David Stabnow dstabno at lifeway.com
Thu Feb 8 09:24:53 EST 2001

NIDOTTE, Anchor Bible Dictionary, and Jenni-Westermann all suggest that _R)
$ BYT )BWT_ "the head of the fathers' house" refers to the living head of a
family, all of which are his descendants. Thus the grandfather or
great-grandfather would be head over his sons and their sons (and unmarried
daughters). When this patriarch died, each of his sons would then become
heads over their own households.

In Num 1:4 God tells Moses to round up twelve of these family heads to
assist him with the census. That is, the plain sense of the text is that
these men were already heads, and now they were being appointed to a civil
service position. Thus, if the census figures reflect reality, there must
have been hundreds or thousands of "heads" in Israel from which these men
were chosen.

However, in Num 17:18 [English 17:3] (cf. 7:2) these twelve
representatives, along with Aaron, are instructed to each leave a staff in
the sanctuary so that "there will be one staff for each head of their
fathers' house." That is, in this context there are 13 "heads" in Israel,
the twelve tribes and Aaron (a Levite, a priest).

So one meaning of the phrase is literal "patriarch" (living patriarch, LP),
and another meaning is "representative of a dead patriarch" (dead
patriarch, DP). Num 36:1 may bring these two meanings together. (I assume
that _R)$Y H)BWT_ and _R)$Y )BWT_ are variations on _R)$ BYT )BWT_ and have
the identical meaning.) Some members of Manasseh have a concern about the
inalienability of their hereditary holdings, so they bring their question
to the national council. It says that the "heads" of Gilead came before
Moses and the "heads" of Israel. If in both cases the meaning is LP there
would be several, perhaps scores or even hundreds, of Gileadite patriarchs
(Gilead had 6 sons, and we are a few more generations removed) bringing
their case to the hundreds or thousands of LP's of all of Israel -- hardly
an efficient method of governance. It is much more reasonable to assume
that, at least at the national level, these "heads" are the twelve
representatives of the dead tribal patriarchs.

I would further propose that the "heads" of Gilead number six. Just as the
phrase _R)$Y )BWT LBNY Y#R)L_ refers to representatives of the twelve sons
of Israel, so _R)$Y H)BWT LM$PXT BNY-GL(D_ refers to representatives of the
six sons of Gilead. Similarly, in Josh 21:1 the three DP's of Levi (Levi
had three sons) come to the twelve DP's of Israel. This implies that Israel
had a hierarchical representative government. The level on the hierarchy is
indicated according to the position on the family tree and the number of
sons of the specified patriarch. A group from a lower level could bring
cases to a higher level.

The post-exilic usage of this phrase (Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles) is
limited to LP's.

In conclusion, the phrase _R)$ BYT )BWT_ has two meanings: 1) living
patriarch of a family; 2) representative of the sons of the dead patriarch

Dave Stabnow

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