Front Page Titles (by Subject) XVI: RIGHTS OF INHERITANCE - Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters
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XVI: RIGHTS OF INHERITANCE - Rev. Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters 
Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904).
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RIGHTS OF INHERITANCE
The division of an inheritanceThe division of property among the children invariably followed the death of the father. We have a very large number of contracts bearing on this custom. The contract sets forth the particulars of the division and includes a sworn declaration on the part of the recipients to make no further claim. There were certain reservations to be made in the case of minors, for whom a portion had to be set aside to provide for their making the proper gifts to the parents of their brides on marriage.
Usage as illustrated by the contractsThe Code deals at length with the laws of inheritance, which are best treated under the head of marriage. The actual examples occurring in the documents of the period serve to illustrate the practical working of these laws, but hardly add to our knowledge. They are usually occupied with the division of property among brothers. Sometimes we have some light on the reservations made in favor of other members of the family. Thus two brothers divide the property of their “father’s house” and of their sister, a votary. The sister did not take her property, but the brothers were trustees for her enjoyment of it during her life, when it reverted to them in full.1 The document merely states the amount of one brother’s share and the other’s agreement to be content with the division. In another case, where four brothers share the property of their “father’s house,” no details of their shares are given, but only their agreement to abide by the division made.1 In another case the eldest brother allots to each of two younger brothers a share and takes a woman slave and her children as his portion. He is said to do this of his “own power,” ina emur amanišu, and to have given them this of his “own graciousness,” ina tûbâtišu. The brothers swear to make no further claim on the “grant,” maršîtu, of their father. Either the property to which they were legally entitled had already been allotted them, or possibly they had no legal claim on any. The eldest brother is a high official, a pa-pa, and perhaps had succeeded his father in office. The father’s property would then be the endowment of his office, a grant from the king, and as such inalienable from the office to which the eldest son had succeeded. The three slaves may have thus been all the private property of the father which was available for division. But the context seems to suggest that what the brothers received was a concession from the eldest brother on which they had no claim. He may in consideration of his succeeding to his father’s appointment have made this concession to his brothers as a consolation.2 In another case a mother gives certain sums to her three sons. She had still left two sons and two daughters, and the first three agree to make no claim on all that she and these four children have or shall acquire.3 It is noteworthy that one of the three receives ten shekels as the teratu of the wife he shall marry. He was evidently not of marriageable age, or, at any rate, still unmarried. In such a case the Code directed that on partition of the father’s property, a special sum should be laid aside for this necessary present to the bride’s father.4 So we find two brothers giving a sister a share consisting of one-third sar of a house, next her brother’s, one maid, a bed and a chair, with the promise that on the day that she marries and enters her husband’s house she shall receive further two-thirds gan of land and slaves.1 The list of property is often given, especially where brothers give shares to their sisters. Sometimes the relationship is less close. Thus a man shares with two sons of his father’s brother, i.e., with two cousins, ten sar of unreclaimed land, taking three and a half sar as his share.2 Sometimes the property included the mother’s marriage-portion. Thus three brothers divide their property and two of them, as her sons, share their mother’s marriage-portion:3
Division of property between three brothersOne sar of built land and granary, next the house of Ubarrîa and next that of Bushum-Sin, two exits to the street, the property of Urra-nâṣir, which he divided with Sin-ikisham and Ibni-Shamash. From mouth (?) to gold the share is complete. Brother shall not dispute with brother. By Shamash, Malkat, Marduk, and Sin-mubaliṭ they swore. Nine witnesses. Thirteenth year of Sin-mubaliṭ.4
The property which fell to Urra-nâṣir was a house occupying one sar of land. The text means not that the three men, Urra-nâṣir, Sin-ikisham, and Ibni-Shamash, divided the house among them, but that at the division this house was the share of the first named. What the two, Sin-ikisham and Ibni-Shamash, had as their share we are not here told. But the three agreed not to call in question the division of property, which probably came to them from their father or mother. Fortunately we know in this case what the others got. Thus we find:
One sar of built land, (and) granary, next the house of Ibni-Shamash and next the street, its exit to the street, the property of Sin-ikisham, which he divided with Ibni-Shamash and Urra-nâṣir. From mouth (?) to gold the share is complete. Brother shall not dispute with brother. By Shamash, Malkat, and Sin-mubaliṭ they swore. Nine witnesses. Thirteenth year of Sin-mubaliṭ.5
One sar of built land, (and) granary, next the house of Sin-ikisham and next the house of Ishtar-Ummasha, two exits to the street, the property of Ibni-Shamash, which he divided with Sin-ikisham and Urra-nâṣir. From mouth (?) to gold the share [is complete]. Brother shall not dispute with brother. By Shamash, Malkat, Marduk, and Sin-mubaliṭ they swore. Nine witnesses. Thirteenth year of Sin-mubaliṭ.1
Thus we see that each brother, if they were brothers, obtained exactly the same share, one sar of land on which a house was built. Two of them, Sin-ikisham and Ibni-Shamash, were next door to each other. Ibni-Shamash had the street on the other side of him, in fact, occupied a corner house. The third brother, Urra-nâṣir, had a house in another part of the town. We therefore must understand the word “divided” in the sense “obtained on division.” In the second and third case the word rendered share is literally “all.” But the first text shows that “all is complete” means “the share is complete.” The meaning of the expression, “from mouth (?) to gold,” is still obscure. It is not certain that bi-e really means “mouth.” But as Meissner has shown,2 it exchanges with the ideogram for “mouth.” He therefore suggests that the whole phrase means “from the first verbal discussion of the division to its consummation by payment the partition of the property is now at an end.” That seems probable enough, but we may yet find a different explanation. If this be correct, it is of interest to note that while silver seems to have been the usual money, this phrase seems to assume that gold would be used in payment. A curious parallel is the fact that while in later times we always find the order gold and silver, in Sumerian texts it is silver and gold. We must not press this too far, but it really looks as if in early times silver was more valued, or at any rate, less in use than gold.
