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INHERITANCE. The English word in the OT is a rendering of the Hebrew words nahalâh, heleq, yerushshâh, and môrāshâh, the latter two being rare. The first occurs most often—almost two hundred times—and is the common term for something inherited, an estate, a portion. A fundamental principle of Hebrew society was that real, as distinguished from personal, property belonged to the family rather than to the individual. This came from the idea that the land was given by God to his children, the people of Israel, and must remain in the family. The Mosaic Law directed that only the sons of a legal wife had the right of inheritance. The firstborn son possessed the birthright, i.e., the right to a double portion of the father’s possession; and to him belonged the duty of maintaining the females of the family (Deut.21.15-Deut.21.17). The other sons received equal shares. If there were no sons, the property went to the daughters (Num.27.8), on the condition that they not marry outside of their own tribe (Num.36.6ff) If the widow was left without children, the nearest of kin on her husband’s side had the right to marry her; and if he refused, the next of kin (Ruth.3.12-Ruth.3.13). If no one married her, the inheritance remained with her until her death, and then reverted to the next of kin (Num.27.9-Num.27.11). An estate could not pass from one tribe to another. Since the land was so strictly tied up, testamentary dispositions or wills were not needed. This strong feeling regarding family hereditary privileges was chiefly responsible for the Jews’ taking such care to preserve the family genealogies.

INHERITANCE (נַחֲלָה, H5709, inheritance; מוֹרָשָׁה, H4627, possession; κληρονομία, G3100, inheritance).

Old Testament.

Considerable illustration of the importance of ordered inheritance is to be found in the records of civilizations contemporary with patriarchal times. The suspicion lingers that the patriarchs, having emancipated themselves from urban society, had shed some of the legal obligations that went closely with membership of an ancient state. In the Nuzi tablets, for example, inheritance is revealed as a matter of supreme legal importance. Property was theoretically inalienable, and complicated laws of adoption were necessary to secure any freedom of transfer and conveyance at all. J. A. Thompson quotes details and also an interesting document (The Bible and Archaeology, 27-31). It is evident that Heb. law, when Moses came to formulate its provisions, had much to order and to regularize.

It was done with brevity and clarity. If a man died without sons to follow him, the inheritance went to the daughters, if there were any; in default of daughters, to his brothers; in default of brothers, to his uncles on the father’s side, or to their next of kin (Num 27:8-11). There was one important provision. If the inheritance fell to a daughter, it was obligatory upon her that she marry within the tribe, a provision designed to keep tribal property stable and uneroded (36:6). It has been plausibly suggested that in this social legislation lies the explanation for the variant genealogies in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. Matthew and Luke, with access to the same information, and writing in the same generation would not knowingly contradict one another. Manifestly, the two genealogies must have been constructed on different lines. Matthew gives Joseph’s line, although making it clear that Jesus was not Joseph’s son, because Joseph was legally regarded as Jesus’ father, an important point in law. It was also necessary in view of the legislation on inheritance in the closing chapters of Numbers, to establish and record the fact that Mary had fulfilled her obligations by marrying within the tribe. A reasonable hypothesis, therefore, suggests that Luke gives the genealogy of Mary. Joseph, not Mary, is set down as the immediate descendant of Eli, because Joseph authenticated Mary’s inheritance by the legal provisions recorded in Numbers 27:1-11 and 36:1-13. It is probable that fuller and more exact information would establish some procedure of adoption in such cases.

One notable aspect of the Heb. law of inheritance was that the widow was not provided for; she was almost considered a part of the inheritance. In the case of a man dying childless his brother could marry the widow and possibly provide the deceased with heirs (Gen 38:8, 9; Deut 25:5-10; Matt 22:23-25). It was possible for this right or obligation to be transferred to the nearest kinsman. The story of Ruth is built round this theme. Naomi was past the age of childbearing. Ruth took her place, and Boaz went through the complicated process of acquiring the right to marry her (Ruth 2:20; 3:9-13; 4:1-12).

Two verbs are used in Heb., yāras, and nāhal, the second being employed rather less frequently than the former, though both are common. In all contexts it is evident that the basic significance is possession, rightful possession rather than succession. Both, significantly, may be found in the LXX tr. by one Gr. word (e.g. Cremer, Lexicon, 361).

