Under the patriarchs the property of a father was divided among the sons of his legitimate wives (Ge 21:10; 24:36; 25:5), the eldest son getting a larger portion than the rest. The Mosaic law made specific regulations regarding the transmission of real property, which are given in detail in De 21:17; Nu 27:8; 36:6; 27:9-11. Succession to property was a matter of right and not of favour. Christ is the "heir of all things" (Heb 1:2; Col 1:15). Believers are heirs of the "promise," "of righteousness," "of the kingdom," "of the world," "of God," "joint heirs" with Christ (Ga 3:29; Heb 6:17; 11:7; Jas 2:5; Ro 4:13; 8:17).
(Heir, (See BIRTHRIGHT; INHERITANCE,) refers exclusively to land.) The Mosaic law enforced a strict entail; the property was divided among the sons, the oldest receiving a double portion (the father not having the right, as the patriarchs had, of giving a special portion to a favorite son: Ge 48:22), the rest equal shares (De 21:17). If there were no sons it went to the daughters, on condition that they married in their own tribe; otherwise they forfeited the inheritance (Nu 27:8 ff; Nu 36:6 ff). The son of an heiress, as with the Athenians, bore the name not of his father but of his maternal grandfather. If there were no daughters the property went to the brother; if no brother, to the paternal uncle; lastly, to the next of kin. The aim was to keep the land in the family and tribe. Succession thus was a matter of right, not of favor; the Hebrew yarash, "to inherit," means possession and even forcible possession (De 2:12; Jg 11:24).
A distribution of goods ("personal", ousia) was sometimes made in the father's lifetime (Lu 15:11-13); the land ("real property", kleeronomia) could only be divided after the father's death (Lu 12:13). If a brother died childless the surviving brother should wed his widow and raise seed to his brother. The Mosaic law herein adopted existing usages, which also prevail still in S. Africa, Arabia, among the Druses and tribes of the Caucasus (Ge 38:8-9; De 25:5-10; Mt 22:23-25). Childlessness was regarded as such a calamity that the ordinary laws of forbidden degrees of affinity in marriage (Le 18:16) were set aside.
Moses allowed the obligation to be evaded, if the brother-in-law preferred the indignity of the widow loosing his shoe off his foot, in token of forfeiting all right over the wife and property of the deceased, as casting the shoe over a place implies taking possession of it (Ps 60:8; 108:9); also the indignity of her spitting in his face, so that his name becomes a byword as the barefooted one, implying abject meanness. The office then devolved on the nearest kinsman (Ru 2:20; 3:9-13; 4:1-12). Naomi, being past age of marriage, Boaz takes Ruth her daughter-in-law, and has also to redeem the sold inheritance of Elimelech, Naomi's husband. The child born is reckoned that of Naomi and Elimelech (Ru 4:17), Chilion being passed over. Naomi, not Ruth, sells the land (Ru 4:3). A Jew could never wholly alienate his land by sale (Le 25:23-24).
A kinsman, or the owner, could at any time redeem it at a regulated charge (Le 25:23-27). At the year of Jubilee it reverted without charge (Le 25:28). Jer 32:6-9; Elimelech's nearest kinsman would not exercise his right of redemption, lest he should mar his own inheritance; namely, if he should have but one son by her, that son would be Elimelech's legal son, not his; so the succession of his own name would be endangered. The inalienability of land made Naboth reject as impious Ahab's proposal (1Ki 21:3); typifying Christ's inalienable inheritance of a name more excellent than that of the angels (Heb 1:4). Houses in walled towns (not in unwalled villages, as being connected with the land) and movables could be alienated for ever; a wise law, essential to progress and marking the superiority of Jewish legislation to that of most nations.
Wills were unknown among the Jews until Herod made one. The subdivision of land by the absence of the law of primogeniture, and the equal division among sons except double to the oldest, suited a country like Palestine of hills and valleys, not admitting much horse labour and agricultural machinery on the large scale which large farms require. Small farms suited the hand labour required for the terraces reaching to the tops of the hills. The numerous towns in Galilee, moreover, had their wants best supplied by numerous petty farms. Subdivision tends also to the multiplication of population, and so to repairing the waste of life caused by wars. It attaches large numbers to their country, as proprietors, eager to defend the soil which is their own, and on which each ate of his own vine and fig tree (Isa 36:16).
This is used in various applications as of one coming into a possession. It is applied to the Lord when He came to Israel seeking fruit. They said in effect, "This is the heir: come let us kill him, and the inheritance shall be ours." Mr 12:7. Christ is appointed by God to be heir of all things. Heb 1:2. Believers are by grace made sons through Christ, hence heirs, heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ. Ro 8:17; Ga 4:7; cf. Joh 17:22.
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,
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.
At a later period the exclusion of the sons of concubines was rigidly enforced.
ff. Daughters had no share in the patrimony,
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,
the others equal shares; if there were no sons, it went to the daughters,
on the condition that they did not marry out of their own tribe,
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.