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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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a name given to certain laymen in the Presbyterian discipline, who are ecclesiastical officers, and in conjunction with the ministers and deacons compose the kirk sessions in Scotland. The number of elders is proportioned to the extent and population of the parish, and is seldom less than two or three, but sometimes exceeds fifty. They are laymen in this respect, that they have no right to teach, or to dispense the sacraments; and on this account they form an office in the Presbyterian church inferior in rank and power to that of pastors. They generally discharge the office which originally belonged to the deacons, of attending to the interests of the poor. But their peculiar business is expressed by the name ruling elders; for in every jurisdiction within the parish they are the spiritual court, of which the minister is officially moderator; and in the presbytery, of which the pastors of all the parishes within its bounds are officially members, lay elders sit as the representatives of the several sessions or consistories.

ELDERS OF ISRAEL. By this name we understand the heads of tribes, or rather of the great families in Israel, who, before the settlement of the Hebrew commonwealth, had a government and authority over their own families, and the people. When Moses was sent into Egypt to deliver Israel, he assembled the elders of Israel, and told them that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had appeared to him, Exodus 3:15; Exodus 4:29 , &c. Moses and Aaron treat the elders of Israel as the representatives of the nation. When God gave the law to Moses, he said, "Take Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, his sons, and the seventy elders of Israel, and worship ye afar off,"

Exodus 24:1; Exodus 24:9-10 . They advanced only to the foot of the mountain. On all occasions afterward, we find this number of seventy elders. But it is credible, that as there were twelve tribes, there were seventy-two elders, six from each tribe, and that seventy is set down, instead of seventy-two; or rather, that Moses and Aaron should be added to the number seventy, and that, exclusive of them, there were but four elders from the tribe of Levi. After Jethro's arrival in the camp of Israel, Moses made a considerable change in the governors of the people. He established over Israel heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, that justice might be readily administered to applicants; only difficult eases were referred to himself, Exodus 18:24-25 , &c. But this constitution did not continue long; for on the murmuring of the people at the encampment called the Graves of Lust, Numbers 11:24-35 , Moses appointed seventy elders of Israel, to whom God communicated part of that legislator's spirit; they began to prophesy, and ceased not afterward. This, according to the generality of interpreters, was the beginning of the sanhedrim; but, to support this opinion, many things must be supposed, whereby to infer, that this court of justice was constantly in being during the Scripture history. It seems that the establishment of the seventy elders by Moses continued, not only during his life, but under Joshua likewise, and under the judges. The elders of the people and Joshua swore to the treaty with the Gibeonites, Joshua 9:15 . A little before his death, Joshua renewed the covenant with the Lord, in company with the elders, the princes, the heads, and officers of Israel, Joshua 23; Joshua 24:1; Joshua 24:28 . After the death of Joshua, and the elders who survived him, the people were several times brought into bondage, and were delivered by their judges. We do not see distinctly what authority the elders had during this time, and still less under the kings who succeeded the judges.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Elders'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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