Chapter 8 – Congregation of All Israel
Besides the assembly or congregation of the Hebrew people in each particular city, and in each Tribe, which have been considered before in the provincial government of the Tribes; there is also mention of all the congregation of the children of Israel, and all the children of Israel, even all the congregation, and the whole congregation of the Lord, Joshua 22:16. This assembly of congregation of the whole people is distinguished from the Princes and Elders. Moses is directed to make two silver trumpets, and if they blow with them, all the assembly shall assemble themselves at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation; and if they blow with one trumpet only, then the Princes which are Heads of the thousands of Israel, shall gather themselves together, Numbers 10:3,4. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tables in his hand, first Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation came to him, and Moses talked with them, and afterwards all the children of Israel came nigh, Num 27:21, and he gave them in command all that the Lord had spoken unto him on Mount Sinai. Then Moses gathered all the congregation of the children of Israel together, and said unto them, these are the words which the Lord hath commanded that ye should do them, Exodus 34:31,32; 35:1. When Moses was directed to propose God’s covenant to the people, and declare to them his promise of peculiar protection, favor, and blessing, and to take their homage and promise of obedience to him as God and king, it was proposed to them in the form: Now therefore if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people, Exodus 19:5. Moses summons the people to consent to this covenant, and promise their allegiance; And Moses came and called the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words, which the Lord commanded him; and all the people answered together and said, all that the Lord hath spoken we will do, Exodus 19:7.
Joshua, after the settlement of Israel, and when he was grown old, called for all Israel, or summoned a full Hebrew Parliament; that is, he called for their elders, for their heads, and for their judges, and for their officers; and Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and called for the elders of Israel, and for their heads, and for their judges, and for their officers and they presented themselves before God; and Joshua said unto all the people, thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Joshua 23:1,2.
When this assembly is called all the congregation of Israel, all Israel, the whole congregation of the Lord, so full expressions should seem to mean, that everyone who was a free Israelite had a right to enter into this congregation, as soon as arrived at lawful age; at least that the six hundred thousand who entered into the covenant, and were made unalienable freeholders, and held their estates of Jehovah in chief by military service, were members of it according to the Constitution, Joshua 23:24. Yet when the congregation of all Israel is said to be called, it seems to be no more in some cases than summoning the elders, heads, judges and officers, as when Joshua called for all Israel, and when he gathered all the Tribes of Israel to Shechem. He called for the elders of Israel, and for their heads, and for their judges, and for their officers; and these seem to be no more than these elders, heads, judges and officers assembled on this summons, although it was a summons of all the Tribes of Israel. When Moses assembled all the congregation, although he laid before the elders of the people the word which the Lord commanded him, it was however all the people answered together, and said, all that the Lord hath spoken we will do, Exodus 19:7,8.
It is very likely the manner of holding this congregation or assembly of all Israel was different. While the whole nation was together in one body in an army, as for a long time, under the command of Moses, the assembly of the general congregation seems evidently to differ from what it was afterwards, when the Tribes were settled in the several lots of their inheritance. Every free Israelite seems to have had a right to vote in this assembly, if he could be present where it was summoned to meet with convenience. But when the greater part of the nation could not leave their private affairs and habitations, then the Tribes seem to appear by a representative, by their elders, heads, judges and officers, or by a certain number of their provincial magistrates, who may not unfitly be called deputies to the States-general, from the particular provinces. These being assembled as a representative of all Israel, may be considered as the parliament of the Hebrew nation; and these two different manners of assembling, are indeed no other than a greater or less number, as either should be more convenient.
The substance of this observation was taken notice of long since by an ingenious author: “That while the whole people was an army, Moses could propose to them in body, or under their staves, or standards of their camps; then he needed not, and so he used not any representative. But when Joshua had let the people go, and the children of Israel went every man to his inheritance to possess the land, the rotation of twenty-four thousand men under their proper officers afforded a representative of the people or commons, as well as a standing guard, for the safety of the whole nation,” Harrington’s Commonwealth of Israel, c. iii. S 2.
Thus all the children of Israel may be considered as constituting this congregation or Hebrew House of Commons, but in somewhat different manners, as was usual in the most celebrated polities. In some cases, all appeared personally; in other cases, they appeared by a representative. This might well be in common and ordinary cases, by the common and ordinary rotation of the monthly guard; but on more extraordinary occasions, by a more solemn and larger deputation from the twelve Tribes.
