My last post on this subject involved 1 Peter 5 and how the term “elder” was used simultaneously for both the office of “elder” and a person of old age in the churches. And I stated that I would return to the text of 1 Timothy 5 with further discussion. I will still do that, but first, I need to cover some ground in the Old Testament. If we’re going to grasp the understanding regarding “elders,” the Old Testament would be the first place to look.
In Exodus 3:16, among the nation of Israel, Moses has to assemble the elders to tell them about God’s decision to deliver them from Pharaoh and Egyptian oppression. It seems then that, from the beginning, “elders” served as leaders among God’s people, for God told Moses to tell them (desiring to get His leadership “on the same team” so to speak). The word for “elders” here is “gerousia,” which refers to a smaller group of elders. I’ll come back to the “gerousia” at a later time.
The elders are not only informed of God’s plan to deliver them—they are also to slay a lamb for their families in order to spread the blood on their doorposts and prevent the death angel from taking the lives of their firstborn (Ex. 12:21). This, too, is the “gerousia.”
But there seems to be a contrast between the “gerousia” and the group of all elders, known as the “presbuteroi.” In Exodus 18:12, when Jethro eats a meal with Aaron and the elders, the term for “elders” in the Greek Septuagint is “presbuteroi.” (For those who may not know, the Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Old Testament). However, the context of Exodus 18:12 is that of leadership, for we see Aaron here, being the priest.
In Exodus 24, when the nation renews its covenant with God, an interesting analysis of the Greek is discovered. In verse 1, the elders of Israel are referred to as “presbuteron”, but when Moses goes up with the other leadership, “Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu” (v.9), the “elders” of Israel are labeled “gerousias.” The elders that remain however, those that Moses doesn’t take with him, are called “presbuterois” in Exodus 24:14. It seems then, that the gerousia was a special group of elders, but all the elders were acknowledged as being in the leadership.
In Leviticus 4:15, we see that the elders (presbuteroi) were to lay their hands on the head of a bull whenever a slaying or crime was committed but no one knew who the guilty party was. In Leviticus 9:1 the elders (gerousian) are assembled with Aaron, who will sacrifice to the Lord on behalf of the people.
In the Book of Numbers, we find mostly the “presbuteroi” being mentioned. In chapter 11, Moses has told the Lord that he can’t do the job of leader all by himself—he needs help. The Lord tells him to take seventy of the elders and bring them to the tent of meeting. Which 70 is Moses supposed to pick? “Gather for Me seventy men…WHOM YOU KNOW TO BE THE ELDERS OF THE PEOPLE AND THEIR OFFICERS…” (v.16) It seems, then, that the seventy chosen to be leaders of the people (with Moses) were those who had been ruling officers among the people already. These seventy elders had already been working in the leadership; to place these men in an even greater position then, would prevent such a strenuous adjustment to the leadership role. God made a smooth transition for these men, who would now aid Moses in the day-to-day work of leading and guiding the people. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament comments about the 70:
“Moses makes a selection and subordinates the 70 to himself as bearers of portions of his own spirit, thus VALIDATING THEM AT THE SAME TIME AS THE BEARERS OF AN OFFICE…it is another version of Exodus 18:13ff, where on the advice of Jethro suitable men are appointed as heads (sarim) of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens and also as judges in minor cases…the point of Numbers 11:16ff, 24ff…is to tell of the APPOINTMENT OF OFFICE-BEARERS…the EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH COULD ALSO TURN SOMETIMES TO THIS PASSAGE AT THE INSTITUTION OF PRESBYTERS (see Church Order of Hippolytus, 32.2 and Didaskali Apostolorum II)” (656).
In the Book of Deuteronomy, we find a great number of references to the “gerousia,” such as Deuteronomy 5:23, where God tells that “the heads of your tribes and your elders (gerousia)” came to the burning mountain before God to renew their covenant with Him.
