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Inheritance (in the Bible)


The juridical notion of inheritance or heritage, designating the transmission or possession of goods not acquired personally but given by a previous possessor, is attested in the Bible rather frequently in its literal sense; but since it naturally lends itself to express the idea of the gratuitous gift of salvation, its theological usage in a figurative sense in the Bible is still more abundantly documented and more important. This article, after treating of the terminology, will first consider inheritance in the literal sense, and then in the figurative sense, and this for both the OT and the NT.

Terminology. The principal Hebrew equivalents for the English words, inherit, inheritance, heritage, and heir, are based on the verbal roots yrš, nl, and lq, to which may be added the nouns gôrāl (lot), ebel (allotted portion), and perhaps also s egullâ (private fortune). The root yrš, which occurs about 256 times in the Masoretic Text (MT), denotes specifically succession in possession, whether by conquest or by inheritance, and it is used almost always of immovables, such as a country, city, or house. The root nl, which is used about 282 times in the MT, designates precisely possession held by title of patrimony and is employed almost always of immovables. The root lq refers to a heritage as a portion of a larger unit.

This orientation of the Hebrew roots toward the sense of stable possession forced the Septuagint translators at times to use Greek words in a sense broader than they had in the classical language. In adopting the Greek words κληρονομέω, (inherit), κληρονόμος (heir), and κληρονομία (inheritance, heritage) to express the notions contained in the Hebrew terms, the translators often went beyond the classical meaning of transmission of property by last will and testament or by other legal disposition and gave the Greek terms the meaning of stable, lasting possession. The same extension of sense is found in the NT also.

Literal Sense. In Israel the transmission of patrimonial goods was fixed by custom or by law; it was not determined by last will and testament (2 Sm 17.23; 2 Kgs 20.1; Sir 14.15). There are but few passages in the Bible that treat directly of the laws of inheritance (Dt 21.1517; Nm 27.111; 36.69). It is known, however, from these and other passages, that the oldest son had a right to a double share of his father's possessions (Dt 21.17; see also Lk 15.12), that the sons of so-called concubines (see concubine [in the bible]) received no inheritance, unless they were adopted as sons of full right (Gn 25.56), and that illegitimate sons were excluded from the inheritance (Jgs 11.12). Daughters did not inherit, unless there were no male heirs and the daughters married within the same clan (Nm 27.18; 36.19). A widow did not inherit; she could, however, be the guardian of her deceased husband's property until their sons came to full age (Ru 4.9; 2 Kgs 8.36); if she had no male descendant, the property of her deceased husband passed to his brothers or nearest male relatives, and she returned to her father's house (Gn 38.11; Lv 22.13), or she remained attached to her husband's family by a levirate marriage (Dt 25.510; Ru2.20; 3.12). Toward the end of the OT period, however, a childless widow could apparently inherit the property of her deceased husband (Jdt 8.7).

Theological Usage in the Old Testament. Near the beginning of the Pentateuch, in the account of God's promise to Abraham (Genesis 15), the concept of inheritance already appears four times (in v. 3, 4, 7, and 8). This promise of a future inheritance was the point of departure for a line of theological thought continuing to the NT (Gn 12.7; 13.1417; 15.18; 24.7; 26.35). The same promise of a land to be received as an inheritance is found in the ancient Mosaic traditions concerning the covenant (Ex3.8, 17; 23.2033); in later texts this possession is regarded as a fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham (Ex6.8; 13.5; 32.13).

Canaan, the Inheritance of the Tribes of Israel. After the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, the land of Canaan was considered their inheritance (Gn 48.6; Nm 26.5256; 33.5054; 34.1418). Deuteronomy returns time and time again to this idea (Dt 1.7, 8, 21, 35, 38;2.12, 29; 3.18, 20, 28; etc.). If Israel succeeded in gaining possession (yrš ) of the Promised Land, it was only because this land had been given to it as a patrimony (năālâ ) by Yahweh (Jos 1.6; 3.10; 13.1, 7). The same idea recurs in the books of Samuel, Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles (e.g., 1 Kgs 8.36; 9.7; 2 Kgs 21.8; Neh9.8, 15, 23, 35, 36; 1 Chr 28.8; etc.), and the same is true of the Psalms (Ps 36[37].18; 46[47].5; 68[69].37; 104[105].11; 134[135].12; 135[136].2122). In certain passages the land of Canaan is called "Yahweh's heritage" (1 Sm 26.19; 2 Sm 21.3; 1 Kgs 8.36).