This easy and obvious distinction of the manner of holding the Hebrew Parliaments, on different occasions, and in different circumstances, may, I think, remove all difficulties that arise either from the different summons, whereby they were called, or the different persons who met in them when assembled.
But however it was that this congregation of all Israel was assembled, and whoever they were who met in it, which so short an history is not like to acquaint us fully with, nor is it very material to know; thus much is plain, and evident, and sufficient to our purpose, that it was an assembly of the people or of the commons of all Israel, either in person or by representative; and that the Hebrew people or commons had their share in the government, so far as this congregation or assembly was concerned, which you will soon perceive was very greatly.
We have already premised that no proper legislative powers were entrusted anywhere in this Constitution. It may be further observed, that the national revenues of this state were so settled in the tithes and other offerings, and there being no soldiery in pay, all holding their estates by military service, there was no reason for new or occasional taxes: so that the Hebrew Parliament could have no business, either to make new laws, or to raise money. What then did they meet for at all, you will say? What business have parliaments, but to make laws or to raise money? There were other things, you will observe, of great importance to the peace and welfare of the Hebrew government, in which it was very proper to act by and with the consent of the whole people, and by authority of the same. War and peace with neighbor nations, differences between Tribes which might greatly disunite and weaken the whole body, receiving and establishing principal officers and magistrates, were things of such importance, as required mutual consent, and the joint authority of the whole nation. It should seem then that the people of Israel, in this assembly or national Parliament, had all the powers which were usually vested in the people, in the most celebrated governments of Greece or Rome. Their assent gave sanction and full authority to what was proposed to them. The Roman definition of a law will show what this assent of the Roman people was in their government; a law is what the people of Rome confirmed on proposal by a Senatorian magistrate, as a consul, and in this among the Romans, a law (Lex) differed from a vote, or order of the people or commons, called plebiscitum; which was what the people resolved when assembled by a magistrate of their own, as a tribune; and thus also it differed from a vote or resolution of the senate, which was such order as the senate made of its own authority. This shows that among the Romans nothing had the authority of a law, but what was proposed to the people and assented to by them. It was the consent of the people which gave it the binding authority of a law.
This constitution of the Roman government may not improperly show what part the Hebrew people or congregation of Israel had in their government, which Mr. Harrington thus describes, “In laws to be made, whatever was proposed by the Sanhedrim, and resolved in the affirmative, in the congregation of the Lord, was an act of Parliament of Israel,” Harrington’s Commonwealth of Israel, p. 52. c. ii. S. 16.
A few particular instances how the public affairs of greatest moment were transacted in this assembly may make this part of the Hebrew constitution better understood.
The Congregation of Israel was summoned by Moses to receive the law, to recognize and acknowledge Jehovah their God, their king, and their lawgiver, which Moses was directed to do in this form: Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel, ye have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles wings, and brought you unto myself: Now therefore if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: For all the earth is mine, and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel; and Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the Lord commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said, all that the Lord hath spoken, we will do; and Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord, Exodus19:3-8. I mention this passage at large, because it is a very particular account of the form in which affairs were proposed to the people, and resolved by them; and you will observe that legal forms explain the true powers and authority of any part of a Constitution, much better than general arguments, which are commonly founded on conjectures rather than on facts.
A proposal of anything by the senate to the people of Rome, was called rogation, or asking; because it was usually in some such form of words, as this: Is it your will, o Romans, and do you resolve it? Or if a war was to be proposed to the people, their consent was asked in this form: Is it you pleasure, o Romans, and do you resolve that war shall be proclaimed? Sometimes the form was thus, Concerning these things, I ask you, O Romans, what is you will, and what you resolve to have done? On such proposal from the senate to the people, the answer is sometimes only, We will, and resolve it. Sometimes more particular, We will and resolve what the majority of the senate here present have proposed. Or simply, Be it as you ask.
How near to this form of proposing and resolving in the Roman government is the proposal of Moses to the general court or congregation of all Israel? Moses laid before their faces all the words which the Lord commanded him; that is, he proposed to them, whether they would consent to this covenant, and resolve it should be a fundamental law of their nation? How near is this to the form, Is it your will, and do you resolve it, o Hebrews? The answer of the congregation of all Israel is in these words: All that the Lord hath spoken we will do. How near is this to the form, We will, and resolve it? Or, We will, and resolve all that Jehovah hath proposed to us? Whoever shall carefully observe the forms of proposing and resolving in the popular assemblies of the Hebrews, will perceive, I think, still more reason to understand the powers and authority of them in the Hebrew government to be much the same, as the power and authority of the Roman people was in that government, or indeed much the same as the powers and authority of the people were in most governments of the ancients: In which the consent of the people was always to be asked and had, by the senate or council in matters of greater moment, and general concern.
