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Exodus 18:13-26; Deuteronomy 1:9-18

Exodus 18/Deut. 1 is a significant passage. It tells us of the institution of a pattern of government which has seen application in every era of church history. The Jews followed it through the time of Christ, and even today 10 men are the basis for the formation of a synagogue. Rushdoony notes,
The origins of the synagogue were perhaps in the Babylonian exile. The synagogue was not only a place of worship but also an elementary school. The synagogue was also regarded as a kind of adult school; it was a place for lectures, and also the scene of legal decisions.[1]
As Rushdoony also suggests, the Biblical mandate for the synagogue was found in Exodus 18:20.

This pattern of eldership was utilized in the Apostolic Church, as we see in another Studyletter.

Even Christians in our day have attempted to follow this pattern: John Eliot began to implement decimal elders over the Indians to whom he was a missionary. The implications of this localized system of social organization were too much for the civil magistrates of the day; after the Restoration, the Massachusetts General Court found it necessary to suppress Eliot's book.

In our assertion that the State is not a legitimate, God-commanded institution, the question of the Elders in the Old Testament is raised; specifically, don't we have in the Mosaic law, or the "judicial laws," or in the account in Exodus 18/Deuteronomy 1 the ordination of "civil government"? Our answer is No.

The most valuable studies of Eldership are to be found in Rushdoony's Institutes of Biblical Law (I:739-751; II:367-370, 656-661). Our purpose here is to expand on those studies and show how government by elders renders the civil State utterly unnecessary.

Elders Before Sinai

Elders existed before Moses' father-in-law brought them up from their slumbers to aid Moses in the government of Israel. We see them, for example, in Exodus 3:16. Grab a concordance and see how often "elders" appear before Exodus 18.

There are two explanations for who these elders were.

Elders as Patriarchs

They could have been "the chief of the fathers of Israel" (2 Chronicles 19:8). In other words, "elders" were, as the name implies, "older" or "mature" patriarchs. Rushdoony writes,
[T]his pattern [in Exodus 18] utilized an already existing family office, the eldership. What it did was to tie in rule with the pattern of family life on the one hand, and the very local community on the other. It was a plan of grass-roots government under God. It placed responsibilities for the major part of government on the family and the local community. [T]he basic institution in Scripture is the family, and the pattern of civil government requires the utilization of the family. Elders were normally heads of clans, and they were the source of leadership in every area of life. They were also known as fathers, and were thus the Fathers of Israel. The office of elder in Israel is thus basic to family, church, and state. It is a central part of Scripture's plan of government in several spheres of life. [Name one sphere in which it is not!] (II:368-369)
Elders were thus patriarchs. If this is the case, then the case for "patriarchy" (non-political government) is virtually proven. Rushdoony has given many arguments which support our claim that this system of elders constitutes the only necessary form of government in a Christian society.

If the Elders were not Patriarchs, then there is only one other possible explanation for who the "elders" were.

Elders as Bureaucrats

There is something of a gap between Genesis 50 and Exodus 1. "There arose up a new king over Egypt which know not Joseph" (Ex. 1:8). But more significantly, by this time even the People of Israel "knew not Joseph." They had lost the vision of Patriarchal government in the Promised Land. They did not want Moses to deliver them from the Egyptians (Ex. 2:11-14; Acts 7:25; Deut. 9:7). They wanted the benefits of the State, without the costs (Ex. 16:2-4).

During this time in Egypt, the People grew increasingly irresponsible. The State grew increasingly oppressive. That God opposed the oppressive State is seen in His deliverance of the People from Egypt. That God had no use for the statists whom He had delivered is seen in His destruction of them in the wilderness (Psalm 106:24-26). They preferred slavery to the Egyptian State over rest in the Promised Land (Acts 7:39).

