Noah Pashapa, Ph.D.


In this article we will attempt to outline and analyze the major contours of authority as it manifests within the Old Testament. Five key social contexts which function as frames of reference with regard to its legitimacy and function in the Old Testament will be explored. These five main authority-bearer and authority-subject contexts are:

  • the tribe
  • the family
  • the broader socio-political context
  • political leaders and
  • religious leaders.

These five social contexts will be investigated within four historically definitive social- developmental periods in ancient Israel i.e.:

  • the patriarchal
  • the pre-monarchic
  • the judges as well as
  • the monarchic.

The social institutions and developmental stages which have been selected here appear to be central to most sociological, phenomenological or historical narrations or reconstructions of social conditions in ancient Israel by renowned scholars in the field.

It is an undeniable fact that our attempts at characterizing the contours of authority in the O.T. must be based on the O.T. text itself as our primary source, and on the application of a wide range of relevant historical, literary and sociological methods of O.T. study. It is important however to remember the need for caution and modesty as we make use of such research results that are at best tentative, contested and largely highly probable. As we now proceed to investigate what is happening with authority on the ground within the tribe, the family, the broader socio-political context, political and religious leaders in the Old Testament, it will be evident that our approach selectively employs research results from these methods. It will be necessary however that we proceed with caution and a modesty that is appropriate to their application.

Authority in Ancient Key Social Institutions

The investigation of traditional-confessional, historical-critical and social-scientific approaches to the study of the Old Testament shows that it is possible to attempt reconstructions of Israelite history and religio-social institutions with very high levels of reliability and consistency. It also shows us the limitations that characterize these confessional, historical-critical and social-scientific research processes which are evident in the methodological and theoretical claims and counter claims made by key scholars in these areas of study. The treatment of authority and how it manifests in Israel’s key social institutions in the context of select definitive social development epochs that follows is informed by the results from the said methodological approaches.

Key Israelite Institutions and Social Developmental Stages

Our selection of key Israelite institutions and “stages” in Israel’s social development to be investigated here is based on a survey of relevant Old Testament works (studies) reflecting a wide range of Old Testament methodological approaches. In another article titled ‘The value of Old Testament study methods in the reconstruction of Old Testament social and religious institutions’. In that article we attempt to demonstrate both the richness of data available from these diverse methodological approaches that is relevant to such a task as well as highlight their limitations.

It is within these key institutions and social developmental stages that key Israelite authority-bearers such as chiefs, judges, fathers, kings, priests and prophets manifest their authority. We make the assumption that an analysis of how authority is experienced and expressed within these key social contexts reveals its dominant O.T. impulses.

Methodological Limitations

It is critical at the offset to acknowledge that there are difficulties associated with dating relevant O.T. texts and the traditions behind them and also with attempts to circumscribe and select relevant extra-biblical evidence for comparative analysis on which to base socio-historical reconstructions of Israelite society and its institutions. Thus it will not be possible to find localized texts or types of tradition the basis on which to reconstruct any of these aforementioned stages or institutions in their totality. It will be necessary to link and combine related key pointers relevant to each stage or institution that will be found scattered throughout various textual contexts. This has led us to adopt a method of comparative analysis that is eclectic. It combines elements of an evolutionary linear historical-critical framework, observations informed by a synchronic thematic approach and comparative analytical research based on available relevant extra-Biblical evidence.

The Tribe/Clan

It will be helpful that we explore the organization; development and structure of tribe/clan in Israelite society. Tribes appear to have been groups of families that claimed a common ancestor for their progenitor. These claims seem to have been anchored in traditions about the ancestor-progenitor, which were not always factually true in every detail (as with such stories everywhere else), which strengthened ‘common narratives on origins’ which claimed that certain common people groups shared common blood. Such groups were also known as clans (1Sam 20:6 & 29; Judges 6:15). De Vaux, who uses comparative analytical samples drawn from Assyrian and pre-Islamic Arabic tribal groups( beyond the academic convention of using Syria-Palestinian one especially the Mari texts) describes tribal groups in Israel as,

…autonomous groups of families sharing a common belief that they descended from a common ancestor… each tribe is called by the name of the common ancestor often preceded by ‘sons of’ … 18

The clan or tribe was made up of several families, each family comprising a father, wife or wives, unmarried children, married sons with their wives and children as well as servants. Members of such a tribe/clan would have lived in the same vicinity and regularly met for communal sacrificial feasts and religious meals. In Judges 9:1 – 6, Abimelek calls members of his tribe/clan “my flesh and blood” while they, in turn, describe him as their “brother”. Each tribe is called by the name of this ancestor with the prefix “son of” attached. All the people belonging to a tribe perceive themselves as united in a blood relationship and call themselves “brothers”.

There appear in the O.T. descriptions of tribal groups such as “sons of Moab”; “sons of Amalek”; “sons of Israel”, and “sons of Judah”. Comparative analytical studies done on the emergence and development of tribal groups in Israel in the light of relevant evidence from Syria-Palestine (especially the Mari texts), Assyria and pre-Islamic Arabs have enriched our understanding on this matter.

