Question: "What was the significance of the elders in the Old Testament?"
Answer: In ancient societies, the elders were the adult men, usually older, who were responsible for making decisions in a local village or community. While the term elder could simply refer to someone older (as in Genesis 10:21), most often, a reference to “elders” was an allusion to the men who led in local decision-making.
We first see an example of elders as community leaders in Genesis 50:7: “So Joseph went up to bury his father. With him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt” (ESV). The “elders” (or “dignitaries,” NIV) were the leaders who represented the families and community at Jacob’s funeral.
In Exodus 3:16 Moses was told to first tell the elders of Israel about God’s call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt: “Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me.’” Later, in Exodus 12:21, Moses calls the elders together to communicate the Passover commands.
By Exodus 24, a team of 70 elders had been selected as the governing body of Israel under the leadership of Moses. In Numbers 11 we read of God’s specific call for this body of leaders to serve with Moses in the wilderness: “Bring me seventy of Israel's elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with you” (verse 16).
It is clear from these and other biblical passage that elders held a place of leadership from an early period. Over time, the position of elder progressed from an informal position of leadership to a specific calling of God. Elders continued to serve as local leaders throughout the Old Testament period, including during the return of the Jews to Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah.
Proverbs 31:23 highlights the respect given to an elder: “Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.” This verse also reveals that those called “elders” may not have always been “elderly” but were mature adult males in Jewish society. In this passage, the husband seems to be of the age at which a family is still having children.
In the New Testament period, local elders continued to lead. In addition, the 70-member Jewish Sanhedrin helped lead the religious body of Israel. In the early church, elders became synonymous in many cases with pastors and served as the local church leaders. The elders’ role of teaching and leading is emphasized in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
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