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Reference: 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 (Ge 22; 38:24; De 21:13; Jg 11:34). Heads of families make agreements with one another and settle quarrels among their dependents (Ge 21:22; 31:45); the only sanction to which they can appeal is the Divine justice which 'watches' between them (Ge 31:49,53; 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' (Ex 3:15; 18:21; Nu 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 (Ex 2:14; 4:1; Nu 16). 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 (Jg 9 ff. Gideon and Abimelech), though Samuel is able to delegate his authority to his sons (1Sa 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 (Nu 21:25,32; Jos 17:11). The elders become the 'elders of the city'; Jg 8:6,14,18 mentions officials (s

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