The Hebrew institutions relative to inheritance were of a very simple character. Under the patriarchal system the property was divided among the sons of the legitimate wives, (Genesis 21:10
) a larger portion being assigned to one, generally the eldest, on whom devolved the duty of maintaining the females of the family. The sons of concubines were portioned off with presents. (Genesis 25:6
) At a later period the exclusion of the sons of concubines was rigidly enforced. (Judges 11:1
) ff. Daughters had no share in the patrimony, (Genesis 21:14
) but received a marriage portion. The Mosaic law regulated the succession to real property thus: it has to be divided among the sons, the eldest receiving a double portion, (21:17
) the others equal shares; if there were no sons, it went to the daughters, (Numbers 27:8
) on the condition that they did not marry out of their own tribe, (Numbers 36:6
) ff.; otherwise the patrimony was forfeited. If there were no daughters it went to the brother of the deceased; if no brother, to the paternal uncle; and, failing these to the next of kin. (Numbers 27:9-11
1. The Word "Heir":
In the New Testament "heir" is the invariable translation of kleronomos (15 times), the technical equivalent in Greek, and of the compound sunkleronomos, "co-heir," in Rom 8:17; Eph 3:6; Heb 11:9; 1 Pet 3:7 (in Gal 4:30; Heb 1:14, contrast the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American)). In the Old Testament "heir" and "to be heir" both represent some form of the common verb yarash, "possess," and the particular rendition of the verb as "to be heir" is given only by the context (compare e.g. the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American) in Jer 49:2; Mic 1:15). Exactly the same is true of the words translated "inherit," "inheritance," which in by far the great majority of cases would have been represented better by "possess," "possession" (see INHERITANCE and OHL on ...). Consequently, when God is said, for instance, to have given Palestine to Israel as an `inheritance' (Lev 20:24, etc.), nothing more need be meant than `given as a possession.' The Septuagint, however, for the sake of variety in its rendition of Hebrew words, used kleronomeo in many such cases (especially Gen 15:7,8; 22:17), and thereby fixed on `heir' the sense of `recipient of a gift from God.' And so the word passed in this sense into New Testament Greek--Rom 4:13,14; Gal 3:29; Tit 3:7; Heb 6:17; 11:7; Jas 2:5; compare Eph 3:6; Heb 11:9; 1 Pet 3:7. On the other hand, the literal meaning of the word is found in Mk 12:7 (and parallels and Gal 4:1--in the latter case being suggested by the transferred meaning in 3:29--while in Rom 8:17; Gal 4:7, the literal and transferred meanings are blended. This blending has produced the phrase "heirs of God," which, literally, is meaningless and which doubtless was formed without much deliberation, although it is perfectly clear. A similar blending has applied "heir" to Christ in Heb 1:2 (compare Rom 8:17 and perhaps Mk 12:7) as the recipient of all things in their totality. But apart from these "blended" passages, it would be a mistake to think that sonship is always consciously thought of where "heir" is mentioned, and hence, too much theological implication should not be assigned the latter word.
2. Heir in Old Testament Law:
The heirs of property in the Old Testament were normally the sons and, chief among these, the firstborn.
(1) Dt 21:15-17 provides that the firstborn shall inherit a "double portion," whence it would appear that all the other sons shared equally. (It should be noted that in this law the firstborn is the eldest son of the father, not of the mother as in Ex 13:2.) Uncertain, however, is what Dt 21:15-17 means by "wife," and the practice must have varied. In Gen 21:10 the son of the handmaid was not to be heir with Isaac, but in Gen 30:1-13 the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah are reckoned as legitimate children of Jacob. See MARRIAGE. Nor is it clear that Dt 21:15-17 forbids setting aside the eldest son because of his own sin--compare the case of Reuben (Gen 49:3,1; 1 Ch 5:1), although the son of a regular wife (Gen 29:32). The very existence of Dt 21:15-17, moreover, shows that in spite of the absence of formal wills, a man could control to some extent the disposition of his property after his death and that the right of the firstborn could be set aside by the father (1 Ch 26:10). That the royal dignity went by primogeniture is asserted only (in a particular case) in 2 Ch 21:3, and both David (1 Ki 1:11-13) and Rehoboam (2 Ch 11:21-23) chose younger sons as their successors. A single payment in the father's lifetime could be given in lieu of heritage (Gen 25:6; Lk 15:12), and it was possible for two brothers to make a bargain as to the disposition of the property after the father's death (Gen 25:31-34).
(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 (Gen 15:3; Prov 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 1 Ch 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 (Dt 25:5-10). If this was impracticable or was without issue she returned to her own family and might marry another husband (Gen 38:11; Lev 22:13; Ruth 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 (2 Sam 16:21,22; 1 Ki 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.
Burton Scott Easton