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Government

Government [N]

Administration of life in an organized society as well as the body of officials that presides over the process. Human beings discovered at an early stage in their history that a social situation in which "everyone did as he saw fit" ( Judges 21:25 ) proved to be an unstable, disorganized, and frequently even a dangerous one, in which unenlightened self-interest took precedence over the concerns of other citizens.

Consequently, what has been called a "theory of social contract" came into being. This meant that people agreed to live together as free citizens, and behave in such a manner that the interests of others were not harmed in the process. As a result, the various behavioral rules that were developed over a period of time came to be recognized as mechanisms designed for the common good. Some of these ancient social regulations have been unearthed in Mesopotamia by archeologists, and contain statements governing property rights, damage, reparations, and so on.

The earliest observable city-states are those occurring in Mesopotamia, some of which go back to at least 4500 b.c. One of these, Eridu, is the earliest example of settled occupation discovered so far in Iraq, dating back to 4000 b.c. A millennium later the Sumerians, a highly cultured group of uncertain origin, stated that history began when "kingship was lowered from heaven" to the city of Eridu. When the Sumerians came to Iraq they discovered that the land was already organized loosely into groups of villages and small towns, a system that they further developed. These aggressive, superstitious Sumerians set about devising patterns for civic life, and went on to lay the foundations of modern knowledge. In addition to the office of king, they believed that the gods had sent down to earth a collection of civic regulations that were intended to cover all sorts of social situations.

Under the Sumerians, communities such as Eridu, Ur, and Lagash became city-states, which were independent of each other and comprised the settlement itself and adjoining grazing and agricultural land. Sometimes these city-states cooperated socially, but more frequently tried to subjugate each other, and it was this threat of invasion that established the tradition of the king (lugal) as leader of the city's armed forces. Although his office became hereditary in time, his main concern was with the defense of the city-state rather than with its administration. After a time the city-state became a model for settlements in other parts of the ancient Near East.

The state's most prominent building was the main temple, which served as a center for worship and also as a depot for the priests to store agricultural supplies and goods intended for use in the temple workshop. Despite the widespread influence of the priests over the community, secular government was under the control of the governor (ensi), who not surprisingly came into conflict periodically with the temple priesthood. As a standard administrative procedure the ensi divided the free citizens into two groups for purposes of making important decisions. The first consisted of community elders who formed an "upper chamber, " while the second or "lower chamber" comprised the young men who would rally to the defense of the city when threatened by a neighboring state, or pursue aggressive action themselves against a potential enemy. This bicameral, or "two-chamber, " system proved to embody the checks and balances needed for good government and has survived the millennia to flourish in modern democracies.

Law and justice in society were fundamental concerns for the Sumerians, as well as for the later Mesopotamians, since they believed that upon such principles the survival of the state depended. The law was administered by the civil governor and his deputy, and numerous tablets recovered from levels dating from about 2500 b.c. on have illustrated the scope of their concerns. Court cases were heard by a tribunal of three judges, usually priests, who allowed both written and oral evidence, the latter being given under oath.

Their decisions were binding, but a case could be reopened if fresh evidence warranting it came to light. Where matters of minor importance were involved, the judges could order the plaintiff and defendant to settle the matter by engaging in a wrestling bout. The winner of the contest was the one who removed his opponent's belt first. The moral qualities of God's champion wrestler are stated in Isaiah 11:5, where he is girded with righteousness and faithfulness.

While the Sumerians were organizing their city-states, a single large counterpart was flourishing at Ebla in Syria. At its height, around 2300 b.c., it was a bustling commercial center that manufactured metal objects, textiles, semiprecious stones, and pottery, as well as bred cattle and grew grain. The state was engaged in trade with the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Syrians, and Palestinians, and at its height it was one of the most powerful communities in the Near East.

Excavations at the site (Tell Mardikh) have shown that Ebla and its holdings were governed by the king and members of his family. In the upper area of the city were four administrative centers: the royal palace, which no doubt coordinated the functions of all the other offices; the city palace, which evidently handled civic affairs; the stables, the administrators of which would have dealt with imported and exported goods; and the palace of service, in which workers were apparently hired and their tasks regulated.

In the first two palaces ten officials directed the duties of about six deputies, while in the second and third palaces eighty leaders were in charge of about one hundred workers of lesser rank. In the lower part of Ebla were four areas of buildings, supervised by a chief inspector, with between ten and twenty leaders who supervised from thirty to one hundred assistants, depending upon the nature of Ebla's economy. From surviving tablets it appears that an estimated population of 250, 000 persons was governed by a bureaucracy of about 6, 000 people. For a third millennium b.c. empire this is an impressive achievement, matched only in complexity by modern civil services.