Israel, Yahweh's Heritage. At the same time, however, Israel is regarded as the heritage of Yahweh (2 Sm 14.16; 20:19; 1 Sm 10.1; Dt 4.20; 9.26, 29; 1 Kgs 8.51, 53; 2 Kgs 21.14), and in the Oracles of Moses this assigning of Israel to Yahweh is said to go back to an early division of the various peoples among "the sons of God": "The Most High assigned the nations their heritage after the number of the sons of God, while the Lord's own portion was Jacob, His hereditary share was Israel" (Dt 32.89; see also Ex 34.9). Thus, the fact that Yahweh holds Israel as His heritage implies that He governs it, not through any intermediary, such as an angel, but personally, by dwelling in the midst of His people (Ex 33.1416).

In the Prophets. The inheritance idea plays practically no role in the Prophets of the 8th and 7th centuries b.c. (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah). With Jeremiah, however, it again becomes a central idea: the gift of the Promised Land as Israel's inheritance constitutes, with the Exodus, the preamble to the covenant and forms the basis for the expectation that Yahweh would be faithful to Israel (Jer3.19; 7.7; 11.45; 12.710; etc.). Similar ideas are found in Ezekiel (Ez 33.24; 35.15; 37.25; 38.16; 47.14), Deutero-Isaiah (Is 47.6; 49.8), Trito-Isaiah (Is 60.21; 63.17), and Zechariah (Zec 2.16; 8.12). In the last two of these the perspective of the heritage has already become eschatological.

Development of the Concept. In the course of the OT the inheritance theology evolved in such a way that gradually the two originally distinct concepts of Canaan as Israel's heritage and Israel as Yahweh's heritage were integrated into each other, the former concept gradually disappearing in the latter. This was in germ in the theology of the covenant (Dt 4.2528; 28.1568; 29.2127; see also Ex 19.5; Dt 7.6; 14.2; 26.18), and Israel would always be Yahweh's heritage, even in the state of the faithful "remnant" (Dt 30.5). When the Exile would have made the hopes of a terrestrial heritage unrealizable, the inheritance concept would be taken up in more universalist terms (Is 57.13; 60.21; 65.89; Ps 36[37].9, 11, 18, 22, 29, 34).

In the Maccabean period the inheritance concept became eschatological and personal (Wis 3.14; 5.5; 2 Mc7.36; see also Dn 12.13). In this spiritualization of the inheritance concept the importance of a certain Israelite institution should be pointed out: the special situation of the tribe of Levi, whose heritage was Yahweh Himself (Dt 18.12; Nm 18.20; Jos 13.14, 33; 18.7; Ez 44.28). This situation was gradually transformed into a purely spiritual and personal hope (Ps 15[16].56; 72[73].2526).

Theological Usage in the New Testament. The inheritance concept is developed theologically in the NT along two lines of thought: eschatological hope, and the fulfillment of the inheritance promises in Christ.

Eschatological Hope. As in Judaism of the last few pre-Christian centuries, so also in the NT the hope of the inheritances is transformed to an eschatological plane (Mk 10.17 and parallels; Mt 5.5; 25.34; 1 Cor 6.910;15.50; Gal 5.21; Eph 5.5). In this perspective the possession of the kingdom of god is now the inheritance of the believers (Rom 4.1316; Eph 1.18; Heb 9.15; 1 Pt 1.4), of which the pledge is given with the Holy Spirit received in baptism (Eph 1.14).

Fulfillment of the Inheritance Promises in Christ. In the NT the promises of the inheritance made to Abraham are considered as fulfilled in Christ. This line of thought is well expressed in the parable of the vine dressers (Mk 12.112 and parallels). Christ is the heir who inherits the vineyard of Israel (Is 5.17) and who therefore receives the inheritance promised to Abraham (Gal 3.1518), and this promised inheritance He shares with the believers (Gal 3.29) in the Church (Eph 3.6).

The inheritance concept has thus attained its full development: starting with the promise of a land in which Israel could live here on Earth, it now designates the blessings of salvation, the sharing in the divine sonship in the kingdom of the Father (Mt 25.34).

Bibliography: r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 5355. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 106264. w. foerster and g. kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935) 3:757786. f. mussner, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 3:962963. p. koschaker, Reallexikon der Vorgeschichte, ed. m. ebert 15 v. (Berlin 192432) 3:114119. x. lÉon-dufour, ed., Vocabulaire de théologie biblique (Paris 1962) 435439. j. b. bauer, ed., Bibeltheologisches Wörterbuch, 2 v. (2d ed. Graz 1962) 1:267272. j. hempel, Das Ethos des Alten Testaments (Beibefte zur Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 67; Berlin 1938) 7172, 119120. f. dreyfus, "Le Thème de l'héritage dans l'Ancien Testament," Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques 42 (1958) 349. h. wildberger, Jahwehs Eigentumsvolk (Zurich 1960).

[j. harvey]

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