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The New Testament tells us that the Law of Moses was our tutor (teacher; guardian; schoolmaster) to bring us to Christ (see Gal. 3:23-25).

In this post, let's look at what our tutor has to say about the role of elders in Old Testament times. Having this foundation helps us better understand the role of elders within the church.

The Hebrew word that is translated "elders" is transliterated "zaqen," and it is found 179 times in the Old Testament.

In the NASB translation, 132 times the word is translated as elders.

The word literally means "old; ancient; aged."

It is mostly used with reference to men, but was occasionally used to refer to women.

Israel's elders and the exodus

We are introduced to the term "elders" in Ex. 3:16.

GOD instructed Moses to gather the elders of Israel together and tell them Jehovah had sent him and was about to deliver them from Egyptian slavery.

(Recall that, before Israel was a great nation, it was a family—the family of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, with whom GOD had made a covenant because of his faith and obedience. Thus, the phrase "the elders of Israel" is a better, more succinct way of saying, "the oldest males of the individual families within the extended family of Jacob.")

The elders of Israel were to accompany Moses to go see Pharaoh (see Ex. 3:18).

Once the time arrived for the final plague upon Egypt, Moses told GOD's instructions for the Passover night to the elders of Israel, which they were to carry out for their individual families (see Ex. 12:21).

On their journey from Egypt, GOD told Moses to take with him some of the elders when he struck the rock at Meribah (see Ex. 17:5-6).

At Mount Sinai, it was the elders of Israel to whom Moses spoke the instructions of GOD (see Ex. 19:7; Deut. 5:23-27).

Once the covenant was agreed upon, 70 of these elders joined Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu atop the mountain to eat with GOD (see Ex. 24:1, 9-11).

Later, in Num. 11:16-17, 25, GOD told Moses to gather 70 elders of Israel for the purpose of placing the Holy Spirit upon them and enabling them to assist Moses in bearing the burden of leading Israel.

Elder responsibilities under the Law of Moses

In the Law of Moses, GOD instructed the elders of Israel to lay their hands upon the bull sin offering (for unknown congregational sins) before killing it (see Lev. 4:13-15).

When the tabernacle was erected and the priestly ministry began, Moses called the elders of Israel to the door of the tabernacle. They were front-and-center when GOD consumed the sacrifice upon the altar (see Lev. 9:1, 5, 22-24).

The elders were also standing close by Moses when GOD swallowed Korah's rebellion in the earth (see Num. 16:20-27).

Once the land of Canaan was possessed by Israel, we learn that individual cities had their own elders.

The elders of the cities of refuge were responsible for capturing and removing a murderer who had killed intentionally out of hatred (see Deut. 19:11-12). Likewise, they were responsible for protecting one who had killed unintentionally and had arrived at the gate of a city of refuge (see Josh. 20:4-5).

Additionally, the elders had a role in:

  • An odd ritual for atoning for shed blood in unsolved murders (see Deut. 21:1-9).
  • The execution of rebellious children (see Deut. 21:18-21).
  • Resolving marital disputes involving suspected unfaithfulness or adultery (see Deut. 22:13-30).
  • Widowed sister-in-law responsibilities (see Deut. 25:5-10; ).

The custom during this time was for the elders to assemble at the city gates, keeping watch over who entered and left, judging, providing guidance and assisting in making important decisions (see Deut. 21:21; 22:15; 25:7; Ruth 4:1-12; Prov. 31:23).

Elders' teaching responsibilities

The elders of Israel were also responsible for helping to teach the people (see Deut. 27:1; 32:7-9; Josh. 8:33-35).

Moses delivered a copy of the Law to the elders, along with the priests (see Deut. 31:9). Moses taught the elders (see Deut. 31:28), as did Joshua (see Josh. 23:1-24:28).

The elders of Joshua's day played a key role in the spiritual leadership of Israel, for Israel served GOD all the days of their life (see Josh. 24:31; Judg. 2:7).

It would seem, however, that these elders failed to instill a knowledge of GOD and His great works for Israel in the hearts of their children (see Judg. 2:10). This critical mistake ultimately led to the downfall of the nation as idolatry invaded thereafter.

Elders' leadership responsibilities

The elders of Israel were involved in problem-solving (see 1 Sam. 4:1-3) and leadership.

Recall that it was the elders who asked Samuel to give them a king because they thought it a wise move "to be like all the nations" (see 1 Sam. 8:4-6). Once the king was in place, the elders had an ongoing role in conversing with him (see 2 Sam. 3:17; 5:3-5; 12:15-17; 17:1-4, 15; 19:11; 1 Kings 8:1).

Perhaps the most well-known of these occasions is where Rehoboam sought counsel from the elders and separately from his young peers regarding taxing Israel (see 1 Kings 12:1-24).

Sadly, as Israel and Judah became increasingly wicked, the advice and actions of the elders also became wicked. An example is the elders' obedience to Queen Jezebel's instructions to arrange Naboth's murder (see 1 Kings 21:8-11).

GOD repeatedly rebuked the elders through the prophets because of their failure to lead and, instead, actually destroying the flock of Israel (see Isa. 3:14-15; 9:13-16; Lam. 2:10; 4:16; Eze. 8:1-9:11).

It is worth noting that other nations discussed in the Old Testament also had elders who held leadership or advisory roles (see Num. 22:4, 7; Josh. 9:11; Judg. 11:5-11). 

For most of human existence, nations have placed high respect and value upon older people. Only in recent times have the old become widely viewed as outdated, out-of-touch, in the way, and senile.

This modern trend is not good and needs to be reversed. Thankfully, from my perspective at least, it seems the trend is changing somewhat, with Americans placing a higher value on older people in recent times. Hopefully this is the case.

Conclusion

The Old Testament Scriptures reveal that the elders of Israel:

  • Were looked to as the "wise men" of the people, and thus were sought out for important decisions, guidance, and rulings.

  • Were responsible for teaching the people.

  • Were responsible for watching over the children of Israel.

  • Were leaders in principles and by example—when they were living holy lives, the nation prospered; when they followed the path of idolatry, the nation decayed and suffered.

  • Lived among the people of Israel, being actively involved in the community and in the lives of one another.

As we think about elders within the church, there are (or should be, at least) strong parallels between the elders of physical Israel and the spiritual shepherds of the body of Christ.

Tim Harris
Author: Tim Harris

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