—Biblical Data:

The only kind of political institution extant among the Israelites before the time of the Kings was the division into tribes, according to tradition twelve in number corresponding to the sons of Jacob, who were regarded as the respective progenitors of the tribes. Organized, therefore, like the modern Bedouins, the pastoral Hebrews held the theory, also found in the genealogies of the ancient Arabs, that the family grows into the clan by natural accessions; the clan develops into the tribe; and the tribe becomes a people and splits up into several constituent tribes. This theory is based among the Hebrews and Arabians on the correct assumption that the tribe is not held together by some external bond of union, but primarily by the sense of blood relationship. "Our blood has been spilled," they say when one of them has been slain; and the duty of avenging the blood was originally not confined to the next of kin, in the true sense of the word, but was incumbent upon all the members of the tribe. Blood relationship, however, was not necessarily natural; it was regarded as existing also among persons that had entered into the "blood covenant."

The family also enlarges through the acquisition of slaves, the accession of freedmen, and the absorption of isolated families; all these "artificial" adoptions, taking the tribal name, regard and revere the father of the tribe as their progenitor. Tribes having their fixed pasture districts entertain close relations with neighboring clans and families that share with them the privileges of watering their flocks at certain wells. Moreover, a permanent or accidental community of other interests occasionally unites entire tribes into one body, called "ḥilf," existing for a longer or shorter period. A tribe of this kind has no actual organized government; its head is a sheik, whose authority, however, is largely moral. In case of war only, the sheik assumes command, and determines, together with the divan of the heads of families, when and where the tents shall be pitched or camp broken. But the sheik is without authority in time of peace. The members of the tribe listen to his counsel because he is respected, and he is called upon to decide disputes because his wisdom is recognized; but his decision is final only if both parties are willing to submit to it; he can not enforce it against the will of either, since there is no executive body to carry out his commands. The family one of whose members commits any offense must judge in the matter. Furthermore, each family is perfectly free and independent, as regards the tribe, in time of peace, and may at any time secede from it. But in time of war it is a measure of security to remain within the tribe.

The tribes of Israel were probably organized along these lines at the time of their entry into Canaan. The bond that united them more strongly than any sense of a common origin could was the worship of Yhwh and his cult (see Theocracy), which endured notwithstanding all differences of secular interests. The sense of unity among all the worshipers of Yhwh was more or less strong; the wars that Israel waged were Yhwh's wars, and hence a matter of common concern (Judges v. 23). This common religion held the tribes together, even after the period of settlement and the resultant wars.

Settlement in Canaan.

Many things connected with the settlement in Canaan tended to increase the difficulties of this tribal union, and to favor its final dissolution. The idea of blood relationship became more and more secondary. As the Canaanites continued to live among the new settlers (Judges ii. 3 et seq.), many mixed marriages occurred, and the two peoples were at last peaceably fused into one. Naturally the sense of community of interest among the inhabitants of a given locality asserted itself and led to the instituting of local governments; in fact, the Canaanites had developed such before the Israelitish invasion. The heads of the most prominent families of a city constituted its administration as elders of the city ("ziḳne ha-'ir"; Judges viii. 14). The fact that cities and villages are frequently designated in their interrelations as "mother" and "daughter," and that cities and "their" villages are mentioned (Num. xxi. 25, 32; Josh. xvii. 11; II Sam. xx. 19), indicates that the beginnings of the territorial organization of Israel go back to the earliest time, and were adopted from the Canaanites. The surrounding smaller villages were in some way dependent on the cities that in time of need offered protection behind their walls to those who dwelt in the open country. This, in time, resulted in a closer political organization, but tended to weaken the national consciousness, since local interests divided the country into separate communities. The physical features of the country were more favorable to segregation, as, for instance, in the case of the tribes in the east-Jordanic districts, where, owing to the character of the land, the dwellers remained nomadic herdsmen to a greater extent and for a longer period of time than their neighbors across the stream, which was difficult to cross. These circumstances contrived to loosen the bond of union between the tribes on each side of the river (comp. Judges v. 16 et seq., viii. 4 et seq., xii. 1 et seq.). But among the tribes in the country west of the Jordan the feeling of union also weakened greatly after their settlement, and even a war of Yhwh like that to which Deborah summoned the people did not unite them all (Judges v. 16 et seq.).

