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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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GOVERNMENT . The purpose of this article will be to sketch in outline the forms of government among the Hebrews at successive periods of their history. The indications are in many cases vague, and it is impossible to reconstruct the complete system; at no period was there a definitely conceived, still less a written, constitution in the modern sense. For fuller details reference should be made throughout to the separate articles on the officials, etc., mentioned.

We may at once set aside Legislation , one of the most important departments of government as now understood. In ancient communities, law rested on Divine command and immemorial custom, and could as a rule be altered only by ‘fictions.’ The idea of avowedly new legislation to meet fresh circumstances was foreign to early modes of thought. At no period do we find a legislative body in the Bible. Grote’s dictum that ‘The human king on earth is not a lawmaker, but a judge,’ applies to all the Biblical forms of government. The main functions of government were judicial, military, and at later periods financial, and to a limited extent administrative.

1. During the nomadic or patriarchal age the unit is the family or clan, and, for certain purposes, the tribe. The head of the house, owing to his position and experience, was the supreme ruler and judge, in fact the only permanent official. He had undisputed authority within his family group ( Genesis 22:1-24; Genesis 38:24 , Deuteronomy 21:13 , Judges 11:34 ). Heads of families make agreements with one another and settle quarrels among their dependents ( Genesis 21:22; Genesis 31:45 ); the only sanction to which they can appeal is the Divine justice which ‘watches’ between them ( Genesis 31:49; Genesis 31:53 , Genesis 49:7 ). Their hold over the individual lay in the fact that to disobey was to become an outlaw; and to be an outcast from the tribe was to be without protector or avenger. The heads of families combined form, in a somewhat more advanced stage, the ‘elders’ ( Exodus 3:15; Exodus 18:21 , Numbers 22:7 ); and sometimes, particularly in time of war, there is a single chief for the whole tribe. Moses is an extreme instance of this, and we can see that his position was felt to be unusual ( Exodus 2:14; Exodus 4:1 , Numbers 16:1-50 ). It was undefined, and rested on his personal influence, backed by the Divine sanction, which, as his followers realized, had marked him out. This enables him to nominate Joshua as his successor.

2. The period of the Judges ’ marks a higher stage; at the same time, as a period of transition it appeared rightly to later generations as a time of lawlessness. The name ‘Judges,’ though including the notion of champion or deliverer, points to the fact that their chief function was judicial. The position was not hereditary, thus differing from that of king ( Judges 9:1-57 ff. Gideon and Abimelech), though Samuel is able to delegate his authority to his sons ( 1 Samuel 8:1 ). Their status was gained by personal exploits, implying Divine sanction, which was sometimes expressed in other ways; e.g. gift of prophecy (Deborah, Samuel). Their power rested on the moral authority of the strong man, and, though sometimes extending over several tribes, was probably never national. During this period the nomadic tribe gives way to the local; ties of place are more important than ties of birth. A town holds together its neighbouring villages (‘daughters’), as able to give them protection ( Numbers 21:25; Numbers 21:32 , Joshua 17:11 ). The elders become the ‘elders of the city’; Judges 8:6; Judges 8:14; Judges 8:18 mentions officials ( sârîm ) and elders of Succoth, i.e. heads of the leading families, responsible for its government. In Judges 11:5 the elders of Gilead have power in an emergency to appoint a leader from outside.

