As I explained in my post “The Church, the Synagogue, and the City Gates,” at least one scholar has concluded that the Jewish synagogue finds its origin in the community activities related to the “city gates” instead of the worship activities related to the temple. Since the early followers of Jesus Christ were greatly influenced by their experiences as part of the first century synagogue, understanding how the synagogue began and what types of activities happened as part of the synagogue can help us also understand the early church.
The gates of various cities are mentioned many times in Scripture. Often, people are said to pass into or out of the gates. Thus, the gates simply represent access to a city. In other passages, gates are said to be barred or fortified, representing the protection or defense of the city. Also, I’ve looked at a few passages in which the king sat on his throne at the gates of the city and other passages in which elders of the community sat at the city gates. In this post, I look at the relationships between the city gates and community legal issues.
Many times, legal issues (both those related to the Law of Moses and others) would be taken before the community at the city gates. Here are a few examples:
Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, of all who went in at the gate of his city, “No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead.” (Genesis 23:10-11 ESV)
So Hamor and his son Shechem came to the gate of their city and spoke to the men of their city, saying, “These men are at peace with us; let them dwell in the land and trade in it, for behold, the land is large enough for them. Let us take their daughters as wives, and let us give them our daughters…” (Genesis 34:20-21 ESV)
…then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones. (Deuteronomy 17:5 ESV)
Now Boaz had gone up to the gate and sat down there. And behold, the redeemer, of whom Boaz had spoken, came by. So Boaz said, “Turn aside, friend; sit down here.” And he turned aside and sat down. (Ruth 4:1 ESV)
Interestingly, the first example (from Genesis 23) records Abraham taken possession of some land from Ephron the Hittite by going before the people in the city gates with Ephron. As we saw with the “elders” in the previous post, this shows that the practice of gathering at the city gates (especially for taking care of legal issues) was not a practice of the Hebrews only. Instead, it was a cultural practice. (By the way, the suggestion is that this practice – i.e., gathering at the city gates – only changed when the culture changing being influenced by Hellenistic culture and moving the community gatherings away from the gates and toward the city center.)
What can we learn about the important of the city gates and the community based on these passages about legal issues?