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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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4. The El-Amarna letters and the Ugaritic texts have
shown the presence of councils of elders and less
conspicuously of popular assemblies in Syria-Palestine
during the second half of the second millennium. It
was a world of small city-states in which assemblies
made sense. Both councils of elders and popular


assemblies seem to have been particularly active when
the local king was not present. Letter 254 of El-
Amarna very vividly recounts the story of Labaja who
addressed the citizens of Gezer. One passage in the
Egyptian story of Wen-Amon indicates that in the
eleventh century B.C. the King judged cases between
foreigners in a popular assembly at Byblos. J. A. Wilson
recognized the Phoenician word mo'ed, “assembly,” in
the Egyptian text. The existence of assemblies favored
changes of political allegiance in a time of crisis: it
favored what we would call propaganda and is better
described as inducement to rebellion. According to
some El-Amarna letters (74; 81) a rebel against Egypt,
Abdiashirta, apparently used political assemblies to
spread his call to subversion.

In the old South Arabian states (known to us from
documents of the earlier part of the first millennium
B.C.) a tribal assembly or council existed and was
summoned by the king for the enactment of laws and
other decisions.

We have seen from an Egyptian document that the
Phoenician cities had popular assemblies and councils
of elders as early as the eleventh century B.C. Greek
and Latin sources confirm this feature which may be
an adaptation to city life of the old tribal assembly
and council of the Semites. Unfortunately we have no
details. But we do know more about the constitution
of Carthage, the Phoenician colony of the Western
Mediterranean, because Aristotle was interested in it
and described it in some detail. He thought that the
constitution of Carthage was similar to that of Greek
cities. While the Phoenician cities of the East retained
kings, perhaps until after Alexander the Great,
Carthage was a republic as early as the fifth century
B.C. It was ruled by a mercantile aristocracy through
a supreme council of thirty members elected or chosen
(we do not know how) for life. Aristotle tells us in a
notoriously difficult passage of Book II, 1273a, of his
Politics that the Carthaginian popular assembly was
asked to decide on matters on which the magistrates
and the council of the elders had not reached
agreement. Indeed, in case of disagreements among the
leaders the common people were allowed freedom of
discussion. Aristotle remarks: “Anybody who wishes
may speak against the proposal introduced, a right that
does not exist under the constitutions of Sparta and
Crete.” Nowhere in the Near East do we find a com-
parable right. The Carthaginians were in close contact
with the Greek colonies of Sicily and may well have
learnt something about freedom of speech and
collective decision-making from their Greek neighbors.

The Persians, during the Achaemenid period, had
certainly no assembly and probably no central council
of elders. The kings who were chosen by Ahura Mazdā
never considered themselves gods, but had the truth
by divine right and were supposed to fight “the lie.”
How they ascertained it is a question strictly connected
with the nature of the religious beliefs of the
Achaemenids about which we know so little. It would
appear that the Magi, “a very peculiar race,” as
Herodotus says, did not invariably function as religious
counsellors to the Achaemenids. Whatever their ori-
gins, they had become a priestly class which controlled
sacrifices and interpreted dreams (Herodotus, I, 107;
140). They could not be ignored, but after the
Smerdis affair there were legitimate suspicions. No
doubt the king had other advisers. The six helpers of
Darius in his struggle for the throne were the origi-
nators of families who had free access to the king (ibid.,
III, 118). These six families may ultimately be identical
with the seven chiefs of the Persians and Medes, who
according to the Book of Esther could see the face
of the king, if we assume that one of the seven was
the representative of the family of the king himself.
We are also told by Herodotus that during the expedi-
tion against Greece, Mardonius was sent by Xerxes to
ask the advice of his vassals about the suitability of
engaging the Greeks (ibid., VIII, 67-69). Xerxes was
pleased with the minority opinion expressed by
Artemisia, but decided that the “advice of the greater
number should be followed.” So he was defeated at
Salamis. The considerable decentralization of the
Persian state, with its system of satrapies, made it easier
for the king to rely on private and individual consul-
tations, though the result often was rebellion. Political
debates were not a frequent occurrence with the

One of the things we learn from the scanty evidence
about assemblies and councils of elders in Syria and
Palestine is of course that the Hebrew tribes with their
assemblies and councils of elders conformed to well-
known patterns. Biblical tradition being what it is, we
are never quite certain whether our evidence about
pre-monarchic institutions (and even monarchic
ceremonies) reflects actual events or later idealization
and theorization. It is, for instance, suspicious that
apparently there is no mention of an assembly of one
tribe in the pre-monarchic period. But the picture of
the functions of elders and assembly inspires trust even
if individual episodes bear the sign of later elaborations.
Though we would not take Deuteronomy 5:23 as evi-
dence for the existence of elders in each tribe, elders
of Judah (e.g., II Samuel 19:11) are well authenticated.
So are the elders of Gilead who made a pact with
Jephthah (Judges 11:5f.), not to speak of the elders of
individual cities. The elders of each city had juris-
dictional functions even during the monarchy. They
represented the tribes or the cities: in some texts “men


of Israel” and “elders” are used interchangeably
(Joshua 24:1-2). The elders had a say in the declaration
of wars of the monarchic period (I Kings 20:8) and,
what is more, in the election of the first two kings (I
Samuel 8:4; II Samuel 5:3). Later, in the post-exilic
period, they organized the convocation of the assembly
(Ezra 10:8). We do not know who were the heads, the
sarim, of the elders about whom we hear in various
circumstances (e.g., Isaiah 3:14).