In the Athenian government there was an assembly of the people called Ęxxλŋσία or a general court of the Athenian citizens, summoned according to law, which was to confirm or reject what was proposed to it.
The Lacedaemonians had a like assembly of the people, especially that which was called simply Ęxxλσία, or the congregation, in distinction from what was called the lesser congregation, or Μikρα Exxλσία, which consisted of the inhabitants of the city of Sparia only; whereas the general congregation consisted of all the Lacedaemonians in all the country of Laconia; to which it belonged to advise concerning war and peace or whatever else related to the public and common interest. In particular, they were to give their consent to the choice of magistrates, and confirm them in their authority by their suffrage.
Such also were the powers of the assembly of the people in the ancient government of Carthage. This was likely after the model of Tyre, to which city the Hebrew Constitution could not be unknown, and a similitude between them is highly probable. In this government the people declared what they thought was proper to be done, concerning the things which were laid before them; such declarations were received as the determined resolution of the whole city, and it was not lawful afterwards to oppose it or to contradict it.
These popular assemblies in the fore mentioned government of Greece, Italy and Africa, we may add in Asia too, as the Carthaginian government was of Tyrian original, may serve to explain this part of the Hebrew Constitution, which appears to have so near resemblance to them.
There is one thing deserves particular observation, the manner in which matters were proposed to the assembly, and in which the assembly gave its assent. In the governments of Athens, Lacedaemon, Carthage, and Rome, when any thing was to be proposed to the people, it was to be proposed to them by a proper magistrate; upon which proposal the assembly was to receive or to reject it. It was even provided by the laws of Lacedaemen, that none should be allowed to debate anything, besides what was proposed to them by the kings and the senate; or in the Roman style, the people resolved on the proposal of a senatorian magistrate. An institution plainly intended to preserve the wisdom of an administration by the councils of the prudent, as well as the liberty of the people in their assent.
We have seen the covenant between God and the Hebrew nation thus proposed by Moses to the congregation, and voted by them unanimously, be it as proposed.
When Joshua was made successor to Moses, Moses is directed to set him before Eleazar, the priest, and before all the congregation; there seems to have been a proposal of his choice to the people, as well as the solemnity of inauguration into his office; agreeable to what was done before, when they received Jehovah for their king; agreeable to the manner of asking and taking the consent of the people in other governments; and agreeable to the account the Scriptures give of the manner in which they promised obedience to Joshua, Num 37:18. And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands upon him, and the children of Israel hearkened unto him, and did as the Lord commanded Moses, Deut 34:9. Or they consented to do what Moses proposed to them in the name of Jehovah, to receive Joshua for his successor, and to obey him as judge, in him room.
When Saul was appointed first king at the desire of the people, it is thought not improbable by some ingenious men, that Saul was nominated by a ballot, and not by a pure lot; but however that was, Saul’s appointment to the kingdom was in the congregation of the whole people, I Sam10. And when Saul appeared before the people, his election was confirmed by unanimous consent, and all the people shouted, and said God save the king, 1 Sam 10:24. And afterwards, when some were displeased with Saul’s advancement, and despised him, Samuel (27) calls the assembly again to renew the kingdom, vs 27. Then said Samuel unto the people, come and let us go to Gilgal, and renew the kingdom there, I Sam 11:14. We have accordingly this account of what the people assembled at Gilgal did, And all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal, vs 15.
However short these accounts are, yet if we take along with us the conformity of this congregation of Israel to the assemblies of the people in other governments, and the manner in which this assembly is described in other places; we may, I think, very justly suppose that if this congregation did not chose Saul by vote and ballot, they at least consented to his nomination, and confirmed his authority when proposed by Samuel, as that proposal was made on their own petition; especially when the congregation was summoned to renew the kingdom, and when according to the reason of their meeting expressed in their summons, they made Saul king before the Lord.
In like manner, though Solomon was first proclaimed King by David’s order, when Adonijah exalted himself, saying, I will be king; yet he afterwards proposes Solomon to the people, and confirms him in the throne by their assent; for they made Solomon the son of David king the second time, and anointed him unto the Lord to be chief governor, and Zadock to be priest: Thus Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king, in the stead of David his father, and prospered, and all Israel obeyed him, 1 Kings 1, 1 Chron.29:22-23.