Notwithstanding the fact that the bond that united the several tribes was the common worship of Yhwh, there was great danger that Israel might split up into a number of small "kingdoms," such as existed among the Canaanites. The El-Amarna tablets show that before the advent of the Israelites a number of these petty princes recognized the King of Egypt as their common overlord, though they waged wars among themselves frequently. The story of Gideon illustrates the prevalence of similar disintegrating tendencies in Israel. For the fact is emphasized that he succeeded in retaining rulership over his tribe even in time of peace, while other so-called "judges" were leaders only in time of war.

Origin of the Kingdom.

The check to this disintegrating tendency was due mainly to external influences. So long as the Israelites had to contend only with the nomadic hordes on the east and south, the Midianites, Amalekites, etc., as in the wars in the time ofthe Judges, the strength of a single tribe or of several united tribes sufficed for repulsing the enemy. But the scattered forces of the Israelites were not a match for the organized armies of the Philistines advancing upon them from the west. After the battle of Aphek, many of their districts fell under Philistine control (I Sam. passim). These reverses evoked a decided feeling in favor of a stronger national union, and when Saul, a nobleman from the tribe of Benjamin, had been presented by Samuel to the people as a suitable chief of the state, and had proved his fitness in the war with the Ammonites, the people unanimously elected him king. In its origin, therefore, the Israelitish national kingdom does not differ essentially from the tribal kingdom established by Gideon, for the people primarily demanded from the king aid against a foreign enemy (see King). But Saul in time of peace acted also as judge for his subjects. Under the oak at Gibeah he judged the controversies that they brought before him. In order to assure the security of the throne it became necessary that the power of the old family and tribal chiefs, and hence that of the tribes themselves, should be broken; for the rivalry among the tribes did not die out, even when the idea of nationality became dominant for the nonce and resulted in the establishment of the kingdom. This rivalry flashed up in the refusal of the Judahites to recognize the Benjamite house of Saul, and the uprising of Ephraim together with the other tribes against the Judean family of David.

Under David and Solomon the government was put on a firmer basis, for now there were a small standing army, officials, taxes, etc. (see Army).


There is little information regarding the king's officials ("sarim"). A list of them, preserved in II Sam. xx. 23 et seq., is headed by the general of the army ("sar 'al ha-ẓaba") or the commander of the royal bodyguard. Among the administrative officials the "mazkir" occupies the first position; as the title implies ("who brings into remembrance"), he was a kind of chief councilor, corresponding to the modern grand vizier in the Oriental states (II Kings xviii. 18, 37; Isa. xxxi. 3, 22; II Chron. xxxiv. 8). His assistant was the secretary of state ("sofer"), who had to attend to the king's correspondence. The overseer of labor is also mentioned in the list of David's officials (II Sam. viii. 15 et seq., xx. 23 et seq.). The high priest likewise belonged to the royal officials. It appears from other allusions that there was also a minister of the palace (I Kings iv. 6; II Kings xviii. 18; Isa. xxii. 15), who is perhaps identical with the "soken" (Isa. xxii. 15). "'Ebed ha-melek" (servant of the king) also seems, according to II Kings xxii. 12, to have been the title of a high dignitary, perhaps the chief eunuch. Among the inferior officials were the prefects ("neẓibim") of the 12 provinces (I Kings iv. 7); and at the court itself, the cupbearer ("mashḳeh"; I Kings x. 5), the keeper of the robes (II Kings x. 22), the treasurer ("sar ha-rekush"; I Chron. xxvii. 25 et seq.), and the chamberlain ("saris"; I Kings xxii. 9; II Kings vii. 6, ix. 32 et seq.).

With the exception of the first ministers of the king, no such difference was made in assigning work to the officials as obtains in modern times. The government was not divided into different departments. Every official was in his district a sort of representative of the king, exercising the latter's prerogatives as military commander, governor, tax-collector, and judge. According to the Prophets, it appears that these officials often abused the power placed in their hands; they combined bribery, oppression, and cruelty toward their subordinates with servility toward their superiors (II Sam. xi. 14 et seq.; I Kings xii. 10 et seq.).

