This study finds its place alongside others that have examined the role of leaders in the social, political, and religious life of ancient Israel. While many of the previous studies have focused on various national leaders—kings, prophets, priests, judges, etc.—this study examines one category of local leaders—the city elders. There were other categories of elders in ancient Israel, notably (a) the senior members of a vocational group (such as ‘royal elders’) and (b) tribal or national elders. Inasmuch as the city elders played a significant role in the daily lives of most Israelites a separate study focused on them is fully warranted. To make the study manageable, Willis focuses his investigation on the city elders laws in Deuteronomy.
In contrast to the focus on national power and influence of elders in the recent studies of Joachim Buchholz (Die Ältesten Israels im Deuteronomium [GTA 36; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht]) and J. C. Gertz (Die Gerichtsorganisation Israels im deuteronomischen Gesetz [FRLANT 165]; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1993]), Willis chooses to focus on the local functions of elders and only secondarily considers their role in the life of the nation.
One of the merits of this study is that it makes extensive use of cross-cultural analogies to illuminate the situation in ancient Israel. Since lineages were so vitally important in the society of ancient Israel, Willis examines more than three dozen ethnographies of kinship-based societies in Africa and the Middle East as well as evidence from ancient Near Eastern societies to develop a more comprehensive conceptual world within which to interpret the various laws on city elders in Deuteronomy. The comparative evidence is used to construct basic principles on the role of elders in other kinship-based societies and to suggest possible ways of understanding the role and significance of city elders in ancient Israel.
This approach produces a set of conclusions that calls into question the views of Buchholz and Gertz who regard the elder laws as the product of the exilic period that set forth ideals that should be upheld in the post-exilic community. By contrast, Willis maintains that the laws are not utopian. They reflect real practices in the social-historical world of pre-exilic Israel. The comparative approach also calls into question the views of M. Weinfeld (Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School [Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), and B. M. Levinson (Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation [New York/Oxford: Oxford University, 1997]), who maintain that the role of city elders was drastically restricted with the appointment of state judges in the Deuteronomic reform. Interpreting the elder laws within the conceptual world of the comparative evidence, Willis is led to conclude that the appointment of state judges did not negate the role of the city elders. Instead he prefers to speak of complementary roles of the city elders and the royal judicial appointees.
Five sets of elders-laws make up the heart of this study: on homicide and the cities of asylum (Deut. 19:1–13); on homicide when the identities of the victim and killer are unknown (Deut. 21:1–9); on parents who have a rebellious son (Deut 21:18–21); on a new husband accusing his bride of unchastity (Deut 22:13–21); and on levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5–10). The role of the city elders in each set of laws is carefully examined with an awareness of the variety of functions they performed: adjudication (19:1–13; 22:13–21); serving as witnesses (21:18–21; 25:5–10); acting in representative capacities (19:1–13; 21:1–9); and performing cultic acts (21:1–9). In all of these roles, the city elders’ authority is essentially local and their work is primarily devoted to maintaining the moral integrity and social and economic well being of their community.
While the basic stratum of the laws on city elders is pre-Deuteronomic, Willis maintains that the secondary expansions are the natural consequence of cult centralization but do not restrict the authority of the local elders. Instead, the Deuteronom(ist)ic expansions tie the welfare of the entire nation to the welfare of the local communities.
This study sets new standards for conducting socio-historical research on the role of city elders in ancient Israel and on the dynamics of Israelite community life in general. One may criticize Willis for relying more on African than Middle Eastern ethnographies and for moving from modern kinship-based societies to conclusions about ancient Israelite society without sufficient justification or self-conscious reflection on the pertinent methodological issues that are raised by such comparisons. But Willis has certainly demonstrated the value of such an approach, leaving the task of making more sophisticated explorations into the science of comparison to future studies.