On my drive to work this morning I conducted a small thought experiment (while keeping my mind carefully on the road). I took the scenario of Pride and Prejudice and placed it in the realm of Deuteronomic Law and then I took the case of the daughters of Zelophehad and placed it in the legal context of 19th century England. The result made it clear that Inheritance laws involving women and land in the Old Testament kept women from being disenfranchised in ways that western law mandated up to the 20th century.
The situation in Pride and Prejudice is that a mother of all daughters must get her daughters suitably married because when the father dies without male heir the family home will be inherited by a male cousin and a relative stranger to the family. The mother will need a son-in-law able to house and take care of her.
The case of the daughters of Zelophehad was similar. Their father died and there was no male heir, they were unmarried, so to whom would the land go? (See Numbers 27, and Numbers 36)
First of all, in the Old Testament Law, contrary to what is commonly taught, women could own and inherit land. This is demonstrated in the ruling in Numbers 27. No woman would be in the place of Mrs. Bennet, because the property would go to the daughters, who could then house their mother. What is more, the Torah indicates that transfer of the land goes with the death of the occupant rather than the owner, since the owner was the LORD and the tenant was the tribe. Similarly, a woman could continue to use her inherited land or ask for additional land from her father after her marriage. The land however, could not become part of the inheritance for the husband’s tribe. Women who inherited land had to marry within her tribe so the land would not revert back to her tribe in the year of Jubilee. She could marry outside her tribe, but she might forfeit use of the land. If she were allowed use of the land, it would not be part of her children’s inheritance. They would inherit land from the father.
This little test case shows that God’s Law did not prohibit women from owning land. Rather, it made sure that no woman was ever landless. A married woman could not inherit land because that would deprive women and men in the tribe of her birth of having land. Marriage and re-marriage could be used as a means to disenfranchise entire tribes. Male land inheritance in the Torah was not a means of disenfranchisement, but a way of empowering women. Conversely, modern inheritance laws have used conventions that looked similar for the disenfranchisement of women.
I think our pride is in the claim we are always improving. Our prejudice is against things that are older. We believe that over time, humanity has become more progressive, more open, and more egalitarian. We are wrong. Societies have always been a tug of war between equality and hierarchy, and whether rank had more to do with privilege or responsibility. The Torah’s tendency is to flatten hierarchy and yet the hierarchy that remains almost entirely about responsibility, and almost entirely void of privilege. (Let me know if you would like to examine this- it seems like a good topic to discuss) The Torah is almost exactly what we do not expect- until we study it.