It was in Egypt that the People were given "officers" to regulate their slavish lives. Patriarchy had failed because their faith had failed. The fathers of the land were impotent. They complained about working for the Pharoah's military-industrial complex (Ex. 1:10-11), and undoubtedly about their declining standard of living in a socialist economy (cf. Ex. 2:23). But when faced with the stark alternative -- State-slavery or patriarchal responsibility and obedience to God's Law -- they consistently chose the easy life of enslavement to the State. Just as there are many "arm-chair theonomists" in our movement, there were many "arm-chair patriarchs" in Israel. They knew that enslavement did not bring the blessings that Patriarchal obedience would bring, but the responsibilities of unquestioning obedience to Christ drove them to paint a picture of slavery as the best of all possible worlds: Didn't they have the modern conveniences of the State's "supermarkets" (Ex. 16:3), public utilities (Ex. 17:3), and progressive system of justice, swift and sure (Ex. 5:15; Dt. 1:12)? They were slaves, and Pharoah had given them masters (Ex. 5:14). They were "elders" in name only.

It must be admitted, however, that Pharoah probably chose these "officers" from among the ranks of the crippled patriarchs, for they were also known as "elders" (Numbers 11:16).

Did God command the people to leave Patriarchal society and form a bureaucratic slave nation under Pharoah?
It is a preposterous thought, surely.
Clearly, a Patriarchal society was still the ideal, obedience to God's Law the norm, and Abraham the example of Godly government.
If there is one thing that is clear in the Exodus narrative, and indeed throughout the Old Testament, it is that a Spiritless people is unable to conform their lives consistently and increasingly to Biblical Law.
In the Old Testament God deals with His People on a remedial basis.

The Remedial Nature of Eldership

We have the idea that "The Law" was first given at Sinai, and that before that there was no law. It would be difficult to show, however, that anything new was revealed at Sinai. Even major elements of the Levitical priesthood were not new, although we grant that if anything was new, the Levitical priesthood was. In general it can be said that the Law existed before Sinai, and that no new directions in jurisprudence were made on the Mount.

The Patriarch Abraham, model for our obedience as well as Israel's, was characterized by obedience to the Law (Genesis 18:19; 26:5). Even elements of what we have traditionally called "the ceremonial law" were not unknown to Abraham (John 7:22).

But the People of God did not follow the Lord (John 7:19). Instead of forgiving and reconciling, they were fighting and accusing (Dt. 1:12). Instead of exercising dominion, they were covetously bowing before the gods of the States around them (Acts 7:43). If any change is observable between Patriarchal society at the time of Abraham and society at the time of Moses, it is a marked backsliding. Instead of responsible and self-governing, Israel was a nation of slaves. Egypt enslaved them and destroyed Patriarchy without firing a shot.

Into this feeble and fragmented society God gives a mediator, Moses (Ex. 18:19-20; John 1:17; Hebrews 3:1-6). Just as God had divided the nations and set angelic powers over them (Deut. 32:8,43 LXX (RSV); Daniel 10:13,20), God's People were given a pedagogical legal structure by God's angels (Deut. 33:2; Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2).

This structure was remedial. It was still God's desire for them to exercise patriarchal responsibility; Abraham was still the man to emulate. Thus God spoke through Moses (Deut. 1:9; cp. Ex. 18:18) to get the elder/patriarchs functioning again. Teach them the Law (Ex. 18:20) so that they may teach their children (Deut. 4:5,9-10,14) and live in maturity and peace (Ex. 18:23). These patriarchs were being trained to be "rulers" (Ex. 18:21; Dt. 1:13) or "judges" (Dt. 1:16).

A Government of Men, not of Laws Alone

Robert D. Culver has written a book on the Biblical doctrine of the State which, contrary to this Studyletter, supports the institutional State. He has also written an entry in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament which describes an important word which is used to describe the leadership of the patriarchal elders in Exodus 18. The advantage of Family-centered government was, as we have seen elsewhere, its personalism and flexibility. It was just and equitable precisely because it was personal, not institutional.

This stands in contrast to modern government, which is allegedly a "government of laws, not of men." It is thus a government of man's laws, not God's, for God's Law commands patriarchy, not paternalism. It is thus a government of inflexible bureaucracy, not a Godly government of personal wisdom. As a result, the movement is always toward pseudo-personal approaches to law which result in further injustice. Psychological manipulation ("rehabilitation") replaces impersonal restitution, which itself is a far cry from the personal reconciliation and mutual burden-bearing required by Biblical Law.