The details that are known regarding the administration of internal affairs relate almost entirely to the collection of taxes. David made a census of the people evidently for the purpose of having a basis for apportioning the taxes and for recruiting (II Sam. xxiv. 1 et seq.). Solomon divided the country into districts; in the passage referring to this measure (I Kings iv. 7), it is expressly connected with the imposts for the court. In the list of the twelve districts Judah is omitted; it is uncertain whether because Judah was exempt, as the tribe to which the royal house belonged, or because the narrator made a mistake. It is in any case noteworthy that the ancient division into tribes was ignored in this new division. The amount of these taxes is unknown; under Solomon the people regarded them as an oppressive burden. The tithe is apportioned to the king in the so-called "King's Law" (I Sam. viii. 17); this "King's Law," however, may be of later origin. Crown lands, which the king eventually gave to his servants as fiefs, are mentioned at an early date (I Sam. viii. 13). Traders' caravans had to pay toll (I Kings x. 15); lands of the condemned were seized in some cases by the king (I Kings xxi. 1 et seq.). The first cut of fodder went to the support of his chariot-horses (Amos vii. 1). Poll and income taxes seem to have been levied only in times of special need (II Kings xxiii. 35).


There was no regular constitution determining the rights of the king and his subjects. The so-called "King's Rights" which Samuel laid before the people (I Sam. viii. 10 et seq.) is not a legal document determining the rights and prerogatives of the king, but a somewhat prejudiced account of what the kings actually did. The "King's Law" (Deut. xvii. 14-20). on the other hand, contains moral and religious precepts rather than legal enactments: the king shall diligently study the Law, and shall not possess much silver or gold, many wives, or many horses. The principle of heredity, also, was not legally established, although from the beginning it was accepted as a matter of course. When the Judeans raised David upon the shield, in opposition to Eshbaal, and when the northern tribes chose Jeroboam, these acts were considered as rebellions against the legitimate royal house. On the other hand, it is evident that for a long time the people retained the idea that the king existed for the sake of the people, and not vice versa.

The communal government was at all times nearly unrestricted. The royal government had a greater sway only at Jerusalem, the capital, where of necessityit coincided with the city government, and where a royal officer was appointed as governor of the city (1 Kings xxii. 26). Otherwise the royal officers do not seem to have interfered much officially in the affairs of the communities so long as the taxes were promptly paid. The ziḳne ha-'ir (see above), the elders of the community, constituted the local government, and still retained their judicial functions (Deut. xix. 12, xxi. 2 et seq., xxii. 15 et seq.); no details, however, are known regarding this local council. The number of its members corresponded to that of the prominent families of the place; e.g., the 77 elders of the small city of Succoth are mentioned (Judges viii. 14).

Constitution Under Persian Rule.

The ancient tribal constitution was revived during the Exile, after the national kingdom had perished; and the heads of the families appear again as the representatives of the community (Ezra viii. 1, x. 1). The return to Palestine was also a matter of the various families or communities (comp. Ezra i. 5); and after the Exile this democratic family organization naturally was revived among the Jews. The Persian king did not intend to restore national autonomy; the country remained with the Persian empire as a part ("medinah"; Neh. vii. 6; Ezra ii. 1) of the west-Euphratic province (Ezra v. 3). There was, at least part of the time, a special Persian governor ("peḥah," "tirshata") for Judea, under the satrap of the province. Nehemiah speaks of himself as being such a governor (Neh. v. 15 et seq.), but no mention is made of any of his successors. The Persian officer, who resided at Samaria, seems to have had a representative at Jerusalem (Neh. xi. 24).

These Persian satraps in any case did not interfere greatly in the internal affairs of the people, having no reason for doing so as long as the tribute-money and their salaries were paid regularly. They gave attention only to the building of temples and walls. The freedom of worship granted to the Jews entailed necessarily great freedom in the government, and especially in the administration of justice. The courts and the police were in the hands of the Jewish provincial authorities, designated as "sabe Yehudaye" (elders of the Jews), who represented the people before the Persian governor (Ezra v. 9 et seq., vi. 7 et seq.); it is not known whether this body is identical with the frequently mentioned "seganim" (prefects). In addition to them, the ancient local form of government was revived under the elders of the towns, who administered justice as in olden times. In relation to them the so-called college of the "elders of Judah" at Jerusalem may have constituted a certain supreme authority. It is noteworthy that the priests and the Levites did not belong to this body (comp., e.g., Neh. viii. 9, 38; x. 37).

Hellenic Time.

