Holman Bible Dictionary
Many standard definitions of civilization include the presence of a strong centralized government as a constitutive element. The rise of the first empires at the beginning of the Early Bronze Age is related in part to the rise of centralized governments. Centralized government was necessary for the building and maintaining of canals used for irrigation in Mesopotamia. It was also necessary for the development of a standing army. Extensive international trade required more centralized governmental power over the economic institutions.
In understanding the biblical conception of government, one must remember that biblical theology presents early Israel as a theocracy, having God as king and ruler (Judges 8:22-23 ; 1 Samuel 8:7-9 ; Psalm 93-99 ; Romans 13:1-4 ). Ultimate authority resides in God and God alone. Human government is, therefore, always limited and always intended to be within the framework of God's will. The best ruler will be the one who best carries out God's design for just rule.
Early Hebrew Patterns of Government An understanding of biblical patterns of government must begin with the Patriarchal period. During this time, the Hebrews had no centralized government. The major unit was the extended family or, on a larger basis, the tribe. The government was family based. The first unit of authority or government was the household or the father's house. This unit of society corresponds best to our designation of the extended family and would often involve two or more generations living together. The oldest male was usually the head of the family, the patriarch. As such, he was the chief official of family and government. The next level of social organization was the clan, often designated by the Old Testament as the family (Hebrew mishpahah ). The clan was composed of several related extended families. One individual might be designated as chief or head of each clan. The next larger social level was the tribe (Hebrew shevet ), composed of several clans. A tribe might have a chief or even a prince as its leader. Finally, a group of tribes could be known as a people (Hebrew am ). The tribe was the most frequent social unit mentioned apart from the household or extended family. We should not necessarily consider the tribe to be overly large, but more as rather small and isolated groups, especially before Saul and David.
It has been argued recently that the tribal and clan structures were based not on kinship, but on grouping for common defense. Thus a clan might be formed by two or three villages banding together and a tribe by two or three of the clan units. This would be true for the period after the conquest of Canaan. Thus many scholars would argue that in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:1 ) the warriors are related to their tribal territories more than their tribes as a kinship group. It is usually assumed that the patriarchal society was nomadic or semi-nomadic. Following the pattern of modern nomadic tribes with a patriarchal organization, the Hebrew society was probably democratic. Tribal decisions would be made on the basis of discussion by all the adult men. Not all men had equal authority. The elders held a major source of authority during this period and later periods as well. The elders for a clan were probably the heads of the households that comprised the clan. For a tribe, the elders would have been all the household heads, or selected elders from each clan. Thus the elders were the leaders of the local community. They had the responsibility to decide many of the everyday matters, religious and judicial. The elders were representatives of the community as a whole in religious and military matters. They often accompanied the leader. The elders could conclude a covenant (2 Samuel 5:3 ) or treaty on behalf of the people. The elders regularly dispensed justice at the city gate (Deuteronomy 21:19 ). The elders continued to function well into the period of the monarchy as a governing body. See 2 Samuel 5:3 ). Josiah gathered the elders of Judah and Jerusalem after finding the Book of the Law in the Temple, and they covenanted to keep that law (2 Kings 23:1-3 ). The elders still had a role after the Exile in administering Ezra's reforms (Ezra 10:8 ).
Beginning with the Exodus, the Old Testament presents Israel as a people composed of numerous tribes but with one leader. Moses as leader was succeeded by Joshua, who was succeeded in turn by the judges. Although the depiction indicates a central leader, there is no indication of a centralized government. Granted, the leader has great authority; but the leader was not surrounded by the structure of a centralized government. A confederation of tribes was in existence during this period. In addition to the elder, Israel also had, following the period of Moses and Joshua, the office of judge. The judge was not primarily a judicial official, but rather a charismatic military leader. Typically, the judge would rally the forces of Israel and defeat an oppressing power. From the time of Moses, the office of judge had included the element of deciding cases (Deuteronomy 1:16 ; Deuteronomy 16:18-20 ; Deuteronomy 17:8-9 ). Much more frequently, the emphasis was upon the military prowess of the judge (Judges 3:7-11 , Judges 3:12-30 ; etc.). The book of 1Samuel brings a change in the emphasis of the judge. The judge became a priestly official, as in the casefjcr ncof Eli and Samuel. Thus the term “judge” seems to have a broader meaning than just a judicial term. Certainly the judge seems to have been the chief official of the confederacy of tribes in that period prior to the monarchy. It may be that the term was not specific as to the type of leader—priestly, military, or judicial—but simply indicated the leader. Although there were some cases where one judge attempted to have his sons succeed him (as did both Eli and Samuel), the office was not regularly hereditary. Compare the problems of Abimelech (Judges 8:22-9:56 ). In this respect particularly, the office of judge differed from that of king which followed.
