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Inheritance Practices
in the First Century Era

Jirair S. Tashjian

"I wish you were dead," the prodigal son was saying to his father when he asked for his share of the inheritance. That bad? Indeed, that bad.

Kenneth Bailey, a New Testament scholar who has spent over 15 years in the Middle East, has asked all sorts of people in that part of the world what it meant for a son to request his inheritance while the father was still alive and well. The answer was always the same: the son wanted his father dead.

But this is now. Was it also this way in the days of Jesus? Could a son ask for his share of the inheritance without offending his father or the community? What were the customs? Were there inheritance laws?

The New Testament does not shed much light on the subject. Jews in the time of Jesus probably followed practices that came from the law of Moses. For example, according to Deuteronomy 21:17, the firstborn son was to inherit twice as much as any other heir. No wonder Jacob was so anxious to get the birthright from his brother Esau (Genesis 25:29-34)!

Closer to the time of the New Testament, about 180 years before Jesus, a Jewish teacher by the name Jesus ben Sirach gave the following advice to a father:

To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not give power over yourself, as long as you live; and do not give your property to another, lest you change your mind and must ask for it. At the time when you end the days of your life, in the hours of death, distribute your inheritance (Ecclesiasticus 33:19-23).

Paul mentions a couple of inheritance laws or customs to illustrate spiritual inheritance in Christ. In Galatians 3:15 he says that once a man's will has been ratified, no one can annul it or add to it. And in Galatians 4:1-2 he explains that a child who is a minor is under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. When that time arrives, the son becomes a true heir. In that culture, a father was expected to have complete control over his property during his lifetime. For that reason the request of the prodigal son was all the more offensive. And the father's willingness to comply with the son's request was generous beyond all expectations.

A father may, indeed, decide to write up a will and assign his property to his heirs while he still had his wits about him. This would keep the heirs from fighting over the property after the father's death. But that was something a father could do by his own free choice. He could not be coerced by his heirs. Therefore it was extremely offensive for the prodigal son to ask for his inheritance.

Incidentally, the older son in such cases was expected to step in and help the father save face. But no such thing happens. Neither son lived up to what was expected.

But the prodigal son went even further. Not only did he ask for his inheritance, which was bad enough, but he did something that was utterly unthinkable and downright illegal. He sold his inheritance in a hurry, took the money and skipped town.

Was it really that bad?  Indeed it was. The Jewish Mishna, which was probably developing in the time of Jesus, gives this rule: "If one assign in writing his estate to his son to become his after his death, the father cannot sell it since it is conveyed to his son, and the son cannot sell it because it is under the father's control" (Baba Bathra viii.7). Even if a father decided to divide up his property among his heirs, neither the father nor the heirs could dispose of the property while the father was still alive.

The prodigal son's actions went against all standards of decency. He acted as if his father was already dead.  But the irony of it all is that it wasn't the father who was dead but the son. And in the end it was this father, who was supposedly dead, that gives his undeserving son a new lease on life.

-Jirair Tashjian, Copyright © 2013, Jirair Tashjian
and The Christian Resource Institute - All Rights Reserved
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