It will be noted that the second text omits Marduk from the oath, while the others name him. The third text omits gamru, “is complete.” The nine witnesses and the date are the same for all three. In the first and last the names of the witnesses only are given, but in the second the name of the father is added to several of them.
The great difficulty of interpreting details in testamentary documentsIn the case of testamentary documents, using the phrase in a loose way to cover gifts embodied in a deed, we usually find a list of property donated. These lists give rise to insuperable difficulties to the translator. The difficulties are not so much due to the imperfections of our knowledge of Babylonian methods of writing as to the practical impossibility of finding exact terms in one language for the terms relating to domestic furniture in another. Even in the case of languages so well known to us as French and German are, we are obliged to transfer their words unaltered into our own tongue. The most skilled translator must leave a French or German menu untranslated. We know for instance that the signs, giš-gu-za were used to denote the Babylonian kussû. When a god or king sat upon a kussû we may be satisfied with the rendering “throne,” but when we find a lady leaving her daughter six kussê we feel that “throne” is rather too grand. But whether we elect to call them chairs, stools, or seats, we are guilty of some false suggestion. A careful examination of the sculptured and pictured monuments may give us a clearer idea of what seats were used. The reader may consult Perrot and Chipiez, or the dictionaries of the Bible, under the articles: chairs, couches, et cetera, for illustrations. Unless we can find a picture with a named article upon it we are still left a wide margin of conjecture. The picture of Sennacherib receiving the tribute and submission of Lachish gives the contemporary representation of a kussû nimedu, but we cannot argue that every kussû was of the same pattern.
We may decline to attempt a solution and merely give the original word, we may make a purely arbitrary rendering, or we may accompany the original word with an approximate indication of what is known of its nature. In neither case do we translate, for that is clearly impossible. But the reader needs a word of caution against the translations which show no signs of hesitancy. They are not indicative of greater knowledge, but of less candor. Further, to scholars a reminder is needed that even the syllabaries and bilingual texts do not give exact information. Thus alongside giš-gu-za we find a number of other ideograms, all of which are in certain connections rendered kussû, adequately enough no doubt, but that they all denoted exactly the same article of furniture is far from likely. A closer approximation to an exact rendering may come with the knowledge of a large number of different contexts, each of which may shade off something of the rough meaning. One of the great difficulties of the translator is that the same word often occurs again and again, but always in exactly the same context. This is especially the case in the legal documents, filled as they are with stock phrases.
Disinheritance in the Sumerian lawsAccording to the Sumerian laws disinheritance appears to have been simply the result of repudiation of a child by a parent, who has said to him, “You are not my son.” The penalty for a child’s repudiation of parents is to be reduced to the condition of a slave. There may also be a reference to renunciation on the part of an adopted child, but there are no legal documents to clear up the point.1
In the Code of ammurabiThe Code is much clearer. Here the father is minded to cut off his son. But the disinheritance must be done in legal form. The father must say to a judge, “I renounce my son.” The judge must then inquire into the grounds of this determination. A grave fault must be alleged. What this was we are not told. But rebellious conduct, idleness, and failure to provide for parents are probable. A parent had the right to his son’s work. An adoptive parent had a right by the deed of adoption to maintenance. If the fault could be established as a first offence, the judge was bound to try and reconcile the father. If it was repeated, disinheritance took place legally. It was done by a deed duly drawn up. The Sumerian laws show that a mother had the same power as the father. Whether this was only exercised when there was no father, or whether a wife could act in this way independently of her husband in disinheriting children, does not appear. But possibly she had power in this respect only over her own property.1
It has been suggested that disinheritance sometimes took place as a legal form and with consent of a child, in order to admit of his adoption into another family or to free the parents from responsibility for the business engagements of the son.
In the case of adopted childrenAn adoptive parent, who had brought up a child and afterwards had children of his own, could not entirely disinherit his adopted child. He was bound to allow him one-third of a child’s share. But he could not alienate to him real estate.2
[1 ] M. A. P., 105.
[1 ] M. A. P., 106.
[2 ] M. A. P., 107.
[3 ] M. A. P., 109.
[4 ] § 116.
[1 ] 33.
[2 ] 12.
[3 ] 14.
[4 ] 60.
[5 ] 31 = M. A. P., 103.
[1 ] 46 = M. A. P., 104.
[2 ] M. A. P., p. 145.
[1 ] See page 39.
[1 ] §§ , .
[2 ] § .