ELDERS IN ISRAEL: Before the Settlement in Caanan. The patriarchal and later officers, whose position was due to their status as heads of families. Till the establishment of the kingdom the Israelites had a tribal organization the characteristic feature of which was that the constituents (families) of the tribe as well as the individuals were fully independent. There was no organized government. The Sheik of a tribe or encampment among the Arabs has no formal authority. He may lead in war, locate the camp in times of peace, and the like; he may advise but can enjoin nothing of importance without consulting the prominent men of the aggregation. As a judge he has moral influence, but no power to carry out a sentence or to inflict punishment. The elders had similar functions, as is indicated in the narrative of the desert-journey in E. They appear not as though instituted in Mosaic times, but as existing ever since there was a "people of Israel" (Ex. iii. 16 sqq., iv. 29). They are also presupposed among other nations (Josh. ix. 11; Num. xxii. 4, 7). They had no special office, but as the most prominent individuals (Ex. xviii. 21) were called to represent the people on special occasions (Ex. xvi. 12; Num. xvi. 25; Josh. vii. 6); their decision had weight (Ex. xvii. 5; Deut. xxxi. 9); and they were leaders in war (Josh. viii. 10). By virtue of this position they mediated between Moses and the people; according to E, Moses often communicated Yahweh's behests first to the elders (Ex. iv. 29; Deut. xxxi. 9); what was commanded to them was also commanded to the people, whose representatives they were by station and birth. Their connection with the family constitution is evident from Ex. xii. 21 sqq.; while the gloss on Deut. i. 15 designates the elders correctly as the family heads of the tribes called also "heads of the people" (Num. xxv. 4).
From the Settlement to the Exile. The settlement in the West-Jordan country caused many changes among the tribes, but not in the organization. The tribe was organized early for war; the family-heads remained the persons in authority. The elders of the tribe of Gilead made Jephthah captain (Judges xi. 1 sqq.); by presents David sought to win over the elders of Judah, of the Jerahmeelites, Kenites and others (I Sam. xxx. 26 sqq.); the elders of Israel led in the war against the Philistines and decided to have the ark of the covenant brought to the camp (I Sam. iv. 3). In the name of the people the elders asked a king of Samuel (I Sam. viii.). The word is used always in the plural. When the people settled in a locality the elders became the heads of the local
communities (Judges viii. 4 sqq.; I Sam. xi. 3 sqq., xvi. 4). Gradually the heads of the communities took the character of magistrates, and their influence lasted till the time of Solomon (I Kings viii. 1, 3). In proportion as the royal power developed, that of the elders declined. The case of Ahab (I Kings xx. 7 sqq.) was an exception. In the administration the elders had no part since the royal officers were the executives (I Kings iv. 1 sqq., xx. 15); but they constituted a part of the nobility. That they retained such influence was due to the fact that the royal government was satisfied with receiving the revenues and did not otherwise interfere with the affairs of the communities.
After the Exile. During the exile, the genealogical register was preserved; the settlement seems to have been by families, and the heads of the families took their places at the head of the settlements and acted for the families and the community (Ezek. xxi. 1 sqq., viii. 1; Jer. xxix. 1). The return from the exile was by families (Ezra ii.; Neh. vii.). At the head of the families stood the chief of the fathers (Ezra i. 5, ii. 68; Neh. vii. 70). The new commonwealth was organized along those lines; the elders of the Jews formed the national government; they directed the build ing of the temple; with them the Persian governor treated (Ezra v. 3 sqq., vi. 7 sqq.). In the time of Ezra and Nehemiah the organization consisted of twelve "princes," representatives of the tribes, who dwelt at Jerusalem (Neh. xi. 1), whereas the local government of the country-communities was in the hands of city-elders and judges (Ezra x. 14). The Jerusalem college of sarim became afterward the aristocratic senate of the Gerousia, first mentioned in the time of Antiochus the Great (Josephus, Ant. XII., iii. 3; cf. I Macc. vii. 33). From I Macc. xii. 6, xiv. 20 it is clear that the "Gerousia of the nation" and "the elders of Israel" were identical. The term synedrion was first used in Herod's time, it became the common designation (Matt. v. 22; xxvi. 59) alongside of presbyterion (Luke xxii. 66; Acts xxii. 5) and boule (Acts v. 21).
Bibliography: O. Seesemann, Die Aeltesten im A. T., Leipsic, 1895; Benzinger, Archäologie, pp. 296-329; Nowack, Archäologie, i. 300 sqq., 320 sqq.; J. F. McCurdy, History, Prophecy and the Monuments, vol. ii., New York, 1896; Amram, in JBL, 1900; E. Day, Social Life of the Hebrews, ib. 1901; A. Buehler, Das Synedrion in Jerusalem, Vienna, 1902; Schürer, Geschichte, ii. 178 sqq., Eng. transl., II., ii. passim; DB, i. 676-677; EB, U. 1906-07, iii. 2717-18; JE, v. 92.