General Idea of the Hebrew Constitution

  • Chapter X – The Nation’s Magistrates
  • Chapter XI – The Tribes
  • Chapter XII – Legislature, Courts, Levites, Prophets


The Nation’s Magistrates

The political equality of the people, without either nobles or peasants properly so called, was, as we have seen, a fundamental principle of the Mosaic constitution. This could not but give the state a strong democratic tendency. Nor is it matter of surprise that on this foundation Moses established a commonwealth, rather than a monarchy. On this point, there is scarcely a dissenting voice among all the learned men who have written upon these institutions. Mr. Horne does but echo the general opinion, when he says that “the form of the Hebrew republic was unquestionably democratic.”

Moses did not, indeed, by an unchangeable law, enact that no alteration should ever be made in the form of government. On the contrary, his prophetic eye foresaw that the time would come when his countrymen, infected and dazzled by the example of the surrounding nations, would lose their relish for republican simplicity, and would demand the splendors of a throne and a court. But it was not his wish that they should have a king. Upon this point he reasoned, he dissuaded, he expostulated, he warned. The spirit of his law was strongly against monarchy, and all who afterwards maintained that spirit were equally strong against it. This was the case with Gideon, who indignantly rejected the offer of a crown. This was the case with Samuel, that model of a popular magistrate. He remonstrated, solemnly and eloquently, with the people, against their rash determination to have a king. He told them that they were fastening upon themselves an oriental despotism, that their kings would rule them with a rod of iron, and that they would repent of their rashness when it was too late. The truth is that all who followed the maxims of the founder of the state, set their faces against usurpation and maintained the rights of the people at all hazards, and in the most disastrous times.

Foreseeing, however, that all his admonitions would, in the end, prove unavailing, Moses enacted a fundamental law to define and limit the power of the future kings. This law is found in the seventeenth chapter of Deuteronomy. Despotism seems to be the native growth of the East. Man there, cradled in servitude, becomes fitted to listen to his fate in the mandates of a tyrant. The climate dissolves the energy of the heart, and hence the people of the East have always been mere children in respect of political institutions. Indolence loves to gaze, and hence they have ever been delighted with the trappings of royalty, and have been prone to look on an earthly king with a veneration approaching to idolatry. The pomp of their sovereign feeds their vanity; his power is their pride. They have no notion of popular freedom. Hence a chief magistrate, subject to the laws of his people, a constitutional king, is a conception foreign to all their habits of thought and feeling. In Egypt, Moses had witnessed the abuse of the regal power; in the wilderness, he had observed the tyranny of the petty despots in the neighborhood of Israel. Hence the enactment of the law referred to above. The particular provision of this law will be examined in another chapter. I will only observe now, in passing, that they were such as to insure, whenever the anticipated change in the form of polity should take place, the existence of a constitutional monarchy. The king, permitted by Moses to the folly of his countrymen, was, in truth, what a late monarch in France1 claimed to be, a “citizen king,” a popular magistrate, rather than an arbitrary sovereign. If the Hebrew statesman could not wholly resist the proclivity of his nation to the regal form of government, he at least, with prescient wisdom, limited the power entrusted to the hands of royalty. In this he shows how thoroughly his own spirit was impregnated with democratic principles, how deep was his hatred of tyranny, and how ardent and irrepressible his sympathy for the rights, the liberty, and the happiness of man.

1 Louis Philippe.

Considerable difference of opinion exists among the learned in regard to the number and nature of the departments of the Hebrew government, and the officers by whom the administration of public affairs was conducted. The mixture of civil and military authority, which marks this constitution, the blending of the legislative and judicial functions in the same assembly, the union of various and, according to our way of thinking, somewhat incongruous powers in the priesthood, the apparent chasms2 in the Mosaic legislation arising from the frequent retention by Moses of ancient consuetudinary laws, without any formal introduction of them into the body of his own laws, and the extreme brevity of the history of the Israelitish state, as contained in the sacred books, are the causes of that obscurity, which has operated to produce this diversity of opinion. As far as I have been able to satisfy my own mind, the following statement embodies the radical features of this ancient and venerable polity.

2 I say “apparent chasms” because what are shames to us were not so to the Israelites, being supplied by a then well known law of usage, a “lex non scripta” corresponding to the common law among us.

Each of the Israelitish tribes formed a separate state, having a local legislature and a distinct administration of justice. The power of the several states was sovereign within the limits of their reserved rights. Still, there was both a real and a vigorous general government. The nation might have been styled the united tribes, provinces, or states of Israel. The bond of political union between the sovereign states appears to have been fourfold. In other words, there were four departments of the Hebrew government, viz., the chief magistrate, whether judge, high priest, or king; the senate of princes; the congregation of Israel, the popular branch of the government; and the oracle of Jehovah, a most interesting and singular part of the political structure. The form of a legal enactment might have run somewhat after this fashion: “Be it enacted by the senate and congregation of Israel, the judge approving, and the oracle concurring.” There was a judiciary system, in which causes of a sufficient magnitude could be carried up, through courts of various grades, till they came, for final adjudication, before a supreme national court, which held its session in the capital of the nation. Finally, on the one hand, the organization of the tribe of Levi gave vitality to the whole system, acted as a counterpoise to the democracy, and restrained its excesses, while, on the other, the prophetical order maintained the rights of the people, and formed a powerful barrier against the encroachments of arbitrary power.

A knowledge of the polity of the Hebrews prior to the time of Moses will help us in understanding his constitution, since he retained in it many of the ancient laws and institutions, sometimes unaltered, sometimes slightly modified. The simplicity of ancient manners rendered complicated methods of government unnecessary. The form actually employed by most nations in the earliest times, appears to have been patriarchal. To this rule the Hebrew polity does not form an exception. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob governed their families with an authority well-nigh unlimited. Their power over their households was little short of a sovereign dominion. They were independent princes. They acknowledged no subjection, and owed no allegiance, to any sovereign. They formed alliances with other princes.3 They treated with kings on a footing of equality.4 They maintained a body of servants, trained to the use of arms; were the chiefs, who led them in war; and repelled force by force.5 They were the priests who appointed festivals and offered sacrifices.6 They had the power of disinheriting their children,7 of sending them away from home without assigning any reason,8 and even of punishing them capitally.9

3 Genesis 21:22-23.

4 Genesis 14:24, 34:6-19.

5 Genesis 14:13-16.

6 Genesis 8:20, 22:13; Job 1:5.

7 Genesis 49:3-4, 1 Chronicles 5:1.

8 Genesis 21:14.

9 Genesis 38:24.

The twelve sons of Jacob ruled their respective families with the same authority. But when their descendants had become numerous enough to form tribes, each tribe acknowledged a prince as its ruler.10 This office, it is likely, was at first hereditary in the eldest son, but afterwards became elective. When the tribes increased to such an extent, as to embrace a great number of separate households, the less powerful ones united with their stronger relatives, and acknowledged them as their superiors. In this way, there arose a subdivision of the tribes into collections of households. Such a collection was technically called a family, a clan, a house of fathers, or a thousand.11 This last appellation was not given, because each of these subdivisions contained just a thousand persons, or a thousand households; for, in the nature of things, the number must have varied, and in point of fact, it is manifest from the history, that it did. As the tribes had their princes, so these clans, families, or thousands had their respective chiefs, who were called heads of houses of fathers, heads of thousands, and sometimes simply heads.12 Harrington denominates these two classes of officers phylarchs, or governors of tribes, and patriarchs, or governors of families. Both, while the Israelites were yet in Egypt, were comprehended under the general name of elders.13 Whether this name was a title of honor, like that of sheik (the aged) among the Arabs, and that of senator among the ancient Romans, or whether it is to be understood, according to its etymology, as denoting persons actually advanced in years, is uncertain; probably, however, the former is the true sense of the term. These princes of tribes and heads of thousands, the elders of Israel, were the rulers of the people, while they remained still subject to the power of the Pharaohs, and constituted a kind of “imperum in imperio.” Of course they had no written constitution, nor any very formal code of laws, but governed by custom, reason, and the principles of natural justice. They watched over and provided for the general good of the community, while the affairs of each individual household continued under the control of its own father. For the most part, it may be supposed, only those cases which concerned the fathers of families themselves would come under the cognizance and jurisdiction of the elders.

10 Numbers 1.

11 Judges 6:15; 1 Samuel 10:19-21, 23:23; Numbers 26:5-50.

12 Numbers 17:3, 25:15; Joshua 21:14, 23:2.

13 Exodus 3:16, 4:29.

Such was the patriarchal form of government. It was found among all the branches of Abraham’s posterity—Ishmaelites, Edomites, and Israelites alike. Each of these, like the ancient Germans, the Roman gentes, and the Scottish clans, kept together in a body, according to their tribes and families. Every tribe formed a little commonwealth, having its own particular interests, while all united became a great republic with a common weal. Thus we find the Ishmaelites governed by twelve princes, according to the number of Ishmael’s sons.14 Their descendants, the Bedouin Arabs, have preserved the patriarchal polity to this day. They call their princes emirs, and their heads of clans sheiks—elders—under which latter designation, the Hebrews included both these orders of rulers. In like manner, the Edomites had what the sacred historian calls kings, but under them, again, stood a multitude of chiefs, styledprinces, who ruled over so many clans.15 The same arrangement took place among the Israelites. That there were twelve great tribes is known to all. That the tribes were governed, each by its own prince, that they were subdivided into clans, or groups of related families, having also their respective chiefs, and that these princes of tribes and chiefs of clans received the common appellation of “elders of Israel,” will be evident to anyone who will take the trouble to compare the first chapter of Numbers with Exodus 3:16, 4:29, and 6:14-15.

