Chapter 5 – Particular Government of the Several Tribes

When the whole body of the Hebrew Nation was thus settled in Canaan, each person having an equal share in land, and an unalienable property in it; each Tribe was settled the whole of it together, each Tribe was under its own proper and distinct government, each had its scepter or staff of command, and its lawgiver, or administration of justice, according to law in its own hands.  Each Tribe shall judge its own people, or in the words of Jacob to Dan, Dan shall judge his people as one of the Tribes of Israel, Gen 49:16.  From whence it is evident, says a learned and judicious author, “that every tribe had its own prince and judge, and that every prince or head of a Tribe judged his own people; consequently every tribe had a scepter and a lawgiver, as well as the Tribe of Judah.”  This power in the heads of tribes, the same author observes, took place immediately on the death of Jacob, Ex:3:16.  For all applications and messages are not to the people, but to the Elders of Israel, Ex 19:7.  The command of God sent to the house of Jacob, and the children of Israel in Egypt, was delivered by Moses to the Elders of the people; the people and their rulers are distinguished plainly.  Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation returned unto him, and Moses talked with them; and afterwards all the children of Israel came nigh, Ex 34:31,32.

“However the government in the several Tribes of Israel was not monarchical, but aristocratical; and that no one tribe had superiority over another is plain upon the death of Joshua:  for then the people enquire of God, who should go up for them against the Canaanites?  Judges 1:1.  A question which would not have been asked, had any one tribe, or ruler of one tribe, had the right of leading and governing the rest.” Bp. Sherlock, Dissertation III, 304.

It is very plain from the Hebrew history that the provincial government of the Tribes of Israel was not monarchical.  It rather seems by their history a kind of mixed government, partly aristocratical, and partly poplar.

To give us  a right notion of the Hebrew government, we should begin with this form of the provincial government of each Tribe; for as much as every tribe had its own scepter and was a distinct province, tho’ one of the united provinces of Israel.  This will prepare us to understand afterwards more distinctly their union in their general government, or the States-General of the United Tribes of Israel.

We have often mention of persons in authority in the Tribes, Princes of the Tribes of their fathers, heads of thousands in Israel, the princes of Israel, heads of the houses of their fathers, who were the princes of the tribes, and were over them that were numbered, Num 1:16; 7:2.

It was given as a standing constitution of the Hebrew government, judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all they gates, which the Lord thy God giveth thee, throughout thy tribes, and they shall judge the people with just judgment, Deut 16:18.  And Moses in his own time, by the advice of Jethro, chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens; and they judged the people at all seasons.  The hard cases they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves, Ex 18:25,26.

Many have thought, these Jethronian Prefectures, as they are usually called, (Sigonius, de Rep. Heb. L. vi. C. 6) because they were constituted by the advice of Jethro, were designed to be a standing constitution and continued in use after the settlement of the tribes, as a model of their provincial government.  Others will have this authority of the captains “to last no longer than during their pilgrimage in the wilderness; for when they came into Canaan, the law required judges and officers to be ordained in every city,” Patrick on Deut 18:8.

However that be, whether the Jerthronian Prefecture was a particular constitution, while all Israel were together in one camp, under the leading of Moses, for his own greater ease and the more speedy administration of justice, which one person was not able to administer alone to so many people; or whether it was designed a plan for provincial judges and officers after the settlement of the people in the Holy Land, it is without question that the law directed judges and officers, who with the heads of families and princes of the tribes were to govern the tribes of Israel, as tribes or distinct provinces.

Government of the Cities.  To begin with the government of each city, the Rabbinical writers generally mention a court of justice in each city, consisting of three judges, they say, in the lesser towns, and twenty-three in the greater cities; but it is justly observed, there is no mention of any particular number of judges in scripture.  On the contrary Josephus (Ant. 1, IV. C. 8) mentions seven judges in each city, without any distinction between the greater and the lesser.  It is very likely, the particular number of judges might be left to discretion, as no number was fixed by law, tho’ the courts themselves were appointed expressly; they might therefore be more or fewer in numbers, as the administration of justice should require.  Thus, in the later times of the Hebrew government, the number of three in lesser towns, and of twenty-three in greater cities, might become fixed by custom and length of time.

