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ELDER (Heb. זָקֵן, zaken). In Israel, as among all other ancient peoples, the elder is not only a person of advanced age, but also a man of distinct social grade (cf. šībum in Akkadian, senator in Latin, geron in Greek, and sheikh in Arabic). The elders were the consulting body of the city, the nation, or the king respectively, and as such were considered "the wise" (cf. Ezek. 7:26 with Jer. 18:18). As a social institution, various types of elders are named: elders of a people (Israel, Judah, Moab, and Midian, Num. 22:4, 7; Egypt, Gen. 50:7); elders of an area (Gilead, Judg. 11:5–11); elders of a tribe (Deut. 31:28); elders of the Diaspora (Jer. 29:1); elders of the priests (II Kings 19:2; Jer. 19:1); elders of the city (passim); and elders of the house (i.e., palace, Gen. 50:7; II Sam. 12:17). The most prominent are the elders of the people or the country and the elders of the city.

The Elders of the City

These elders represented their fellow citizens in local matters. Their functions are best exemplified by the pertinent laws of Deuteronomy. The city elders are involved in five laws: (1) blood redemption (19:12); (2) expiation of murder by an unknown culprit (21:3, 6); (3) the rebellious son (21:19); (4) defamation of a virgin (22:15); and (5) levirate (25:9). All these cases deal with protection of the family and local patriarchal interests. In the first, the elders tend to the appeasement of the murdered person's family by delivering the slayer into its hands; in the second, they see to it that their town atones for a homicide committed within its borders. In the next two instances, the elders protect the family against a rebellious son and defend the family against defamation. In the last instance, the elders are concerned with preventing the extinction of a family in their town. No professional judgment is necessary in such cases: the elders preside over a case, whose consequences are clear beforehand. The same applies to Ruth 4:2ff., where the elders only confirm the act of levirate. In contrast, "the judges" in the laws of Deuteronomy have functions that are altogether different from those of the elders. The judges act in connection with disputes (19:17–18; 25:1–3) and controversies in the local courts (17:8ff.) that cannot be solved by the local patriarchal representatives, but need a higher and more objective judicial authority. Furthermore, disputes and controversies involve thorough investigation (cf. 19:18), which can be made only by qualified and professional people. These judges are nominated (cf. Deut. 16:19) in contradistinction to the elders, whose dignity is as a rule hereditary. In only one case in Deuteronomy do the elders act together with the judges: the case of the unknown murderer (21:1ff.). The elders of the town nearest the spot where the corpse was found have to perform the expiation rites on behalf of their town. In order to establish which town is nearest, the distances must be measured (see * Eglah Arufah). This has to be implemented by the judges and the elders of the country (21:2), i.e., by a higher authority. This case is important for an understanding of the composition of the courts in ancient Israel, especially since it has its antecedents in the judicial procedures of the other peoples in the ancient Near East. Among ancient Near Eastern peoples, a representative of the state joined the local authority (i.e., the elders) in order to settle disputes. In Mesopotamia the elders (šībūtum) cooperated with the mayor (rabiānum or ḫazānum), and in the Hittite state the commander of the garrison acted with the elders in settling disputes. In purely provincial matters, such as the returning of stray cattle, the elders themselves acted without resorting to government officials (Hittite Laws, para. 71). Only when investigation was involved was the case brought before a tribunal, which consisted of both state officials and elders. In ancient Israel, as in the Hittite state, the judges were associated or even identical with officers and military commanders (Ex. 18:21; Deut. 1:15). That the officer and the elder had much in common is evident from Isaiah 3:14, Ezra 10:8, et al. In I Kings 21:11, they act together (for the interchange of "noble" with "officer," cf. Jer. 39:6 with 52:10; Jer. 27:20 with II Kings 24:14).