14 Genesis 25:16.

15 Genesis 36.

Another order of officers, who, in the end, came to possess great dignity and power, likewise sprang up among the Hebrews, while yet in Egypt. These were the shoterim, in our version rendered “officers.” That they were different from the judges is certain, since Moses ordained that when the Israelites came into the promised land, they should appoint both judges and shoterim in every city.16 What the duties of these functionaries were, there is not much difficulty in determining. The emirs among the Arabians, a people very nearly related to the Hebrews, and retaining many of the ancient customs common to all the descendants of Abraham, have their secretaries, a class of officers evidently very similar to the Israelitish shoterim. The most important business of the shoterim was to keep the genealogical registers; to record accurately the marriages, births, and deaths among the people; and probably, as they kept the rolls of families, to apportion the public burdens and services on the people individually. Modern governments, indeed, have no office exactly corresponding to this, because they do not regulate their affairs in this genealogical manner; they do not take the census of the people by families. But among a people like the Israelites, whose ideas were altogether clannish, a people with whom all hereditary succession and all posthumous fame depended on genealogical descent, this must have been an office at least as important as that of a judge. The proof that this office existed in Egypt is clear and certain, for the Hebrew shoterim were employed, under the direction of Hebrew overseers, to apportion and press forward the labors exacted from the people.17 It is likely that originally the princes of tribes and chiefs of families performed the duties of genealogists, but that afterwards, to ease themselves, they employed secretaries to do the work for them, who came at length to constitute a distinct order of magistrates, under the name of shoterim.

16 Deuteronomy 16:18. “Judges and officers (shoterim) shalt thou make thee in all thy gates.”

17 Exodus 5:6,10,14-15.

Such was the polity which Moses found established among his countrymen, when he returned to Egypt after a forty years’ residence in Midian. The time had now come, when, agreeably to the divine purpose, the chosen people were to be delivered out of the hand of their oppressors, and put in possession of the land of promise. They were no longer to pursue the nomadic life of their ancestors, but were to be settled, as an agricultural people, in fixed habitations. As a nation, they were designed to answer very important purposes in the divine plan. It was, therefore, necessary, that they should receive new political institutions, suited to their new circumstances and high destination. To this end Moses led them to the foot of Sinai, where the tribes freely elected Jehovah to be their king, a solemn compact was formed between the sovereign and the people, and the civil constitution was settled upon this foundation. Thus Jehovah, in accordance with the prevalent notion of those ages, condescended to be the national and tutelar deity of the Hebrews; his worship was made the fundamental law of the state, and idolatry became a political crime.

But the theocratic element in this constitution did not make a fourth form a government, in addition to the three forms, with which the world is familiar. It was not a political constitution, fundamentally different from the monarchical, aristocratical, democratic, and mixed forms of polity. Warburton has shown that the theocracy continued to the coming of Christ. But during the period intervening between the establishment of the constitution by Moses and the birth of the Messiah, the government underwent many changes, and assumed a variety of forms. It was democratic till the time of Saul, monarchical from his accession to the throne till the captivity, and aristocratical after the restoration of the Jews to their own country; but through all these revolutions it retained the theocratic feature. We may, therefore, proceed in our study of this constitution, and in the attempt to present a true analysis of it, just as we would perform a similar labor in reference to the constitution of Rome or England.

The patriarchal polity, of which a brief sketch is given above, Moses retained unaltered. The subdivision of tribes into collections of families remained as it had been before. At the time of the exodus, the later clans of this sort, exclusive of the tribe of Levi, amounted to fifty-eight, and their chiefs, in conjunction with the twelve princes of tribes, formed a council of state, consisting of seventy members.18 It is evident, however, that the principle of subdivision was carried much farther than a perusal of the twenty-sixth chapter of Numbers would at first lead us to suppose. There must have been a division not noticed by the historian, according to which the collections of families were far more numerous, and of course the number of heads of families far greater, for no less than two hundred and fifty chiefs of this rank joined the rebellion of Korah.19 The princes of tribes and chiefs of families were the natural representatives of the people and magistrates of the state. They commanded their respective tribes in war and guided their counsels in peace. They appear to be alluded to in the song of Deborah as those who “ride on white asses and sit in judgment,” a passage in which, I am inclined to think, there is a reference to this union in their persons of civil and military authority. Whether these officers were elective or hereditary seems hard to determine. Harrington considers them hereditary. Jahn inclines to regard them as elective. Lowman doubts. Michaelis can find no trace of the manner in which they were chosen. I rather think that Jahn is right. At least it is certain that the office was not strictly hereditary in the firstborn of the tribe or the family. This is plain from the case of Nahshon. Though he was prince of Judah, he was not the heir-male of the tribe. He was the son of Aminidab, the son of Ram, who was a younger son of Hezron, the son of Pharez, himself a younger son of Judah, the original patriarch of the tribe.20 This certainly is not a proof that the office was elective, but it looks that way; and the analogy of other offices in the Hebrew government strengthens the probability.

18 Numbers 26, Exodus 24:1.

19 Numbers 16:2.

20 1 Chronicles 2.

Another order of functionaries, retained by Moses, was that of the shoterim, translated in our Bible “officers.” In Numbers 11:16 and Deuteronomy 29:10, they are named in connection with the elders, that is, the princes of tribes and heads of families. they were, therefore, magistrates and representatives of the people. However obscure and uninfluential their office might have been originally, it gradually acquired importance, till it came at length to be one of great dignity and authority. We have seen before that they were the keepers of the genealogical tables. In Egypt, they were charged with seeing that every Israelite delivered the required number of bricks.21 It was their business to give their discharge to citizens, who were by law exempt from military duty.22 Another function appertaining to them was to communicate to the people the orders of the general respecting military affairs.23 From the shoterim and elders together, as being persons of the highest respectability, the supreme senate of seventy was to be chosen.24 We find them repeatedly mentioned as forming a part of the legislative assemblies of the nation.25 And in the time of the kings, we find the chief shoter, though not a military commander, exercising a general superintendence and control over the whole army.26 When the nation was settled in Palestine, the shoterim were distributed into every city, and performed the duties of their office for the city and its surrounding district.27 They could not properly discharge their functions without having accurate catalogues of the names of the Hebrews, with a record of the age, pecuniary ability, and domestic circumstances of each individual master of a household. There appears evidently to have been a chief genealogist, who was the president of the whole order, and exercised a general superintendence over the affairs entrusted to them. Several of these chiefs are mentioned by name under the kings.28 In 1 Chronicles 24:6 and Jeremiah 52:25, mention is made of a “principal scribe of the host,” that is, a chief shoter, “who mustered the people of the land” for war.

How the shoterim were chosen, the history does not distinctly inform us. There is little difficulty, however, in gathering from what it does say concerning them, that the office was elective. While the Hebrews dwelt in Egypt, and before the Levites had been set apart from the other tribes, and consecrated to letters and religion, they must either have been selected out of every clan, or, more probably perhaps, chosen from the whole tribe, irrespective of families, according to the opinion entertained of their fitness for the office. After the Levites had become fairly installed in their office, as the learned class, the genealogists were generally taken from among them.29 “This was a very rational procedure, as the Levites devoted themselves particularly to study; and, among husbandmen and unlearned people, few were likely to be so expert at writing, as to be entrusted with the keeping of registers so important.”

21 Exodus 5:10 seqq.

22 Deuteronomy 20:5-9.

23 Joshua 1:10.

24 Numbers 11:16.

25 Deuteronomy 29:10, 31:28; Joshua 8:3, 23:2.

26 2 Chronicles 26:11.

27 Deuteronomy 16:8.

28 2 Samuel 8:17, 20:25; 2 Kings 25:19; 1 Chronicles 24:6; 2 Chronicles 26:11; Jeremiah 52:25.

29 1 Chronicles 23:4; 2 Chronicles 19:11, 34:13.

