G. People involved in Israel's Governance before the Babylonian Exile

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When considering the overall structure of ancient Israel's governance before the exile to Babylon, first there was a period of Judges, and then, during the life of the prophet Samuel, the period of kings began. After Solomon, the kingdom was split into the northern House of Israel and the southern House of Judah. The latter contained the capital city of Jerusalem where the king and the priestly headquarters were centered near the one and only Temple.

From that time onward our interest then centers on the House of Judah alone. It is clear that Israel's governance and that of the House of Judah was intended to be a theocracy (note Deut 17:14-20). The elements of the theocracy in the House of Judah were the king, the priests, certain people who the king might appoint, and the prophets who might be unwelcome to certain sinful kings.

There were also courts to hear legal cases where parties were in dispute. Deut 17:8-13 mentions the need to judge legal cases of dispute, and those who do the judging are referred to as priests, Levites, and judges in verse 9. There is no indication in the Tanak that any calendric decision was to be treated as if it were a legal case that required some non-priestly civil court.

Such a concept is contrary to the implications of Ps 133. Num 10:8, 10 mentioned above, puts jurisdiction over the calendric practice of blowing the two silver trumpets at the beginning of the months in the hands of the priesthood, and there was one high priest who had the leadership. Meddling with the duties of the priesthood by unauthorized people carried the death sentence.

There is a unique event in Num 11:16-30 that shows a selection of 70 men from among the elders of Israel. Num 11:16, 24, 25, 30 have the word elders, which is the Hebrew word zaken, having Strong's number 2205, appearing in BDB on page 278 where its first meaning is “old of human beings” and another meaning is “elders, as having authority”. The meaning of zaken is best appreciated when one considers the nature of the chain of authority through male lineage as shown by a combination of commandments. Among the ten commandments is, “Honor your father and your mother …” (Ex 20:12; Deut 5:16). The authority of the husband over his wife is seen in Gen 3:16; Num 30:6-16. These laws work together to imply that the oldest living male within a family's lineage has authority over the extended family, and he is thus surely an elder or zaken. Num 11:16 makes it clear that these 70 men were already elders before Moses began the selection, and moreover, besides being elders, they were officers. Here the word officers is the Hebrew word shoter, which is Strong's number 7860, appearing in BDB on page 1009 where it states, “appar[ently] subordinate officer, judicial, civil, or military”. This implies that these elders have had some practical leadership or management experience, but not necessarily at the top position.

Num 11:16, “And YHWH said to Moses, Gather to Me 70 men from [the] elders of Israel whom you know to be elders of the people and its officers. And bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them stand there with you.”
Num 11:17, “And I will come down and I will speak with you there. And I will take of the Spirit that is upon you, and I will put [it] upon them, and they shall bear [the] burden of the people with you. Thus you shall not bear [the burden] yourself alone.”

No further qualifications are given concerning the selection of these 70 men from among those who were already elders. There was no tribal restriction, there was no requirement of a knowledge of the law, and there was no requirement of faith. There is never any indication in the Tanak that these elders met together as one body to discuss matters among themselves, or that they had a unified label such as a court or Sanhedrin.

In Ex 18:13-27 Moses' father-in-law gave him advice to build a pyramid organizational structure of judges, so that only the very difficult cases would filter their way up the pyramid to him. This advice did not involve previously recognized elders with leadership experience. If this advice would have succeeded, there would have been no need for the subsequent complaint by Moses in Num 11:1-15, which led to the appointment of the 70 men who were already elders.

In Num 14:26-33 the punishment of death during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness was given to all Israelites who were 20 years old and above. This death in the wilderness came to all of the 70 elders with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, if they were among these elders. One need for elders in Israel was simply the practical function of communication of basic news to all people from a central seat of government. When Joshua crossed the Jordan River there were a few million Israelites. If Joshua himself spoke loudly, only a tiny fraction of them could hear him. Since people were geographically grouped as near relatives, the most practical way to communicate with all people was through the system of elders. Joshua would speak to the elders as heads of clans (subgroups within a tribe), and they in turn would go to those who they represented in family ancestry and authority so that the news would reach everyone. Existing authority through male lineage was respected. Thus Josh 7:6 mentions the elders of Israel who were near Joshua. There is no need to imagine that there were 70 of them.

These elders were authority figures for purposes of orderly travel and communications, and they also had ancestral authority as the oldest males in their extended family.