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HEIR (יָרַשׁ, H3769, to possess; κληρονόμος, G3101, heir). A person who inherits another’s property upon the other’s death. Numbers 27:1-11 and Deuteronomy 21:15-17 are the only legislative texts pertaining to inheritance found in the OT. The disposition of property by a last will and testament is never mentioned in the OT and was unknown in OT times. Before the head of a house died he gave verbal instructions about the distribution of his property, but in this he had to conform to the laws and customs of the time.

The eldest son succeeded to the headship of the family and he received an inheritance that was double that of each of the other brothers (Deut 21:17). He could, however, lose this right by surrendering it to a brother (Esau—Gen 25:29-34) or for a serious offense (Reuben—Gen 35:22). The law protected him against favoritism on the part of his father (Deut 21:15-17). There are, however, a number of cases in the OT where a younger son displaced an elder son, but these were exceptions to the ordinary law.

In the early history of Israel the sons of concubines did not share the inheritance unless the father adopted them and made them equal in rank with the sons of his freeborn wives. Sarah objected to Ishmael’s sharing the inheritance with her son Isaac (Gen 21:10). In later times this practice was not so strictly followed.

Daughters did not inherit property unless there were no male heirs.

If a man died without sons, the order of succession was as follows: daughter, brother(s), paternal uncle(s), nearest male relative (Num 27:1-11).

The widow had no right to the inheritance because the property could pass outside the family. A childless widow either remained a member of her husband’s family by a levirate marriage or returned to her father (Gen 38:11; Lev 22:13). Undoubtedly she could keep what she had contributed to the marriage and the gifts she had received from her husband. If she had grownup children, they provided for her.

A daughter who inherited had to marry within the tribe of her father, to keep the inheritance within the tribe (Num 36:6-9). If she married outside the tribe, her inheritance was forfeited and went to the person next in succession. On occasion, however, this law seems to have been set aside (1 Chron 2:34-36).

In the NT the word is usually used in a special theological sense of the recipients of God’s promises and of those who wait for what is promised. Paul, esp., brings out that the heirs of the promises of salvation made to the seed of Abraham, which are to be fulfilled in the Messianic age, are not physical descendants of Abraham who keep the law but his spiritual descendants—those who have faith like him (Rom 4:14; Gal 3:29; Eph 3:6). See Inheritance.


E. Neufeld, Ancient Hebrew Marriage Laws (1944); R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (1961), 53-55; G. Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the NT, III (1965), 767-785.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. The Word "Heir":

2. Heir in Old Testament Law:

The heirs of property in the Old Testament were normally the sons and, chief among these, the firstborn.

(2) When there were sons alive, the daughters had no right of inheritance, and married daughters had no such right in any case. (Job 42:15 describes an altogether exceptional procedure.) Probably unmarried daughters passed under the charge of the firstborn, as the new head of the family, and he took the responsibility of finding them husbands. Nu 27:1-11; 36:1-12 treat of the case where there were no sons--the daughters inherited the estate, but they could marry only within the tribe, lest the tribal possessions be confused. This right of the daughters, however, is definitely stated to be a new thing, and in earlier times the property probably passed to the nearest male relatives, to whom it went in later times if there were no daughters. In extreme cases, where no other heirs could be found, the property went to the slaves (Ge 15:3; Pr 30:23, noting that the meaning of the latter verse is uncertain), but this could have happened only at the rarest intervals. A curious instance is that of 1Ch 2:34,35, where property is preserved in the family by marrying the daughter to an Egyptian slave belonging to the father; perhaps some adoption-idea underlies this.

(3) The wife had no claim on the inheritance, though the disposition made of her dowry is not explained, and it may have been returned to her. If she was childless she resorted to the Levirate marriage (De 25:5-10). If this was impracticable or was without issue she returned to her own family and might marry another husband (Ge 38:11; Le 22:13; Ru 1:8). The inferior wives (concubines) were part of the estate and went to the heir; indeed, possession of the father’s concubines was proof of possession of his dignities (2Sa 16:21,22; 1Ki 2:13-25). At least, such was the custom in the time of David and Solomon, but at a later period nothing is heard of the practice.

(4) The disposition of land is a very obscure question. Nu 36:4 states explicitly that each heir had a share, but the continual splittin up of an estate through successive generations would have produced an impossible state of affairs. Possibly the land went to the eldest born as part of his portion, possibly in some cases it was held in common by the members of the family, possibly some member bought the shares of the others, possibly the practice differed at different times. But our ignorance of the facts is complete.

NOTE.--The dates assigned by different scholars to the passages cited have an important bearing on the discussion.

See also

  • Inheritance