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Dictionaries :: Government

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International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia


guv'-ern-ment: The government of the Hebrews varied at different periods, of which we may distinguish seven:

(1) the nomadic period, from the Exodus to the entrance into Palestine;

(2) the period of transition from nomadic to civil life;

(3) the monarchy;

(4) the period of subjection to other oriental nations;

(5) the period from Ezra to the Greeks;

(6) Greek rule;

(7) Roman rule.

1. The Nomadic Period:

The government of the primitive period is that proper to nomadic tribes composed of families and clans, in no wise peculiar to the Hebrews, but shared in its essential features by the most diverse peoples at a corresponding stage of civilization. Though we might draw illustrations from many sources, the government of the Bedouins, Semitic nomads inhabiting the steppes of Arabia, affords the most instructive parallel. In the patriarchal state the family is the household (including slaves and concubines) of the father, who is its head, having power of life and death over his children (Ge 22; Jud 11:31 ). A clan is a collection of families under a common chieftain, chosen for his personal qualifications, such as prowess and generous hospitality. The composition of the clan was essentially shifting, subject, according to circumstances, to the loss or accession of individuals and families. Although the possession of the same grazing-grounds doubtless played a large part in determining the complexion of the clan, the fiction of descent from a common ancestor was maintained, even when kinship was established by the blood covenant. In all probability community of worship, which cemented the tribe, served as the most effective bond of union also in the clan. Vestiges of such clan cults are still to be detected (1Sa 20:5 ff; Jud 18:19). The familiar tradition of the twelve tribes must not be allowed to blind us to the evidence that the tribe also was not constant. Mention of the Kenites (Jud 1:16) and the list of tribes in the So of Deborah (Jud 5) remind us that such organizations vanished. In the readjustment incident to the change from the pastoral life of the nomad to that of the settled agricultural population of Palestine, many units were doubtless shifted from one tribe to another, and the same result may be assumed as following from the endless strife between the tribes before and during the period of the kings. The large and powerful tribe of Judah seems to have originated comparatively late. The union of the tribes under the leadership of Moses was essentially similar to the formation of a new tribe out of a group of clans actuated by a desire to accomplish a common end. Many such temporary aggregations must have originated, only to succumb to the centrifugal forces of jealousy and conflicting interests. Even after the entrance of the Hebrews into Palestine, their history for long is that of kindred tribes, rather than that of a nation. The leadership of Moses rested on personal, not on constitutional, authority, and was rendered precarious by the claims of family and of clan, as in the case of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Nu 16). The authority of Moses naturally extended to the administration of justice, as well as to matters pertaining to war and religion. He appointed officers to assist him in this judicial function (Ex 18:21 ), but the laws according to which they rendered judgment were those of custom and usage, not those of a written code. As among the tribal chieftains, important matters were referred to the leader, who, in cases of doubt or in default of recognized custom, resorted to the lot or to the oracle.

2. The Period of Transition:

When the nomad tribes settled in Palestine to become an agricultural people, there ensued a period of unrest due to the necessity for read-justment to changed conditions. The old tribal organization, admirably adapted to the former, ill suited the new requirements. These may be summed up in the demand for the substitution of local organization, based on the rights of individuals, for the tribal government, which had regard solely to the interests of family, clan and tribe. Such readjustment did not, of course, at once ensue, but came piecemeal in answer to the gradually realized wants of the community. Nor was the development entirely from within, but was unquestionably in large measure influenced by the institutions existing among the Canaanite population, only a part of which had been expelled by the invaders. Although the tribes still clung to the fiction of descent from a common ancestor, which was embodied in the accepted genealogies with their filiation of clans into tribes and of tribes into a nation, that which henceforth passed as a "tribe" was less an aggregation of kindred units than a geographical unit or group of units. The times were turbulent, disturbed by contending elements within and by foes without the tribes. Then it was that there arose a class of chieftains of strongly marked character, called by a new name. The "judge" (shophet) was not the ruler of a nation, but the chieftain of a tribe, winning and maintaining his authority by virtue of his personal prowess. The cases of Gideon and Abimelech (Jud 8, 9) show that the authority of the "judge" was not hereditary. Agreeably to the generally changed conditions, the "elders" (zeqenim), who were formerly heads of families or kindreds, now came, possibly under the influence of the Canaanites, to be constituted an aristocratic upper class, with certain functions as administrative officers and councilors. Cities also grew and acquired importance, so that the adjacent hamlets were subordinated to them, probably even ruled from them as executive centers. In all this there is a certain similarity to the process by which, in the period just preceding the beginning of real history, Athens became the metropolis of Attica, and conventional tribes supplanted those based on kinship, while the rise of the purely local organization of the demos led speedily to the appearance of the "tyrants." The high places of clans and tribes continued to be frequented, and certain "seers" (1Sa 9:6 ) enjoyed considerable prestige by virtue of their peculiar relation to the tribal god.

