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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Government of the Hebrews

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The posterity of Jacob, while remaining in Egypt, maintained, notwithstanding the augmentation of their numbers, that patriarchal form of government which is so prevalent among the nomades. Every father of a family exercised a father's authority over those of his own household. Every tribe obeyed its own prince, נשיא , who was originally the first-born of the founder of the tribe, but who, in process of time, appears to have been elected. As the people increased in numbers, various heads of families united together, and selected some individual from their own body, who was somewhat distinguished, for their leader. Perhaps the choice was made merely by tacit consent; and, without giving him the title of ruler in form, they were willing, while convinced of his virtues, to render submission to his will. Such a union of families was denominated "the house of the father;" and "the house of the father of the families," Numbers 3:24; Numbers 3:30; Numbers 3:35 . In other instances, although the number varied, being sometimes more and sometimes less than a thousand, it was denominated, אלפּ? אכפים , a thousand. "Now therefore present yourselves before the Lord by your tribes, and by your thousands;" "the thousands of Judah;" "the thousands of Israel," &c, 1 Samuel 10:19; 1 Samuel 23:23; Judges 6:15; Numbers 26:5-50 . The heads of these united families were designated "heads of thousands," Numbers 1:16; Numbers 10:4 . They held themselves in subjection to the "princes of the tribes." Both the princes and heads of families are mentioned under the common names of זקנים , seniors or senators, and שבטים ראשי heads of tribes. Following the law of reason, and the rules established by custom, they governed with a paternal authority the tribes and united families; and, while they left the minor concerns to the heads of individual families, aimed to superintend and promote the best interests of the community generally. Originally, it fell to the princes of the tribes themselves to keep genealogical tables:

subsequently, they employed scribes especially for this purpose, who, in the progress of time, acquired so great authority, that under the name of שוטרים , translated, in the English version, officers, they were permitted to exercise a share in the government of the nation. It was by magistrates of this description that the Hebrews were governed while they remained in Egypt; and the Egyptian kings made no objection to it, Exodus 3:16; Exodus 5:1; Exodus 5:14-15; Exodus 5:19 .

2. The posterity of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were set apart and destined to the great object of preserving and transmitting the true religion, Genesis 18:16-20; Genesis 17:9-14; Genesis 12:3; Genesis 22:18; Genesis 28:14 . Having increased in numbers, it appeared very evident that they could not live among nations given to idolatry without running the hazard of becoming infected with the same evil. They were, therefore, in the providence of God, assigned to a particular country, the extent of which was so small, that they were obliged, if they would live independently of other nations, to give up in a great measure the life of shepherds, and devote themselves to agriculture. Farther: very many of the Hebrews during their residence in Egypt had fallen into idolatrous habits. These were to be brought back again to the knowledge of the true God, and all were to be excited to engage in those undertakings which should be found necessary for the support of the true religion. All the Mosaic institutions aim at the accomplishment of these objects. The fundamental principle, therefore, of those institutions was this,—that the true God, the Creator and Governor of the universe, and none other, ought to be worshipped. To secure this end the more certainly, God became king to the Hebrews. Accordingly, the land of Canaan, which was destined to be occupied by them, was declared to be the land of Jehovah, of which he was to be the king, and the Hebrews merely the hereditary occupants. God promulgated, from the clouds of Mount Sinai, the prominent laws for the government of his people, considered as a religious community, Exodus 20. These laws were afterward more fully developed and illustrated by Moses. The rewards which should accompany the obedient, and the punishments which should be the lot of the transgressor, were at the same time announced, and the Hebrews promised by a solemn oath to obey, Exodus 21-24; Deuteronomy 27-30.

3. In order to keep the true nature of the community fully and constantly in view, all the ceremonial institutions had reference to God, not only as the Sovereign of the universe, but as the King of the people. The people were taught to feel that the tabernacle was not only the temple of Jehovah, but the palace of their King; that the priests were the royal servants, and were bound to attend not only to sacred but to secular affairs, and were to receive, as their salary, the first tithes, which the people, as subjects, were led to consider a part of that revenue which was due to God, their immediate Sovereign. Other things of a less prominent and important nature had reference to the same great end. Since, therefore, God was the Sovereign, in a civil point of view as well as others, of Palestine and its inhabitants, the commission of idolatry by any inhabitant of that country, even a foreigner, was a defection from the true King. It was, in fact, treason; was considered a crime equal in aggravation to that of murder; and was, consequently, attended with the severest punishment. Whoever invited or exhorted to idolatry was considered seditious, and was obnoxious to the same punishment. Incantations also, necromancy, and other practices of this nature, were looked upon as arts of a kindred aspect with idolatry itself; and the same punishment was to be inflicted upon the perpetrators of them as upon idolaters. The same rigour of inquiry after the perpetrators of idolatry was enforced, that was exhibited in respect to other crimes of the deepest aggravation; and the person who knew of the commission of idolatry in another was bound by the law to complain of the person thus guilty before the judge, though the criminal sustained the near relationship of a wife or a brother, a daughter or a son.

