A similar persistence in old tribal patterns is found in most countries in which a tribal society – i.e., a society which has a non-centralized political system – has been taken over by a state society with a centralized government. This is true whether the tribal peoples introduced the central government themselves (as in the Israelite monarchy) or whether government was imposed on them from outside by some other group. This persistence of old tribal structures, practices, and beliefs is due in large part to the kinship bases to these communities. The basic family unit is not the nuclear family (husband-wife-children), but the “extended family” or “minimal lineage.” An extended family consists of the oldest surviving member of a family and all of his descendants. A minimal lineage consists of one or more extended families all descended from a common ancestor who lived a few generations prior to the families currently living. Such a group may consist of 20-200 persons. In spite of this increased size, the minimal linage often functions much as we would expect a nuclear family to function. All the members of a minimal lineage feel common economic, emotional, moral, and legal responsibilities to one another. When one member is in need, the whole family steps in to help. When one members suffers, the whole family hurts. When one member sins, the whole family is shamed. When one member is accused of wrong or is physically threatened by others, the whole family must defend that member or bear the consequences. Elders arise from the ranks of senior members of the various extended families within these lineages.
The minimal lineage in the Old Testament is called a “father’s house” (beyt’ ab; pronounced “bait av”). This is most obvious from the story of Achan in Joshua 7:16-18. This is the man who caused Israel to be defeated at Ai by keeping goods captured at Jericho. God designated Achan as the culprit through lot-casting. By this method, he was able to narrow the field of candidates by working his way through the different levels in Israel’s tribal structure. First, he indicated the culprit’s tribe (Judah), then his “clan” (also translated “family”; Zerah), and then his “house” (Zabdi). Zabdi was Achan’s grandfather. Zabdi was deceased by this time. This is known because Achan was a grown man with a wife and children, and his father or grandfather would have been of the generation which died in the Wilderness. (On “father’s house,” see also Num. 1:1ff; 26:1ff). Still, Achan was considered to be part of Zabdi’s minimal lineage, the “house of Zabdi.”
The corporate responsibility of the minimal lineage is indicated most clearly by stories like that told in the book of Ruth, and by laws of redemptions (e.g., Lev. 25:47-49, which calls for one’s brother or uncle or uncle’s son to redeem one who has been sold into slavery to a foreigner). One must keep in mind this strong sense of family corporateness when one reads laws involving elders, because elders in tribal societies usually do not get involved in a dispute unless it affects more than one minimal lineage in a community. For example, in Deut. 21:18-21, there is a law requiring parents to hand over a rebellious son for punishment. This law seems extreme to us; however, the involvement of the city’s elders – among other things in the text – indicates that the son’s rebellion is such that it affects the reputation and well-being of the entire community.
Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions we have about elders in tribal communities is the way they interact with the rest of the members of their community. Because of our American society, we tend to impose our experiences with democratic representative bodies and typical business meetings upon what we read about with elders. For example, we often talk about elders as “officers” in the church, which gives a particular flavor to our perception of the way in which they exercise authority. I have found elderships in tribal societies to be more democratic and less business-like than we imagine. One brief example will illustrate this.
(by Tim Willis, Leaven; 2:1; pp.8-12)