The Elders of the People or Country

In the city-state, as it existed in Canaan, the elders of the city were identical with the elders of the state. In Israel, both before and during the monarchic period, the elders of the town and those of the people, country, and congregation operated separately. Matters that concerned the entire confederation or the nation were brought to the elders of the people, and after the division of the kingdom to the elders of Israel and Judah respectively, whereas the elders of the town dealt only with the local provincial problems (see above). It is not known how the elders of the country were chosen, but it is possible that they were recruited from the city elders. One might argue that the monarchy had deprived the elders of their power and authority, but this was not the case. Even as powerful a king as Ahab had to consult "the elders of the land" before proclaiming war (I Kings 20:7). It is needless to dwell here on the important role that the elders of Israel and Judah played at the time of David (II Sam. 3:17; 5:3; 17:4, 15). The elders cooperated with Elisha against the king (II Kings 6:32), and the elders of the land interfered in the trial of Jeremiah (Jer. 26:17). The "people of the land" or the "people of Judah," who took action when the dynasty was at stake, seem to be identical with the elders of Judah.

The emergence of the elders has been explained in the Pentateuch etiologically. According to Exodus 18, it was Jethro who advised Moses to establish a judicial-social organ in order to help him judge the people. (In the desert setting of the narrative there was no distinction between the elders of the town and the elders of the congregation.) In Numbers 11, following Moses' complaint that he cannot manage the people by himself, the Lord draws from some of the spirit of Moses and instills it in the 70 elders who are to assist him. In Deuteronomy 1:9ff., finally, Moses himself proposes that he pick men from the tribes in order to create the judicial body. These three traditions present different outlooks on the quality of the elder-judge in ancient Israel. In Exodus 18, the attributes of the chosen men are fear of God, trustworthiness, and honesty. In Numbers 11, it is the spirit of God, i.e., divine inspiration (cf. the judge in the period of the Judges, Judg. 3:10; 6:34; et al.), which makes a man a member of the elders' council. In Deuteronomy 1, intellectual capacity (wisdom, understanding, and knowledge) makes a man fit to judge. The description in Deuteronomy is apparently the latest, since it reflects the aristocratic approach, which places wisdom at the top of the ladder of values (cf. e.g., Prov. 8:15–16; et al).

The Functions of the Elders of the People

The functions of the elders of the people were (1) to represent the people in the sacral covenant and in the proclamation of the law (Ex. 19:7; 24:1, 9; Deut. 27:1; 29:9; 31:9; Josh. 8:33; 24:1; cf. II Kings 23:1); (2) to appoint a leader or a king (I Sam. 8:4; Judg. 11:5–11); (3) to proclaim war (Josh. 8:10; II Sam. 17:4–15; cf. I Kings 20:7); (4) to conduct political negotiations and make agreements (Ex. 3:16, 18; 4:29; Num. 16:25; II Sam. 3:17; 5:3); (5) to perform sacred ceremonies (Ex. 12:21; 18:12; Lev. 9:1; I Sam. 4:3; I Kings 8:1, 3; I Chron. 16:25); and (6) to act in times of national crisis (Ex. 17:5–6; Josh. 7:6; I Sam. 4:3; I Chron. 21:16). The elders held their meetings near the city gate (Deut. 21:19; 22:15; 25:7; Ruth 4:1ff.; Lam. 5:14), and more precisely in the square located next to the gate (Job 29:7). In the desert the assemblies were held "at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting" (see *Congregation). The place of the assembly had also been called "the threshing floor" (I Kings 22:10), because of its smooth, stamped surface and its circular shape (cf. Sanh. 4:3). In texts from Ugarit, Danel the pious judge is presented as sitting "before the gate, in the place of the mighty on the threshing floor" (Aqht A, V, lines 5ff., Pritchard, Texts, 151). Participation in the assembly of the elders was considered a great honor (Prov. 31:23; Job 29:7ff.), and appears as such also in Greek literature (Iliad, 1:490; 4:225; et al.).


J.L. McKenzie, in: Analecta Biblica, 10 (1959), 388–400; H. Klengel, in: Orientalia, 29 (1960), 357–75; de Vaux, Anc Isr, 68–70; Evans, in: JRH, 2 (1962), 1–12; H. Klengel, Zeitschrift fuer Assyriologie, 23 (1965), 223ff.; H. Tadmor, in: Journal of World History, 11 (1968), 3–23; H. Reviv, in: Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 12 (1969), 283–97; Baron, Community, index. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: T. Wills, Elders of the City (2001); A. Rof, "The Organization of the Judiciary in Deuteronomy," in: M. Daviau et al. (eds.), World of the Arameans (2002), 92–112.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.