4. Many things in the administration of the government remained the same under the Mosaic economy, as it had been before. The authority which they had previously possessed, was continued in the time of Moses and after his time, to the princes of the tribes, to the heads of families and combinations of families, and to the genealogists, Numbers 11:16; Deuteronomy 16:18; Deuteronomy 20:5; Deuteronomy 31:28 . Yet Moses, by the advice of Jethro, his father-in-law, increased the number of rulers by the appointment of an additional number of judges; some to judge over ten, some over fifty, some over a hundred, and some over a thousand, men, Exodus 18:13-26 . These judges were elected by the suffrages of the people from those who, by their authority and rank, might be reckoned among the rulers or princes of the people.

The inferior judges, that is, those who superintended the judicial concerns of the smaller numbers, were subordinate to the superior judges, or those who judged a larger number; and cases, accordingly, of a difficult nature, went up from the inferior to the superior judges. Those of a very difficult character, so much so as to be perplexing to the superior judges, were appealed to Moses himself, and in some cases from Moses to the high priest. The judges, of whom we have now spoken, sustained a civil as well as a judicial authority, and were included in the list of those who are denominated the elders and princes of Israel: that is to say, supposing they were chosen from the elders and princes, they did not forfeit their seat among them by accepting a judicial office; and, on the contrary, the respectability attached to their office, supposing they were not chosen from them, entitled them to be reckoned in their number, Deuteronomy 31:28; Joshua 8:33; Joshua 23:2; Joshua 24:1 . The various civil officers that have been mentioned, namely, judges, heads of families, genealogists, elders, princes of the tribes, &c, were dispersed, as a matter of course, in different parts of the country. Those of them, accordingly, who dwelt in the same city, or the same neighbourhood, formed the comitia, senate or legislative assembly of their immediate vicinity, Deuteronomy 19:12; Deuteronomy 25:8-9; Judges 8:14; Judges 9:3-46; Judges 11:5; 1 Samuel 8:4; 1 Samuel 16:4 . When all that dwelt in any particular tribe were convened, they formed the legislative assembly of the tribe; and when they were convened in one body from all the tribes, they formed in like manner the legislative assembly of the nation, and were the representatives of all the people, Joshua 23:1-2; Joshua 24:1 . The priests, who were the learned class of the community, and beside were hereditary officers in the state, being set apart for civil as well as religious purposes, had, by the divine command, a right to a sitting in this assembly, Exodus 32:29; Numbers 8:5-26 . Being thus called upon to sustain very different and yet very important offices, they became the subjects of that envy which would naturally be excited by the honour and the advantages attached to their situation. In order to confirm them in the duties which devolved upon them, and to throw at the greatest distance the mean and lurking principle just mentioned, God, after the sedition of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, sanctioned the separation of the whole tribe, which had been previously made to the service of religion and the state, by a most evident and striking miracle, Numbers 16:1-7 .

5. Each tribe was governed by its own rulers, and consequently to a certain extent constituted a civil community, independent of the other tribes, Judges 20:11-46; 2 Samuel 2:4; Judges 1:21 . If any affair concerned the whole or many of the tribes, it was determined by them in conjunction in the legislative assembly of the nation, Judges 11:1-11; 1 Chronicles 5:10; 1 Chronicles 5:18-19; 2 Samuel 3:17; 1 Kings 12:1-24 . If one tribe found itself unequal to the execution of any proposed plan, it might connect itself with another, or even a number of the other tribes, Judges 1:1-3; Judges 1:22; Judges 4:10; Judges 7:23-24; Judges 8:1-3 . But, although in many things each tribe existed by itself, and acted separately, yet in others they were united, and formed but one community: for all the tribes were bound together, so as to form one church and one civil community, not only by their common ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; not only by the common promises which they had received from those ancestors; not only by the need in which they stood of mutual counsel and assistance; but also by the circumstance that God was their common King, and that they had a common tabernacle for his palace, and a common sacerdotal and Levitical order for his ministers. Accordingly, every tribe exerted a sort of inspection over the others, as respected their observance of the law. If any thing had been neglected, or any wrong had been done, the particular tribe concerned was amenable to the others; and, in case justice could not be secured in any other way, might be punished with war, Joshua 22:9-34; Judges 20:1 , &c.