By this general provision however, care was taken for a regular administration of justice near at hand; to the great convenience of every person, who was neither to go far to seek it, or to wait long for it, or to be at any great expense to obtain it;  since each city and tribe had the administration of justice within themselves.

It was moreover no inconsiderably advantage to prevent the tedious length and extraordinary expense of suits, that the judgments of these courts were appointed by the law to be final in most cases.  In cases of greater moment and difficulty, or rather where the court was doubtful and divided in opinion.  If there arise a matter to hard for thee in judgment, says the law, …being matters of controversy within thy gates, then shalt thou arise and get thee up unto the place, which the Lord thy God shall choose; and thou shalt come unto the priests, the Levites, and unto the judge which shall be in those days, and enquire and they shall shew thee the sentence of judgment, Deut 17:8,9.

In some cases provision was made for appeals to the priests, the Levites, or to the judge, as some render it here, and as it is expressed by the law itself presently after, Deut 17:12.  The priests the Levites are generally understood of the national council, commonly call the Sanhedrin; for there is no mention of the high priest alone, but the priests and Levites, which can well be understood of such priest and Levites only, who had some authority and commission to shew the judgment in the place which the Lord God had chosen.  This naturally seems to represent them not as priests and Levites in general, but as chosen in members of some general national council.  It was not indeed necessary from any direction of law, that the priest or Levites should be in the national council at all.  Yet on account of their ability  and knowledge in the laws, they were generally deemed fittest and best qualified to be chosen into them, as the most proper persons to attend this service and to execute it well; and the judge was by his office invested with the highest powers, civil as well as military, for to judge Israel, was to administer justice as well as to command armies.

Hence it may appear how justice was administered usually, and questions of law decided, viz. in the tribes themselves by their own respective judges.  Yet in some more difficult cases it was wisely provided, they might have a review before a court of appeal, and judgment should be shewn and ascertained by a national court of persons, the most experienced and best learned in the laws, not much unlike, having special matters, argued before the judges, and determined by them all.

It was also of great importance that all question of controversy, which might arise on any occasion between the tribes themselves, should be decided by a national court.  For as the several tribes had no authority or jurisdiction over each other, they could not be decided but by some common judge.  This is well explained by Selden (Selden de Synedr. l. iii. C. iv. Sec. 4), as the general opinion of the Hebrew lawyers.  “Nor is it to be doubted but each tribe, as often as anything concerning them as tribes was to be  argued and decided, was subject to no lower court, and only to this (the great) Sanhedrin.  For what concerned one tribe was by no means to be determined by the judges of another, out of Jerusalem,” or by the judges of any court; but that which for a long time had been fixed at Jerusalem, which was the great Sanhedrin or national court; concerning the nature of which we shall have occasion to say something hereafter, in a more proper place.

But from what had been remarked already, we may discern the great wisdom of appointing judges in the several tribes to decide almost all causes and controversies among themselves, and yet the great importance of the law of appeals in such extraordinary cases as were allowed to be brought before the superior national courts.  And this will moreover shew the necessary reason why so severe a punishment is enacted against those who should refuse obedience to the decree of the national court on appeal.  According to the sentence of the law, which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do.  Thou shalt not decline from the sentence which they shall shew thee, to the right hand, nor to the left.  And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the Lord thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put away the evil form Israel.   And all the people shall hear, and fear, and do no more presumptuously, Deut 17:11,12.

Such presumptuous disobedience was deservedly made capital, which must dissolve the union of the tribes by which they were one national government, make it impossible to reconcile any differences between them, and put an end to the whole government itself, so that it could neither use the joint counsels or the joint forces of the nation for the common good of the whole, but, like a kingdom divided against itself, it must fall to the ground.