The gerousia served in Deuteronomy as the judicial leaders, those in charge of administration of the law among God’s people. Consider the following examples:
(a) Deuteronomy 25:7—“but if the man does not desire to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders (gerousia) and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to establish a name for his brother in Israel…’” (NASB)
(b) Deuteronomy 27:1—“Then Moses and the elders (gerousia) of Israel charged the people, saying, ‘Keep all the commandments which I command you today.’” (NASB)
Aside from these examples, though, lie the references to the general leadership group of elders (presbuteroi) that also appear in a place of prominence in Deuteronomy:
(a) Deuteronomy 31:28—“ ‘Assemble to me all the elders (presbuterous) of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their hearing and call the heavens and the earth to witness against them.’” (NASB)
Notice in the section in which verse 28 is placed, Joshua is also commissioned (31:23) and the Levites are instructed—“Take this book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God that it may remain there as a witness against you” (v.26). It is apparent, then, that the general group of elders were in a prominent place, one honored as a place of leadership among God’s people. Being old, then, or elderly, was not just a condition of old age—with it, came prominence and honor, and tasks of leadership.
In the Book of Joshua, we see “presbuterous” or “presbuteroi,” the general terms for “elders,” come back to the forefront.
(a) Joshua 24:1 (NASB)—“Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and called for the elders (presbuterous) of Israel and for their heads and their judges and their officers; and they presented themselves before God.”
Here, when Joshua is addressing the entire nation of Israel, he calls for the heads of the tribes as well as the other leaders, included among them the elders.
In the Book of Judges:
(a) Judges 21:16 (NASB)—“Then the elders of the congregation said, ‘What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since the women are destroyed out of Benjamin?”
The word for “elders” here in the Greek is “presbuteroi.” Notice the context of Judges 21 involves a decision regarding the one tribe, Benjamin, that has been nearly wiped out due to war. The phrase “elders of the congregation” is translated in the Septuagint (LXX) as “hoi presbuteroi teis sunagogeis”. The word for congregation here is “sunagogeis,” from which we get the English word “synagogue.” This word “synagogue” tells us then that these elders are the religious leaders of the assembly. And, as Judges 21 shows, the elders were left to make the decision about the tribe of Benjamin.
There are countless other examples of Jewish elders in the nation and their leading role. However, we must tackle the issue of how the “old” in age complicates the issue of “elder” in the Old Testament.
There are instances where “presbuteros” is used not to denote leadership but old age:
(a) Genesis 43:27 (NASB)—“And he [Joseph] inquired about their welfare and said, ‘Is your father well, the old man (presbuteros) of whom you spoke? Is he still alive?”
(b) Genesis 44:20—“And we said to my lord, ‘We have a father, an old man (presbuteros), and a young brother…”
(c) 2 Chronicles 36:17—“Therefore he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man (presbuteros) or aged.”
(d) Job 42:17—“And Job died, an old man (presbuteros), and full of days.”
These passages are the only ones I’ve found so far that refer to an “old man.” But, make no mistake: there was honor with old age in the Israelite assembly, and God required that those old in age be honored for their age. Leviticus 19:32 (NASB) states:
“You shall stand up before the gray head and HONOR THE FACE OF AN OLD MAN…”
The word here for “old man” is “presbuterou,” from the parent word “presbuteros.” Regardless of whether translations are right or wrong, it seems, then, that those who bore the title “presbuteros” were those of prominence among God’s people. They were not just old men who were to be provided for, but men who were respected, men who had tasks to perform and people to oversee.
The evidence regarding old age gets even better. 1 Kings 12 gives us insight regarding the prominence of elderly men. The context concerns King Rehoboam, son of former King Solomon, who is now ruler over the people. Some of the people come to Rehoboam with grievances, and a request that he not rule with an iron fist as did his father.
1 Kings 12:6 states, “King Rehoboam consulted with the elders (tois presbuterois) who had served his father Solomon while he was still alive, saying, ‘How do you COUNSEL me to answer this people?”
As I stated in my post on 1 Peter 5, the word “elder” could mean “old” and “overseer” at the same time. 1 Kings 12 seems to demonstrate this as well. The word here is “presbuterois” from “presbuteros,” but in this case, it seems that the elders are counselors to the king. These elders seem to be royal assistants, those today that we would say served on a cabinet of a royal or national official.
But, read a little further in 1 Kings 12, and you’ll find that these men are not just in a place of prominence:
“But he forsook the counsel of the elders (ton presbuteron) which they had given him, and consulted with the young men (ton paidarion) who grew up with him and served him” (1 Kings 12:8, NASB).