6. When we remember that God was expressly chosen the King of the people, and that he enacted laws and decided litigated points of importance, Numbers 17:1-11; Numbers 27:1-11; Numbers 36:1-10; when we remember also that he answered and solved questions proposed,

Numbers 15:32-41; Joshua 7:16-22; Judges 1:1-2; Judges 20:18; Judges 20:27-28; 1 Samuel 14:37; 1 Samuel 23:9-12; 1 Samuel 30:8; 2 Samuel 2:1; that he threatened punishment, and that, in some instances, he actually inflicted it upon the hardened and impenitent, Numbers 11:33-35; Numbers 12:1-15; Numbers 16:1-50; Leviticus 26:3-46; Deuteronomy 26-30; when, finally, we take into account, that he promised prophets, who were to be, as it were, his ambassadors, Deuteronomy 18, and afterward sent them according to his promise, and that, in order to preserve the true religion, he governed the whole people by a striking and peculiar providence, we are at liberty to say, that God was, in fact, the Monarch of the people, and that the government was a theocracy. But, although the government of the Jews was a theocracy, it was not destitute of the usual forms which exist in civil governments among men. God, it is true, was the King, and the high priest, if we may be allowed so to speak, was his minister of state; but still the political affairs were in a great measure under the disposal of the elders, princes, &c. It was to them that Moses gave the divine commands, determined expressly their powers; and submitted their requests to the decision of God, Numbers 14:5; Numbers 16:4 , &c; Numbers 27:5; Numbers 36:5-6 . It was in reference to the great power possessed by these men, who formed the legislative assembly of the nation, that Josephus pronounced the government to be aristocratical. But from the circumstance that the people possessed so much influence, as to render it necessary to submit laws to them for their ratification, and that they even took upon themselves sometimes to propose laws or to resist those which were enacted; from the circumstance also that the legislature of the nation had not the power of laying taxes, and that the civil code was regulated and enforced by God himself, independently of the legislature, Lowman and Michaelis are in favour of considering the Hebrew government a democracy. In support of their opinion such passages are exhibited as the following, Exodus 19:7-8; Exodus 24:3-8; Deuteronomy 29:9-14; Joshua 9:18-19; Joshua 23:1 , &c; Joshua 24:2 , &c; 1 Samuel 10:24; 1 Samuel 11:14-15; Numbers 27:1-8; Numbers 36:1-9 . The truth seems to lie between these two opinions. The Hebrew government, putting out of view its theocratical feature, was of a mixed form, in some respects approaching to a democracy, in others assuming more of an aristocratical character.

7. From what has been said, it is clear, that the Ruler and supreme Head of the political community in question was God, who, with the design of promoting the good of his subjects, condescended to exhibit his visible presence in the tabernacle, wherever it travelled and wherever it dwelt. If, in reference to the assertion, that God was the Ruler of the Jewish state, it should be inquired what part was sustained by Moses, the answer is, that God was the Ruler, the people were his subjects, and Moses was the mediator or internuncio between them. But the title most appropriate to Moses, and most descriptive of the part he sustained, is that of legislator of the Israelites, and their deliverer from the Egyptians. If the same question should be put in respect to Joshua, the answer would be, that he was not properly the successor of Moses, and that, so far from being the ruler of the state, he was designated by the ruler to sustain the subordinate office of military leader of the Israelites in their conquest of the land of Canaan.