The magistracies, thus far notice, formed a part of the polity of the Hebrews, before the exodus from Egypt. But, by the advice of Jethro, which was confirmed by their king Jehovah, Moses instituted a new order of rulers, which must now be explained.30 Although in Egypt the Hebrews had a sort of political government among themselves, yet it is not to be supposed that they would be permitted to hold regular courts for the trial of civil causes. Hence they had no judges in their bondage, being subject to Egyptian magistrates in that capacity. On their leaving Egypt, Moses took the whole judicature upon himself, and was for some time sole judge. But this was too much for mortal strength, and, from the little attention that could be given to each individual case, not altogether consistent with the public interest. His father-in-law, who appears to have been a man of great judgment and wisdom, convinced him of this, and by his advice he instituted judges. The principle on which he arranged the institution was a remarkable one, and must have been suggested by the military divisions of the people. He appointed judges for thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens—in all about 78,600.31 There was a regular gradation of rank among these judges, and, in all probability, such a subordination of the inferior to the superior, that the cases which the judges of tens found too hard for them, they referred to the judges of fifties; in the same manner, the cases which these latter found too difficult to decide, they passed over to the judges of hundreds; questions too intricate or too important in the opinion of the judges of hundreds for their determination, they carried up to the judges of thousands; who, in their turn, referred difficulties too great for their resolution to Moses, or, after his death, to the supreme judicial authority, in whomsoever lodged.

30 Exodus 18.

31 Exodus 18:25.

The principle of this judiciary system was that the administration of justice should be brought to every man’s door, and of course that it should be prompt and cheap, notwithstanding which, care was taken to avoid the evils of hasty and partial decisions, by the right of appeal to tribunals of a higher grade, when the case was of sufficient magnitude to warrant such a resort. This principle was retained in the judicial system of the nation after its settlement in Palestine. But the system itself necessarily underwent some modifications. It could not remain exactly as it was for the people no longer lived together, as in the wilderness. On their taking possession of the promised land, judges, as well as shoterim, or genealogists, were to be appointed in every city,32 who were to discharge the duties of their respective offices for the city and the surrounding district. Yet even the plan proper for Israel as an army marching was not altogether unsuited to their settlement in permanent habitations, as tribes and families. The military division might have its counterpart in a civil division into counties, centuries, and decuries. The old Saxon constitution of sheriffs in counties, hundreders or centgraves in hundreds, and deciners in decennaries, was formed upon this model. Lord Bacon is of the opinion that King Alfred took this frame of government from the laws of Moses. Whether the judges were to be natives of their respective cities, or even of the tribe in whose territory the cities were situated, or whether the fittest persons were to be chosen, without regard to tribe, family, or residence, does not appear from the history. The latter supposition is rendered probably by the fact that in after times the office was very generally filled by Levites.33 This might, not improbably, have been the intention of Moses, which he did not seek to render effective by any legal enactment, as foreseeing that the thing would happen naturally, since the Levites, devoted to learning by the very constitution of their tribe, would best understand the laws of the land. Besides, it is quite conformable to the ideas of those times, and not foreign to the notions and manners of the East in all ages, that the judicial and sacerdotal offices should be united in the same persons. Among the ancient Egyptians, the priests were the usual administrators of justice. The Arabs resorted to the temples and the priests for justice. Before the time of Mahomet, they even carried on law-suits before their gods. This he prohibited, but to this day, the seat of justice is commonly called by the Arabs God’s tribunal, and the usual form of citation is, “Thou art invited to the tribunal of God.”

The chief function of the Israelitish judges was to administer justice between man and man.34 It is possible, and, looking to the general spirit and frame of the Hebrew constitution, not improbable, that they united some degree of military power to their civil authority. They are mentioned as among the persons summoned by Joshua to the legislative assemblies.35 It is hardly probable, however, that the 72,000 judges of tens and fifties had seats and voices in these diets. It is more likely that only those of hundreds and thousands, perhaps even only the latter of these classes, are to be understood when judges are mentioned as constituting a part of the public deliberative assemblies of the Hebrews.

32 Deuteronomy 16:18.

33 1 Chronicles 23:4, 26:29-32; 2 Chronicles 19:8-11.

34 Deuteronomy 16:18.

35 Joshua 23:2, 24:1.

The judicial office among the Hebrews was elective. Josephus says so expressly, though with hardly greater plainness than Moses. “Take you wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you,”36 were the lawgiver’s words to his countrymen, when he instituted the office. The only function which he here claims for himself is that of commissioning those whom the people should elect. Even the supreme judge was chosen by the free suffrages of the people. The historian distinctly informs us that “the people made Jephthah head and captain over them.”37 Four stages may be noted in the proceedings relating to Jephthah—the preliminary discussion, the nomination, the presentation to the people, and the installation.38 The enemy was encamped in Gilead. At this point, the people and their rulers, assembled in convention on the plain, said to one another, “Who shall be our chief, to lead us against the foe?” This was the discussion, in which every citizen seems to have had the right to participate. In the exceedingly brief history of the affair, it is not expressly stated, but it is necessarily implied, that Jephthah, of Gilead, a man of distinguished military genius and reputation, was nominated by the voice of the assembly. But this able captain had been some years before driven out from his native city. It was necessary to soothe his irritated spirit. To this end the elders went in person to seek him, laid before him the urgent necessities of the state, softened his anger by promises of preferment, and brought him to Mizpeh. Here, manifestly, they made a formal presentation of him to the people, for it is added, “The people made him head and captain over them.” That is, they completed the election by giving him their suffrages, recognizing him as their leader, and installing him in his office. Here, then, we have (1) the free discussion of the people in popular assembly concerning the selection of a leader, (2) the nomination of Jephthah by the meeting to be chief, (3) the elders’ presentation of him to the people for their suffrages, and (4) his inauguration as prince and leader of Israel. It is to the analysis of such incidental relations as this scattered here and there through the history that, in default of a more exact account of the primitive order of things, we are compelled to resort, in our study of the Hebrew constitution, for much of the information which it would be gratifying to find in a more detailed and systematic form.

36 Deuteronomy 1:13.

37 Judges 11:11.

38 Judges 10:17-18, 11:1-11.

The magistrates, then, in every tribe were a prince of the tribe, chiefs of families or clans, genealogists, and judges. “Each of these classes of magistrates had its own peculiar duties. The judges administered justice. The genealogists kept the genealogical tables, in which they occasionally noted the most remarkable occurrences of their times. The historical notices contained in the first book of Chronicles, and which are not found in the books of Moses, were probably derived from these tables.39 The heads of families, with the prince of the tribe, had charge of the general concerns of each tribe, and to them the judges and genealogists were in some degree subordinate. In Palestine these magistrates were distributed into the several cities, and those who resided in the same city composed the legislative assembly of that city and the surrounding district. When the magistrates of all the cities belonging to any one tribe were collected, they formed the supreme court, or legislative assembly, of the tribe. In like manner, the magistrates in several different tribes might assemble in one body, and legislate conjointly for all those tribes which they represented. When the magistrates of all the tribes met together, they formed the general legislature of the whole nation. Though there were no pecuniary emolument attached to these offices, they conferred great dignity and authority upon those who held them.

Such is a brief view of the magistracies instituted or confirmed by the Mosaic constitution.

39 1 Chronicles 4:21-23,39-45, 5:10,19-22, 7:20-24.


The Tribes

Let us now direct our attention to the tribes themselves in their individual capacity, in their relation to one another, and in their legislative functions.

It is agreed, on all hands, by those who have written on the Hebrew institutes, that each tribe formed a separate state. Each composed an entire political community, in some respects independent of the others. Each was under its own proper government, administered its own affairs by its own representative assemblies and magistrates, and claimed and exercised many of the rights of sovereignty. Its local legislation and municipal arrangements were in its own hands. “Dan,” says the venerable patriarch Jacob, “shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel.” On this, bishop Sherlock, an author of great learning and judgment, observes, “It is evident 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 lawgiver, as well as the tribe of Judah.” In other words, every tribe had its own proper staff of command and a distinct administration of justice. The princes of the tribes, chiefs of families, judges, and genealogist governed the tribes of Israel, as distinct and independent sovereignties. The tribes were all equal in respect of political dignity and right. The sovereignty of Simeon, which numbered but 22,000 men capable of bearing arms, was as complete as that of Judah, which had 76,000. No one tribe had any political superiority or right of command over any other. This is plain from the fact that, on the death of Joshua, the people inquire of God, “Who should go up for them against the Canaanites?”1 This question could not have been asked if any one tribe had the right of precedency and government over the rest. The answer was, “Judah shall go up.”2 Judah thus acquired the right of leading by a decision of the oracle, a clear proof that such a right did not otherwise belong to that tribe.

1 Judges 1:1.

2 Judges 1:2.

The powers reserved to the separate tribes, and freely exercised by them, were very great. We find them often acting like independent nations. This was the case not only when there was neither king nor judge in the land, but even under the government of the kings. They levied war and made peace whenever it seemed good to them. Thus we find Joshua exhorting his brethren, the children of Joseph, to make war against the Perizzites,3 and Zebulon and Naphtali uniting to fight against Jabin.4 We see the tribe of Dan, singly and of its own proper motion, attacking and destroying the people of Laish, and afterwards taking possession of their city and the surrounding country. A very remarkable record of this kind is contained in the fifth chapter of 1 Chronicles.5 It is there related that the tribes beyond Jordan, even in the reign of Saul, carried on, upon their own responsibility, a most important war. Yet so little interest was taken in it by the other tribes that the author of the book of Samuel has not so much as alluded to it in his history of that prince, though, in a military point of view, it was a far more brilliant affair than all his martial achievements together. Four nations were leagued together against the trans-Jordanic tribes in this war. The booty taken from the enemy was immense—50,000 camels, 250,000 sheep, 2,000 asses, 100,000 prisoners of war; and of slain, the historian says, “There fell down many.” The entire territories of these nations came into the possession of the Hebrews as the fruit of this contest, “and they dwelt in their steads until the captivity.” As late as the reign of Hezekiah, we see the tribe of Simeon waging two successful wars—one against the inhabitants of Gedor, and the other against the remnant of the Amalekites—and that without aid or authority from its neighbor republics.6

3 Joshua 17:15.

4 Judges 4:10.

5 1 Chronicles 5:18-23.

