The Bible has a good amount to say about inheritance and leaving an inheritance for one’s children. There are various passages throughout Scripture that discuss inheritance practices, provide examples of inheritances being passed down, and offer principles regarding inheritances that can guide Christians today. When studied comprehensively, we get a reasonably clear picture of the biblical perspective on this topic.
In the Old Testament, inheritance and the passing on of generational blessings was a very common practice. The Promised Land itself was divided up among the 12 tribes of Israel as their inheritance from the Lord (Numbers 26:52-56). Fathers were expected to pass on inheritances to their children, especially firstborn sons who were allotted a double portion (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). Daughters could receive an inheritance if there were no sons (Numbers 27:1-8). Inheritances consisted of land, property, livestock, authority, and public office (1 Kings 21:1-3).
These inheritance traditions continued into the New Testament era. Joseph, Mary’s husband, was traveling to register for a family inheritance (Luke 2:4-5). Jesus told a parable involving two sons receiving their inheritance from their father (Luke 15:11-12). Inheritances still involved land and property but could also include money and other assets.
The practice of passing on generational inheritances enabled God’s people to retain tribal territories and continue family lineages. It was not seen as merely an option but as an obligation of fathers to provide for their children and future descendants. Here are some biblical principles regarding inheritances that emerge:
1. Inheritances are meant to provide ongoing care and provision
A major purpose of inheritances in the Bible was to provide children and grandchildren with resources, land, and assets to help ensure their well-being and financial stability well into the future after the parents died. For example, fathers were to manage their household well so that their children would “have an inheritance among their brothers” (Numbers 27:9-11). Inheritances enabled children to continue living and prospering on family lands.
This principle of provision through inheritance is seen in God’s instructions that the Promised Land itself was the “inheritance” He was giving Israel to possess and live on (Numbers 34:2). Parents’ inheritances likewise provided a means of livelihood and financial resources for their descendants’ good.
2. The eldest son had precedence in receiving the principle inheritance
While providing for all children was important, the oldest son had a right to a double portion of the inheritance and was the primary heir who would receive the leadership of the family and control over the estate. For example, Esau as oldest should have received two thirds of Isaac’s inheritance, even if Jacob had received one third as the younger (Genesis 25:29-34).
This privileged position of the firstborn was by law, not just custom (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). However, this did not mean the oldest would necessarily receive everything or other children would receive nothing. But it did grant them precedence in inheritance as well as preeminence in the family line.
3. Transferring inheritances required formally giving them
Children could not assume they would someday receive an inheritance. Fathers had to take deliberate action to legally give inheritance gifts to children. Jesus’ parable in Luke 15:11-12 illustrates the father dividing his livelihood and giving the inheritance to his sons. Ephron formally deeded his field to Abraham as an inheritance possession (Genesis 23:9-20).
Parents had to formally give inheritances, not just promise future possession. Under the Law of Moses, clear procedures existed for transferring property inheritances to heirs (Numbers 27:8-11). Simply assuming it was coming was inadequate.
4. Faithful service could influence inheritance blessings
Though the firstborn had precedence, the Bible contains examples where the inheritance blessing was influenced by the faithfulness and character of children. Jacob inherited Isaac’s blessing over Esau due to Esau’s unfaithfulness (Genesis 27). Jacob then passed the birthright blessing onto his younger son Ephraim, instead of firstborn Manasseh (Genesis 48:8-20).
This shows that while custom granted inheritance privileges to oldest sons, their lifestyle and choices could disqualify them at times if they were unworthy sons. Faithfulness to God seems to grant additional favor in some inheritance decisions.
5. Inheritances belonged to and benefited the family
Another important biblical principle is that inheritances were designed to benefit the family, not just individual recipients. Even the Promised Land inheritance was apportioned by tribes according to their ability to possess and use the land (Numbers 26:52-56). Fathers divided inheritances among all sons, not just one heir who got everything.
Inheritances provided for the family’s care and continuation. Recipients of inheritances had a duty to utilize them for the family’s good. Inheritances belonged ultimately to God and were given for the community’s welfare.
