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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary


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A legal transmission of property after death. The Hebrew Bible has no exclusive term for “inheritance.” The words often translated “inherit” mean more generally “take possession.” Only in context can they be taken to mean “inheritance.” The Greek word in the New Testament does refer to the disposition of property after death, but its use in the New Testament often reflects the Old Testament background more than normal Greek usage.

In ancient Israel possessions were passed on to the living sons of a father, but the eldest son received a double portion (Deuteronomy 21:17 ). Reuben lost preeminence because of incest with Bilhah (Genesis 35:22; Genesis 49:4; 1 Chronicles 5:1 ), and Esau surrendered his birthright to Jacob (Genesis 25:29-34 ). These examples show that possession of this double portion was not absolute. Sons of concubines did not inherit unless adopted. Jacob's sons by the maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah (Genesis 30:3-13 ) inherited (Genesis 49:1 ) because those offspring were adopted by Rachel and Leah. Sarai promised to adopt the offspring of her maid Hagar when she gave Hagar to Abram (Genesis 16:2 ) but went back on that promise after Isaac's birth (Genesis 21:10 ).

Women were not to inherit from their fathers except in the absence of a son (Numbers 27:1-11 ). Before this ruling from the Lord, if a man had no offspring, the inheritance went to his brothers, to his father's brothers, or to his next kinsman.

Because the Hebrew words did not necessarily presuppose a death, they could be used in reference to God's granting of the land to Israel (Joshua 1:15; Numbers 36:2-4 ). Levites had no share of the land, and the Lord Himself was their “inheritance” (Numbers 18:20-24; Deuteronomy 10:9; Deuteronomy 18:2; Joshua 13:33 ). Jeremiah used the concept of “inheritance” to refer to the restoration of Israel to the land from “the north” after the time of punishment (Jeremiah 3:18-19 ).

Israel is the “inheritance” of the Lord (Jeremiah 10:16 ). Psalm 79:1 speaks of Jerusalem and the Temple as God's “inheritance.” In a broader sense, however, God can be said to “inherit” all nations ( Psalm 82:8 ).

Anything given by God can be called an “inheritance.” In Psalm 16:5 the pleasant conditions of the psalmist's life were his “inheritance” because he had chosen the Lord as his lot. In Psalm 119:111 God's testimonies are an “inheritance.” In Job 27:13 “heritage” refers to God's punishment of the wicked. Proverbs 3:35 compares the honor the wise “inherit” with the disgrace of the fool.

In the New Testament “inheritance” can refer to property (Luke 12:13 ), but it most often refers to the rewards of discipleship: eternal life (Matthew 5:5; Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:29-30 and parallels; Titus 3:7 ), the kingdom (Matthew 25:34; James 2:5; negatively 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Corinthians 15:50 ), generally (Acts 20:32; Ephesians 1:14 ,Ephesians 1:14,1:18; Revelation 21:7 ). Christ is the Heir par excellence ( Matthew 21:38 and parallels; Hebrews 1:2 ). Through Christ Christians can be heirs of God and “fellow heirs” with Christ (Romans 8:17; compare Ephesians 3:6 ). Only Hebrews makes explicit use of the idea of “inheritance” as requiring the death of the testator, Christ. A “will” requires a death to come into effect, so the death of Christ brings the new “covenant”/”will” into effect (Hebrews 9:16-17 ). See Covenant; Land; Promise .

Fred L. Horton, Jr.

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Inheritance'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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