3. The Monarchy:

While the succession of tribal chieftains and of the "judges" depended on personal qualifications, the principle of heredity is essential to the institution of monarchy, which originated in the desire to regulate the succession with a view to having an assured authoritative leadership. This principle could not, of course, be invoked in the appointment of Saul, the first king (melekh), who won this distinction in virtue of his personal prowess, supported by the powerful influence of the "seer," Samuel. His son Ishbosheth ruled two years over Israel, but lost his throne through the disaffection of his subjects (2Sa 2-4). The accession of David, king of Judah, to the throne of all Israel was likewise exceptional, owing as much to the character of the heir presumptive as to his own qualifications. Solomon, as the choice of his father David, succeeded by right of heredity with the support of the military and religious leaders. In the Southern Kingdom of Judah, heredity was henceforth observed because of its homogeneity and the consequent absence of internal discord; whereas the principle often failed in the turbulent Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was distracted by tribal jealousies. But even when not effectually operative, heredity was recognized as constituting a claim to the succession, although the popular voice, which had been supreme in the institution of the monarchy, was a power always to be reckoned with.

(1) Royal Prerogatives.

The history and functions of monarchy defined the prerogatives and duties of the king. Just as the head of the family, or the chieftain of a tribe, functioned as representative of those subject to him in matters of religion, war, and the administration of justice, so also was it with the king. In all these spheres he was supreme, exercising his authority either personally or through representatives who thus became part of the royal establishment. It is to be noted that the sacerdotal or sacral character of the king, which was merely an extension of his privileges as individual and head of a household, was not emphasized among the Hebrews to a like extent as among other oriental peoples; and the priests whom he appointed were perhaps in the first instance court chaplains, though in time they came to assume greater authority. The responsibility of the king for the public safety carried with it the obligation to guard the state treasures, to which the treasures of the temples were felt to belong; and it was his privilege to use them when necessary for defense. The levying of taxes, also, and the collection and use of revenues from various sources likewise fell of necessity to the king and his representatives.

(2) Officers.

In regard to the constitution of the king's court under Saul and David we learn comparatively little; even touching that of Solomon we are not fully informed, although we know that it must have been far removed from the original simplicity. We may classify the known officers as follows:

(a) religious: priests (2Sa 8:17; 20:23 );

(b) household: cupbearer (1Ki 10:5); master of the vestry (2Ki 10:22); master of the household (1Ki 4:6), who probably was a eunuch (1Ki 22:9; 2Ki 8:6; 9:32);

(c) state: scribe or clerk (2Sa 8:17; 20:25, etc.); recorder, or prompter (1Ki 4:3); king's counselor (2Sa 15:12); and, perhaps, the king's friend (2Sa 15:37; 16:16); overseer of taskwork (2Sa 20:24);

(d) military: commander-in-chief of the army (2Sa 8:16); commander of the king's guards (?)(2Sa 8:18; 20:23).

(3) Fiscal Institutions.

The simplicity of Saul's rule was such as to make slight demands upon the resources of the people. He lived in the manner of a tribal chieftain on his ancestral estate, receiving from his subjects voluntary gifts (1Sa 10:27; 16:20), and also, without doubt, his due share of the booty. Whether he instituted a regular tax (compare 1Sa 17:25) is not certain. With the growth and prosperity of the nation, David changed the character of the court, imitating in a measure the state of other oriental potentates. It is not clear whether he levied a regular tax, although it may be surmised that he had it in view, together with the regulation of taskwork, in ordaining the census taken in his time (2Sa 24:1 ). We know that he received his portion of the booty (2Sa 8:11; 12:30). The increasing luxury of Solomon's court required the imposition of additional taxes. It is probable that some income was derived from the enforced cultivation of crown lands (1Sa 8:12), although the taskwork, which became extremely burdensome and subsequently provoked the secession of the Northern Kingdom, was chiefly applied to public works. The tribute of subject peoples (1Ki 4:21) was considerable (1Ki 10:14). We now for the first time hear of taxes upon caravans and merchants, although it was in all probability a source of income even in the time of the nomad chieftains; there was also revenue from the carrying trade of his merchant fleet (1Ki 10:11,22) and from the trade in horses and chariots carried on with Egypt (1Ki 10:28 ). Solomon also divided his kingdom into twelve provinces commanded by prefects, who should provide victuals for the king and his household: each prefect had to make provision for a month in the year (1Ki 4:7 ). It does not appear whether Judah, which is not included in the list of provinces, was as a mark of special favor exempted from this tax, or whether the omission is to be otherwise explained. The seizure of the vineyard of Naboth by Ahab (1Ki 21) makes it seem not improbable that the property of persons condemned on certain charges was confiscate to the king.