But the authority and rights of this branch of the Hebrew government, as one of the states of Israel, may yet further appear, if we observe how far they were concerned in treaties of peace and leagues of friendship.
When the inhabitants of Gibeon came to Joshua, Joshua at the first made peace with them, and a league to save their lives; this treaty was confirmed by the oath of the princes, and the princes of the congregation sware unto them, Joshua 9:15; but when it was found soon after, that the Gibeonites had imposed on Joshua and the princes, the congregation grew uneasy, and murmured against the princes, and so it was brought before the congregation; and the princes proposed to the people a confirmation of their league, because they had sworn unto it. And the princes said unto them, Let them live, as the princes had promised them, Joshua 21. It should seem plain from hence, that a convention, though made by judge and senate, was to be ratified by the consent of the people or Commons of Israel, according to the Hebrew Constitution, to give it full authority.
This Congregation of Israel had also, as the popular assemblies of other governments had, some jurisdiction in criminal causes.
When Saul in a battle with the Philistines, had adjured Israel, not to eat any food till the evening, his own son Jonathan transgressed his order; and upon his confession, Saul his father, then king and general, determines to put him to death. And Saul answered God do so, to me, and more also; for thou shalt surely die, Jonathan, 1 Sam 14:24,44. This sentence passed by Saul, might appear to be without appeal, and that there was no authority to reverse it; however the people said unto Saul, Shall Jonathan die, who hath wrought this great salvation in Israel? God forbid! As the Lord liveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground; for he hath wrought with God this day. So the people rescued Jonathan, that he died not.
Bishop Patrick justly observes, “That the people did not rescue Jonathan by violence of force.” It was not a mutinous act of an army: yet the expressions of the history will no ways suit with his further supposition, “That they delivered him by petition to Saul;” or, as Grotius, “not by authority, but intreaty.” As the Lord liveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground, has very little of the style of an humble petition; it seems a very full resolution, and which it appears they understood to be their right. And why may it not be so understood, when the authority of condemning or absolving criminals is known to belong to the Assembly of the people, in the most celebrated governments of Greece and Rome? Josephus mentions indeed, “They offered prayers to God, that he would forgive Jonathan’s sin;” but he made no mention of any petition they made to his father Saul; but that they rescued him from his father’s anger and rash curse; which words can hardly, I think, be understood of a petition, but must mean either force or authority. And the words in the original seem to mean neither force, nor petition, but an act of their own authority, whereby Jonathan was redeemed from the sentence of death; or whereby he was pardoned, and the sentence of death passed upon him was reversed, in the General Court of Israel. This interpretation is greatly favored, as judgment in criminal cases is given to the Congregation by an express law on some occasions.
The Congregation is appointed to judge between the slayer and the avenger of blood, And the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood; and the congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of the revenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of refuge, Num 35:24,25. Now, whatever Congregation is here meant, whether provincial or national, there is all reason to understand, that all powers which belonged to a lower Assembly, did belong to the higher Assembly or Congregation of all Israel in national affairs.
This Congregation had also authority in civil causes and matters of private property. In the case of the daughters of Zelophehad, or of female succession, on failure of heirs male; it was laid before Moses, the priest, the princes and all the congregation, Num 27:1-3. They laid it before the parliament of Israel by petition, representing that their father died without sons; praying that they might have a possession among the brethren of their father, that the name of their father might not be done away from among his family, because he had no son. This petition was received, and referred to the decision of the oracle. And Moses brought their case before the Lord, and the Lord spake unto Moses saying, The daughters of Zelophehad speak right; and thereupon a law was enacted to settle female successions, verses 6-11.
After this law was made, the tribe of Manasseh, to which these daughters of Zelophehad belonged, brought another question to be determined. Whether heiresses might marry into other tribes, and so transfer their inheritance from one tribe to another? This petition was also received and answered, according to the word of the Lord; that they should marry only within their own tribe, that the children of Israel may enjoy every one the inheritance of his father, Num 36:1-8.
The congregation before which these cases were brought by petition, was an Assembly of the states-general of Israel, the Judge, Senate and people; and seems plainly to show, such questions were properly according to the Constitution brought before them. It was judged fit to consult the oracle for an answer, very likely, because it was convenient to have this case settled by a new law. Now new laws were not to be made, but by Jehovah the only Lawgiver, as was observed before. Therefore Moses consulted at the Schechinah, as the Hebrew writers call the Glory of God’s appearance, and whence the oracle gave the command of Jehovah. It may be fit to observe here, it was the peculiar privilege of Moses to consult the oracle himself, and he had no need of the high priest to consult with the Urim for him: for the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. So that during the administration of Moses, none consulted the oracle or received the word of Jehovah from the Schechinah but Moses himself.