6 1 Chronicles 4:41-43.

Some occurrences of a different kind in the history of the kings will further illustrate the powers which the constitution conferred upon the separate tribes. By divine direction David had been anointed king in the lifetime of Saul.7 That unction, however, did not inaugurate him as king, nor confer any authority upon him. It was rather a prophecy in action, foreshadowing his future elevation to the throne. Therefore, when Saul had fallen in battle, David returned, as a private person, to one of the cities of Judah. There he awaited the action of the people in his behalf. At first he became king of Judah alone, and that by the free choice of the citizens of that tribe.8 In the message which he sent to the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead, thanking them for their kindness to Saul, he does not arrogate any right of command over them, nor address them in quality of sovereign. He simply informs them that the men of Judah had chosen him for their king, thus virtually inviting them to follow the example.9 Meanwhile, the other eleven tribes had anointed Ishbosheth, the son of Saul, as their king.10 It is evident that David did not regard that as an illegal act on their part, for he limited his hostile movements simply to defending himself, when attacked by the armies of Ishbosheth. Joab, his general-in-chief, had no orders to attack the troops of his rival, or to maintain his own claim to the throne by force of arms. Ishbosheth reigned two years without any rupture with David or his men, nor did the civil war commence till Abner, captain of his host, crossing over Jordan with his forces, provoked an encounter. Joab, in a conference with Abner, intimated that he would not have attacked the adherents of David’s rival, unless he had been provoked to it, thus clearly showing that his orders were to act only on the defensive.11 One after another, the eleven tribes came into the interest of David, and at length the whole nation chose him for their king, and made a league with him, that is, proposed a capitulation limiting the royal prerogative, to which he solemnly assented—after which he was anointed sovereign of all Israel, as having been elected by the voice of the people to that high dignity.12

7 1 Samuel 26:13. Dr. Clarke, in his note on 2 Samuel 2:4, remarks, “David was anointed before by Samuel, by which he acquired, jus ad regnum, a right TO the kingdom; by the present anointing he had, jus in regno, authority OVER the kingdom. … The invisible king directed the prophet Samuel to assure the throne privately by a prophetic anointing to David, the youngest son of Jesse, a citizen of Bethlehem.” (Jahn’s Heb. Com. B. 4. S. 28.) It will be seen that the views of these eminent scholars accord with those expressed in the text as to the nature and object of David’s unction by Samuel.

8 2 Samuel 2:1-4.

9 2 Samuel 2:5-7.

10 2 Samuel 2:8-9.

11 2 Samuel 2:12-29. See especially v. 27, as confirming the last statement in the text.

12 2 Samuel chapters 3, 4, 5, and 12—particularly the last.

The many and heavy exactions to which the people had been subjected during the reign of Solomon had greatly exasperated their minds. Towards the close of his life, their complaints became loud and bitter. On his death, they proposed to his son Rehoboam certain new stipulations, with a view to lighten the public burdens. Their request, though reasonable, was insolently and contemptuously rejected by the fiery young monarch. Thereupon ten of the tribes refused their allegiance to the new government, and chose a king of ;heir own. It would almost seem as if this was not an act of rebellion but the exercise of a reserved right, for Judah was forbidden by the Lord to make war upon the ten tribes. At any rate, an instantaneous revolt of this kind could not have occurred, unless the Israelites had been governed, as Michaelis expresses it, “tribe-wise,” each tribe being a little republic, and having its own leading men, according to whose views the rest of the people regulated their conduct.

From the above detail it appears that “the Hebrew constitution authorized each tribe to provide for its own interests; or, if the strength of any one of them was insufficient for the purpose, to unite with some of the other tribes, and make common cause with them. We frequently find several tribes thus acting in concert. Judah and Simeon united in their war against the Canaanites, as did also Ephraim and Manasseh. The tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali united with Barak to oppose the army of Jabin. Manasseh, Asher, Zebulon, and Naphtali chose Gideon for their leader against the Midianites. the tribes east of Jordan made choice of Jephthah for their general to carry on a war against the Ammonites. In later times, and during the reign of Saul, the same tribes made war upon the Hagarites, the Ituraeans, the Nobadites, and the Naphishites. Upon the death of Saul, eleven tribes remained faithful in their allegiance to his family, and seven years intervened before they submitted to David. After the death of Solomon, ten tribes revolted from the house of David, and elected Jeroboam for their king. In short, any tribe, or any number of tribes united, exercised the power of convening legislative assemblies, passing resolves, waging wars, making treaties, and electing for themselves chiefs, generals, regents, and kings.”

In such a constitution of the tribes, various disturbing forces could not but exist, and the history informs us of the action of these antagonistic forces upon several occasions. Rivalries would naturally spring up among twelve sovereign states so closely connected with each other. Lesser interests would sometimes stand in the way of the general welfare. Hence arose jealousies, which sometimes issued in fierce, sanguinary, and protracted civil wars.13 All this we may readily believe from the examples of Holland, Switzerland, the United states, and especially of the German empire, which, from the equality of its constituent parts, is perpetually distracted by divisions, and has often been the scene of intestine hostilities. Nothing, then, could be more probable than sectional jealousies and rivalries among the constituent members of the Hebrew commonwealth, and Michaelis has well remarked that two cases may be supposed, in which they would certainly break out and display all their mischievous effects: (1) if any two tribes became more powerful than the others, in which event they would regard each other with suspicion and hatred; and (2) if any one tribe acquired considerable ascendancy over the rest, of which the consequence would be the excitement of their universal envy and opposition. The learned commentator adds that both these cases actually occurred in the Israelitish republic—a fact of so much importance that it may be said to form the key to the whole Hebrew history.

The Israelites entered Palestine with a force of 600,000 citizens capable of bearing arms, exclusive of the tribe of Levi. Of course, the medium strength of the tribes would be about 50,000. Those tribes, which exceeded that number, would be accounted strong, and, in like manner, those which fell below it would be deemed weak. It may gratify the reader to see the comparative strength of the tribes, at this time, brought into one view. This is done in the following statement, in which fractions of thousands are omitted for the sake of brevity. The tribe of Joseph numbered 85,000; Judah, 76,000; Issachar, 64,000; Zebulon, 60,000; Asher, 53,000; Naphtali, 45,000; Reuben, 43,000; Gad, 40,000; and Simeon, 22,000.14 It will not escape the notice of the reader that one tribe, that of Simeon, was very weak; that two, Joseph and Judah, were very powerful; while the others did not vary materially from the average strength. The tribe of Joseph was, indeed, divided into two half-tribes; but it was still, and even as late as near the close of Joshua’s administration, regarded and spoken of as one tribe.15 Ephraim, however, in consequence of the prophetic blessing of Jacob, and the predictions concerning his future extraordinary increase,16 though as yet numerically weak, in comparison with Manasseh, was regarded as his superior, and, indeed, obtained a certain preeminence over all the other tribes.

