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Inheritance

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    Inheritance

    In its secular sense, inheritance is the transmission of property on the owner's death to those entitled to receive it. In Israel this was the right of those related by blood (Num. 27.8–11; 1 Kings 21.3), generally the sons, among whom the firstborn received a double portion (Deut 21.17). The Hebrew word for inheritance, naḥălâ, can also mean possession or portion. There are, however, few legal provisions concerning inheritance in the Hebrew Bible, and its meaning there is primarily theological.

    Thus, the land of Canaan is frequently mentioned as the territory that God gives to Israel (Deut 4.21; 19.14). God had promised it to the ancestors, first to Abra(ha)m (Gen. 12.7), then to each succeeding patriarch and to Moses (Exod. 6.8). It was divided up among the tribes, so that each received its own inheritance (Josh 14.1). The nation too is often described as the Lord's inheritance and therefore holy (Exod 19.5–6; Deut. 7.6). Only if the people maintain their holiness by keeping God's commandments can they keep possession of the land (Jer. 7.5–7). Thus, the inheritance of the land is a sign of God's faithfulness in fulfilling his promises and a reminder of Israel's duties toward him as the true owner of the land (see Lev. 25.23).

    After the exile various developments occur in the concept of inheritance. With the dispersion of many of the nation from the land of Israel, possession of the Promised Land increasingly becomes a future hope (Sir. 36.16). With the full development of monotheism, the inheritance that God gives to Israel includes all peoples and countries (Ps. 111.6). He is the portion of the individual believer as representative of the righteous remnant that can trust only in God (Pss. 16.5–6; 142.5). In the book of Wisdom and other writings, the inheritance of the righteous is eternal life (Wisd. of Sol. 5.5).

    Various aspects of these ideas are resumed in the New Testament. The promise of inheritance to Abraham is fulfilled in Christ, so that he is the promised inheritance (Gal. 3.14). Similarly, in the parable of the evil tenants (Matt. 21.33–41 par.), Christ is the son to whom inheritance rightly belongs, and after his death it passes to his followers (see also Heb. 9.15–17; Acts 20.32).

    For Paul, Christians are the real descendants of Abraham, because they share in the inheritance with Christ, to whom the promise to Abraham properly refers (Gal. 3.29). This means that the inheritance now belongs not just to Abraham's physical descendants but also to faithful non‐Israelites, the gentiles (Eph. 3.6).

    Finally, the concept of inheritance is eschatological. Although a present reality (1 Pet 3.7), it is more commonly viewed as something Christians will receive only in the heavenly realm beyond this world (1 Pet. 1.4). Thus, it is defined as “eternal life” or “the kingdom,” which are to be possessed when the Son of Man returns at the end of time (Matt 19.29; 25.34). Similarly, the letter to the Hebrews reinterprets the promise to Abraham to refer not to Canaan but to the heavenly city (Heb. 11.8–10). Hope is the link between present and future (Titus 3.7), as is the sealing by the Holy Spirit that guarantees to Christians their promised inheritance until they can finally possess it (Eph. 1.13–14).

    J. R. Porter

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