Congregation (Assembly)

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A variety of terms are employed in the Bible for "the people of Israel" in its social, military, and sacral capacity. The most common are: "Israel," "the people" (ha-ʿam), "the assembly" (ha-qahal), "the congregation" (ha-ʿedah), "the children of Israel" (benei Yisrael), and "the men of Israel" ('ish Yisrael). These terms denote not the total population but the institutionalized body of Israel, that is, a given group acting on its behalf. This may be deduced from the fact that the expressions mentioned sometimes alternate with "the elders of Israel" or "the elders of the people." For example, according to Exodus 12:3, Moses is commanded to address "the congregation of Israel" (ʿadat Yisrael) in connection with the Passover sacrifice, while in the following passage (12:21ff.) describing Moses' address, it is the "elders of Israel" (zikenei Yisrael) who are addressed (see Mekh., Pisḥa 3:11; cf. also Ex. 19:7 with 19:8; 17:5–6 with Num. 20:7; ii Sam. 17:4 with 17:14). The terms discussed are used synonymously and often occur together without any possibility of distinguishing between them. In Judges 20–21, when all the tribes unite following the crime of the Gibeathites, the acting body of the Israelites is named: "the assembly," "the congregation," "the children of Israel," "the people," "the assembly of the people of God," "the men of Israel," and "the elders of the congregation." Similar expressions occur in the narrative concerning the division of the kingdom (i Kings 12): "the assembly of Israel," "all Israel," "children of Israel," "all the people," and "the congregation."

This ambiguous use of terms in connection with social institutions is characteristic of the entire area of Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine, and is particularly conspicuous in documents from the second half of the second millennium b.c.e. The representative institutions of the cities of Syria-Palestine at the period of Israel's penetration into the area are designated by "town [ālu] of N," "the men [amēlu] of N," "the sons [mārú] of N," and "the assembly" or "council" (mwʿd). Furthermore, the interchange of "the elders" with "the congregation," which appears in the Bible, also occurs in these documents, where "the elders" (šibūtu) seem to be identified with "the town" (ālu), or the two may overlap (cf., e.g., el-Amarna Letter no. 100). As in the Bible, so also here the author may use different designations for the same representative body in the same document. A similar type of flexibility exists in the tribal-patriarchal vocabulary. The terms "clan" (mishpahah), "family" (bet 'av), and "tribe" (shevet) are interchangeable (Num. 17:17; Josh. 22:14; Judg. 13:2; 17:7; 18:19) and may even enter the semantic range of "people" and "nation" (Gen. 12:3; Jer. 33:24; Amos 3:1). However, in documents of the ancient Near East, as well as in the Bible, each of the various terms for the social institutions also has a more precise, literal meaning, but the exact interpretation of the term is always dependent on the context. For example, when the subject is a large crowd, the term qahal is more suitable than the others; when the author refers to a small group of representatives, as in Leviticus 4:13, he uses "the elders of the congregation," and in a clearly military context the term 'ish Yisrael is employed. The same applies to the tribal-patriarchal vocabulary. Although the terms for family, clan, and tribe overlap, the literal sense of each was strictly preserved when it was necessary to distinguish between the various units in the tribal hierarchy (Josh. 7:14–18; i Sam. 10:19–21). The choice of terminology was also dictated (if the documentary hypothesis is accepted), by the different scribal traditions. In the three major strands of the Pentateuch, the source je (Jahwist-Elohist) mostly employs "the elders of Israel," the Priestly Code ʿedah, and Deuteronomy qahal.

Qahal and ʿEdah: Etymology and Semantics

Although ʿedah and qahal seem to be synonymous, they actually have different nuances: qahal (perhaps related to kol (qol, "voice"); cf. the usage of qrʾ, ṣʿq, shm' for "summon") is used in a more general sense and refers to a multitude of nations (Gen. 28:3; 35:11; 48:4), to hordes (Num. 22:4; Jer. 50:9; cf. Ezek. passim) and to masses (e.g., i Kings 8:65; Ps. 22:26). ʿEdah (from yʿd, "set a time [or place] for a meeting") has a more specific sense and a sacred connotation. Qahal appears in all strata of biblical literature and applies to all periods of Israelite history. ʿEdah mainly occurs in a sacerdotal context and is restricted to the pre-monarchic period. Its last occurrence in the historical literature is in i Kings 12:20, in connection with the division of the kingdom. Together with ʿedah, the term iʾsh Yisrael went out of use, as did the patriarchal terms "the heads of the tribes" (rashei ha-maṭṭot) and "the heads of the contingents of Israel" (rashe 'alfei Yisrael). This fact, together with the absence of ʿedah in the books of Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, militates against the view (e.g., of Wellhausen and Rost) that this term was coined in the post-Exilic community. When referring to Israel, qahal encompasses the entire population: men, women, strangers, etc. (Jer. 44:15; cf. Deut. 31:12), while ʿedah denotes the indigenous, mostly arms-bearing population (cf. Judg. 20:2). The laws which apply to the ʿedah do not apply to strangers; when the legislator wants to impose the law on the resident and the stranger alike, he makes qahal subject to the law (Num. 15:15).

