What Does It Mean to Leave an Inheritance?

“Leaving an inheritance for your children’s children is about more than just leaving them a house or money. It is also about leaving them their nation as their nation, not allowing it to be just bought and sold carved up by any who wish…”

One of the most quoted passages in the whole Bible, at least that I see being quoted recently, is Proverbs 13:22 – “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.”

I like the way that this passage is being used to challenge the excesses of the boomer generation, who often brag about spending their children’s inheritance. I like the way that this verse is used to challenge the current generation of parents to seek to provide for their children’s children, not just themselves. But there is another element of this verse, that I think we can sometimes miss, that enhances these efforts.

It is easy to forget that this is an Old Testament Proverb based on Solomon’s reflection on Old Testament laws, and in the Old Testament, a righteous man was not supposed to sell his family’s property. This principle is all through the Old Testament, but one passage, in particular, helps us reflect on it.

In 1 Kings 21, we read that Ahab wanted the vineyard of a man called Naboth. Naboth refuses, “But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my father’s” (1 Kings 21:3).

Contrary to what many modern conservatives think, the Old Testament property laws were not like our modern private property laws. Land could not just be sold in perpetuity and transferred at will, the Bible supported liberal trade, but not free trade.

An Israelite who had fallen on hard times could sell his property to pay for his debts, but the property was to be returned to his family or ancestors in the year of Jubilee through the process of redemption. Therefore, a good man, especially a man of means would not sell his family’s property if he could avoid it because it was their rightful inheritance, not his to do with as he wished.

In other words, though there is an application from this passage to our modern private property laws, the verse is about far more than that. To preserve your family property in ancient Israel was to preserve your family’s, and indeed, your nation’s historical legacy. There was no such thing in ancient Israel as the right for a foreigner to come in and buy your property, there was no such thing as you being able to sell your property to people from another tribe (or state) who could then come in and change your ways and culture. At least, there was no such thing in Biblical legal theory, there was in practice, because as we know these laws were often ignored (Is. 5:8-10).

Ahab was depressed because Naboth refused his offer, so Jezebel consoles her weak-minded husband and tells him that she will get him the vineyard. She hatched a plot to destroy Naboth’s reputation and kill him, and this is what happens. Naboth lost his land through thievery and deception. But the way Israelite law was framed was to keep the family’s legacy protected.

If an Israelite lost their property by their own fault, it could be purchased by another, for a time, and then had to be returned to the family who owned it. In other words, it was stored up for the righteous to come and redeem when they were ready, as Boaz does with Ruth, Naomi, and their family’s property. Naomi’s husband endangered his property through his evil actions (leaving Israel and allowing his sons to marry women who worshipped foreign gods) and it was kept and left in place for the righteous man, Boaz to redeem. This protected the legacy of this family, but also it protected the nation as a whole.

The individual is not the basic building block of society, the family is. The Biblical law protected both the prosperity of the nation and also the legacy of the family. Mismanaged land could be sold to someone else, for a time, to pay off debts and allow it to be managed in better hands. But it had to return to the nearest kin of the one who lost it. In this way, the law balanced productivity with family security. A wise provision.

In allowing our land to be traded as just any other commodity for any one foreigner and distant citizen alike, we have ensured that our nation is destroying the inheritance of its people. Leaving an inheritance for your children’s children is about more than just leaving them a house or money. It is also about leaving them their nation as their nation, not allowing it to be just bought and sold carved up by any who wish, even those from other countries.  

The result of our modern policies is, and will be increasingly woe;

“8 Woe to those who join house to house,
    who add field to field,
until there is no more room,
    and you are made to dwell alone
    in the midst of the land.
9 The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
“Surely many houses shall be desolate,
    large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.
10 For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
    and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah.”

Isaiah 5:8-10

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