The assembly ('edah, Kahal) had judicial functions,
at least in the idealization of later times: the Sabbath
violator (Numbers 15:33), the blasphemer (Leviticus
24:14) are brought before it, and it is a touch of realism
conforming to popular justice in the Near East that
the judges are also the executioners. Women appear
before the assembly to ask for the right of inheritance
(Numbers 27:2). The 'edah and its obscure “princes”
appear in treaties and arbitrations (Joshua 9:15; Judges
20:1). The 'edah proclaims Jeroboam King of Israel (I
Kings 12:20). The assembly of Judah is probably
implied as partner in the covenant of Josiah after the
recovery of the Book of the Law (II Kings 23:1-2).
According to Chronicles the 'edah took part in the
restoration of the Davidic dynasty with Joash (II
Chronicles 23:3) and in the reform of Hezekiah (II
Chronicles 29:28f.). It reappears after the exile in legal
decisions of basic importance, such as the repudiation
of foreign wives (Ezra 10:1-2). As we have already
mentioned, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish in
the sources the assembly from the elders. In Exodus
19:7-8 Moses puts the words of Yahweh before the
elders of Israel, and all the people answer. The elders
of Israel make a covenant with David in Hebron on
behalf of the people (II Samuel 5:1-3).

Elders and assembly were closely involved in the
covenants which characterize the election of leaders
and later of kings among the Hebrews, though it would
be a waste of time to try to reduce these elections to
one pattern. The contractual character of leadership
is a notion which underlies much of the biblical think-
ing about judges and kings and undoubtedly had its
roots in historical facts. It has its counterpart in the
notion of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel
which in various degrees of development is accepted
by all our biblical sources from the Yahwist to the
Deuteronomist. According to one line of thinking,
which did not prevail, the covenant with Yahweh was
incompatible with the choice of a king and consequent
covenant with him. Thus historical and constitutional
thinking in Israel presupposes the existence of assembly
and elders and conceives the relation between Israel
and its leader (whether human or divine) in terms of
a covenant. Indeed a series of covenants with God
marks the progressive separation of Israel from the
other nations. There is not much room in the Bible
for the notions of amphictyony and divine kingship
which modern scholars have tried to introduce into
ancient Hebrew thinking.

It is difficult for us to visualize how decisions were
taken in a Hebrew council of elders or in assembly
either before or during the monarchy. We may have
an example of how a council of elders operated in the
disagreement between the senior and the junior
advisors of Rehoboam at the beginning of the conflict
with the northern tribes (I Kings 12:6). And we re-
member how easily the assembly and the elders of
Jezreel condemned Naboth to death according to
Jezebel's pleasure (I Kings 21:12). The historical books
of the Bible taken as a whole give the impression of
informality and outspokenness in the relations between
the Hebrew leaders and their followers which agrees
with the contractual nature of the relation itself. This
impression is confirmed by the few letters of the
seventh and sixth centuries B.C. which have so far been
discovered (especially the ostraca of Lachish). The man
who writes to his superior uses traditional servile for-
mulas, but speaks directly and firmly, and in one case
boldly rejects an insinuation.

What characterizes Hebrew life, however, is the
intervention of the prophet in the name of Yahweh.
Recent concentration on the problem of the relation
between cult and prophecy, though understandable as
a reaction to the romantic idealization of the prophet
as a solitary seer and thinker, obscures the essential.
The prophet is the unpredictable messenger of the
word of Yahweh. It has been calculated that out of
the 241 mentions of the “Word of Yahweh” in the Old
Testament, 221 indicate a prophetic utterance. The
word of Yahweh manifests itself through the mouth of
the prophet. In the Prophetic Books, in the Psalms,
and even in the Book of Job (15:8) one finds the notion
that Yahweh has his own Council, and the true prophet
is a member of it. According to Jeremiah, Yahweh says
of the false prophets: “If they stood in my council, then
they would have proclaimed my words to my people”
(23:22). This notion of a Council of Yahweh is only
one instance of the legal thinking which emerges from
the Prophetic Books. In some memorable passages the
word of Yahweh is an indictment of Israel in proper
legal terms for infringement of the Covenant: “There-
fore I will surely bring suit against you [Oracle of
Yahweh], With your children's children I will contend”
(Jeremiah 2:9ff.; cf. Deuteronomy 32; Isaiah 1:2;
Micah 6:1).

In other cases, of which Jeremiah 3 and [Deutero-]
Isaiah 42:6, 49:8 (whatever the precise meaning of
these passages) are the most conspicuous, the prophet
is made to announce a new covenant with Israel.


Through the prophet a new legal situation is promised
to Israel. But the word of Yahweh does not of course
exhaust itself in legal formulations. It introduces into
Hebrew life an element of freedom of speech which
breaks all the conventions and which the kings may
try to suppress or at least to control. As long as
prophets operated in their midst, the freedom of speech
that the Hebrews knew was the word of God through
his prophets. When prophecy lost momentum, the
notion of an unchangeable Torah became the center
of Jewish life: this implied a profound reorientation.
The prophet gave expression to the constant feeling
of guilt towards Yahweh which was inherent in the
life of the Hebrew tribes. The rabbi, who to a certain
extent replaced the prophet as a teacher, was the
mediator in a new harmonious relationship between
God and man. The task of the rabbi was to define the
boundaries of the Torah, in other words, those types
of behavior which are Kiddush Hashem (“sanctifying
God's name”) in contrast to Hillul Hashem (“profaning
God's name”). The rabbi's concern was not freedom
of speech, but cooperation with God, hence the danger
of heresy.