ʿEdah: Character and Functions

In its classical sense the ʿedah is the assembly of the arms-bearing male population (cf. the guruš in the Sumerian cities and ṣābē nagbātī in the Hittite kingdom), and hence its military character. It connotes (especially in the Book of Numbers) a military camp moving to its goal, the Promised Land, and consisting of 12 tribes, each tribe having its place of encampment, standard, and ensigns (Num. 2:2). The center of the camp is the "Tent of Meeting" ('ohel moʿed) containing the Holy Ark, which guides the people on its way. To set the divisions in motion, signals are given by priests blowing two silver trumpets (Num. 10:1–8). The conscription of the ʿedah is done by a census (Num. 1); the enrolled are men from the age of 20 years and upward, who are able to bear arms (cf. Judg. 20:2). A census is also carried out in connection with the casting of lots for the division of the land (Num. 26), and sometimes involves the collection of money for the building of the tabernacle (Ex. 30:11–16). The description of the congregation and the tabernacle is very schematic and utopian, with the result that the picture as a whole appears anachronistic. However, it should not be regarded as pure fiction. The organization of the tribes has prototypes in the tribal-patriarchal society of the nomadic West Semitic tribes, as reflected in the documents from *Mari, the area that seems to have been the cradle of the Patriarchs. Like the tribes of ancient Israel, those of Mari were organized on the basis of clans and households (cf. betʾav with bīt abi and abu bīti) and were ruled by elders (šibūtu) and chieftains (sugagu). Their military units were based on gentilic principles, and like the tribes of Israel, they lived in tents and encampments (nawûm). The census played an important role there and occurs in the context of conscription and division of the land as in ancient Israel. A portable sanctuary is used by the Bedouin in their nomadic way of life, and there is no justification for the denial of the existence of the tabernacle during the wanderings of the tribes in the desert. The reality of the tribal life of the Israelites is reflected in the story of the Danites' search for land for their settlement. Like "the children of Israel" in the desert, the Danites lived in a camp (cf. 600 armed men, Judg. 18:11, with the 600 'elef men in Ex. 12:37), and on their march acquired divinatory objects and a priest. Also like the "children of Israel," they sent men to spy out the land that they planned to conquer. In light of the last analogy, too sharp a line should not be drawn between the ʿedah of the period of the wanderings and that of the judges. Since classical stories concerning the ʿedah refer to the time of the wanderings in the desert, which involved preparations for the conquest, its military character prevails. However, the ʿedah, as the ruling body of the nation, also functioned in a judicial, political, and sacral capacity. In this respect it was not different from the so-called primitive democracies in ancient Mesopotamia and Homeric Greece. The ʿedah was convened in the following cases: (1) Breach of covenant with God, i.e., violations of the basic religious principles of the congregation, such as blasphemy (Lev. 24:14ff.; cf. i Kings 21:9ff.), desecration of the Sabbath (Num. 15:33ff.), violation of the taboo (ḥerem, Josh. 7), major cultic deviation (Josh. 22:9ff.), and grave immoral behavior (Judg. 19–21). (Cf. also Deut. 13:10–11; 17:5, in connection with pagan worship, and Ezek. 16:40; 23:46, in connection with fornication, although the last examples do not refer to the tribal assembly, but rather to the city assembly; see below.) In all these cases, the assembly acts in its judicial as well as its executive power; (2) Holy gatherings and religious ceremonies, such as Passover sacrifice (Ex. 12:47; Num. 9:2), covenantal gatherings (Lev. 19; cf. Deut. 4:10; Ex. 24:3–8, Deut. 31:12), and holy days and sacred occasions (e.g., Ex. 23:17; Lev. 23:4ff.); (3) Political affairs: concluding treaties with foreign nations (Josh. 9:15–21), appointing a leader or a king (Num. 27:2; i Sam. 8:4; 10:17; 11:14; 12:1; i Kings 1:39; 12:1, 20; cf. ii Kings 11:17), and proclaiming war (Josh. 22:9ff.; Judg. 20:1ff.; cf. i Kings 20:7ff. "the elders of the land"); (4) Tribal-patriarchal affairs: inheritance and division of the land (Num. 27:1–11; Josh. 18:1–10; cf. Micah 2:5); and (5) National crisis or natural calamity (Ex. 16:2–3; Num. 14:1–10; 17:6–7; 20:2; 25:6).