From this time, therefore, we find a perpetual emulation and rivalry existing between the two tribes of Ephraim and Judah. This sentiment of jealousy, sometimes reaching even to hatred, displayed itself on all occasions; and allusions to it are not infrequent in the prophetical writings.17 It is very distinctly recognized by Isaiah,18 when, foretelling the peaceful effect of Messiah’s reign, he says, “And the envy of Ephraim shall depart, and the enemies of Judah shall be cut off. Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim.” The prophet predicts a state of harmony and peace by declaring that the hereditary and proverbial enmity of Judah and Ephraim shall cease. Throughout the entire Hebrew history, from the exodus to the captivity, these two were regarded as the leading tribes of Israel. In the wilderness, Moses gave the precedence of all the tribes to Judah, in assigning to it the most honorable place in the army, whether in the camp or on the march.19 But after his death, two events occurred, which tended greatly to the exaltation and preeminence of Ephraim. That tribe had the good fortune to give to the nation a chief magistrate in the person of Joshua, and also to have the tabernacle, the palace of their invisible, heavenly king, set up in Shiloh, a place within the territory of Ephraim.20 Both these circumstances advanced the honor of the tribe; and the latter, by promoting trade and marriages, gave it no considerable advantages, in respect of the increase of wealth and population. From time, the ambition of Ephraim knew no bounds. The jealousy of the Ephraimites towards the other tribes appears in their conduct to Gideon and Jephthah.21 Their special jealousy of Judah showed itself in their refusal to submit to David, after the death of Saul;22 in their adherence to Absalom, when he revolted against his father;23 and in the readiness with which they joined in the revolt of Jeroboam, who was himself of the tribe of Ephraim.24 The author of the seventy eighth Psalm25 represents Ephraim as having been the chief tribe, and God has having rejected it for its political and religious apostasy, when the tabernacle and the kingdom were transferred to Judah. Even while Ephraim continued the most influential tribe, Judah enjoyed a more extensive sway than the other tribes to the West of the Jordan. When the monarchy was substituted for the democracy, a king was elected from Benjamin, the youngest and weakest of all the tribes. This seems to be a perfect leveling of the tribes. Apparently no preference was given to any of them on account of any preeminence in dignity, or power, supposed or real. If, however, we look a little below the surface of things, we shall judge otherwise. We must bear in mind how exceedingly genealogical and clannish was the way of thinking among the Hebrews. This will throw no little light upon the point. As Benjamin and Joseph were sons of the same mother, the Benjamites regarded themselves as in some sense belonging to the tribe of Joseph. Of this we have a certain proof in the fact that Shimei, though a Benjamite, said that he was the first man of all the house of Joseph to meet King David, when he returned victorious after crushing the rebellion of Absalom.26 Hence, even when Benjamin was advanced in the person of Saul to the leadership of Israel, Ephraim still enjoyed a certain preeminence. In the eightieth Psalm, composed about this time, Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh are mentioned as the chief tribes, Ephraim being placed before the other two.

13 Judges 12:1-6, 20:1-48; 2 Samuel 2:1; 1 Kings 12:16-24.

14 Numbers 26.

15 Joshua 17:17.

16 Genesis 48:15-20.

17 Judges 8:1, 12:1; 1 Kings 11:26, 14:30, 15:16; Psalm 78:11,60,67,68; Isaiah 11:13; Jeremiah 3:18; Ezekiel 37:16-19; Hosea 1:11.

18 Isaiah 11:13.

19 Numbers 2:3, 10:14.

20 Joshua 18:1, 1 Samuel 4:3.

21 Judges 8:1, 12:1.

22 2 Samuel 2:8-9.

23 2 Samuel 18:6.

24 1 Kings 11:26, 12:16.

25 Psalm 78:9-11,60,67,68.

26 2 Samuel 19:20.

The rivalship between the tribes continued, with unabated force, during the reign of Saul. That king had but little authority in the tribe of Judah, for, when he was pursuing David with the bitterest enmity to take his life, David had little difficulty in eluding him, by fleeing from place to place within the limits of that tribe. And when at last he fled into the land of the Philistines, there does not appear to have been any necessity for his doing so. He might have remained where he was, without much peril of a capture. On the other hand, Saul, as king, was very partial to his own kindred, including, beyond a doubt, the children of Joseph, as well as those of Benjamin. Upon them he conferred most of the offices within the gift of the crown. This he openly acknowledged, and made it the ground of a claim to their gratitude and support.27 When Saul fell in battle, eleven of the tribes, doubtless under the lead of Ephraim, adhered to his family, and chose Ishbosheth for their king. Judah alone recognized David as their sovereign. But David was a man of consummate ability and great nobleness of character. He acted with prudence, moderation, and magnanimity. These are qualities which never fail to excite the admiration and love of the people. They so won upon the tribes of Israel, that, by degrees, they all voluntarily submitted themselves to his rule. It was the surrender of their hearts rather than of their arms. The civil and military talents of David were equal to each other, and both were of the highest order. Under his administration, the territories of the state were greatly enlarged; its wealth and power were increased; and its renown was spread far and wide. Its name struck terror, not only into the petty tribes in its immediate neighborhood, but into the great nations dwelling on the shores of the distant Euphrates. The tribe of Judah now became exceedingly powerful. Its numbers were incredibly multiplied, the effect not merely of the natural increase of population, but also of the multitude of foreigners who flocked to its capital and became proselytes to the Jewish religion. Even before this time, the other tribes had begun to be called by the common name of Israel.28 Thenceforward Israel came to be their ordinary designation, and they were animated by a common jealousy of the tribe of Judah.29 It was in this sentiment that the roots of that unnatural rebellion excited by Absalom found a congenial soil. The extraordinary success of that patricidal revolt has been the puzzle of many, and is wholly inexplicable, except as the result of a deeply seated and long cherished animosity on the part of the other tribes towards the tribe of Judah. This animosity even broke out, and raged violently, on the king’s return. A strife arose between Judah and the other tribes, as to which should recall him to the throne, and it came near ending in a revolt of the eleven tribes from David.30

The power and splendor of the tribe of Judah culminated in the reign of Solomon. David and Solomon, kings of the house of Judah, were no common men. For seventy three years did the other tribes submit to their government, awed by the splendor of their genius, the force of their character, and the vigor of their rule. But the fire was all the while glowing under the ashes, and waited but an occasion to burst forth in fierce and devouring flames. That occasion was found in an imprudent declaration of Rehoboam, the son and successor of Solomon, on his accession to the throne. Ten of the tribes, led by Jeroboam, an Ephraimite, revolted, shook off their allegiance to the kings of Judah, and set up a separate kingdom, with Jeroboam for their king.31 He takes but a superficial view of the Hebrew history, who regards the conduct of Rehoboam, however unwise or even unjust it might have been, as the cause of this schism. It was but the occasion, the pretext. The cause was the old grudge of Ephraim against Judah. The separation was not a sudden occurrence; it was not fortuitous; it was but the natural result of causes, which had long been working. It is very remarkable, that, of all the kings who reigned over Israel, although they were very far from succeeding one another in the line of hereditary descent, there was not one that did not belong to Ephraim; so that, with the single exception of Saul, all the Hebrew kings were natives of one or other of the two rival tribes.

27 1 Samuel 22:7.

28 2 Samuel 2:9.

29 2 Samuel 19:11,40-43, 20:1-2.

30 2 Samuel 19:9-14,40-43, 20:1-2.

31 1 Kings 12:1-20.

As the result either of an admirable stroke of policy on the part of David, or of an equally admirable good fortune, Benjamin, after the separation, remained united to Judah, and the two tribes ever afterwards formed one kingdom. The event to which I refer was the choice by David of the city of Jerusalem for his residence and capital. This city was within the territory of Benjamin, but it lay close to the confines of Judah, and had long been inhabited by members of the latter tribe, as well as of the former. David’s selection of it for the royal residence was well calculated to flatter the pride of the Benjamites, and unite them more closely to his family. It appears to have had the effect to extinguish the jealousy which Benjamin, in common with Ephraim, had felt towards the tribe of Judah. At all events, its issue was, as stated above, to link the fortunes of these two tribes together in indissoluble bonds.

Such, then, were the jealous rivalries, which, sometimes more and sometimes less active, we find always subsisting among the tribes of Israel, and such the bitter fruits which they produced. But it was not ambition alone which disturbed the peace of the nation, and caused the blood of the citizens to stream forth in civil strife. Great as the reserved rights of the tribes were, they occasionally magnified them beyond their just bounds and betrayed a strong disposition to nullify the laws of the general government. But such a procedure was at the peril of the tribe engaging in it. In the book of Judges32 we have a painfully interesting account of an act of nullification on the part of Benjamin, wherein we see that the authority of the national law was vindicated by the other tribes with a severity bordering on barbarism. The tribe of Benjamin was prophetically described as a ravening wolf33—a figure highly descriptive of its fierce and warlike character. The case to which I refer was this. A Levite and his wife were traveling peaceably through the territories of Benjamin. At Gibeah, some demons in the form of men, called by the historian “sons of Belial,” abused the latter in such a way as to cause her death. The Levite appealed for retribution to the tribes in a general court. With the exception of Benjamin, they assembled at once in convention at Mizpeh. There, the states-general, in regular session, heard the appeal to their justice. They carefully examined into the facts of the case. They found certain of the inhabitants of Gibeah guilty, not only of a violation of the rights of hospitality and humanity, and of a riotous breach of the peace, but moreover, which, in a national point of view, was of greater importance, of a breach and violation of the common right of the tribes to a safe passage through the whole country. It was, therefore, not so such an injury to any private persons, as to the tribes of Ephraim and Judah, to which the Levite and his wife belonged. Indeed, it was an injury to all the tribes in common, since the case of Ephraim and Judah might become the case of any of them. No man in all Israel could have any security in traveling, if such open outrage and violence were suffered to go unpunished. But the tribes were independent of each other. No one tribe had jurisdiction over any of the rest. Benjamin was a sovereign state. Neither Judah nor Ephraim could, by the constitution, call the inhabitants of Gibeah to account. This was, therefore, a case calling for the interposition of the states-general. Yet even they could not proceed directly against the guilty parties. That would have been in derogation of the sovereignty of Benjamin. Therefore, having by investigation satisfied themselves of the facts in the case, they sent a summons to the tribe of Benjamin to deliver up the delinquents, that they might be dealt with according to law. Benjamin declined a compliance with this summons, and determined rather to dissolve the union of the states than submit to the will of the nation, though expressed in a deliberate, dispassionate, and constitutional manner. This changed the entire case. It was no longer the murder of a private person by some ill-disposed individuals of the city of Gibeah, but an open rebellion of the whole tribe of Benjamin. The authority of the national union was opposed and set at naught. And, not content with refusing to give up the murderers to justice, Benjamin raised an army to protect them, and levied war against all Israel. The rest of the tribes declared them in a state of rebellion, and proceeded against them accordingly. So stubborn and unbending was the spirit of the nullifying tribe, that the national army was twice defeated. But in the third battle Benjamin was routed, with the loss of 25,000 men; and there was no danger of the offense being repeated, for the offending city was leveled with the ground, the country was made a wilderness, and six hundred men, posted on the inaccessible rock of Rimmon, were all that remained of the contumacious tribe.

