Inheritance

My father passed away in 2011; it was just after that event that I began writing this blog. My mother died this past Christmas, of COVID. It was the final insult after months of suffering the restrictions of the pandemic itself.

It fell to my wife and I to take care of cleaning out Mom’s apartment, and figuring out what to do with her belongings: closets full of clothing and shoes; several pieces of furniture; an assortment of knickknacks and keepsakes. I’m happy to say that our family is not one to squabble over such things. We sent my sister what she requested, kept a few items of practical or sentimental value, and gave the rest away.

It’s not always that simple. I know of families where questions of inheritance tear siblings apart. At one level, the tensions can be about economic fairness in how assets are distributed. But at the emotional level, it can feel like kids fighting over a toy: It’s mine!

There’s nothing new about this, of course. The Bible itself shows how deeply the people of that age and culture cared about inheritance. In Luke 12, for example, Jesus is asked to referee a dispute between brothers over inheritance; it may even be that the person asking for help had a legitimate grievance. But Jesus’ response, in essence, is, “Forget about that. Why don’t you try being less greedy and work at being rich toward God instead?” And don’t forget that behind the well-known parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 is a matter of inheritance. On the one hand is the younger brother’s unthinkable lack of respect in requesting his share of the inheritance early; on the other is the older brother’s seething resentment at his father’s unthinkable grace.

The culture of the time was patrilineal, meaning that kinship was traced through the “father’s line.” The inheritance to be passed down through that line was more than money or worldly goods; it was carrying on the father’s name and legacy. And included in that vision of inheritance was the matter of land. Today, we might think in terms of the monetary value of a piece of property; what’s it worth in equity or liquid cash? But for the Israelites, it meant the end of a unstable nomadic existence, receiving the promised inheritance of a land full of milk and honey (e.g., Num 16:14), and dwelling in that land forever, from generation to generation.

That’s the way we need to think when we read Psalm 37, in which the promise of inheritance dominates.

. . .

At the same time, we need to think back again to Psalm 1. There we were introduced to the contrast between the choice between the two ways of life — righteousness versus wickedness — and their consequences.

With that in mind, read Psalm 37. Five times, the psalmist mentions the promise of inheriting the land (vss. 9, 11, 22, 29, 34). But each time, there is an echo of the two ways from Psalm 1. It is “those who wait for the LORD” (vs. 9, NRSV), the “meek” (vs. 11), “those blessed by the LORD” (vs. 22), “the righteous” (vs. 29), or those who “wait for the LORD” and “keep to his way” (vs. 34) who will inherit the land. By contrast, the “wicked” and even their children will be “cut off” (vss. 9, 22, 28), “no more” (vs. 10), or “destroyed” (vs. 34).

Interestingly, what the NRSV translates as “destroyed” in verse 34 (likewise the NIV, while the CEB has “eliminated”) is translated as “cut off” by the NASB. That’s because the Hebrew word is actually from the same root as the words translated as “cut off” in the other verses. Thus, the righteous are described in various ways, and five times the land is promised to them as their inheritance. But four of those five times, it is declared that the wicked will be “cut off” instead.

You can’t ask for a clearer message than that.

. . .

I can’t read these verses without thinking immediately of Jesus, sitting on a hillside, preaching to the gathered crowds. “Blessed are the meek,” he says, “for they will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5). The word “land” in the promises of Psalm 37 can also be translated as “earth,” though “land” makes more sense in the Old Testament context.

The point, however, is that Jesus drew upon the wisdom and vision of the psalms. Let’s pause, therefore, to consider what Jesus meant by his statement before returning to unpack the rest of Psalm 37.

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