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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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INHERITANCE . It is a remarkable fact that the Hebrew language fails to discriminate between the inheritance of property and its possession or acquisition in any other manner. The two words most constantly used in this connexion denote the idea of settled possession, but are quite indeterminate as to the manner in which that possession has been acquired. As might easily be inferred, from the historical circumstances of Israel’s evolution, the words became largely restricted to the holding of land, obviously the most important of all kinds of property among a pastoral or agricultural people.

I. Inheritance in Law and Custom

1. Property. While land was the most important part of an inheritance, the rules for succession show that it was regarded as belonging properly to the family or elan, and to the individual heir only as representing family or tribal rights. Cattle, household goods, and slaves would be more personal possessions, which a man could divide among his sons ( Deuteronomy 21:16 ). Originally wives, too, as part of the property of the deceased, would fall to the possession of the heir-in-chief (cf. 2 Samuel 16:20-23 , 1 Kings 2:13 ff.).

2. Heirs . ( a ) The firstborn son , as the new head of the family, responsible for providing for the rest, inherited the land and had also his claim to a double portion of other kinds of wealth ( Deuteronomy 21:17 ). To be the son of a concubine or inferior wife was not a bar to heirship ( Genesis 21:10 , 1 Chronicles 5:1 ); though a jealous wife might prevail on her husband to deprive such a son of the right of succession ( Genesis 21:10 ). That a father had power to transfer the birthright from the firstborn to another is implied in the cases of Ishmael and Isaac ( Genesis 21:10 ), Esau and Jacob ( Genesis 27:37 ), Reuben and Joseph ( 1 Chronicles 5:1 ), Adonijah and Solomon ( 1 Kings 1:11 ff.). But this was contrary to social usage, and is prohibited in Deuteronomy 21:15-17 . Moreover, the exceptions to the rule are presented as examples of a Divine election rather than a human preference (Isaac, Genesis 21:12; Jacob, Malachi 1:2-3 , Romans 9:13; Joseph, Genesis 49:24 ff.; Solomon, 1 Chronicles 22:9-10 ), and can hardly be adduced as survivals of the ancient custom of ‘Junior Right.’ ( b ) At first a daughter could not succeed (the inheritance of the daughters of Job [ Job 42:15 ] is noted as exceptional) an arrangement that has been referred either to the influence of ancestor-worship, in which a male heir was necessary as priest of the family cult, or to the connexion between inheritance and the duty of blood revenge. For unmarried daughters, however, husbands would almost invariably be found. In the case of the daughters of Zelophehad ( Numbers 27:1-11 ) we see the introduction of a change; but it is to be noted that this very case is associated with the provision ( Numbers 36:1-12 ) that heiresses should marry only within their father’s tribe, so that the inheritance might not be alienated from it. ( c ) For the widow no immediate place was found in the succession. So far from being eligible as an heir, she was strictly a part of the property belonging to the inheritance. According to the levirate law, however, when a man died leaving no son, his brother or other next-of-kin ( go’çl ) must marry the widow, and her firstborn son by this marriage became the heir of her previous husband ( Deuteronomy 25:6 ). ( d ) For the order of succession the rule is laid down in Numbers 27:8-11 that if a man die without male issue the right of inheritance shall fall successively to his daughter, his brothers, his father’s brothers, his next kinsman thereafter. The provision for the daughter was an innovation, as the context shows, but the rest of the rule is in harmony with the ancient laws of kinship.

ii. National and Religious Inheritance. 1. The possession of the land of Canaan was commonly regarded as the inheritance of the whole people. In this particular case the inheritance was won only as the result of conflict and effort; moreover, theoretically at any rate, it involved the annihilation of the previous inhabitants. Consequently the inheritance of Canaan was not entirely devoid of the idea of succession. But the extermination of the Canaanites was never effected; and although the conquest was achieved only by the most strenuous effort, yet the Israelites were so strongly impressed with a vivid sense of Jehovah’s intervention on their behalf, that to subsequent generations it seemed as if they had entered into the labours of others, not in any sense whatever by their own power, but solely by Jehovah’s grace. The inheritance of Canaan signified the secure possession of the land, as the gift of God to His people. ‘The dominant Biblical sense of inheritance is the enjoyment by a rightful title of that which is not the fruit of personal exertion’ (Westcott, Heb . 168).