Elders of the Cities. And as to the particular government of each city, there are plain intimations of a senate, or of a court of elders, or aldermen, distinct from the commonalty or general courts of the people.  When the inhabitants of Gilead were for setting Jeptha at their head, to defend them against the children of Ammon, it is said, the elders of Gilead went to fetch Jeptha, and to make him their captain, Judges 11:5,6.  The whole affair was first treated of and concluded between Jeptha and these elders; but to give full authority to it Jeptha went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and captain over them.

Here, as the elders are plainly distinguished from the people, so it is plain to perceive a very near resemblance to the known form of government by a senate and assembly of the people.  The choice of Jeptha was a joint act of the senate and people of Gilead, or this choice had its full authority by a resolution of the people on the proposal of the senate.

Mention is also made of the Elders of Succoth, and the princes thereof, even threescore and seventeen men; whom Gideon punished for refusing him their alliance on the defeat of Zeba and Zalmunna, Judges 8:14-16.

On the redemption of inheritances, it seems, it was to be done in open court, that is, before the people and the Elders.  Thus Boaz advertises the Kinsman of Elimelech, buy it before the inhabitants, and before the elders of my people.  Upon the refusal of the nearest kinsman to redeem the inheritance, Boaz redeems it himself in this form.  And Boaz said unto the elders, and unto all the people, ye are witness this day that I have bought all that was Elimelech’s, Ruth 4:4,9.

This usage in the cities was agreeable to the law itself; for it is enacted, if a man is found slain, and it be not known who hath slain him, the elders and judges shall come forth, and find out what city is nearest the place where the person is found slain; and the elders of that city shall come and purge themselves of any knowledge of the murder, and offer a sacrifice to put away the guilt of innocent blood, Deut 21:1-9.

And in the Cities of Refuge, if any guilty of willful murder fled there from justice, the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hands of justice, Deut 19:12.

What the number of these elders was, and what in particular were the duties of their office, are questions not so easy to be answered, from the short account we have of the Hebrew history and government; but in general, there is sufficient to inform us, that the principle affairs of the public passed through their hands, were directed by their counsel and authority, and that they had all the usual powers of a senate.

Sigonius supposes that these judges and elders of the cities were according to an original constitution of Moses in the wilderness; and afterwards continued by divine appointment for the government of the tribes, when settled in the Land of Canaan, Sigonius de Rep. Heb. L. vi. c.6.

Moses took the chief of the tribes, wise men, and known, and made them heads over them captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, and captains over fifties, and captains over tens, and officers among the tribes, Deut 1:15.

It is very probable, as the whole Hebrew nation held their estates by military tenure, and as the tribes were always to be in readiness to raise a sufficient number of men, in arms, for defense of their country on any occasion,  especially if the whole nation was to serve by turns one month in their course; that this militia was always officered; that the colonels, the captains, and lower officers, were always in being, as is customary wherever a militia is well disciplined, or like to be of any considerable service.

It is also very probable in itself, that these officers should have civil as well as military authority; and be a council of state in things relating to the peace and welfare of the public, as well as a council of war to direct the military affairs of the tribes, and command them as an army.

This is the more probable, as it will make the form of provincial government exactly answer the form of the national government; in which the princes of the tribes of their fathers were heads of thousands in Israel, Num 1:16.  These were the chief military officers; every man of the children of Israel was to pitch by his own standard, with the ensign of his father’s house, Num 2:2.  The prince of each tribe was the chief commander of each tribe, so Nahshon of Amminadab was captain of the children of Judah, and whole tribe of Judah is called his host, Num 3:4.  Now it was these same persons who were to assist Moses, and whom he consulted when he did not summon the whole congregation.  This appears from the different signals appointed for summoning these different assemblies to meet.  When they shall blow with them (with both trumpets) all the assembly shall assemble themselves, and if they blow but with one trumpet, then the princes which are heads of the thousand of Israel shall gather themselves unto thee, Num 10:3,4.