6. Material inheritance blessings came from God
A final principle is that in the Bible all material inheritance gifts were recognized as coming ultimately from the hand of God. The Psalmist proclaimed that “the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance” (Psalm 16:6). Even ability to work and gain wealth was attributed to God’s blessing (Deuteronomy 8:18).
This meant inheritance resources should be used faithfully to honor God’s generosity. Since God owned everything anyway, Israelites were to be generous, fair, and gracious when passing inheritances to heirs (Matthew 6:19-21; Luke 12:13-21).
New Testament Principles
While these principles emerge from the Old Testament, the New Testament affirms and expands on some of them while also offering additional principles for Jesus’ followers to consider regarding inheritances:
1. Eternal inheritance in Christ is our true hope
The New Testament emphasizes that earthly inheritances fade in comparison to the eternal inheritance awaiting believers as co-heirs with Christ (1 Peter 1:3-5). Jesus assured His followers that giving up earthly possessions for His sake would be rewarded with eternal heavenly treasures (Matthew 19:29). Eternal life should be our supreme inheritance focus.
2. Love should guide any inheritance decisions
Scripture instructs parents to avoid favoritism and exercise loving fairness when deciding who inherits what (Colossians 3:25; 1 Timothy 5:21). This implies thoughtful family discussion and grace-guided decisions, not legalistic divisions. Inheritances given in love can strengthen family unity.
3. Supporting those in need is part of our spiritual duty
Rather than how much each child deserves, a New Testament focus is caring for the needy in our families (1 Timothy 5:3-4). Leaving portions that generously provide for a widow or ill family member demonstrates Christlike love for others’ needs more than our own.
4. Wisdom and stewardship should guide inheritance decisions
Biblical wisdom and stewardship, not worldly wealth building, should motivate inheritance decisions (Proverbs 13:22). Considering children’s spiritual maturity and ability to manage resources wisely should guide the division of inheritance wealth God has entrusted to our care.
5. Greed and entitlement must be avoided at all costs
Warnings against greed permeate the New Testament, reminding inheritors that life does not consist in possessions (Luke 12:15). The prodigal son’s demand for inheritance suggests an unhealthy sense of entitlement. Inheritances should be given and received with grace andgratitude, not expectation and demands.
So in summary, the New Testament retains and expands principles of love, eternal priorities, wisdom, stewardship, fairness, and sacrificial generosity when considering inheritance decisions.
When contemporary Christian parents apply biblical principles to decisions about inheritances, several implications and applications emerge:
1. Advance planning is wise but must be flexible
Living wills and estate planning can be helpful ways to do the hard work in advance of thinking through inheritance decisions with wisdom and fairness. However, Christians should hold plans loosely, realizing situational factors might require flexibility in actual inheritance distribution when the time comes.
2. Clear communication, not assumptions, is essential
As inheritances must be formally transferred, parents should communicate openly with children about inheritance plans without surrendering their ability to adjust things. Secrecy risks confusion and assumptions. But humility and openness allows loving flexibility.
3. Seek unity and consensus within reasonable bounds
Prayerfully making inheritance decisions together as a family within biblical wisdom provides increased opportunity for unity and less likelihood of dispute. But parents must discern when unanimous consensus is unreasonable or unfeasible.
4. Consider faithful service over positional privileges
While considering the firstborn position, Christian parents are free to assign inheritance privileges based on the maturity, wisdom, service, and stewardship of heirs. Loving stewardship can override customs of precedence at times.
5. Balance unconditional love with incentives for growth
Parents must prayerfully discern how to balance showing unconditional love for all children equally with tailoring inheritances as incentives that encourage responsibility and wisdom. Absolute equality risks enabling immaturity.
In the end, biblical principles around inheritance offer helpful guidance but some tension will always exist between customary norms, legal requirements, and contextual wisdom. Our ultimate prayer must be for inheritance decisions to glorify Christ and strengthen family love above all else.