32 Judges, chapters 19-20.

33 Genesis 49:27.

From this history of the Benjamite rebellion the passage is natural to a consideration of the union of the tribes in a general government; for, while the history illustrates the distinct nationality and independent spirit—I might almost add, the turbulent temper—of the separate tribes, it affords, at the same time, a proof and an example of the reality, strength, and vigor of the national administration. The central government was not a mere confederacy of states. Such an organization would have been too feeble, and too tardy in its action for the elements which it was intended to control. It was government the proper sense of the term, and not a confederation. Moses drew up a constitution which applied, not merely to each tribe as a distinct political body, but also to the individuals in the tribe. He made it bear on every individual in every tribe, thus giving to each a personal interest in the national concerns, and making him as much a member of the nation, as he was of his own tribe. The tribes formed but one nation. And though they had separate interests, as being in some respects independent states, they had also general interests, as being united in one body politic. They had much in common to draw them together in bonds of brotherhood, and strengthen the ties of political union—a common ancestor; the illustrious depository of promises appertaining to all the tribes alike; a common God, who was their chosen and covenanted king; a common tabernacle and temple, which was the royal palace; a common oracle, the urim and thummim; a common high priest, the prime minister of the king; a common learned class, who possessed cities in all the tribes; a common faith and worship, which at the same time differed fundamentally from that of all other contemporaneous nations; and a common law of church and state. Thus, while each Hebrew was strongly concerned to maintain the honor of his tribe, the constitution of the general government gave him an equal interest in the honor of his country.

Thus we see, that the constitution was so contrived, that, notwithstanding the partial independence and sovereignty of the separate vibes, each, as constitution a part of the national union, had a kind of superintendence over all the rest, in regard to their observance of the law. Any of the tribes could be called to an account by the others for an infraction of the organic law, and, if they refused to give satisfaction, they might be punished by war. Obedience to the states-general, in whom the tribes were united into one government, was a fundamental obligation of every member of the national union. On this point the constitution was imperative. Disobedience to their orders, a rebellious opposition to their authority, was an act of high treason, the greatest crime that can be committed, since it is an injury, not to any one man or any number of private persons, but to the whole society, and aims at subverting the peace and order of the government, on which the property, liberty, happiness, and life of the citizens depend.

Let me adduce two proofs of this obligation on the part of the tribes to submit to the will of the nation, as embodied in the resolves of the general government.

The first is taken from a record, which I find in the thirty-sixth chapter of Numbers.34 By a law, passed some time before, constituting daughters, in default of sons, the legal heirs of their fathers, it would happen that the inheritance of the daughters of Zelophehad, who belonged to the tribe of Manasseh, if they married into another tribe, would be transferred from their own to their husband’s tribe. This, should it ever occur, Manasseh thought would be a hardship and a wrong. What course did that tribe pursue? She did not attempt to rebel against the authority of the nation and nullify the laws of the land. She brought the case before the national legislature and sought relief through its action. She appealed to the justice of the nation in congress assembled, just as the states of our union do. Her petition was respectfully considered, and a law was enacted in accordance with its prayer. By this law, heiresses were required to marry in their own tribes, that no part of the ancient inheritance might be alienated from the original family. It is plain, that, if the decree of the nation had been different from what it was, Manasseh’s duty would have been submission. Resistance and nullification would have been in derogation and contravention of rightful authority.

34 The critical reader who examines the references to see whether they sustain the text, might, on a cursory perusal of the chapter here cited, be inclined to think that in the view presented in this paragraph too much is rested on assumption. A deeper study of the subject, however, will be apt to change such an impression, for, first, either the first eleven verses of the 27th chapter should come in before this chapter, or this chapter should come in immediately after those eleven verses, since, as Dr. Clarks says, both certainly make parts of the same subject, and there it is expressly said that the matter was brought “before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes, and before all the congregation,” and by them referred to the oracle. Secondly, even in this chapter, the chiefs of Manasseh are related to have laid their petition before Moses and the princes, who may here very well be taken, in a general sense, to mean the whole diet. And thirdly, even if this chapter stood wholly disconnected with the 27th chapter, and neither the diet nor any part of it had been mentioned at all, still the analogy of numerous other cases in the Hebrew history would authorize us to assume that the matter had been, to due form, laid before the states-general of Israel, and by them solemnly adjudicated.

The second proof of the duty of obedience on the part of the tribes to the decrees of the general government, I derive from the history of the wrong done by certain Benjamites to a Levite, who was passing through their territory, taken in connection with the national proceedings which followed thereupon.35 The states-general immediately convened at Mizpeh, and passed a resolve, calling upon the local government of Benjamin to deliver up the offenders, that they might be dealt with as their conduct deserved. This order Benjamin refused to obey. What said the national government? Did it say that Benjamin, being a sovereign state, had a right to interpret the constitution for herself, and to act her own pleasure in the matter? Far from it. It declared that she had been guilty of an infraction of the organic law and an act of treason against the state. And the nation proceeded at once to vindicate her own sovereignty and supremacy. There was no coaxing, no truckling, no faltering. Not honeyed words, but hard blows, promptly administered, and with a terrible energy and rapidity of repetition, were the means employed to sustain the majesty of the government and the authority of the law.

It thus appears that the Hebrew tribes were, in some respects, independent sovereignties, while, in other respects, their individual sovereignty was merged in the broader and higher sovereignty of the commonwealth of Israel They were independent republics, having each a local government, which was sovereign in the exercise of its reserved rights; yet they all united together and formed one great republic, with a general government, which was sovereign in the highest sense. The constitution of Israel had, in this respect, a similitude to our own, which will strike every reader. It may also be considered as in some measure resembling that of Switzerland, where thirteen cantons, of which each has a government of its own, and exercises the right of war, are nevertheless united into one great state under a general government. Thus all the Israelitish tribes formed one body politic. They had one common weal. They held general diets. They were bound to take the field against a common enemy. They had at first general judges, and afterwards general sovereigns. And even when they had no common head, or, as the sacred historian expresses it, when there was neither king nor judge, a tribe guilty of a breach of the fundamental law might be accused before the other tribes, who, as we have seen, were authorized to carry on war against it as a punishment. It is evident that the tribes were sometimes without a general chief magistrate. The constitution, as explained above, makes it quite conceivable that the state might have subsisted and prospered without a common head. Every tribe had always its own chief magistrate, subordinate to whom again were the chiefs of clans, the judges, and the genealogist; and if there was no general ruler of the whole people, there were twelve lesser commonwealths, whose general convention would deliberate together, and take measures for the common interest. The head might be gone, but the living body remained. Its movements would be apt to be slower and feeler; yet, as the history of the Benjamite rebellion36 teaches us, they did not always want either promptness or energy.

35 Judges 19:20.

36 This is said to have happened (Judges 19:1) when “there Has no king in Israel,” i.e., when the tribes had no common head, no general chief magistrate.


Legislature Courts Levites Prophets

As the twelve tribes, though independent and sovereign for local purposes, yet formed but one political body for the care and promotion of the common weal, they would naturally have general legislative assemblies, who would, as occasion required, meet together and consult for the good to the nation at large. This we find to have been actually the case.1 The law can neither enact, interpret, nor execute itself. For the discharge of these functions there is required a certain number of citizens, organized into one or more bodies, and forming a legislative, judicial, and executive corps. Conringius, bishop Sherlock, and Lowman totally misconceive and misrepresent the Hebrew constitution, when they deny that it lodged any proper legislative power in the national diet, or states-general, of Israel. Their error arises from a misinterpretation of Deuteronomy 4:1-2. “Now, therefore, hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments which I teach you, for to do them, that ye may live and go on, and possess the land, which the Lord God of your fathers giveth you. Ye shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish aught from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you.” The same thing is repeated in Deuteronomy 12:32. “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it; thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.” From these precepts, the learned authors, cited above, erroneously conclude that no proper legislative authority or power was confided by the constitution to the general assemblies of Israel. There is, undoubtedly, a sense in which the law was perpetual and unchangeable, viz. in its principles. The principles of a pure and absolute justice remain always the same, and new developments of those principles, made necessary by new circumstances, do no change, even in modifying them, the truth of former developments. It would be absurd in a legislator, in giving a code of laws to a people, to take away from them the power of enacting new laws, as new manners and new conditions of the body politic required them. The command of Moses in this case must be understood as addressed to individuals, and as announcing to them that they must observe the whole law, without adding to it, or taking from it, on their private authority. When he speaks to the national assemblies, to all Israel, his language is altogether different. Then, on the contrary, he commands to seek justice, to provide for the public welfare, to pursue (go on in) the way of equity, other wise called “the way of the Lord,” without turning to the right hand or to the left, that is, without departing from the fundamental principles laid down in the constitution. Thence the Hebrew doctors derive the maxim, assented to by the great Selden, “From the senate [the national diet] proceeds the law to all Israel.”