The “elders” of 1 Kings 12:6 are contrasted with the young men of verse 8. So, here, these elders are “old” men—but they are also in a position of power, for, they served as King Solomon’s advisors, and then as Rehoboam’s. As I stated earlier, being old was not just chalked up to age—it came with leadership tasks. For those who desire to look this up in the Septuagint, you will have to turn to “REGNORUM III, 12:6” in the Septuagint (LXX).
I have one more passage that involves the “old” man: Isaiah 9:14-15:
“14So the LORD cuts off (AF)head and tail from Israel,Both palm branch and bulrush (AG)in a single day. 15The head is (AH)the elder and honorable man,And the prophet who teaches (AI)falsehood is the tail. 16(AJ)For those who guide this people are leading them astray;And those who are guided by them are brought to confusion.”
The context involves leadership, for verse 16 refers to “those who guide” God’s people. Who are the leaders of this people? The folks of verses 14 and 15: the elder and the prophet. The word for elder here, surprisingly, is “presbutein,” but, yet and still, the “old” man is labeled “honorable” and is called “the head.” I think it’s fascinating that the “old man” could be the leader of the nation, above even the prophet! In addition, the word for “old man” here is similar to the word for “older” men in Titus 2!
With 1 Kings 12 and Isaiah 9, we see that being old came with honor and position. Being old was more than something to be pitied—it was something to be admired, hoped for, waited for, something to look forward to. Proverbs 20:29 states, “the glory of young men is their strength, and the HONOR OF OLD MEN IS THEIR GRAY HAIR” (NASB).
Now, I have made the case that with old age came honor. And, there is some ambiguity used with the term “presbuteros” in the Old Testament to denote leaders and old men. But there is a way of cutting through the “red tape”—and the Old Testament provides this “way of escape” for us. How? Through the use of two passages: Isaiah 3:1-5 and Lamentations 5:12-14.
(1) Isaiah 3:1-5 (NASB)—“ 1For behold, the Lord GOD of hosts (A)is going to remove from Jerusalem and JudahBoth supply and support, the whole supply of breadAnd the whole supply of water; 2(B)The mighty man and the warrior,The judge and the prophet,The diviner and the elder, 3The captain of fifty and the honorable man,The counselor and the expert artisan,And the skillful enchanter. 4And I will make mere (C)lads their princes,And capricious children will rule over them, 5And the people will be (D)oppressed,Each one by another, and each one by his (E)neighbor;The youth will storm against the elderAnd the inferior against the honorable.”
Looking at Isaiah 3: 1-5, we see that the “elder” of v. 2 is mentioned along with the soldier, warrior, judge, prophet, diviner, captain, honored man, counselor, and skilled craftsman (vv. 2-3). Surely then, the elder mentioned here is part of the leadership, so the Septuagint uses the word “presbuteron” from “presbuteros.” But, if you look closer, you’ll notice that there is another “elder” mentioned in the same passage in verse 5. The word used here, however, is not
“presbuteros” but, instead, “presbutein.”
Why is “presbutein” used in this passage? Because the word means “old,” in contrast to the “youth” (paidion) of verse 5. In verse 5, age clearly has a role to play; but in verse 2, the “elder” seems to be one in a prominent position, a place of leadership.
Lamentations 5:12-14 is the other major passage that helps us break through the “impasse” of the word “elder” (presbuteros and presbuteis):
12Princes were hung by their hands;(N)Elders were not respected. 13Young men (O)worked at the grinding mill,And youths (P)stumbled under loads of wood. 14Elders are gone from the gate,Young men from their (Q)music.
The context of Lamentations 5 involves the overthrowing of leadership: “slaves rule over us” (v.8), princes were killed (v. 12), and “elders” are no longer given the honor they once held. The word for “elders” in verse 12 is “presbuteroi.” Since “presbuteroi” is placed beside “princes,” we can infer that the reference made is to leadership. However, there is another reference to “elders” in verse 14, and this reference is placed alongside “young men.” The word for “elders” here in verse 14 is “presbutai,” which refers in all its context to an “elderly” man (Titus 2:2). The word for “old” man in Titus 2:2 is “presbuteis.”
As we’ve seen in the Old Testament, the title “elder” came with honor, prestige, and position. There is one thing we didn’t cover, however—and that is the word for “old women.” I will cover this in a future post.