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What does the Bible say about legacy?

Author: Lisa Cherrett, 16 February 2024

Today, when we think about ‘legacy’ we probably think first of making sure our money and property are passed down to the next generation when we die. In Bible times, too, this was an important concern, and people’s first instinct was that wealth should be inherited by a family member.

Abraham was upset by the thought that Eliezer of Damascus, ‘a servant in my household’, would inherit his estate because he had no children. In response to this complaint, God promised Abraham an heir who would be his own flesh and blood (Genesis 15.2–4).

Later, after Abraham’s many descendants had settled in the Promised Land, rules were drawn up for the inheritance of the land allotted to them. First, sons would inherit; if there were no sons, daughters were next in line, then brothers, then uncles, and finally whoever was the next closest relative (Numbers 27.8–11). 

At this time, being able to leave an inheritance for your children’s children was a sign of God’s blessing (Proverbs 13.22). There was also a sense in which children themselves were a person’s best legacy: a person lived on after their death through the generations of their descendants. To have no descendants at all was a source of horror and shame (Job 18.18–20; Isaiah 48.18–19).

Property, especially land, and children: these were important elements of a legacy in Old Testament Israel. They offered a basic level of security for people who remembered being desert wanderers, with no home to call their own. But they were not the only things that a person might want to leave behind after their death. The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament focuses on less physical ‘possessions’. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes is cynical about the idea of material legacy: he grumbles that he is working hard to make money that might then be passed down to a fool! (Ecclesiastes 2.18–21). He values wisdom itself rather than wealth: ‘Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing … Wisdom is a shelter, as money is a shelter; but the advantage of knowledge is this: wisdom preserves those who have it’ (Ecclesiastes 7.11–12).

The writers of Proverbs agree: wisdom, more precious than rubies (3.15), ‘walk(s) in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, bestowing a rich inheritance on those who love me and making their treasuries full’ (Proverbs 8.20–21). And ‘whoever fears the Lord has a secure fortress, and for their children it will be a refuge’ (14.26). Then, the psalmist Asaph writes of how important it is to pass the knowledge of God’s power and God’s law down from generation to generation (Psalm 78.4–6). So wisdom, righteousness, justice, the fear of the Lord, and a knowledge of his law are a more lasting and valuable legacy than material wealth.

In the Gospels, the value of these spiritual ‘possessions’ comes even more into focus, as Jesus teaches: ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal’ (Matthew 6.19–20). But the New Testament says very little about passing legacies on to the next generation. Its warnings and encouragements are very immediate and present-centred. (This may be because the New Testament writers expected Jesus to return within a single generation.) We do read, though, that Timothy’s Christian faith was handed down to him from his grandmother Lois and mother Eunice (2 Timothy 1.5) – a faith that, according to Peter, is ‘of greater worth than gold’ (1 Peter 1.7).

Christian leadership blogger Brian Dodd defines legacy as ‘the imprint you leave on the future’. However much material wealth we may leave behind when we die, the knowledge of God’s wisdom and the gospel of Jesus are a spiritual legacy that will be of enormous value to ourselves and the next generation. If we can pass these on to our children and children’s children – or, indeed, to younger people who are not members of our own family – we will be making a priceless ‘imprint on the future’.

You can pass on something wonderful with a gift in your will. Enable future generations to hear God’s word by leaving a legacy gift to Bible Society. 

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