Such is the information that may be gleaned from the provisions of the law, and incidents relevant to the theme in the historical books, together with the extension semantically into figure and symbol. Wills were not made in Jewish society until Hel. times, when the custom was adopted from the Greeks. The rabbis studied the process with their usual meticulous care, and carefully regulated all details. The NT reflects current testamentary practice in two contexts (Gal 3:15 and Heb 9:16, 17).

New Testament.

The fig. meaning of inheritance is universal in the NT, e.g. the story of the wicked husbandmen, in which the concept of inheritance, though literal in the context of events, is symbolic in its significance. The simplest method of dealing with the theme will be to list all occurrences of the subject under the heading of the words commonly employed.





The law of inheritance in Gr. and Rom. society has no necessary place in this survey, but it is well to remember that the NT was written and read in a Gr. and Rom. world. Inheritance in the Gr. world was automatic and formal, on the same model as the Heb. with a scale of priorities, and rather less subject to modification by the will of the father than appears to have been the case in Heb. society. A will need not be written. It was valid if made by declaration before appropriate witnesses.


In Rome, on the other hand, the will or testamentary deposition was paramount, a legal order of succession coming into operation only in cases of intestacy. The will was a public document, guarded by law, and formalized in law with set forms of language. Details are succinctly set out in the Oxford Classical Dictionary (454, 445). The following is a will from Rom. Egypt (Pap. Tebt. 381) dating a.d. 123:

The 8th year of the Emperor Caesar Trajanus Hadrianus Augustus, Choiak 22, at Tebtunis in the division of Polemon of the Arsinoite name. Thaesis daughter of Orsenouphis son of Onnophris, her mother being Thenobastis, of the aforesaid village of Tebtunis, aged about seventy-eight years, having a scar on the right forearm, acting with her guardian, her kinsman Cronion son of Ameis, aged about twenty-seven, having a scar between his eyebrows, acknowledges that she, the acknowledging party, Thaesis, has consented that after her death there shall belong to Thenpetesuchus, her daughter by her late departed husband Pansais, and also to Sansenus son of Tephersos, the son of her other daughter Taorseus, now dead, to the two of them, property as follows: to Thenpetesuchus alone, the house, yard and all effect belonging to Thaesis in the said village of Tebtunis by right of purchase from Thenpetesuchus daughter of Petesuchus, and the furniture, utensils, household stock and apparel left by Thaesis, and the sums due to her and other property of any kind whatsoever, while to Sansenus she has bequeathed eight drachmae of silver, which Sansenus shall receive from Thenpetesuchus after the death of Thaesis; on condition that the daughter Thenpetesuchus shall properly perform the obsequies and laying out of her mother, and shall discharge such private debts as Thaesis shall prove to owe, but as long as her mother Thaesis lives she shall have power to...

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The Pentateuch distinguishes clearly between real and personal property, the fundamental idea regarding the former being the thought that the land is God’s, given by Him to His children, the people of Israel, and hence, cannot be alienated (Le 25:23,28). In order that there might not be any respecter of persons in the division, the lot was to determine the specific piece to be owned by each family head (Nu 26:52-56; 33:54). In case, through necessity of circumstances, a homestead was sold, the title could pass only temporarily; for in the year of Jubilee every homestead must again return to the original owner or heir (Le 25:25-34). Real estate given to the priesthood must be appraised, and could be redeemed by the payment of the appraised valuation, thus preventing the transfer of real property even in this case (Le 27:14-25). Inheritance was controlled by the following regulations:

(1) The firstborn son inherited a double portion of all the father’s possession (De 21:15-17);

(2) the daughters were entitled to an inheritance, provided there were no sons in the family (Nu 27:8);

(3) in case there were no direct heirs, the brothers or more distant kinsmen were recognized (27:9-11); in no case should an estate pass from one tribe to another.

The above points were made the subject of statutory law at the instance of the daughters of Zelophehad, the entire case being clearly set forth in Nu 27; 36.

Frank E. Hirsch