8. But although the Hebrew state was so constituted, that beside God, the invisible King, and his visible servant, the high priest, there was no other general ruler of the commonwealth, yet it is well known that there were rulers of a high rank, appointed at various times, called ושפט , a word which not only signifies a judge in the usual sense of the term, but any governor, or administrator of public affairs, 1 Samuel 8:20; Isaiah 11:4; 1 Kings 3:9 . The power lodged in these rulers, who are called judges in the Scriptures, seems to have been in some respects paramount to that of the general comitia of the nation, and we find that they declared war, led armies, concluded peace; and that this was not the whole, if indeed it was the most important part, of their duties. For many of the judges, for instance, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, Eli, and Samuel, ruled the nation in peace. They might appropriately enough be called the supreme executive, exercising all the rights of sovereignty, with the exception of enacting laws, and imposing taxes. They were honoured, but they bore no external badges of distinction; they were distinguished, but they enjoyed no special privileges themselves, and communicated none to their posterity. They subserved the public good without emolument, that the state might be prosperous, that religion might be preserved, and that God alone might be King in Israel. It ought to be observed, however, that not all the judges ruled the whole nation: some of them presided over only a few separate tribes.

9. God, in the character of King, had governed the Israelites for sixteen ages. He ruled them, on the terms which he himself, through the agency of Moses, had proposed to them, namely, that if they observed their allegiance to him, they should be prosperous; if not, adversity and misery would be the consequence, Exodus 19:4-5; Exodus 23:20-33; Leviticus 26:3-46; Deuteronomy 28-30. We may learn from the whole book of Judges, and from the first eight chapters of Samuel, how exactly the result, from the days of Joshua down to the time of Samuel, agreed with these conditions. But in the time of Samuel, the government, in point of form, was changed into a monarchy. The election of king, however, was committed to God, who chose one by lot: so that God was still the Ruler, and the king the vicegerent. The terms of the government, as respected God, were the same as before, and the same duties and principles were inculcated on the Israelites as had been originally, 1 Samuel 8:7; 1 Samuel 10:17-23; 1 Samuel 12:14-15; 1 Samuel 12:20-22; 1 Samuel 12:24-25 . In consequence of the fact, that Saul did not choose at all times to obey the commands of God, the kingdom was taken from him, and given to another, 1 Samuel 13:5-14; 1 Samuel 15:1-31 . David, through the agency of Samuel, was selected by Jehovah for king, who thus gave a proof that he still retained, and was disposed to exercise, the right of appointing the ruler under him, 1 Samuel 16:1-3 . David was first made king over Judah; but as he received his appointment from God, and acted under his authority, the other eleven tribes submitted to him, 2 Samuel 5:1-3; 1 Chronicles 28:4-6 . David expressly acknowledged God as the Sovereign, and as having a right to appoint the immediate ruler of the people. 1 Chronicles 28:7-10; he religiously obeyed his statutes, the people adhered firmly to God, and his reign was prosperous. The paramount authority of God, as the King of the nation, and his right to appoint one who should act in the capacity of his vicegerent, are expressly, recognized in the books of Kings and Chronicles.

10. On the subversion of the Babylonian empire by Cyrus, the founder of the Persian monarchy, (B.C. 543,) he authorized the Jews, by an edict, to return into their own country, with full permission to enjoy their laws and religion, and caused the city and temple of Jerusalem to be rebuilt. In the following year, part of the Jews returned under Zerubbabel, and renewed their sacrifices: but the re-erection of the city and temple being interrupted for several years by the treachery and hostility of the Samaritans or Cutheans, the avowed enemies of the Jews, the completion and dedication of the temple did not take place until the year B.C. 511, six years after the accession of Cyrus. The rebuilding of Jerusalem was accomplished, and the reformation of their ecclesiastical and civil polity was effected, by the two divinely inspired and pious governors, Ezra and Nehemiah; but the theocratic government does not appear to have been restored. The new temple was not, as formerly, God's palace; and the cloud of his presence did not take possession of it. After their death the Jews were governed by their high priests, in subjection however to the Persian kings, to whom they paid tribute, Ezra 4:13; Ezra 7:24 , but with the full enjoyment of their other magistrates, as well as their liberties, civil and religious. Nearly three centuries of uninterrupted prosperity ensued, until the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, king of Syria, when they were most cruelly, oppressed, and compelled to take up arms in their own defence. Under the able conduct of Judas, surnamed Maccabeus, and his valiant brother, the Jews maintained a religious war for twenty-six years with five successive kings of Syria; and after destroying upward of two hundred thousand of their best troops, the Maccabees finally established the independence of their own country and the aggrandizement of their family. This illustrious house, whose princes united the regal and pontifical dignity in their own persons, administered the affairs of the Jews during a period of one hundred and twenty-six years; until, disputes arising between Hyrcanus II, and his brother Aristobulus, the latter was defeated by the Romans under Pompey, who captured Jerusalem, and reduced Judea to dependence, B.C. 59.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Government of the Hebrews'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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