Skip to main content



The prevalent term for "leader" in the pre-monarchic tribal society of Israel was nasiʾ (Heb.נָשִׂיא). The same term is applied to the leaders of the Midianites (Num. 25:18; Josh. 13:21) and Ishmaelites (Gen. 17:20; 25:16), who, like the early lsraelites, were organized on a patriarchal basis. The office is also attested in Phoenician inscriptions. Two Israelite tribes, Reuben and Simeon, who settled in border districts – Reuben in the southern part of Transjordan and Simeon in the southwestern – preserved their chieftains even after the establishment of the monarchy (i Chron. 4:38; 5:6).

Nasiʾ is derived from nasaʾ ("to raise") and means "the elevated," like Ugaritic zbl (zabūlu), which means "prince" and is derived from zbl ("to raise" or "to lift up"; cf. niseʾo in Esth. 5:11). Actually, nasiʾ, meaning "the one elected" or "appointed," may be deduced from the use of the similar verb harim (also meaning "to elevate") in the context of divine election: "I elevated you from among the people and appointed you a prince (nagid) over my people" (i Kings 14:7; cf. 16:2; Ps. 89:20: harimoti baḥur me-ʿam, "I have elevated the chosen from the people"). The act of appointing also involves elevating in talmudic literature. In the description of Hillel's appointment it states: "They seated him at the head and appointed him their nasiʾ" (Pes. 66a). A comparison can be found also in Akkadian literature (Enuma Elish 1:147): "Kingu was elevated," i.e., became the leader. Morphologically, nasiʾ belongs to the class of professional names, such as nagid, nadiv, nasikh, naviʾ, etc.

The chieftains are defined as qeriʾe moʿed/qeriʾe (qeruʾe) ha-ʿedah (Num. 16:2/Num. 1:16), which E.A. Speiser translates as "nominees of the assembly council." However, it is possible that qeriʾe ha-ʿedah is to be understood not as elected by the council but as "the assembled of the council," i.e., those participating in the council (cf., e.g., Deut. 33:5, be-hitʾassef raʾshe ʿam, "when the heads of the people gathered"; for qrʾ, "to gather/assemble," see *Congregation). Chieftains are called "the heads of the children of Israel" (rashe bene-Yisrael, Num. 13:3); "the heads of the families" (raʾshe ha-aʾvot, Num. 36:1); "the chieftains of the ancestral tribes" (nesiʾe mattot avotam, Num. 1:16); "the heads of the tribes" (rashe ha-Maṭṭot, Num. 30:2); and "the heads of the contingents of Israel" (raʾshe aʾlfe Yisrael, Num. 1: 16).

Nasiʾ designates the head of a tribe, but it may also be found as a term for the head of a clan or family, as, for example, in Numbers 3:24, 30, 35; 25:14; i Chronicles 4:38. This is corroborated by Numbers 16:2, where 250 nesiʾim are mentioned. At the same time, nasiʾ can be a designation for the highest local authority, as in Genesis 34:2, where Hamor, the Shechemite, is called "the nasiʾ of the country." In some cases, nasiʾ appears alternatively with "king," as may be seen by a comparison of Numbers 31:8 (malkhe Midyan) and Joshua 13:21 (nesiʾe Midyan). This kind of flexibility in terminology is also attested among the tribes of *Mari, where the tribal heads (sugagum) may be designated as "kings."

Nasiʾ, like ʿedah, is very common in priestly literature, but this does not prove the lateness of these concepts, as J. Wellhausen argued. On the contrary, nasiʾ is attested in the most ancient law code (Ex. 22:27) and, as M. Noth has shown, this was the classical term for the leader in ancient pre-monarchic Israel. Its frequent appearance in priestly literature is due to the affinity of the latter for ancient patriarchal institutions and genealogies.

Like ʿedah, nasiʾ refers to the pre-monarchic period, and late occurrences of the term may be explained either as referring to tribal residues in the border districts (I Chron. 4:38; 5:6; 7:40 and cf. above) or as tendentious employment of the term. Thus Ezekiel describes the future messianic king as nasiʾ(34:24; 37:25, cf. ch. 45–48), while he employs "king" for emperors (of Babylon and Egypt). In this respect as in others, Ezekiel was apparently influenced by priestly usage. On the other hand, the fact that emperors are called "kings" by him, while leaders of petty kingdoms (27:21; 32:29; 38:2; 39:1) are designated as nesiʾim, may indicate that nasiʾ does not always have an ideal connotation, but sometimes expresses the lower status of the leader as compared with the king. The awareness of this distinction may lie behind i Kings 11:34, where Solomon is called nasiʾ, after having been threatened with degradation. For the same reason, Sheshbazzar, the governor (peḥah, Ezra 5:14), at the time of restoration, is called nasiʾ (Ezra 1:8).

The main functions of the nesiʾim as reflected in the Bible were (1) *census – the nesiʾim were in charge of enrollment (Num. 1:4ff.) and are defined as the "ones who attend the census" (Num. 7:2), a procedure attested in Mari (Archives Royales de Mari, vol. 10, 82:7–9); (2) division of land (Num. 27:2; 32:2; 34:17–18; 36:1; Josh. 14:1ff.; 17:4; 19:51); (3) endorsement of pacts and covenants (Josh. 9:15; cf. Ex. 34:31); (4) responsibility for maintaining the sacral order (Josh. 22: 13ff.); (5) communal responsibilities (Ex. 16:22; Num. 13:1; 31:13–14). Census, land division, and endorsement of pacts were also the outstanding functions of the sugagum, the tribal leader in Mari. The nesiʾim mainly acted on behalf of the ʿedah, but held separate conventions (Num. 10:4). The entire ʿedah was convened only in very urgent cases.

add. bibliography:

E. Speiser, in: cbq 25 (1963), 111–17; J. Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah (1988), 79; A. Rofé, in: Textus 14 (1988), 163–74; Dictionary of the North-West Semitic Inscriptions (1995), 763; B. Levine, Numbers (AB; 1993), 499 (index); M. Cogan, i Kings (ab; 2000), 341.

[Mark Wischnitzer]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Chieftain." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . 16 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Chieftain." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . (February 16, 2019).

"Chieftain." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved February 16, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.