The receipt of property as a gift or by legal right, usually upon the death of one's father.
In ancient Israel the property of a deceased person was usually distributed according to law or tribal custom. Written wills were rarely used. The real and personal property of a father was normally divided among his sons. A larger amount, usually a double portion, went to the eldest son, who assumed the care of his mother and unmarried sisters.
The birthright of the firstborn son could be denied only because of a serious offense against the father, as in the case of Reuben <Deut. 21:15-17; 1 Chr. 5:1>. The sons of concubines normally received presents of personal property. If there were no surviving sons, the inheritance went to daughters. The daughters had to marry within the tribe, however, or lose their inheritance. If a man died childless, his estate was received by his brothers or his father's brothers <Num. 27:9-11>.
To the Hebrew mind, the term inheritance had strong spiritual and national associations extending far beyond the family estate. The land of Canaan was regarded as an inheritance from the Lord because God had promised the land to Abraham and his descendants <Num. 33:53>. Both Moses and Joshua were told by the Lord to divide the land of Canaan among the tribes "as an inheritance" <Num. 26:52-53; Josh. 13:6>. God directed that the land be distributed to each tribe by lot according to its population.
Each family, in turn, was assigned a parcel that was to remain in the family's possession. This sense of sacred birthright probably accounted for Naboth's refusal to sell his vineyard to King Ahab: "The Lord forbid that I should give the inheritance of my fathers to you!" <1 Kin. 21:3>.
The Greeks relied more on wills for distributing an inheritance than did the Israelites. If a citizen died without a will, his sons in good standing inherited the property in equal parts, the eldest receiving the same as his brothers. Daughters received dowries, which reverted to other heirs if the daughter was divorced or remained childless. If a man had no sons, he usually adopted one to continue the family. If he had daughters, he would arrange for one of them to marry the adopted son. In that instance the major share of the inheritance fell to the daughter and her husband. If only daughters survived, the estate passed to them. If a man died without a will and left no natural or adopted heirs, his closest male relatives received his property.
According to Roman law, the property of a man who died without a will went to his wife and children. But married daughters living with their husbands or children who had been emancipated from their father's authority did not share in the inheritance. If a man left no wife and children, the inheritance passed to his male relatives. The Romans held that a child became his father's heir the moment he was born and that the deceased lived through his heirs. Legally adopted children had full inheritance rights.
The apostle Paul's glorious concept of a spiritual inheritance for Christians is primarily of Jewish origin. But the doctrine was strongly influenced by Greek and Roman inheritance practices. Three of these influences were: (1) inheritance was regarded as immediate as well as ultimate, (2) all legitimate heirs usually shared the inheritance equally and jointly rather than a division favoring a firstborn son, and (3) legally adopted children enjoyed full inheritance rights along with natural offspring.
According to Paul, the Christian's spiritual inheritance is based strictly on our relationship to Christ. "For you are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ.... And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" <Gal. 3:26,29>. This spiritual birthright cannot be inherited by sinners <1 Cor. 6:9-11>. The present possession of the spiritual inheritance as well as its future glory is emphasized in <Romans 8>: "The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, and if children, then heirs-- heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together" <Rom. 8:16-17>.
Paul also declared that the Spirit's indwelling power is both the sign and seal that we are heirs of God's promise: "Having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance" <Eph. 1:13-14>. Those who are redeemed, including the Gentiles, become God's adopted sons with full inheritance rights <Gal. 4:1-7>.
Other New Testament passages present the Christian's spiritual inheritance as a reward for faithfulness and Christlikeness. Jesus invited those showing kindness in His name to "inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" <Matt. 25:34>. Peter counseled suffering saints in the Roman world to be patient in their trials, "That you may inherit a blessing" <1 Pet. 3:9>. James declared that the poor of this world have been chosen "to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom" which God promised to those who love Him <James 2:5>.
In a burst of joy, Peter celebrated every Christian's "living hope" of his heavenly inheritance: "To an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you" <1 Pet. 1:3-4>.
(from Nelson's Illustrated
(Copyright (C) 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers)
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