1 Exodus 19:7-8; Numbers 1:16, 16:2, 10:2-4, 27:2, 36:1; Deuteronomy 19:10 Joshua 23:2, 24:1; Judges 20:2.

The great principle of legislation which pervades the Hebrew constitution is that the general will, the common consent of the citizens, freely and clearly expressed in regularly constituted assemblies, is necessary to give birth to law. This principle Moses seems to have regarded, if not as an essential, at least as an important bond of social order, and a great source of strength to the body politic. Hence at Sinai he obtained the assent of the people, through their elders, to the proposition of Jehovah to be their king and to the laws which he should dictate.2 Again, after numerous laws had been given, and while the Hebrews still remained encamped at the foot of mount Sinai, he called the diet together anew, rehearsed “all the words of the Lord and all the judgments,” and proposed a fresh vote upon them, whereupon the people, by their representatives, signified their unanimous approval, and formally enacted them into laws. Not content with even this expression of the popular will, he caused them all to be written out, engrossed as it were, and the next day, after offering a solemn sacrifice accompanied by various imposing and impressive ceremonies, he read them in the audience of the assembly, and required another formal assent. This last act was strictly of the nature of a compact between Jehovah as sovereign and the Hebrews as subjects, and it is expressly called so by Moses.3 In like manner, a short time before his death, when the code had been completed, he assembled the national legislature and submitted the whole body of laws to their approval, and caused them to renew the compact with their king.4Surely, never did the legislator attach a higher importance to the general will, or take more pains to obtain a full, free, and fair expression of it.

2 Exodus 19:3-8.

3 Exodus 24:3-8.

4 Deuteronomy 29:9-13.

This great principle of popular consent, as the basis and nerve of legislation, received fresh confirmation on various memorable occasions, in the subsequent history of the commonwealth. After the passage of the Jordan, Joshua assembled the states-general of Israel, agreeably to an express injunction of Moses, and caused the nation to renew its vote in favor of the code, which had been framed for it.5 Near the end of his life, this same Joshua, a worthy successor of Moses, as having no small share of his ability, and as being deeply penetrated with his spirit, convened the representatives of the nation at Shechem, recounted the leading events of their history, and made them re-elect Jehovah for their king, renew the compact with him, and give their assent once more to the laws which he had ordained.6 On the return of the Jews from Babylon and the reestablishment of their republic, the law was publicly proclaimed for many successive days, and a solemn formula was drawn up, in which the assent and sanction of the nation might be expressed. To this document, twenty-three priests, seventeen Levites, and forty-four chiefs of the people—eighty-four leading men in all—signed their names and affixed their seals. The rest of the people gave their assent to the covenant and the statutes, in a manner somewhat less formal, but no less binding.7

5 Joshua 8:30-35.

6 Joshua 24.

7 Nehemiah 7:18, 9:38, 10:1-29.

These facts are a demonstration that the principle in question entered essentially into the constitution of Moses and into the practice of the nation. They put the seal of authenticity upon it. Bossuet himself, a man of vast genius, but whose social relations made him too much the friend of absolute power, and from whom nothing but the force of truth could have drawn such an expression of opinion, recognizes this fact in the following terms: “God, through the agency of Moses, assembles his people, proposes to them the law, which establishes the rights of the nation, both sacred and civil, public and private, and causes them to give their assent there in his presence. The entire people expressly consent to the compact. Moses receives this compact in the name of the people, who had given it their assent.” Again: “All who have spoken accurately concerning the [Hebrew] law, have regarded it, in its origin, as a solemn pact and treaty, by which individual men agree together in reference to what is necessary to form themselves into a civil society.”

But since Jehovah is the creator of men, and can lay upon them whatever obligations he pleases, since he needs not human assent to strengthen his authority, why should he propose laws, instead of imposing them? Why should he exact the free concurrence of individuals? If his word is truth, expressing both that which is, and that which ought to be, to what end should serve the approval of a multitude? To this I reply as follows: First, God did not give laws to the Hebrews as their creator, but as their deliverer and the founder of their state. Secondly, an important purpose of the Hebrew polity was to teach mankind the real nature of civil government, and the true source of political power, whence it necessarily follows, that the authority of Jehovah, as civil head of the Hebrew state, must be drawn from the same fountain, rest upon the same basis, and be regulated by the same principles, as the authority of a human ruler, standing in the same relation to a civil community. Thirdly, several valuable political advantages, even with Jehovah himself for king, resulted from the assent of the people to the code. As 1. The law then became not simply a rule, but a rule clothed with the consent of all. It was the expression, not of an absolute power, but of the general will, or rather, to speak more philosophically, it was the expression of political truth, sanctioned by the general will. A rule arbitrarily imposed, however good it may be, tends to despotism; and a thing, wrong in itself and contrary to the eternal principles of justice, though sanctioned by the voice of the whole world, can never be a law to bind the conscience. 2. The consent of the people to the public compact had the effect of obliging each individual towards all the rest. And 3. It had the further effect of binding the moral person called the state, which was formed by this union, to the infinite and unchangeable being, the Hebrews, on their part, promising to shun whatever was hurtful, and to submit to whatever was useful, to the body politic, and Jehovah, on his engaging to recompense their fidelity with prosperity and happiness.

It has been well remarked by Salvador that no other nation offers the example of a compact so wise and so sublime. He adds the opinion, which is worthy of being pondered, that it is the essential cause of the strong power of cohesion, developed by the political association of the Hebrews, inspiring prophets, full of genius, with he thought, that, as long as the laws of nature shall endure, Israel and his law shall never pass away. Such, then, is the principle of the Hebrew legislation, viz. that law must rest upon the foundation of the general will, the consent of the nation freely and clearly expressed.

The legislative assemblies, created by the constitution of Moses, were of two kinds, an upper and a lower house. The former was an elect assembly, called commonly the princes, elders, or senators of Israel, and was convened by the sound of a single trumpet. The latter was a larger and more popular assembly, called the congregation of Israel, and the signal for calling it together was the blowing of two trumpets.8 These were the signals while Israel was an army and abode in the wilderness, but after the nation was settled in Canaan, either they met at stated times, or heralds must have been employed to convey the summons for assembling to the persons having a seat in the diet. “These general assemblies were convened by the chief magistrate of the commonwealth, by the commander of the army, or by the regent; and, when the nation had no such supreme head, by the high priest, in his capacity of prime minister to the invisible king. The great assembly mentioned in the twentieth chapter of Judges, was undoubtedly convoked by the high priest Phineas, who was so zealous for the honor of Jehovah.9 It was to these assemblies that Moses immediately addressed himself, and to them he delivered the precepts, which he received from Jehovah. The magistrates, particularly the genealogist, then communicated to the people the precepts and orders of Moses, each one to the families under his immediate direction. In like manner, the commands of the generals and the resolves of the assemblies were made known to the people, who were sometimes assembled ready to receive these communications; or if not, were called together by the proper officers. The legislative assemblies exercised all the rights of sovereignty. They declared war, made peace, formed alliances, chose generals, chief judges or regents, and kings. They prescribed to the rulers whom they elected the principles by which they were to govern. They tendered to them the oath of office, and rendered them homage.”10

8 Numbers 10:2-4.

9 Numbers 10:2-4; Joshua 23:2, 24:1; 1 Samuel 11:14; Judges 10:27.

10 Jahn’s Heb. Com. B. 2. S. 14. Exodus 19:7, 24:3-8, 34:31, 35:1; Joshua 9:15-21; Judges 20:1-13,18,28, 21:13 seqq.; 1 Samuel 10:24, 11:14-15; 2 Samuel 3:17-21; 5:1-3; 1 Kings 12.

I forbear for the present all investigation of the vexed question as to who were entitled to seats in the national legislature, reserving such inquiries, till I come to treat, in detail, of the different branches which composed it.

