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The old, the aged and the elders

Old age in Scripture

We meet with 'elders' throughout Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. In Dutch language, the equivalent of 'elders' is oudsten, 'the oldest ones'. This plural occurs some 220 times in the Bible. It is the translation of ziq'nim in the Old Testament and presbuteroi in the New Testament. From language to language, we pass through the degrees of comparison: the Hebrew 'olds' become 'olders' in Greek, to end up as the 'oldest' in Dutch. It strikes me that the Hebrew sigular zaqen is not translated as 'elder', but most of the times as 'aged person'. There are texts in which translations differ: some see aged persons, others see elders. The question is: is it the age or the function that counts?

What was in the beginning an indication of age, has in biblical and later times evolved and been formalized and functionalized. Now, protestant parish members can enthousiastically talk about their congregation having found a couple of nice young elders - and nobody laughs about the expression, although it should be quite as hilarious as speaking about some nice old youngsters.

In this article, I would like to return to the biblical notion that 'elders' are, generally speaking, in fact older people. The word indicates first an age, then a dignity, and eventually a function. But nowhere in the Bible is this function described or clearly delimited. This is probably because it was not more than natural that older people represented their communities. Such was the case in surrounding societies, and such it still is in large parts of the world, wherever the clan is a fundamental structure in society. In the Bible, we also find the elders of Egypt, Midian, Moab and Gibeon.

Nowhere in the Bible we find rules about the age or other criteria on the grounds of which someone would be counted among the elders. The category is large, but the functions of elders can in some contexts be fulfilled by some of its representatives. Out of all the elders or aged people of Israel, Moses chooses seventy elders to assist him. No description is provided of how Moses made his choice and what kind of motives might have been decisive. In any case, he did not choose to form a young and brisk team, as we might have advised him. He choose, literally translated, 'seventy old ones from the old ones of Israel'.

We read about family elders, town elders, elders of the priests and of the exiles. When Bathseba's son has died (2 Sam. 12), the 'elders of the house' go to fasting David to argue him into eating: they may have been older members of the family, or possibly retired courtiers, people familiar with the house and the family but to old to serve actively.

I assume that 'elder' is a flowing concept. Out of respect for age, a voice is granted to someone. Natural authority or other forms of influence would make that one older person would present himself more as an elder in the broader communities of town and country than others. Only late in biblical history we encounter a formalized kind of elders, namely the voting members of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin as a well-defined governing body. In the last centuries before 70 AD, apart from priests, representatives of a number of influential families have been members of this council, and these non-priestly members were called elders. That is why the phrase 'chief priests and elders' occurs so often in the Gospels.

No age is ever mentioned, but I assume that in fact elders were always older people. They are in the third age, people who have passed through youth and adult life, people able to compare past and present things.

Often, elders are listed together with other leading or governing institutional persons. To give some examples: ‘tribe captains, elders, officers’ (Deut 29:10), ‘elders, officers, judges, priests’ (Jos 8:33), ‘elders, heads, judges, officers’ (Jos 23:2), ‘head of palace, head of town, elders, tutors’ (2 Kon 10:5), ‘priests, levites, family chiefs, elders' (Ezra 3:12). The way of listing dignitaries in the Gospels sounds quite familiar against this background: elders, chief priests and scribes' - all the more so, if you know that the 'officers' in Deuteronomy and Joshua correspond in function with the 'scribes' in the Gospels. Both are grammateis in Greek (Hebr. shoterim). These enumerations are a scriptural way of referring to the acknowledged representatives of a community or society.

It is particularly interesting, however, to read narrative or legislative texts in which the elders play a role of their own, so that we can assemble an impression of how they might have functioned. You could find them in the gate, not just a place for the retired to hang around, but the spot at which news entered the town and where the town's  inner world was delimited from outer space. There dicussions took place, legal deeds were sealed, cases were judged (Deut 21:19; Jos 20:4, Ruth 4, Prv 31:23). Boaz can in the gate choose ten men out of the elders to witness his betrothal to Ruth, so that we can imagine a large number of older people who are around there more or less permanently, much like the non-working and probably not-so-young husband of the ideal businesswoman in Proverbs 31.