3. The Monarchy came into being mainly under the pressure of Philistine invasion. The king was a centre of unity, the leader of the nation in war, and a judge ( 1 Samuel 8:20 ). His power rested largely on a personal basis. As long as he was successful and strong, and retained the allegiance of his immediate followers, his will was absolute (David, Ahab, Jehu; cf. Jeremiah 36:1-32; Jeremiah 37:1-21 ). At the same time there were elements which prevented the Jewish monarchy from developing the worst features of an Oriental despotism. At least at first the people bad a voice in his election (David, Rehoboam). In Judah the hereditary principle prevailed (there were no rival tribes to cause jealousy, and David’s line was the centre of the national hopes), but the people still had influence ( 2 Kings 14:21; 2 Kings 21:24 ). In the Northern Kingdom the position of the reigning house was always insecure, and the ultimate penalty of misgovernment was the rise of a new dynasty. A more important check was found in the religious control, democratic in its best sense, exercised by the prophets (Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, etc.). The Jewish king had at least to hear the truth, and was never allowed to believe that he was indeed a god on earth. At the same time there is no constitutional check on misrule; the ‘law of the kingdom’ in Deuteronomy 17:14 deals rather with moral and religious requirements, as no doubt did Jehoiada’s covenant ( 2 Kings 11:17 ). With the kingdom came the establishment of a standing army, David’s ‘mighty men’ quickly developing into the more organized forces of Solomon’s and later times. The command of the forces was essential to the king’s power; cf. insurrection of Jehu ‘the captain’ ( 2 Kings 9:1-37 ), and Jehoiada’s care to get control of the army ( 2 Kings 11:4 ). Side by side with the power of the sword came the growth of a court, with its harem and luxurious entourage , its palace and its throne. These were visible symbols of the royal power, impressing the popular mind. The lists of officers ( 2 Samuel 8:16 , 1 Kings 4:1-34 ) are significant; they indicate the growth of the king’s authority, and the development of relations with other States. The real power of government has passed into the hands of the king’s clientète . His servants hold office at his pleasure, and, provided they retain his favour, there is little to limit their power. They may at times show independence of spirit ( 1 Samuel 22:17 , Jeremiah 36:25 ), but are usually his ready tools ( 2 Samuel 11:14; cf. the old and the young counsellors of Rehoboam, 1 Kings 12:6 ff.). The prophetic pictures of the court and its administration are not favourable ( Amos 3:8; Amos 4:1; Amos 4:6 , Isaiah 5:1-30 etc.). The methods of raising revenue were undefined, and being undefined were oppressive. We hear of gifts and tribute ( 1 Samuel 10:27 , 2Sa 8:10 , 1 Kings 4:7; 1 Kings 4:21-28; 1 Kings 10:11-25 ), of tolls and royal monopolies ( 1 Kings 10:15; 1 Kings 10:28-29 ), of forced labour ( 1 Kings 5:13 ) and of the ‘king’s mowings’ ( Amos 7:1 ), of confiscation ( 1 Kings 21:1-29 ), and. in an emergency, of stripping the Temple ( 2 Kings 18:15 ). In time of peace the main function of the king is the administration of justice ( 2 Samuel 15:2 , 2 Kings 15:5 ); his subjects have the right of direct access ( 2 Kings 8:8 ). This must have lessened the power of the local elders , who no doubt had also to yield to the central court officials. ‘The elders of the city’ appear during this period as a local authority, sometimes respected and consulted ( 2 Samuel 19:11 , 1 Kings 20:7 , 2 Kings 23:1 ), sometimes the obedient agents of the king’s will ( 1 Kings 21:8; 1Ki 21:11 , 2 Kings 10:1; 2 Kings 10:5 ). 2 Chronicles 19:5-11 describes a judicial system organized by Jehoshaphat, which agrees in its main features with that implied by Deuteronomy 16:18; Deuteronomy 17:8-13; there are local courts, with a central tribunal. In Dt. the elders appear mainly as judicial authorities, but have the power of executing their decisions ( Deuteronomy 19:12; Deuteronomy 19:21 , Deuteronomy 22:15 etc.). The influence of the priesthood in this connexion should be noticed. The administration of justice always included a Divine element ( Exodus 18:15; Exodus 18:19; Exodus 21:6; Exodus 22:8; cf. word ‘Torah’), and in the Deuteronomic code the priests appear side by side with the lay element in the central court ( Exodus 17:9 , Exodus 19:17; cf. Isaiah 28:7 , Ezekiel 44:24 etc.). But the government is not yet theocratic. Jehoiada relies on his personal influence and acts in concert with the chiefs of the army ( 2 Kings 11:1-21; 2 Kings 12:1-21 ), and even after the Exile Joshua is only the fellow of Zerubbabel. The appointment of Levites as judges, ascribed to David in 1 Chronicles 23:4; 1 Chronicles 26:29 , is no doubt an anachronism. Cf. also art. Justice (ii.).

4. Post-exilic period . Under the Persians Judah was a subdistrict of the great province west of the Euphrates and subject to its governor ( Ezra 5:3 ). It had also its local governor ( Nehemiah 5:14 ), with a measure of local independence ( Ezra 10:14 ); we read, too, of a special official ‘at the king’s hand in all matters concerning the people’ ( Nehemiah 11:24 ). The elders are prominent during this period both in exile ( Ezekiel 8:1; Ezekiel 14:1; Ezekiel 20:1 ) and in Judah ( Ezra 5:9; Ezra 6:7; Ezra 10:8 , Nehemiah 2:16 ). The chief feature of the subsequent period was the development of the priestly power, and the rise to importance of the office of the high priest . Under Greek rule (after b.c. 333) the Jews were to a great extent allowed the privileges of self-government. The ‘elders’ develop into a gerousia or senate an aristocracy comprising the secular nobility and the priesthood ( 1Ma 12:6; 1Ma 14:20 ); it is not known when the name ‘Sanhedrin’ was first used. The high priest became the head of the State, and its official representative, his political power receiving a great development under the Hasmonæans. Owing to the growing importance of the office, the Seleucids always claimed the power of appointment. In b.c. 142, Simon is declared to be ‘high priest, captain, and governor for ever’ ( 1Ma 14:27-47 ). The title ‘ethnarch’ (see Governor) is used of him and other high priests. Aristobulus becomes king (b.c. 105), and Alexander Jannæus uses the title on coins (b.c. 104 78). Under Roman rule (b.c. 63) the situation becomes complicated by the rise to power of the Herodian dynasty. Palestine passed through the varying forms of government known to the Roman Imperial constitution. Herod the Great was its titular king, with considerable independence subject to good behaviour ( rex socius ). Archelaus forfeited his position (a.d. 6). Thenceforward Judæa was under the direct rule of a procurator (see next article), except from a.d. 41 to 44, when Agrippa i. was king. Antipas was ‘tetrarch’ of Galilee and Peræa; Mark’s title of ‘king’ (6:14) is corrected by Matthew and Luke. The position was less honourable and less independent than that of king. The high priest (now appointed by the Romans) and the Sanhedrin regained the power which they had lost under Herod; the government became once more an aristocracy (Jos. [Note: Josephus.] Ant. XX. x.). Except for the power of life and death the Sanhedrin held the supreme judicial authority; there were also local courts connected with the Synagogue ( Matthew 5:22 ). Its moral authority extended to Jews outside Palestine. In the Diaspora, the Jews, tenacious of their national peculiarities, were in many cases allowed a large measure of self-government, particularly in judicial matters. In Alexandria, in particular, they had special privileges and an ‘ethnarch’ of their own (Jos. [Note: Josephus.] Ant. XIV. vii. 2). For the cities of Asia Minor, see Ramsay, Letters to the Seven Churches , chs. xi. xii.

For ‘ governments ’ ( 1 Corinthians 12:28 ) see Helps.

C. W. Emmet.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Government'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​g/government.html. 1909.