It has now been established that groups of families living in the same region often joined together to form tribes or tribal groups. In such instances, it was usually the case that the weaker elements got absorbed by the stronger ones. Some individuals were absorbed into strong families into which they married. They raised their own families and thereby got adopted. Others, by acknowledging a clan’s progenitor as their own, became kith and kin based on “blood” ties.

This trend, typical of the emergence, structuring and organization of tribal groups in other ancient Near Eastern contexts, has led to the questioning of the nature of the “Twelve Tribe” concept in the O.T. traditions. It is suspected that, as it appears in the final text, the concept could be more a reflection of a systematic literary arrangement than a typical ideal social system.

This suspicion has been bolstered by the varying numbering, ordering and naming of the tribes that make up the “Twelve Tribes” (of Israel) in the various textual contexts where it appears. Examples of this would be Genesis 49 and Numbers 1:5-15 and Numbers 1:20-42. In Genesis 49, the list of the twelve tribes (see v. 28) mentions Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph and Benjamin (Gen 49:3-27). Even though verse 28 contends that this is a list of twelve tribes, the actual list in the text numbers only ten. In Numbers 5:5 – 15, the list of tribes mentions Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Gad and Naphtali, which totals eleven tribes. Another list of the tribes in Numbers 1:20-42 mentions Reuben, Simeon, Gad, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher and Naphtali, which numbers twelve.

It is important to observe though that the O.T. texts are clearly more interested in the “Twelve Tribe” concept of Israel as a function of Israel’s nationhood and national religion more than the need to preserve ‘scientifically accurate historical facts’. The Old Testament was never meant to be a textbook on history but rather a religious text which records the emergence, growth and development of a people and how their God who is also the God of the universe made Himself known to them and entered into a covenant-relationship with them.

Even though it is not possible to identify the exact pattern by which such tribal-growth developments may have occurred in Israel, there are pointers in the text that such trends were not foreign to Israel. The case of Caleb and the Calebites is a good example of tribal fusions occurring within Israelite tribal groups. We see Caleb identified as a Kennizite who is not part of the Israelite tribal confederation (Num 32:12; Josh 14:6; cf. Gen 15:19 & 36:1). During the period of the desert wanderings by Israel, we find Caleb mentioned as one of the representatives from Judah who are to go and explore the Promised Land (Num 13:6). This can be read to imply that there should have been contact between the Kennizite group and Israelite groups. During the period of settlement in the Promised Land, the Caleb group appears to get integrated into the Judah group formally (Josh 15:13; Josh 14:6 – 15) and Caleb son of Yephuneh becomes son of Hesron son of Peres son of Judah (1Chr. 2:9, 18 & 24). Other groups that appear to have been absorbed by the Judah group are the Simeon tribal group and the Yerameelites.

Having briefly commented on the growth and development of tribal groups,we will now move on to the issue of authority within the context of tribes/clans more specifically. We hope to observe many helpful key pointers to its nature and function within the structure and organization of these tribes/clans.

The ‘Tribe/Clan’ and Authority

Though it is not possible to reconstruct a total picture of life during the “patriarchal”, the “judges” and “pre-monarchic” periods or date them with precision, the Old Testament traditions provide significant pointers that may indicate stages in the development of social organization in Israel. These indications make it attractive to suggest that Israelite society was characterized by a development from some form of semi-nomadic organization to one that was more sedentary. Perhaps it would have been at these stages of sedentarization that the tribes/clans settled in the geographical territories by which they began to identify themselves.

Here we are interested to demonstrate that the authority at play with these pre-monarchic ‘tribal/clan’ rulers represented by the patriarchs, Moses and the judges was authoritarian, centralized, acutely hierarchical and ‘for-life.’ In Gen. 49 and Deut. 33, Jacob, the patriarch and Moses, the deliverer, are both presented as pronouncing blessings on the different tribes/families and thereby identifying each tribe with a geographical territory it occupied. With this development from dimorphic to more settled social organization, tribes/families develop into confederacies (groups that identify themselves with geo-territories they have settled in). Roland De Vaux has added his weight behind this suggestion when he says:

It remains that the Israelites or their ancestors did live for a time in the desert as nomads or semi-nomads…we are therefore justified in using, with due reservation, the organization and customs of the Arabs for comparison.19

Traditions about the “Patriarchs” are concerned with families while those of the “Judges” and “the pre-monarchic period” highlight tribes/clans that exist and act independently or corporately under the authority and leadership of a shopet (judge) who ruled over them (Judges 9:2; 22). A passage such as this one (Judges 9) in which the Deuteronomist Historian is keen to contrast Gideon, the Yawheh-honoring judge, from his descendant Abimelech, who was a Yawheh-dishonoring one, is likely to be less theologically doctored in its reflections on the historical role of “judges” and thereby relatively more reliable. Here Abimelech, “a judge”, is described as a “ruler” (9:2) and “king” (9:8; 16).