Although the period of judges may have led to the development of the monarchy, the two are quite different. The judge still retained a tribal character. Although several tribes might join together to fight a common enemy under the leadership of a judge, judgeship carried no sense of the permanence, hereditary character, or royal court of the monarchy. The judge was just an extension of the tribal chief or leader carried to a somewhat larger realm of a leader for several combined tribes. In actual function, the judge seldom played a strong role in maintaining the people's religious traditions until Samuel (Judges 2:10 ; Judges 17:6 ; Judges 21:25 ).
Government during the Monarchy With the rise of the monarchy, a totally new organizational pattern emerged. Not only did the king stand as a single ruler for all the people, as a sort of chief raised to a national level; but the king was also surrounded by a new structure. The king had his royal court to carry out his mandate. Alongside the older tribal and town leaders, the king had a new cadre of officials. His officials included military officers and a professional army alongside the old militia from the tribes. The nation was divided into administrative districts with administrators who stood alongside the old system of elders. A royal court and professional army required revenue, so a taxation system was developed with its attendant officials. Evidence for this taxation system is found in the Samaria ostraca, which record the receipt of taxes paid from various estates to the government. Similarly, the “lamelek ” jar handles (which bear an inscription literally meaning, “for the king”) indicate either taxation or produce of royal farms. Building projects required massive labor, and so the corvee or forced-labor contingents were organized. The old system of local government based on the city and the elder still existed, but a burgeoning bureaucracy developed parallel to the old system. The government also entered the international arena at this time, conducting warfare against international as well as local nations. It would negotiate treaties and alliances, trade and commercial agreements, and even arrange royal marriages. Surrounding the royal court were such officials as “the one who is over the house” a sort of Secretary of State or Prime Minister; the recorder who was a herald, press secretary, and chief of protocol combined; the chief scribe; counselors; priests; and prophets ( 1 Kings 4:1 ). In addition, many attendants would minister to the king. The king embodied the rule of the entire nation. As he and his officials were just and faithful in ruling, the nation prospered. As he and the officials were unjust, the nation suffered. Likeise, the unjust actions of lesser officials ultimately was the responsibility of the king. Thus the prophets accused the king of his actions and of the actions of those under him.
Government Under the Foreign Empires If the shift to a monarchy was the most revolutionary change in Israel's government, the collapse of the monarchy then marked the second most significant change. Self government and independence were lost. In all likelihood this change was felt more on the national level than on the local level. The elders continued to function as local leaders, but the royal officials were replaced by new imperial and military officials of the conquering power—first Assyria, then successively, Babylon, Persia, and Hellenistic and Roman states. Now the tax revenues went to the treasury of that foreign state, and a new legal system had to be obeyed alongside the Hebrew law. This is seen especially in the trial of Jesus which involved hearings before the religious court (at that time the highest Jewish court) and before the Roman authorities. The chief ruler became a local governor appointed by the foreign power as was Nehemiah, or even a foreigner as were the Roman procurators. When local kings were allowed to rule, it was only at the pleasure of the foreign power and under the watchful eye of foreign military.
Beginning with the post-exilic period, Jewish government fell more and more into priestly hands. The monarchy had ceased. The restructuring of society prevented too much power in 0political hands. The priesthood was strengthened and gradually assumed more and more of the judicial authority. Even the elders came to have an especially religious role as judicial officers. “Law” became virtually synonymous with the religious covenant, so that obeying the law meant keeping God's covenant. This affected every area of life. Such a conception was not necessarily new; it relates to the idea of God as king. The manner in which power was concentrated entirely in the sacred realm, as opposed to the secular, was new to the post-exilic and later periods. Since political power was not possible for the most part, power was consolidated where it could still be exercised, in the religious area. Religion was simply expanded to cover all of life.
In the New Testament we find Judea governed by a Herodian king appointed by the Roman government. Later direct Roman rule replaced the king. Religious authority still existed. The high priest and the priesthood exercised considerable authority, though it remained in name “religious” authority. The elders belonged to a formal body, the Sanhedrin, as also did certain priests. Just as in the case of the monarchy, two structures of authority existed side by side. Civil government now belonged basically to the foreign overlord, but religious power rested in the hands of the priests and Sanhedrin.
Joel F. Drinkard, Jr.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Government'. Holman Bible Dictionary. http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/g/government.html. 1991.