2. It is not surprising that the idea of inheritance soon acquired religious associations. The Hebrew mind invested all social and political institutions with a religious significance. As Israel became increasingly conscious of its mission in , and began dimly to apprehend its mission to , the world, the peaceful and secure possession of Canaan seemed an indispensable condition of that self-development which was itself the necessary prelude to a more universal mission. The threatening attitude of the great world powers in the eighth and subsequent centuries b.c. brought the question prominently to the front. Over and over again it seemed as if Jerusalem must succumb to the hordes of barbarian invaders, and as if the last remnant of Canaan must be irretrievably lost; but the prophets persistently declared that the land should not be lost; they realized the impossibility of Israel’s ever realizing her true vocation, unless, at any rate for some centuries, she preserved her national independence; and the latter would, of course, be wholly unthinkable without territorial security. The career of Israel, as a nation, the influence, even the existence, of its religion, would he endangered by the dispossession of Canaan; moreover, it was recognized that as long as the people remained true to Jehovah, He on His part would remain true to them, and would not suffer them to be dispossessed, but would make them dwell securely in their own land, in order that they might establish on their side those conditions of righteousness and justice which represented the national obligations, if Jehovah’s covenant with them was to be maintained.

3. The possession of the land, the inheritance of Canaan, symbolized the people’s living in covenant with their God, and all those spiritual blessings which flowed from such a covenant. And inasmuch as the validity of the covenant implied the continuance of Divine favour, the inheritance of the Holy Land was viewed as the outward and visible sign of God’s presence and power among His own. We know how the remorseless logic of history seemed to point to an opposite conclusion. The Exile spelt disinheritance; and disinheritance meant a great deal more than the loss of a little strip of territory; it meant the forfeiture of spiritual blessings as a consequence of national sin. The more ardent spirits of the nation refused, however, to believe that these high privileges were permanently abrogated; they were only temporarily withdrawn; and they looked forward to a new covenant whose spiritual efficacy should be guaranteed by national restoration. In the reconstituted theocracy, the Messiah figured as the mediator both of temporal and of spiritual blessings. The idea of a restored inheritance suggested at once the glorious anticipations of the Messianic age, when the people, not by works which they had done, but by Jehovah’s grace, should recover that which they had lost; and renew the covenant that had been broken.

4. In this sense ‘the inheritance’ became almost equivalent to the Messianic salvation; and participation in this salvation is not a future privilege, but a present possession. In the OT the secure inheritance of the Holy Land was the outward symbol of these spiritual blessings; under the New Dispensation they are assured by membership in the Christian body.

5. As every Jew regarded himself as an inheritor of the land of Canaan, so also is each Christian an inheritor of the Kingdom of heaven. He is not the heir, in the sense of enjoying an honorary distinction, or of anticipating future privileges; but as one who is already in a position of assured privilege, conferred upon him with absolute validity. As Lightfoot remarks, ‘Our Father never dies; the inheritance never passes away from Him; yet nevertheless we succeed to the full possession of it’ ( Galatians 165).

6. Three particular usages remain to be noticed. ( a ) The Jews never lost the conviction that Jehovah was the supreme overlord of the land, and of the people that dwelt in it. Accordingly Canaan is the Holy Land, and Jehovah’s own inheritance; and Messiah when incarnate ‘came to His own country, and His own people received Him not.’ ( b ) The Jews also recognized that the possession of Canaan had value only in so far as it assured them of the free exercise of their religion, and all other spiritual blessings. This they strove to express by boldly declaring that Jehovah was Himself the inheritance of His people. ( c ) The Messiah, through whom the disinheritance should be brought to a close, and the covenant should be renewed, was naturally regarded as the supreme ‘inheritor’ or ‘heir’ of all the promises and privileges implied in the covenant. As, moreover, the Messiah’s unique relation to the Father became more clearly defined, the idea of His inheritance, connoting His unique primogeniture and universal supremacy, became enlarged and expanded. It was, moreover, through the humanity which He restored that the Son proved and realized His heirship of all things; and thus His actual position is the potential exaltation of redeemed mankind.

J. C. Lambert and Ernest A. Edghill.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Inheritance'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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