Now tho’ these were military officers, and summoned by sound of trumpet, they were not summoned only as a council of war.  The question in law concerning the succession of females to inheritances was brought before Moses and the princes, the chief fathers of the children of Israel, Num 36:1.  The princes of every tribe are likewise joined with Eleazer the priest, and Joshua the judge, in dividing the land among the tribes, Num 34:17-19.

This conjunction then of civil authority with military command, is so well known in the Hebrew constitution that both were united in their judges, their kings, and in all their chief magistrates.  It seems then very likely, that the heads the captains of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens should be vested with civil as well as military authority; and that the officers of lower command, should be the elders and senate of their cities; that the officers of higher and more general command, should be the princes, elders and senate of tribe, or province.

This view of the Hebrew government in their several tribes may also give us a very probable account of the office and authorities of heads of families, and princes of tribes, in whom the chief direction of the several tribes as distinct provinces was lodged by the Constitution in things civil and military, both for council and action.

“The division of the people of Israel,” Mr. Harrington observes, “was first genealogical, and then local.  The tribes of Israel genealogically reckoned were thirteen, Num 1.  In the genealogical distribution of the tribes there were also observed certain ranks, qualities or degrees, as appears by the poll made of Israel, in the wilderness of Sinai, and in the tabernacle of the congregation by Moses.  These degrees were of two sorts:  First, Phylarchs, or princes of tribes; and secondly patriarchs, or princes of families, all hereditary honors, and appertaining to the first-born of the tribe respectively,” Harrington Com. Israel. C. ii. Sect. 1.

That families should have their respective heads, was very agreeable to the customs of those early times of the world.  The dukes of Edom were so many heads of families descending from Esau, (Gen 34:13ff) and the present manner of the Arabians, who have most exactly preserved the customs of their ancestors, and who distinguish the chiefs of their families with dignity and authority, will further confirm it.  A particular instance of some one of the tribes may give a clearer notion of it.  Let the tribe of Judah be the instance.

Judah was one of the sons of Jacob, and his posterity made one of the tribes of Israel; of this tribe Nahshon, the son of  Amminadab, was prince, Num 1:7.  This tribe was divided into several families, not single households, but as families are used in heraldry, for a lineage or kindred, descending from a common ancestor, including many particular households.  So that the sons of Judah became the fathers of so many families, who were distinguished by their names.  For the sons of Judah after their families were of  Shelah the family of the Shelanite, of Pharez the family of the Pharzite, of Zerah the family of the Zarhite; and the sons of Pharez were, of Hesron the family of the Hesronite, of Hamul the family of the Hamulite, Num 26:20-22.   It appears these families and the households in each, as well as the persons in each household, were kept distinct:   For on the conviction of Achan, Joshua brought Israel by their tribes, and the tribe of Judah was taken, and he brought the families  of Judah, and he took the family of the Zarhite and he brought the family of the Zarhite man by man; and Zabdi was taken, and he brought his household man by man, and Achan the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, (or the family of the Zarhites) of the tribe of Judah was taken, Joshua 7:16-18.

If you reckon the tribes to be twelve, exclusive of the tribe of Levi, which was not to be settled as a tribe, there will be twelve princes of tribes, and fifty-eight heads of families in the twelve tribes, Num 26.  In Reuben four, in Simeon five, in Gad seven, in Judah five, in Issachar four, in Zabulon three, in Manasseh eight, in Ephraim four, in Benjamin eight, in Dan one, in Asher five, and in Napthali four.  These fifty-eight heads of families, with the twelve princes, make the number of seventy, just equal to the number of elders chosen into the senate of Israel; when the Lord said unto Moses, gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, Num 11:16, which Moses thus reports unto the people, take ye wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you, Deut 1:13.  Whence there appears some ground for their conjecture, who suppose the number of seventy elders to be taken from the number of the princes of the tribes and heads of the families of Israel.

These princes of tribes and heads of families are supposed to be the heirs male of the patriarch of the tribe, as of Judah, and of the first progenitors of the several families, Menochias, de Rep. Heb. P.42.  Mr. Harrington calls them all hereditary honors, and appertaining to the first-born of the tribe, or of the family respectively.