Though it must be insisted that the nature and scope of kingly authority in view here must be much more limited in comparison to that of the pre-monarchic and monarchic periods, the use of both these terms highlight the authoritarian and centralized nature of the authority exercised by these judges. The rule exercised by Abimelech has been described elsewhere as that of kinglets or mini-monarchs of the Amarna age. In Judges 8:22 – 27, Gideon (Jeru-Baal), who was Abimelech’s father and judge before him, is reported to have insisted that his rulership over the people was legitimized and insured by Yawheh. Even though the typically Deuteronomic Historian’s pro- or anti- Yahweh contrasting framework is clearly at play here, the role of the “judge” as “ruler” is unavoidable.

During the late pre-monarchic period, it was the ziqenim (elders) more than the individual sarim or nasi’m (chiefs) who exercised authority. The “Judges” traditions appear to indicate a trend typified by the disintegration of the shebet as mishepachoth (clans) surface as the central fabric of social organization.

It appears that each clan/tribe had a sar (chief) who exercised authority over ziqenim (elders) who ruled their families (1Sam 8:4). The shebet (tribe) comprised mishepachoth (clans) who accepted and yielded to the authority of the same chief (Judges 6:15). The words sar and nasi are used when reference is made to authority-bearers over families, tribes or clans (Num 7:2; 1:6 cf. Gen 17:20; 25:16). These chiefs appear to have exercised hierarchal and centralized authority in declaring war, in deciding on settlements, territories and boundaries as well as in deciding and entering confederacy contracts on behalf of the group (see Judges 10 – 11). In 1Sam 10:23 – 25, Samuel, the judge, appoints Saul melek (king) over the people and it does not appear there was much in the way of expression of preference about the matter of the candidate on the part of the people. Not only did Samuel appoint and anoint the divinely sanctioned ruler, but he is reported to have also designed and presented to the new ruler and people the regulations that were to guide the new ruler in his exercise of authority (1Sam 11:25). Verse 24 of the same chapter appears to bear testimony to the fact that it was acceptable practice that this “priest-ruler” had the prerogative to appoint a ruler that the people (as authority-subjects) should endorse. Samuel’s divine sanction and appointment as a deliverer-judge is reflected in the book of Judges (chapters 1 – 3).

This narrative highlights Yawheh’s special mission for him even at birth and during his childhood. Consequently, his priesthood is to be preferred to that of the Elides who had apostatized. These same passages in Judges clearly indicate that the judges’ term of “authority-bearer” was life-long. (see also 3:11; 4:1; 8:33; 10:1; 10:2,3; 10:5, etc.).

At a time when there was no enunciated policy on title to land as well as ownership and use of water sources, the use of grazing lands and watering places was often characterized by conflict between groups. This aspect is reflected in the stories of Abraham and Lot’s herdsmen quarrelling over grazing land (Gen 13:17), the story of Abimelech and Abraham’s servants quarrelling over water wells (Gen 21:25) and in that of the conflict over water-wells by Isaac and the people of Gerar. Such conflicts were resolved through war or negotiations, as determined by the authority-bearers who were variously known as fathers, chiefs, judges or priests, all depending on their particular function.

In all these matters of social organization and structuring, it is demonstrable that authority-bearers exercised hierarchal authoritarian, and centralized ‘authority-for-life’. Parallels have been drawn between the hierarchal, centralized, authoritarian and authority-for-life powers of these “chiefs” from the patriarchal, judges and pre-monarchic Israelite social developmental stages and that of the pre-Islamic Palestinian Sheikh, who takes decisions that must be followed by all the men in the group. De Vaux has observed that the Palestinian Sheikh ‘takes the decision and all the men must follow him’. (Roland De Vaux;’ ibid p. 9)

We must also highlight the reverence, associated with his embodiment of the community’s well being, with which the Israelite authority-bearer is regarded, which in our view sponsors what can be described as ‘benevolent-authoritarianism’.

It is evident from Old Testament traditions that if the head of the family, clan or tribe becomes guilty of punishable behavior the whole group is punished and in like manner if the head is courageous and deserves to be honored the whole group is also honored. In a sense the authority-bearer is the guardian of the well-being of the people whose wellbeing depends on him. (2 Samuel 21:1)

Another example of this reverence of pre-monarchic authority-bearers by authority-subjects is the indication that guilt behavior on the part of the head of the family, clan or tribe often resulted in the punishment of the whole group. In Josh 7 – 8, this principle brought about punishment on the family or clan/tribe as the head’s crime, caught up with Achan’s household. In Numbers chapter 16:25 – 34, the same principle catches up with the households of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. In the same manner, courageous behavior on the part of the “chief”(head) resulted in the whole group being honored. In 2 Sam 9:7 and 21: 7, there are indications that Mephibosheth Jonathan’s son was treated exceptionally well by king David because of the good deeds of his late father in favor of David when Saul was pursuing David in the early days of the monarchy.

We hope that it has been shown here that the authority of the pre-monarchic ruler in the Old Testament was hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian and ‘for-life’. We now move on to look at authority within the ‘family’.

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Noah Pashapa

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