The development of the government from Ezra to the Greek period is shrouded in darkness. But the basis on which it rested was the law that came into force in 444 B.C. through Ezra-Nehemiah. It is not known how much time elapsed before this constitution was completely enforced; in the Hellenic period affairs were arranged as prescribed by that law. The high priest was the head of the entire community; he was the president of the gerusia, the ancient aristocratic senate, the assembly of the elders. The Ptolemies and Seleucids recognized him as ethnarch. He was empowered to levy taxes, and was responsible for the tribute of the people (Josephus, "Ant." xii. 4, §§ 1 et seq.). In view of this importance the Ptolemies and Seleucids claimed the right of appointing and dismissing the high priest. But otherwise these overlords, like the Persians, so long as their supremacy was recognized, interfered little in the inner affairs of the people.

The rise of the Hasmonean house marked no change in government. From the time of Jonathan, except during war, when the Maccabees exercised a sort of dictatorship, its members took their places at the head of the people as high priests (I Macc. xi. 27), for which, however, they did not have the legal qualifications. The gerusia continued to exist in the meanwhile (I Macc. xi. 23; xii. 6, 35; xiii. 36, etc.), although its influence was greatly diminished. Nor was the constitution actually changed when Aristobulus (105-104 B.C.) took the title of king; the fact that the Hasmoneans called themselves kings was merely an external indication that the spiritual implications of their office had long since become for them a minor matter. The gerusia had little power under rulers like Hyrcanus and Jannæus, but its authority under Alexander was very great. It is not known when the term "Sanhedrin" first came into use.

Roman Period.

Under the Romans the high priest, excepting for a short time, was also ethnarch, and again shared his functions with the gerusia. But it soon became apparent that strong rulers like Antipater and Herod had complete control of this body; Herod simplified matters for himself by removing his opponents in council (Josephus, "Ant." xiv. 9, § 4; comp. xv. 1, § 2).

Soon after Herod's death Archelaus was deposed as King of Judea and the country changed into a Roman province under a procurator, who in some instances was under the governor of the province of Syria, but had entire control of military and civil affairs. The Romans left the Jews full freedom in their internal affairs. The Sanhedrin then had more power than it had formerly possessed under the native princes. The office of high priest was no longer hereditary after the time of Herod. He as well as the Romans appointed and deposed high priests in quick succession, and thus this office lost more and more its political importance, as did the gerusia (the Sanhedrin), over which the high priest continued to preside. See Sanhedrin.

  • Saalschütz, Mosaisches Recht, and Michaelis, Mosaisches Recht; also the histories of Israel by Wellhausen, Kittel, Klostermann, Stade, Guthe, Graetz; the archeologies by De Wette, Ewald, Keil, Nowack, Benzinger;
  • Benzinger, art. Government, in Cheyne and Black, Encyc. Bibl.;
  • Selden, Synedria Veterum Hebrœorum.
E. G. H. I. Be.—In Rabbinical Literature:

The Mishnah (B. B. i. 5) says: "They force him [any citizen] to build for the town walls, gate, doors, and bolts. How long must one have been there to become liable as a citizen? Twelve months; but one who buysa dwelling-house in the town becomes a citizen at once." Thus there is a local authority which can and should levy taxes in money or work for the common defense. The Talmud (ib. 7b-11a) throws no light on the question whence the judicial body which enforces the tax derives its appointment or upon whose initiative it acts. It says that the "disciples of the wise" should be free from all taxes for the security of the place; but that all are bound for the cost of wells or aqueducts, and of paving the streets and squares. It also speaks of a tax for poor-relief; but this must not be imposed on the estate of fatherless minors. It shows that some at least of the burdens of the citizen must be borne by all who have dwelt within the town for thirty days.

There is no trace in the Mishnah or Talmud of any popular elections for local purposes, nor is there any of elections of kings or high priests by the body of the people. It is probable that the administrative offices, corresponding to those of the mayor and council and taxing officers of modern towns, the non-judicial elders, as distinguished from "the elders of the court" (Soṭah ix. 6), were handed down in certain families from father to son (Keritot 5b). Upon the measure or method of taxation which the king might employ for the purposes of the state the Mishnah is silent; the Talmud intimates that it might be in the nature of a tithe on the products of the soil (Sanh. 20b). In connection with the exemption from taxes claimed by the learned class (B. B. 8a) these imposts are cited as the supposed equivalents of those mentioned in Ezra vii. 24; namely, gifts to the king, which were of Persian institution; a capitation tax; and the "arnona" (Latin "annona"), a contribution in grain, fruits, etc., in the nature of a tithe.

E. C. L. N. D.