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. In this post, I look at the relationships between the elders of a community and the city gates.
There are many passages in the Old Testament in which the elders of a city are said to be gathered “at the gates” of that city. Here are a few of the passages:
And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” (Deuteronomy 25:7 ESV)
[The man who committed manslaughter] shall flee to one of these cities [of refuge] and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. (Joshua 20:4 ESV)
Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, “We are witnesses. May the LORD make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you act worthily in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem…” (Ruth 4:11 ESV)
Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land. (Proverbs 31:23 ESV)
So, we see that the elders of the city are said to be sitting “in the gates” of that city. But, who were the elders of a city? To begin with, we should recognize that this idea of “elders” is not really related to the Law of Moses. Instead, many different cultures and societies gave place in their community to the older people of the community. Even in Scripture we find “elders” in Egypt (Genesis 50:7), Midian (Numbers 22:4), and Moab (Numbers 22:7) for example.
These were the older men in the community, respected members of society. These were the people that the others in the community would turn to when they needed advice or counsel or when there were problems or legal matters to deal with. And, the elders (along with others) would gather at the city gates to take care of these community issues.
What can we learn about the “city gates,” the synagogue, and the church from these passages?