch Terah and his principal wife. Her possession of these ancestor figurines represented a claim to inheritance.

When Jacob proposed a plan to escape from servitude to Laban, his two wives were quick to support him, saying: "Are we still likely to inherit anything from our father's estate? Does he not think of us as outsiders now?" (Gen. 31:14) Laban sons became jealous of Jacob, saying, "Jacob has taken everything that belonged to our father; it is at our father's expense that he has acquired all this wealth." (Gen. 31:1) Clearly, Jacob's wealth was that of his wives, their servants and their flocks and herds. Other than his initial grant as a sent-away son, Jacob received no inheritance from Isaac. Nor was he to receive anything from Laban. That is why Rachel took the ancestor figurines.

Zelophehad's daughters argued that the name of their deceased father would be lost among his people were they not to inherit. However, Zelophehad's name would be perpetuated through one of his daughters. Were she to marry a patrilineal cousin, she would name her first-born son Zelophehad after her father, according to the cousin bride's naming prerogative.

Moses granted the five daughters' petition to inherit their father's holding, and we read this law: "If a man dies without a son, then the inheritance shall pass to his daughter." (Num. 27:8)


  1. This is so interesting. I've been studying the Bible for many years, but have never had this point brought home to me before. That is, the *pattern* of cousin brides as a Hebrew societal practice, and not just a random occurrence.

  2. Yes! The cousin bride was the second wife, and that marriage took place later in the ruler's life. The firstborn son of the cousin bride belonged to the household of his maternal grandfather. So, Moses' firstborn son born to Zipporah belonged to the household of Jethro who rightfully should have circumcised the boy. For some reason that did not happen, and it was Zipporah, not Moses, who performed the circumcision.


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