These things being considered, the nature and method of proceeding in this assembly may appear to have been much after this manner. Here was a case brought before the Congregation by petition. It was therefore used to received such petition, and consider such cases, as were so brought before it. This appearing to be a case, that required a new law, it was referred to the oracle which in times after the administration of Moses, by the Constitution was only to be consulted by the high-priest with the Urim. In which, by the way, we have the whole Union of the Tribes in their States-general pretty plainly expressed. Here was Moses as Judge or Stadtholder, here was the High-Priest the appointed minister to consult the oracle, which was placed only during the administration of Moses by particular privilege in him. Here were the Princes and all the Congregation, which shows the authority of the Commons of Israel, in a plain instance of matters Judiciary, brought before the States general of the United Tribes: for this case was referred to them as well as to the Princes and to Moses himself the Judge. So that the Commons of Israel, as distinguished from the Princes and the Judge, will make one of the States then assembled in full Parliament.
Yet it is to be owned, some learned men speak differently concerning the persons meant here by all the Congregation. “By Princes are meant (says Bishop Patrick) either the heads of the Tribes or the highest of the Judges appointed, called the Heads of the people; and by all the Congregation is meant the seventy elders mentioned in this book; for they are called the whole Congregation, and sometimes only the Congregation, as R. Solomon observes.” He further adds, “Now at the head of all these sat Moses, and next to him Eleazar the priest,” Ex 11:24.
Bertram, has very justly distinguished between the Assembly of the Seventy Elders, and the Princes heads of thousands, hundreds, ect., a distinction which may appear more clearly as we go on. But the same learned author as justly observes concerning “the General Assembly of the free Israelites, that is, of all that entered into the congregation of the Lord, or of all who enjoyed the rights of Hebrews, so that they were accounted God’s people: that when they were met in assembly, they were called the Assembly, and whole Assembly of the Congregation of Israel; sometimes more simply the Congregation, and sometimes all the Congregation,” de Repub. Pg. 72.
The authority of the Talmudists in these cases, is very low with learned men, as may appear by Bishop Patrick’s own representation of this case: “This question was carried through all the courts, (according to them) it began with the rulers of ten, who knowing not what to say to them, they went to those of fifty, from thence to the centurions, at last to the chiliarchs; none of which durst adventure to give judgment, but referred the cause by reason of its difficulty to Moses, who brought it to the Schechinah, as they speak, that is, to the divine majesty. Now Rabbi Solomon’s observation, that all the congregation, meant the seventy elders, deserves no more credit than the observation of his brethren who have made this cause run such a course of law through so many courts without any foundation.”
If we were even to suppose the truth of Rabbi Solomon’s observation, and that the seventy elders are sometimes called the whole congregation, which is at the least very doubtful; it is on the other hand without any doubt, certain, that all the congregation of Israel, and the congregation of all Israel is the proper title of the general assembly of all free Hebrews, who had a right to enter into the congregation of Jehovah.
It is probable, as we shall see presently, that the princes might mean a council or court of the princes of tribes, together with the seventy elders, as the peers of France make the court of the parliament of Paris, together with the Presidents and Counselors; but it seems a very strange description of the Sanhedrim, especially as the Talmudists suppose it a supreme court of justice, to call it all the congregation, especially in direct opposition to the Princes and the Judge. It appears the most natural meaning, and at the same time the only meaning agreeable to the real Constitution of the Hebrew government, to understand by the princes, persons with Senatorian dignity, whether the chief officers of the Tribes or the great court of justice of the Seventy; or, which appears most probable, a Senate consisting of both together: which with the Judge proposing to the Congregation of all Israel, and asking the consent of the whole Hebrew people, was the fullest and highest authority of the Hebrew nation.
This may show, notwithstanding Bishop Patrick’s observation, (who, it is to be observed, builds it solely on the credit of Rabbi Solomon and the Talmudists, which is very little with learned men, especially in their accounts of the Sanhedrim,) that all the Congregation does not here mean the Sanhedrim, or seventy elders, but a proper popular assembly of the Hebrews, or a congregation of the commons of all Israel, of whom on some occasions the inferior officers might be a representative. This assembly, summoned legally, with the great officers, and seventy elders, as the Senate, made a full Parliament of Israel.
And this seems to have been the proper share of the people or Commons of Israel, in the original Constitution, as one of the states of the Hebrew nation.