(4) Administration of Justice.

The king, like the tribal chieftain of the steppes, still sat in judgment, but chiefly in matters of moment; less important cases were decided by the prefects of provinces and other officers. Under the earlier kings there was no code except the Book of the Covenant (Ex 20 Ex 22 Ex 23), but judgment was rendered on the basis of the law of custom or usage, the function of the judge being essentially that of an arbiter. For the later code see DEUTERONOMY.

(5) Religion.

The king was regarded as the natural representative of his people before God; but while he did exercise certain sacerdotal functions in person, such offices were generally performed by the priest whom he had appointed.

(6) Secular Administration.

The authority of the king in matters of state was exercised partly by him in person, partly through his ministers, the "princes" (1Ki 4:2 ). Among these functions are to be classed the communication with subject and foreign princes and the direction of the taskwork, which was employed for public improvements, partly military, as in the fortification of cities, partly religious, as in the building of the temple. Local affairs had always been left largely to the tribes and their subdivisions, but, with the gradual increase of royal authority, the king sought to exercise it more and more in the conduct of the village communities. Conversely, the "elders of the people," as the (albeit aristocratic) representatives of the communes, occasionally had a voice even in larger matters of state.

4. Israel under Oriental Potentates:

The principle of local autonomy; was widely observed in the oriental states, which concerned themselves chiefly about political and military organization and about the collection of revenues. Hence, there is no occasion for surprise on finding that the Jews enjoyed a large measure of autonomy during the period of their subjection to other oriental powers and that even during the exile they resorted, in matters of dispute, to their own representatives for judgment. Under Persian rule Palestine formed part of the satrapy lying West of the Euphrates and had, for a time, its own governor.

5. After the Restoration:

Ezra and Nehemiah endeavored to introduce a new code, which, after a period of perhaps two centuries, established a dual form of government subject to the supreme authority of the suzerain power. By the new code the secular officers were subordinated to the high priest, who thus virtually assumed the position of a constitutional prince, ruling under the Law. The "prince," however, as the representative of the tribes, and the "elders of the people," as the representatives of the communes, continued to exercise a certain limited authority.

6. The Greeks:

Under the Greek rulers of Egypt and Syria the Jews continued to enjoy a large measure of autonomy, still maintaining in general the type of internal government formulated under Ezra and Nehemiah. We now hear of a council of "elders" presided over by the high priest. The latter, appointed by the kings, was recognized as ethnarch by both Ptolemies and Seleucids and held accountable for the payment of the tribute, for the exaction of which he was, of course, empowered to levy taxes. The brief period of political independence under the Hasmoneans (see ASMONEANS) did not materially alter the character compare the government, except that the high who had long been a prince in everything but in name, now openly so styled himself. The council of the "elders" survived, although with slightly diminished authority. In other respects the influence of Greek institutions made itself felt.

7. The Romans:

When Pompey terminated the reign of the Hasmoneans, the government still continued with little essential change. Following the example of the Greek kings, the Romans at Romans first appointed the high priest to the "leadership of the nation." He was soon, however, shorn for a time of his political dignity, the country being divided into five districts, each governed by its "synod"; but Caesar once more elevated the high priest to the office of ethnarch. Under Herod, the high priest and the synedrium (Sanhedrin), appointed or deposed at will as his interests seemed to require, lost much of their former prestige and power. After the death of Herod the land was again divided, and a procurator, subordinate to the governor of Syria, ruled in Judea, having practical independence in his sphere. In their internal affairs the Jews now, as under former masters, enjoyed a large measure of freedom. The high priest no longer exercising any political authority, the synedrium, of which he was a member, now gained in influence, being in fact an aristocratic council in many respects not unlike the Roman senate. It combined judicial and administrative functions, limited in the exercises of its authority only by the provision that its decisions might be reviewed by the procurator. (See GOVERNOR.) Naturally the outlying jurisdictions were organized on the same model, each with its synedrium competent in local matters. The synedrium at Jerusalem served also as a governing board for the city.

Written by William Arthur Heidel

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