The ruler of Ebla was deemed to be the owner of the large city, as well as all the lands and vineyards that surrounded it, these being worked by tenant-farmers. Interestingly enough, the king was known by the Sumerian title en or the Syrian malik, the latter being similar to the Hebrew melek, ("king"). The royal sons assisted in governing this large city-state, some tablets indicating that a senior prince dealt with home affairs, while another was in charge of foreign concerns. Administrative officials below the level of royalty were styled either lugal or diku, the latter meaning "judge." Not very much is known about other facets of civic life because of the enormous difficulty experienced in attempting to translate a highly sophisticated language.

A more complete picture comes from the ruins of nineteenth-century b.c. Mari on the Euphrates. Over 20, 000 tablets have been recovered dealing with religious, administrative, legal, economic, and other matters. As with Ebla, the government of this large Amorite city-state was complex and well organized, and included women functioning in prominent positions. The Mari population was probably less homogeneous than that at Ebla, consisting of seminomadic peoples and the settled Akkadians.

To make government even more difficult, the nomads had links with a group known as the Yaminites or "sons of the south." They were actually dispersed widely throughout Mesopotamia and parts of Syria, and raised flocks and cattle as well as being involved in some agricultural work. To raise their animals properly it would be necessary for the tribes to search for pasture in the steppe lands, and to withdraw later to their winter homes. They tended to resist government from the capital, preferring instead the nomadic system of rule by tribal chiefs. These heads of families would decide about matters such as local feuds, alliances, and some trading, but when summoned for consultation by the central authorities they acted as spokesmen for the tribe. It was usually difficult to keep abreast of their movements, and even more difficult to impose taxes on them. They apparently had their own "king" or "kings, " but those persons were probably military commanders of the Sumerian variety, and not city-state rulers as such.

The formulating of covenant agreements was prominent at Mari, but unlike Hittite covenants they were largely exercises in symbolic ritual rather than being written contractual statements. The Mari Empire had its own class of judges, whose status was actually more that of provincial rulers than persons who simply made judicial decisions based upon evidence. The judge was probably an individual of great prestige among his fellow-tribesman, and as such would be able to negotiate with the central government on behalf of his people.

Contracts dealing with adoption occur in the Mari archives, and these are of interest because they are connected with the transfer of property. The law forbade the sale of inheritances, stipulating that they could only be transferred legally upon the death of the owner. It was possible, however, for a nonfamily member to be "adopted" on the payment of an appropriate fee, and this practice circumvented the law. Some adoption contracts stipulated that the firstborn was to receive double the amount allotted to other family members (cf. Gen 15:2 ; Deut 21:15-17 ). In other legal matters, the terminology of the royal census relating to enrollment procedures, the forms of ritual purification, and questions of discipline exhibit parallels with Exodus 30:13-14.

Prominent Sumerian rulers had identified themselves with law and justice in an attempt to reduce the amount of administrative corruption in their city-states. Early proponents of civic reform were Urukagina (ca. 2350 b.c.) and Ur-Nammu (ca. 2070 b.c.), both of whom produced lists of regulations that have survived in fragmentary form. But the most famous royal legislator of antiquity was Hammurabi of Babylon (ca. 1792-1750 b.c.). This man was an outstanding administrator, military strategist, and lawgiver. He manifested a pronounced sense of concern for his subjects' welfare, often attending personally to complaints about corruption in his kingdom. While there were government officials responsible for administration, they are seldom mentioned in surviving diplomatic correspondence. His major contribution to society was to formulate the so-called Code of Hammurabi, a collection of enactments covering civil, criminal, administrative, and other issues. It was based in part upon earlier Sumerian sources, but it is by far the most comprehensive statement of its kind in antiquity. It survived in the form of a broken black diorite monument with a base of just over six feet and tapered to a height of over seven feet. It was recovered from Susa in 1902, and was a codification of the laws of Hammurabi's day. Whether the contents were meant to be imposed upon his kingdom, or served merely as a guide when he made judicial decisions, is uncertain.

The Hebrews of Abraham's day were mostly semisedentary, living in constructed dwellings during the winter and in spring setting out with their flocks to find new pasture, a tradition they followed for some centuries (see Gen 37:13-17 ). The fundamental unit of patriarchal society was the family, and this was augmented by various family groups to become a tribe. The heads of families became rulers in the tribe, and these persons, known as elders, administered customary law, made treaties, and occasionally allied with other tribes in battle.

Abraham and his descendants could be described as theocratic groups insofar as they considered themselves bound by obedience to God. This concept took dramatic shape when, under Moses, the twelve tribes pledged allegiance to God at Mount Sinai, and among other privileges received a gift of land, from which they were instructed to drive out the inhabitants. The pledge to God ( Exod 24:7 ) made a theocratic society out of tribes who had normally followed a casual and unregulated life, and the constitution given to them in the Sinai covenant contained specific laws that they were required to obey if they were to become a holy nation ( Exod 19:6 ). For nomadic people to be compelled to live according to strict and detailed regulations, some of which were similar to Hammurabi's enactments, was a severe discipline in itself that proved to be a sore burden, even in later sedentary times.