The word "judge" (Ex. 18:13,16, 21,26) is a broader, more personal word than we Americans would first expect. Culver thus notes some of the advantages of the Biblical system:

The meaning of shapat is further complicated by the fact that although the ancients knew full well what law -- whether civil, religious, domestic, or otherwise -- was, they did not think of themselves as ruled by laws rather than by men as modern people like to suppose themselves to be. [!] The centering of law, rulership, [and] government in a man was deeply ingrained. "The administration of justice in all early eastern nations, as among the Arabs of the desert to this day, rests with the patriarchal seniors. . . . Such . . . would have the requisite leisure, would be able to make their decisions respected, and through the wider intercourse of superior station would decide with fuller experience and riper reflection."
Patriarchs thus bring to bear their personal wisdom and competence, a personal administration, which is based on personal example and leadership, and is designed to be more than just institutional regulation, but education which reproduces patriarchal character in the parties which come before the ruler-judge for wisdom from God's Law.

Righteous Judgment in Every Area of Life

In another paper we show how Biblical Law does not divide life up into "ecclesiastical," "civil," or "private" spheres, but rather sees all of life as a unified whole, with the whole of it under God's Law. It cannot be proven, and in fact would not be expected, that the elder/patriarchs would not teach in every area of life, but would limit themselves to "civil" problems, or "ecclesiastical" disputes. No, they applied the Law of God in every area of life.

When we say that the elder/patriarchs were to "judge" the people (18:22), we must not limit their activity to arbitration or see their government as merely "judicial" activity as in a small-claims court (or even the Supreme Court.) These "judges" were "rulers" or "captains" of tens, hundreds, and thousands. The "Judges" of the Old Testament (described in the book of the same name) were not mere "justices." As we read in Ruth 1:1 (KJV) "it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled . . ." (same word as in Ex. 18:21). When Israel rejected God and asked for a State (I Samuel 8), they wanted "a king to judge us like all the nations" (v. 5). This king would, of course, do more than sit in a courtroom.

Culver points out that the patriarchal character of Biblical government consisted in exercising dominion in every area of life:

The primary sense of shapat [judge, govern, rule] is to exercise the processes of government. Since, however, the ancients did not always divide the functions of government, as most modern governments do, between legislative, executive, and judicial functions [and departments] the common translation, "to judge," misleads us. For, the word, judge, as shapat is usually translated, in modern English, means to exercise only the judicial functions of government. Unless one wishes in a context of government -- civil, religious, or otherwise -- consistently to translate as "to govern or rule," the interpreter must seek more specialized words to translate a word of such broad meaning in the modern world scene. For the participle NIV uses "leader."
It is the patriarchal character of life that produced this situation. In Exodus 18 the elders, fathers of the families, were simply being moved into position to exercise patriarchal dominion as Abraham did. As we have seen in other papers, Abraham exercised all the functions of a State (except theft, kidnapping, murder, invasion of privacy, etc., etc.). In another paper we also argue that the New Testament takes this system (for similar reasons, e.g., the New Exodus) and begins extending the reign of Christ throughout the world (the true Promised Land). Because God's Law governs every area of life, elder/patriarchs seek to shepherd younger families into Godly dominion in every area of life. The Kingdom of God is a competitive rival to the kingdom of man. The City of God does not share jurisdiction with the city of man. Thus Rushdoony leads us to consider the New Testament elder/patriarch:
The elder as teacher thus functioned in the early church in one sphere after another, in the church, in the family, in the area of welfare by delegation and supervision, in education, and, by their avoidance of civil courts, as a civil government. (I:741)
It is our purpose to encourage modern "elders" to become competent in the church, in the family, in hospitality, in education, and in civil law. The manual is the Bible. It is then our purpose to encourage every believer to become mature, competent, and a leader in every area of life; in short, a Patriarch.

From the beginning it was Moses' (because the Lord's) desire to see the people exercising patriarchal responsibility, to have the peace-making capacity to make lawful judgments (Numbers 11:29; 35:24; cf. Acts 2:17f.; Deut. 5:29-31; Proverbs 6:9-11; 30: 24,27). While an immediate purpose was to resolve the existing disputes, his ultimate purpose was to teach the people the principles of God's Law and make them competent therein (Ex. 18:16,20; Dt. 1:18). Moses's task was "burden-bearing." His task was not simply to keep getting the People of God out of the ditch, and make them dependent upon him, but rather to help them avoid the ditch on their own.