Inheritance and heirs

The concept of inheritance is very important in the Bible and refers not only to the passing on of land and possessions from one generation to another, but also to the earthly and spiritual gifts which God plans to give to those who are his ‘children'.

The Old Testament

Abraham and his descendants

In the Old Testament, we read that the Patriarch Abraham was a nomad, yet the Book of Genesis recounts that God promised him both a land as his inheritance, and kings and nations as his heirs (see Big ideas: Patriarchs).

‘I have made you a father of many nations … and kings will come from you … The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God' (Genesis 17:5-8).

Jacob and Esau

Jacob and EsauThree generations later, the family unit was more settled. When land and possessions were passed on, the eldest son, the first born, received a double portion, with special blessings attached. That is why, when Jacob deceived his twin brother, the first born Esau, and effectively stole his inheritance (Genesis 25:1-34 and Genesis 27:1-46), there were ongoing consequences of deep anger, strife and a family rift. Jacob first sold his famished older twin Esau a meal in exchange for his birthright. Jacob later deceived his blind old father Isaac into pronouncing over him the blessings intended for the firstborn son, Esau.

The Children of Israel (the Jewish tribes descended from Jacob, whose name was later changed to Israel, see Big ideas: Jews, Hebrews, Children of Israel) went to Egypt to escape a famine, but became enslaved there for 200 years. When Moses led them out of slavery, it was to reach their Promised Land. This was the land which God had promised them, their inheritance. God had told Moses to say to them, ‘I will bring you to the land I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob' (Exodus 6:8) (See Big ideas: Promised Land, Diaspora, Zionism).

The New Testament

In the New Testament, Christian believers are described as being ‘heirs of the promise' because God's promise to Abraham was that his faith would make him ‘the father of all who believe' (Romans 4:11; Galatians 3:29). The promise to Abraham of a descendant through whom ‘all nations on earth will be blessed' (Genesis 22:18) is seen as being fulfilled in Christ. Consequently, Paul describes Christians as being adopted sons of God, and therefore ‘heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ' (Romans 8:16-17). It is the presence of the Holy Spirit with believers which assures them that they are children of God, and is described as the guarantee of their inheritance until they acquire possession of it (Ephesians 1:14).

In the beatitudes, Jesus says the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). It is such people, ‘poor in the eyes of the world' but ‘rich in faith', who James says will ‘inherit the kingdom' promised to those who love God (James 2:5). Thus the benefits of this inheritance begin on earth, but are seen as reaching fulfilment in heaven, which is an encouragement to those who are suffering persecution or hardship on earth. Peter describes it as ‘an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, kept in heaven for you' (1 Peter 1:4).

Related topics

Big ideas: Patriarchs; Promised Land, Diaspora, Zionism; Jews, Hebrews, Children of Israel

Other cultural references

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