God's rule over Israel was that of a king who mediated his will on specific occasions through elders, military leaders such as Moses and Joshua, and the priestly hierarchy, which was responsible for maintaining the strict purity of religious rituals. When Canaan was conquered, the various tribes settled in the territories that God had allotted to them through Moses ( Num 34:2-15 ), and built small settlements. The transition to a theocratic commonwealth occurred at a covenant-renewal ceremony ( Jos 8:30-35 ), in which an expanded form of the covenant, including stipulations from Deuteronomy, was accepted.

With the passing of strong leadership at the death of Joshua and the increasing influence of pagan Canaanite customs on Israelite life, the covenant fell into disrepute and the elders lost control of their communities. The old nomadic ideal of people following their own individual ways of life overtook the covenant concept of communal and spiritual solidarity and led to the demand for a king to maintain order ( 1 Sam 8:5 ). This pagan model was contrary to theocratic concepts and met with God's disapproval. Nevertheless, he allowed Samuel to anoint Saul as Israel's first "king" (Saul was really a charismatic leader rather than a pagan type of king). Such persons were supposed to govern under God's guidance, but from the end of the Solomonic period, kings in northern Israel became absolute monarchs. This meant that their behavior was unhampered by exceptions or restrictions, giving them complete ownership of their subjects and property alike. David had established an administrative pattern for kingship in a theocracy by delegating many duties to persons known officially as "servants." The role of elders and nobles was recognized ( 1 Kings 21:8 1 Kings 21:11 ), the former discharging their duties as judges at the city gate and the latter acting as advisors to the royal court.

David instituted a number of bureaucrats such as the recorder ( 1 Chron 18:15 ), a powerful archivist who also controlled much of court life; the scribe ( 1 Chron 18:6 ), who with his assistants maintained official records; the priest ( 1 Chron 18:17 ), who evidently served the king in an advisory capacity; the supervisor of labor ( 2 Sam 20:24 ), who recruited captives and others for forced labor in the kingdom; the palace steward ( 1 Kings 18:3 1 Kings 18:6 ), who was a highly placed royal official; and the bureaucrat, who was chiefly responsible for collecting taxes.

Solomon adopted an Egyptian administrative procedure when he divided the kingdom into twelve districts controlled by deputies, who were responsible for providing food successively each month for the king and his officials. For military protection David enlisted skilled fighters to command units of various sizes ( 2 Kings 1:9-14 ), and these were supplemented by specially trained groups ( 2 Samuel 10:7 2 Samuel 10:9 ; 11:17 ) and foreign mercenaries ( 2 Sam 8:18 ; 15:18 ). Archers were part of Israel's armed forces but chariots were not used in battle until Solomon's reign ( 1 Kings 10:28 ).

During this period the Israelites became involved increasingly in treaty relationships with foreign nations. Sometimes the encounter took the form of an alliance, as with Asa of Judah and Benhadad ( 1 Kings 15:18-20 ), but also occurred as a peace treaty or as a coalition against a common enemy ( 2 Kings 3:6-9 ). When Solomon ventured into international politics, he amassed a large number of foreign princesses as wives and these marriages seem to have been integral to the validation procedures of the various treaties ( 1 Kings 3:1 ; 11:1-3 ). At a later period in the monarchy it became the tradition to appoint special court officials to serve as ambassadors (cf. Isa 18:2 ; Jer 49:14 ) and representatives of the monarch. These sophisticated procedures were maintained in varying degrees until Judah's captivity in 581 b.c.

The return from exile in Babylonia furnished an opportunity for the restoration of a true theocracy. The population of Judea was organized in terms of temple worship under the leadership of a high priest and his priestly subordinates. Since Palestine was part of the Persian Empire, it fell under the jurisdiction of the provincial governor who oversaw "Beyond the River" ( Ezr 5:6 ). Zerubbabel was one of these persons ( Haggai 1:1 Haggai 1:14 ), and ruled in Jerusalem ( Ezra 5:9 ; 6:7 ) with the Jewish elders who had reconstructed the second temple. When Nehemiah came to Jerusalem in 446 b.c. he did so as the governor and established the city as the capital of Judah. For administrative purposes the area was divided into districts ( Neh 3:9-18 ), which were under the control of a prince (sar).

