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B'Midbar/Numbers 34:18 And one chieftain, one chieftain from a tribe, you shall take to take possession of the Land.
Here, as we reach the end of the book B'Midbar,HaShem is giving Moshe a last set of instructions to set in place for the people before he dies. After telling him that Eleazar (the son of Aharon) and Joshua (the son of Nun) are to be "the men who are to assign the land for you as an inheritance" (B'Midbar 34:17, NIV), HaShem also says that one chieftain from each tribe is also to be a part of the possessing and apportionment process. Hirsch explains that "under the supervision and guidance of Eleazar and Joshua as the representatives of the nation, the prince of every tribe is to 'take into possession' on behalf of his tribe, the portion of land allocated to it, and make the sub-division amongst the families and men of his tribe who are entitled thereto. As they are expressly appointed by HaShem here, these men have full authority to act for all claims of heritage and the decisions are legally and finally binding."1
The plural verb - the Qal prefix 2mp form of the root , to take, take hold of or take away - probably refers to Eleazar and Joshua who are to supervise the apportionment of the Land.Targum Onkelos replaces the Hebrew , "you shall take" with the Aramaic , "you shall lead" as this is more befitting for people in general - 'take' being a word that might be applied to inanimate objects - and chieftains in particular. There is the sense, then, of a committee of twelve people - two plus ten - who will oversee the land allocation process, with the one representative of each tribe having been selected and named by HaShem who is legally responsible for looking after the affairs of his particular tribe as well as contributing to the committee decision under the overall leadership of Eleazar and Joshua. No-one can complain or suggest that they didn't get a hearing around the table - this is nicely transparent and accountable to make sure that everything is not only done but seen to be done properly. Drazin and Wagner note that the following list of chieftains contains only ten names: "not from all twelve tribes, since no chief from Reuben or Gad is mentioned. They had already received their allocation on the east side of the Jordan."
The second verb in the verse, - the Qal infinitive of the root - attracts a little more comment.Rashi says that it and its following object mean "to take possession of the Land", largely at variance with the English translations. The CJB alone follows Rashi, while others prefer 'divide' (ESV, NJB, NKJV), 'apportion' (NASB, NRSV) and 'assign' (NIV). Rashi's suggestion seems to be based upon it being a Qal infinitive, which is contrasted with , the Pi'el infinitive used in verse 29, which all translations render "to divide the Land" (v. 29). Davidson offers "to possess, to inherit, to divide" for the Qal and "to give or distribute" for the Pi'el. Jacob Milgrom (JPSTC4), correcting the JPS "through whom the land will be apportioned", explains that the Qal meaning is transitive (i.e. requires an object) as attested in "Pardon our iniquity and sin and possess us" (Shemot 34:9) and "And HaShem will possess Judah" (Zechariah 2:16) as well as cognate references in Akkadian.
While the accounts of the battles and campaign of occupation under Joshua's leadership do not mention the chieftains, when the time comes for allocating the ancestral holdings, the text tells us, "And these are the allotments of the Israelites in the land of Canaan, that were apportioned to them by the priest Eleazar, by Joshua son of Nun, and by the heads of the ancestral houses of the Israelite tribes" (Joshua 14:1, JPS). Similarly, when the Levites needed the cities where they were to live, "the heads of the ancestral houses of the Levites approached the priest Eleazer, Joshua son of Nun, and the heads of the ancestral houses of the Israelite tribes" (21:1, JPS). Under the leadership of Joshua and Eleazar, the chieftains from each of the tribes living in the Land west of the Jordan made the allocation of cities as HaShem had instructed. Interestingly, although Reuben and Gad were not represented, cities for the Levites were allocated in the territories of Reuben and Gad as well as the part of Manasseh's territory on the east of the Jordan.
The Jewish writings record that the rabbis saw Israel being governed by a group of elders or judges in direct descent from Moshe. Following the mandate for justice given in the Torah - "If a case is too baffling for you to decide, be it a controversy over homicide, civil law, or assault -- matters of dispute in your courts -- you shall promptly repair to the place that the L-RD your G-d will have chosen, and appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time, and present your problem" (D'varim 17:8-9, JPS) - the rabbis wrote about the country being governed by a council or assembly after the return from the Babylonian exile: "Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly" (m. Pirkei Avot 1:1). The gospels record that although limited in power, the Jewish people had a , anglicised as 'Sanhedrin', meaning a governing council comprised of priests and scribes, the elders of the people.
When Sha'ul founded assemblies of believers throughout Asia Minor and Greece, he "appointed elders for them in every congregation" (Acts 14:23, CJB). Although probably only Yeshua-believers of short standing, they may well have been G-d fearers in a Jewish community for some years and were empowered by the Holy Spirit to govern their congregations. In Acts 15 we read that the council summoned in Jerusalem to determine the requirements for Gentile believers was made up of "The apostles and the elders [who] were gathered together to consider this matter" (Acts 15:6). Sha'ul continued the habit of appointing elders for congregations throughout his ministry, telling Titus to "set in order what remains, and appoint elders in every city as I directed you" (Titus 1:5, NASB) and the practice was inherited by the early church. The predominant structure of the early church followed the Jewish and biblical pattern of a plurality of elders, with no single-leader congregations as this could easily lead to abuse or malpractice. Such elders were to be men of faith, character and experience: "above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as G-d's steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict" (Titus 1:6-9, NASB).
Having a plurality of elders provides wisdom, accountability and representation for all the people in the congregation. The Book of Acts demonstrated the need for leadership: "Around this time, when the number of talmidim was growing, the Greek-speaking Jews began complaining against those who spoke Hebrew that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution" (Acts 6:1, CJB). A group of elders will hold each other accountable, encouraging each other in the work of the kingdom and the care of G-d's people. A number of voices around the table provides wisdom and safety: "Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety" (Proverbs 11:14, ESV). The important mutuality words of Yeshua, "Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him" (Luke 17:3, ESV) and Rav Sha'ul, "encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing" (1 Thessalonians 5:11, ESV) apply even more in leadership situations where a leader is under greater pressure and temptation than perhaps an individual might carry. Fellow elders can share the load and burden of the ministry so that a single man is not overwhelmed or compromised in the heat of a situation.
Within a plural leadership, both with each other and with the congregation, transparency is a critical quality. Rav Sha'ul addresses this too: "For we take pride in this: that our conscience assures us that in our dealings with the world, and especially with you, we have conducted ourselves with frankness and godly pureness of motive" (2 Corinthians 1:12, CJB). This has clear intersection with the qualities of the elder above, but goes further to include an intentional openness. We need to ensure that our conversation is unambiguous, wholesome and positive, that our words are consistent with our motives and that we seek to "Do nothing out of rivalry or vanity; but, in humility, regard each other as better than yourselves - look out for each other's interests and not just for your own" (Philippians 2:3-4, CJB).
1. - The Talmudic laws about the legal status and responsibilities of guardians for orphans is based on this text. Decisions of duly appointed guardians are binding and legally incontestable after the orphans grow up and come of age (b. Kiddushin 42a).
Further Study: Ecclesiastes 4:9-12; Ephesians 4:1-3
Are you in or under a functioning plurality of elders? Pray for your
leaders, that they may grow in wisdom and stature, openness and
transparency to serve and care for the flock in their charge.
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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© Jonathan Allen, 2014
Your turn - what do you think of the ideas in this drash ?Like most print and online magazines, we reserve the right to edit or publish only those comments we feel are edifying in tone and content.