It is very probable that the first-born of the tribe or of the family was usually the prince of the tribe or head of the family when he was of full age, and without any incapacity to discharge the duty of the office.  Yet the instance of Nahshon, prince of Judah, will l think, shew that if the prince of the tribe was not elective, he was not always the first-born of the tribe; for Nahshon was not the heir male of Judah.  Nahshon, prince of the children of Judah, was the son of Amminadab, the son of Ram, who was a younger son of Hezron, the son of Pharez, who also was a younger son of Judah, 1 Chron 2.

Whether the prince of the tribe then was hereditary or elective is not so certain from the Hebrew history.   It seems most likely, that the first-born were generally if not constantly prefer’d, when minority or some other incapacity did not require the choice of some other person.

Every tribe then, had thus a prince or chief with four or five more or less heads of families, who commanded the tribe when in arms, and presided in its councils when assembled, as a civil or political body.  Their dignity and authority seem to be alluded to in the Song of Deborah, Speak ye that ride on white asses, ye that sit in judgment, Judges 5:10.  Sigonius has well expressed their office in general:  “The princes of the tribes were those who led each tribe, and had the administration of their public affairs.  The office of the heads of families was to assemble the families of which they were governors, to propose to them what concerned the common good, and to be their captains in war,” Sigonius, de Rep. Heb. L. vii. c. 5.

“These princes of the tribes,” says Menochius, “were the nobles or peers of the Hebrew commonwealth.  They were with the chief magistrate of the nation, whether judge of king, to give counsel and advice, and to join in the administration of justice,” Menochius Rep. Heb. L. vii. c. 5.

Finally, “These chiefs of the tribes, says Calmet, were captains in war, judges and magistrates in times of peace, and counselors of the prince in all affairs, both ecclesiastical and civil,” Calmet Dissertat. T. i. P. ii p. 518.

These prince of tribes and heads of families may be represented, as lords-lieutenants of a county, and their deputy-lieutenants; or as generals, and lieutenant-generals; being constant general officers when the tribe was to march, as part of the army of Israel; and in the tribe they were the principal magistrates to summon the tribe to a general assembly when there were occasion for it, or when any affairs relating to the whole tribe, were to be proposed, or any resolution of consequence to be taken by the whole tribe, or when any thing was to be communicated to it from the general states of the united tribes, which required the concurrence of the province.

The officers in each city may, in like manner, be considered as the local officers of the militia in the several hundreds and divisions of the county or province.  This made a provision of colonels and captains, to draw the forces to the tribes together, and to lead them wherever they were directed to a general rendezvous, where the prince of the tribe as general, and the heads of families as lieutenant-generals, should receive them; and at all times to exercise them to arms at home, better to prepare them for the service of their country, whenever they should be called to march in defense of it.

As civil authority was generally joined to military command in this constitution, these captains of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens, were also elders of the people.  They were as a standing senate and council in the places of their habitation, so that we conceive the same persons invested with the authority of aldermen and justices of peace, at the same time they were colonels and captains of the militia.

Thus with the assemblies of the people they managed the public affairs of each hundred or division; at the same time they were in readiness not only to appear as a council of war, with the prince of the tribe, the general, and with the heads of families, the lieutenant-generals as military officers; but moreover, to meet them on all occasions as a civil  council or parliament, as a sort of representative of the people of the tribe in its several divisions, when there was any occasion to summon them together, to treat on any arduous affairs concerning the public good of the tribe.

This Constitution of the particular tribes, appears to me as plain and evident as can be expected in so short a history as we have of the Hebrew nation; especially when the original Constitution  was so soon altered, and the affairs of government were so confused in the anarchy soon after the death of Joshua.  However, even in those times there are so many evident marks of the principal parts of the Constitution, as must render all the rest highly probable to one who would carefully lay all things together, in order to find out the design and plan of the whole.