The Persians were lenient rulers and consequently the Judeans enjoyed a significant measure of autonomy, due to the official policy of encouraging local culture and religion. Ezra's great contribution to true theocracy came with his insistence upon the Mosaic law as the basis of all spiritual life. The high priest became an important religious and political figure, while the emphasis on the law brought the scribes into new prominence as interpreters of the words of Moses. This powerful religious combination was augmented subsequently by the rise of the Sadducees and Pharisees, who exercised an important influence over Jewish life when Palestine was occupied by the Romans.

Theocratic principles were reinforced by the institution of the synagogue, which had its roots in exilic worship in Babylonia. Each small town had its own synagogue, where the men met to worship on the Sabbath and to hear the law explained. The gathering was presided over by a "ruler, " who also supervised the work of three governing "elders."

In addition to its purely religious functions, the synagogue was a place where meetings could be held to discuss community concerns. But the most important governing body in postexilic Judaism was the Sanhedrin ( Matt 26:59 ; Acts 5:21 ). Its origins are obscure, but it may have developed during the Greek period that followed Persian rule. At that time the Jews established a council of elders, which was accepted as the legal representative of Judaism. Under Roman rule the Sanhedrin was responsible for governing Judea, and in Christ's time it was respected as the supreme court of justice ( Matt 26:59 ; John 11:47 ). There were a few subsidiary sanhedrins in Judea that were directed by elders, but the final authority lay with the Jerusalem Sanhedrin.

The concept of a Sanhedrin or "council" may have been Sadducean originally, since the Sadducees were a priestly aristocracy. But by the Roman period the Pharisees and scribes had been included in the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. In the Jewish commonwealth the office of high priest had come into increasing importance. By the Greek period (331-65 b.c.) he had acquired prominence as the person empowered to levy taxes in Judea and to ensure that they were collected. It was not long before the high priesthood became a political appointment, which was unfortunate for Jews and Romans alike when the Maccabeans revolted after 167 b.c. against attempts to secularize Jewish culture.

In New Testament times these conditions were still being maintained. Thus Jesus was familiar with the established bureaucracy, which he criticized in various ways. He recognized the status of the occupying Roman power and taught the rebellious Jews to pay appropriate tribute ( Matt 22:16-21 ). While acknowledging the supremacy of God, he submitted himself to the power of the Jewish authorities ( Matt 26:57-66 ) in order to fulfill God's plan for human salvation. The Sanhedrin did not have the power to execute Jesus, however, since that was the prerogative of the Romans.

Submission to authority was characteristic of the Lord's behavior, since the state was understood to be God's provision for human safety and well-being. While the ideal state was theocratic, it could not be realized until the kingdom of God was consummated. Meanwhile the governing authorities had to be accepted as a divine surrogate, and consequently, disobeying them was the same as disobeying God ( Rom 13:2 ). Peaceful behavior as a citizen would be rewarded in due time, but evildoing would be punished, because that was one of the important responsibilities of the state ( Rom 13:4 ).

Paul taught his hearers that, regardless of the character of the state's leaders, its authority was still to be recognized because that authority proceeded ultimately from God. Paul set an example for all believers by submitting to the laws of the Roman Empire, which in any event was a matter of moral obligation since he was a Roman citizen. By following established procedures he enjoyed the protection of the state at times when fanatical Jews would have killed him ( Acts 23:12-13 ), and was actually treated reasonably well by Roman authorities such as Felix, Festus, and even Agrippa, who was of the family of Herod and owed his title of "king" ( Acts 25:24 ) to the Romans.

The remarkable period of peace and prosperity (Pax Romana) which the emperor Augustus instituted established the authority of the emperor, but also placed considerable emphasis upon the emperor's subjects, one-half of whom were slaves. It was thus entirely proper for Christian leaders such as Peter to require believers to submit to "every authority instituted among men, " whether to a supreme king or state officials appointed by him ( 1 Peter 2:13-14 ). While the official worship of the emperor was incompatible with acknowledging Jesus as Lord, the king was to be given the honor due to his position as an authority figure under the hand of God ( 1 Peter 2:17 ).

The New Testament does not forbid Christians to serve as government officials, which is proper inasmuch as it permits the leaven of the gospel to work in secular society. Whatever Christians may think about the nature and objectives of civil government they are encouraged to work toward such changes as will benefit society and honor Christ. But civil disobedience, whatever the intentions of the participants, will bring down upon them the wrath of the state, and may well thwart movements toward the same objectives that are being done legally, if covertly. Anything that disintegrates the state inevitably brings social chaos and this is contrary to the Lord's decree that everything should be done decently and in order.

R. K. Harrison

See also Israel

Bibliography. R. D. Culver, Towards a Biblical View of Civil Government; C. F. H. Henry, ed., Aspects of Christian Social Ethics; K. A. Kitchen, The Bible in Its World; A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament; W. Temple, Citizen and Churchman.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.


[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible

Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Government'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.