The parallel democratic institutions in ancient Mesopotamia (puhrum), the old Hittite Kingdom (pankuš) and ancient Greece (βονλή) were convened for similar reasons, and like the ʿedah in Israel, the democratic institutions there decreased in importance as the kingdom became more stable. With respect to religious crimes, the ʿedah has more affinities with Hittite and Greek institutions. The assemblies in Greece and among the Hittites were summoned in cases of violation of major religious laws, stealing of sancta, etc. In Greece transgressors of the last type were put under the ban (κατάρατος, "accursed"), as were transgressors in ancient Israel (Deut. 27:11–26). The ban involved excommunication either through execution or exile, punishments which seem to correspond in some way to "cutting off from the congregation" (Ex. 12:19) or from the assembly (Num. 19:20) in the Bible. The classical ʿedah convened at "the entrance of the Tent of Meeting" (petaḥ ʾohel moʿed). The word moʿed ("meeting") refers to the meeting of God with Moses and the congregation (e.g., Ex. 25:22; 29:43–44; 30:36), but it also has the sense of assembly (Num. 16:2) and is so attested to in Phoenicia (Byblos; "The Journey of Wen Amon") and in Ugaritic literature (pḫr mʿd, in reference to the divine assembly). It is therefore possible that in one of the stages of its development, the ohel moʿed also carried the meaning of "the tent of the assembly." As already indicated, the power of the ʿedah decreased with the growth of the monarchy. However, a revival of the concept ʿedah occurs in the Dead Sea sectarian scroll of the "War of the Children of Light against the Children of Darkness." This sectarian community at the end of the Second Temple period saw itself as the true and ideal Israel living in the desert, and patterned itself after the congregation of the Exodus generation. Although the specific connotation of the ʿedah as the tribal assembly was gradually lost, the concept ʿedah continued to be employed in the sense of the local court or tribunal (cf. the Akkadian puhrum in the cities of Babylonia; see, e.g., Code of Hammurapi, 5:202). Thus in Proverbs 5:14, qahal and ʿedah are the public places of judgment; the same meaning is ascribed to the expressions "to stand up in the congregation" (qum ba-ʿedah) in the documents from Elephantine and "I stand up in the assembly [qamti ba-qahal] and cry" in Job 30:28. It would seem that some of the features of the later city assembly were projected by the priestly author upon the ancient tribal assembly, and similarly, characteristics of the city influenced the description of the camp of the Israelite tribes. For example, according to the law of the cities of refuge in Numbers 35, the ʿedah established the right of the slayer to refuge (35:12, 24–25), whereas in the parallel law in Deuteronomy 19, it is the elders of the city who act in this case (19:12). Therefore, the ʿedah in the priestly account (according to the documentary hypothesis) is apparently none other than the judicial body of the city where the homicide occurred. By the same token, when the priestly legislator prescribes that those afflicted with severe skin disease shall live outside the camp (Lev. 13:45–46; cf. Num. 5:1–4), he apparently alludes to the Israelite city, which kept those afflicted outside its walls (ii Kings 7:3ff.). The ohel moʿed in the priestly literature, according to Kaufmann, reflects the local sanctuary of the later Israelite city.

See also *Dead Sea Sect; *Manual of Discipline; *War Scroll.


G. Busolt and H. Swoboda, Griechische Staatskunde, 2 (1926), passim; A.L. Oppenheim, in: Orientalia, 5 (1936), 244ff.; L. Rost, Die Vorstufen von Kirche und Synagoge im Alten Testament… (1938); R.S. Hardy, in: ajsll, 58 (1941), 214ff.; Th. Jacobsen, in: jnes, 2 (1943), 159–72; G. Evans, in: jaos, 78 (1958), 1–11, 114–5; A. Malamat, ibid., 82 (1962), 143–50; de Vaux, Anc Isr, 91–93, 213–28; H. Tadmor, in: Journal of World History, 11 (1968), 3–17; H. Reviv, in: Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 12 (1969), 283ff.; Kaufmann Y., Toledot, 1 (1937), 126–37. add. bibliography: N. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh (1985); R.E. Clements, The World of Ancient Israel (1989); C. Meyers, in: D. Jobling et al. (eds.), The Bible and the Politics of ExegesisEssays Gottwald (1991), 39–51.

[Moshe Weinfeld]

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Congregation (Assembly)

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