I have already spoken of the inferior courts among the Hebrews, by which the local administration of justice was conducted. But the judiciary system could not be complete without a supreme judicature, which, accordingly, we find to have been established by the constitution. The provision for this court is in the following words: “If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, being matters of controversy within thy gates [i.e., in the inferior local courts]; then thou shalt arise, and get thee unto the place which the Lord thy God shall choose; and thou shalt come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days, and inquire; and they shall show thee the sentence of judgment.”11 The priests the Levites and the judge here evidently mean a national council or court. The phrase cannot be understood of the whole tribe of Levi, but must be interpreted of such priests and Levites only as had some commission to give judgment in the place which Jehovah should choose. They were not priests and Levites in general, but chosen members of a national tribunal. It was not, indeed, made necessary by any provision of the constitution, or any direction of law, that the priests or Levites should be in this tribunal at all; yet, on account of their learning and knowledge of the laws, they would naturally be esteemed best qualified to be chosen to interpret them. This supreme judicature, composed of persons of the greatest ability, experience, and learning in the laws, is not only highly important and useful, as a court of appeal in adjudicating difficult cases and those in which great interests were stake between individuals, but it was absolutely indispensable for the decision of controversies which might arise between different tribes. As no tribe had any authority or jurisdiction over any other, such controversies could be decided only by some common judge. the tribes, as sovereign states, were subject to no lower court than the supreme judicial council of the whole nation. What concerned one tribe was by no means to be determined by the judges of another. It is hardly necessary to add that the judgment of this court was final. Hence it was enacted: “Thou shalt do according to the sentence, which they of that place which the Lord shall choose [the supreme court] shall show thee; and thou shalt observe to do I according to all that they inform thee; 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 show thee, to the right hand nor to the left.”12

From this general view of the Hebrew constitution, a brief reference to the tribe of Levi can by no means be omitted. This was the learned class, a kind of literary aristocracy. the members of this tribe were devoted to the tabernacle and the altar, that is, politically speaking, to be the ministers and courtiers of the King Jehovah. They performed, not only the rites of religion, but also the duties of all those offices of state for which learning was necessary. They were by birth devoted to the cultivation of the sciences, especially the science of government and jurisprudence. They were to study the book of the law; to make, preserve, and disseminate correct copies of it; to instruct the people both in human and divine learning; to test accuracy of weights and measures; to exhort the soldiers, and aspire them with courage, when about to engage in battle; to perform the duty of police physicians; to determine and announce the moveable feasts, new moons, and intercalary years; to discharge the functions of judges and genealogists; with a variety of other duties.13 Consequently they were to be theologians, jurists, lawyers, historiographers, mathematicians, astronomers, surveyors, teachers, orators, and medical practitioners. “What fruits might not such a plant have borne, if the priests and Levites had faithfully accomplished the purposes of their appointment.”

11 Deuteronomy 17:8-9.

12 Deuteronomy 17:10-11.

13 Numbers 18:2-7; Leviticus 25:8-9; Deuteronomy 17:9, 20:2-4, 31:11-13; Leviticus 13:14; 1 Chronicles 23:4; 2 Chronicles 17:7-9, 19:8, 34:13; Malachi 2:7.

The prophetical, not less than the Levitical order, among the Hebrews, had very important relations to the civil state. The prophets were the popular orators of the Israelitish commonwealth. They were not, as has been, with different views and for different ends, alleged by the church of Rome and the school of Voltaire, an appendage of the priesthood. On the contrary, they were quite independent of the sacerdotal order, and of the royal power as well. In the public assemblies on the Sabbath, the new moon, and in the solemn convocations, the prophets, observe Calmet, harangued the people, and freely reproved the disorders and abuses which showed themselves in the nation. They were true patriots, who spoke the truth, without disguise and without fear, to people, priests, senators, princes, and kings. We have an instance of this in the indignant rebuke of Isaiah, chapter 1:21-24: “How has she become an harlot [faithless to her compact with Jehovah], the faithful city, full of justice; righteousness lodged in it, and now murderers. Thy silver is become dross, thy wine weakened with water. Thy rulers are rebels, and fellows of thieves, every one of them loving a bribe and pursuing rewards. The fatherless they judge not, and the cause of the widow cometh not unto them. Therefore, saith the Lord, Jehovah of hosts, the mighty one of Israel, I will comfort myself of my adversaries [literally, from them, i.e., by ridding myself of them] and I will avenge myself of my enemies.”

Thus it appears, from all which has gone before, that the nature of the public functions, prescribed in the Hebrew constitution, flow from the nature of things. The first want of a state, as of every organized, living being, is self-preservation. To meet this want, the constitution institutes certain functionaries, not only to strengthen the union of the tribes, but also to preserve, in its integrity, both the letter and the spirit of the fundamental law, and to teach it incessantly to the people. Such are the Hebrew priests and Levites. Next, the body politic wants a supreme legislative council, to watch over its wants, to direct its general movements, to shape its policy and to modify old laws and enact new ones, as the exigency of times and occasions demands. For this the constitution provides in the assemblies composing the states-general of Israel. The third fundamental necessity of a nation is that of having the civil relations of the citizens maintained agreeably to the rules laid down in the law. The constitution satisfies this requirement by a judiciary system, which brings the administration of justice to every man’s door and makes it at once cheap and speedy, taking care, however, to prevent the evils of crude, hasty, and interested decisions, by a system of appeal through courts of various grades, up to the supreme judicature, which holds its sessions in the capital of the republic. Again, the state requires that its force be wisely and effectively directed against its public enemies. This care the constitution devolves upon the chief magistrate of Israel. Finally, it is necessary to the best welfare of a state that men of lofty genius, men endowed with sagacity to discover the connection between an existing evil and antecedent acts of folly or injustice, men inspired with great ideas, political or moral, should be able freely to utter their thoughts, and boldly to censure both magistrates and people. This necessity the Hebrew constitution meets by its institution of the prophetical order, an institution, which, in those remote ages, admirably supplied the want of a free press, and must have contributed, powerfully and effectively, to the formation of a public opinion, wise, just, pure, and dignified.

Before concluding this chapter, let us glance at the government of the individual tribes and cities.

Each tribe was a reproduction, miniature copy, as it were, of the nation. It would naturally happen that the government and functionaries of the former would correspond, in all important respects, to the latter. Nor have we any reason to doubt, that such was the case. This at least is the general opinion of the learned. As all Israel had a council of elders and a representative congregation of the people, so each tribe had its senate of princes and its popular assembly. All the tribes together formed a sort of federative republic, in which nothing could be done or resolved without the general consent of their respective representatives, and in which each individual tribe had a constitution formed upon the model of the national constitution.

As the general government was the type of the provincial governments, so these furnished the model of the city administrations. Every city had its bench of elders, distinct from its judges and genealogists.14 Thus the cities, like the nation and the tribes, had an upper and a lower house, a board of aldermen and a board of assistant aldermen. These municipal assemblies managed the public business of the cities, as the assemblies of the tribes administered the general affairs of the tribes, and the assemblies of the commonwealth those of all Israel. Numerous proofs of this constitution of the city governments occur in the sacred books. That every city, with its surrounding district, was to have a board of judges and genealogists, we have already seen.15 That a board of elders was superadded to this as a part of the municipal administration, the evidence is equally clear. The men of Succoth having offended Gideon, when pursuing the routed Midianites, on his return from the battle he caught a young man of the place, and compelled him to give to him in writing a list of the princes and elders of his city.16 In the law concerning the expiation of an uncertain murder, the two boards are mentioned in connection, and yet plainly distinguished from each other; for it is said, “Thy elders and thy judges shall come forth.”17 In like manner, when, on the return of the Jews from Babylon, the matter concerning the unlawful marriages was in hand, “the elders of every city and the judges thereof” are related to have appeared, with the transgressors, before “the rulers of all the congregation.”18 The author of he book of Judith speaks of a council of ancients in Bethulia, and of three mayors, or governors, to whom the executive function was committed. He also mentions one of the governors, Ozias, as having made a feast to the elders.

14 Deuteronomy 21:1 seqq.; Judges 8:6,14, 11:5-6,11; Ruth 4:4,9; Ezra 10:4; and many other scriptures.

15 Deuteronomy 16:18.

16 Judges 8:6,14.

17 Deuteronomy 21:2.

18 Ezra 10:14.

To these municipal assemblies it belonged to direct the public affairs of the cities by their council and authority, and to interpret he law in whatever related to the interest of their respective canons. Salvador thinks that, like the censors at Rome and the ancients of Sparta and Athens, they watched over the public manners and morals. Seated without parade at the city gate, or beneath the shade of trees, they lent the ear, he says, to the aggrieved citizens, to the weeping wife, to the oppressed slave, to the poor, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. If their complaints admitted of legal redress, they proclaimed and enforced the law; if not, they became the counsellors and comforters of the afflicted. By their efforts, a rigorous father was softened; a wandering son was reclaimed and brought back to the paternal mansion; and families, rent by discord, were re-united in peace. On the sacred days, the presence of the rulers, reverently listening to the reading of the law and the exhortations of the orators, impressed upon the youthful citizens the importance of the subjects handled, and communicated to the assemblies a calm, thoughtful, and dignified air.

Thus flowed the current of affairs, during those long periods of repose enjoyed by Israel, despite the powerful enemies by which the nation was surrounded. Such was the simple but energetic polity, which impressed upon the soul of the Hebrews memories never to be effaced, and which, in spite of many odious actions, produced by the barbarism of the times, imparts a charm to their sacred books, unknown to other composition—a charm which neither distance of time nor diversity of manners has power to dissolve, or even to weaken.