This is not to say that the elders led a sitting life, for at several occasions they had to travel as delegated representatives of their comunities. The elders of Egypt accompany the Israelites for the burial of Jacob (Gen 50:7). The elders of Gilead go and fetch Jephtah who has been chased out of town by a younger generation: now that they need him as a warlord, the elders are going to see him, express their regrets and promise to mend their ways (Judg 11:5). The elders of Israel travel to Hebron to make a covenant with David as their new king (2 Sam 5:3). As representatives of all families of Israel, delegated elders walked in the procession that brought the ark of the covenant to the new temple (1 Ki 8:1-3). Jeremiah takes a number of elders with him to witness his symbolical actions (Jer 19:1).

If you look at it from the angle of our modern western life, it is impressive that the elders (that is, the old ones) take responsibility for what the other generations do or fail to do. This is the case not only in the already mentioned story about Jephtah. The ritual of sin offering for unconsciously committed sins requires that 'the old ones' lay their hands upon the head of the sacrificial bull to symbolize the people's awareness of guilt (Lev 4:15).

The elders are being consulted, and if necessary, they convene the assembly of all the people. They are the ones who still remeber times gone by. In Ezra 3:12 the family captains and elders weep while the rest of the people is shouting with joy when the temple is being restored: the older ones remember the old temple – which implies that these captains and elders are older people indeed, since in this story their memory bridges a time gap of several decades at least.

The way in which the elders are being addressed in the first verses of the book of Joel appeals to precisely this function of remembering the past and handing down their knowledge to later generations.

In the book of Ezekiel the functioning of elders is casually characterized at least twice. In chapter 27, the town of Tyre is presented as a ship. The princes are rowers, the sages are helmsmen, the elders are ship's carpenters, that is, the maintenance crew watching over the condition of the ship. And in 7:26 we read: ‘in vain they ask prophets for a revelation, priests for instruction, elders for advice’ – which indicates for what you usually would go to whom.

The status of the older generation and the corresponding respect were matter-of-course, but this does not mean that older people and elders were always wise and that they always would give adequate advice. Elifaz says in Job 32 that he had been letting the older friends speak first, since wisdom could have been expected from them because of their age. But now he, the younger one, will speak, because a wise verdict does not sprout forth from years, but from God. Likewise, the author of Psalm 119 states in verse 100 that he exceeds the elders in wisdom thanks to his strict observance of God's ordinances; and in Ecclesiastes 4:13 a poor but wise youngster is being preferred above an old and silly king. Experience shows that older people have no monopoly on wisdom.

 

It is difficult to say if the elders in the New Testament have been elderly people by definition. In the Gospels, the term 'elders' seems to refer to the non-priestly members of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin in most cases, and thus to a function held by a very limited number of persons. Expectedly, those persons would usually have been of an advanced age, but we do not know to what extent the term 'elder' had already loosened itself from its literal aspect of elderly age.

In close analogy to the 'chief priests and elders' of the Sanhedrin, Acts 15-16 makes mention as many as five times of the 'apostles and elders' of the christian congregation in Jerusalem. Later on, we hear that elders were installed in all congregations. Here as well, the function seems to be primary, not the age. Still, some remarks suggest that elders would indeed have been elderly peopl. In 1 Peter 5 the author addresses first the leading presbuteroi and next the neôteroi who have to obey them: they are literally senior versus junior in age. In 1 Timothy 5:17 well-governing presbuteroi are said to deserve double honours. That must be meant to say that they are respectable both because of their age and because of their good governance (and not, as the new Dutch NBV-translation has it, that they deserve 'every bit of the money they get'). Moreover, the requirements that presbuteroi should meet according to Titus 1:5-6 suggest that congregation elders were preferably sought among well-functioning family-elders, those whose adult children live in good fame. Such elders, being physically older people almost by definition, are leading and representing the congregations. Much like the Old Testament elders, they would sometimes have to travel, from Ephesus to Milete for example, to meet Paul or to lay hands on a sick person in prayer.

 

The position of elderly people as elders in the early Christian church deserves attention, because complaints can be heard about the 'greying' of our present-day churches, the dream of congregations being rather a rejuvenation of both flock and council. Church councils with a low average age, and so with 'younger elders' are looked upon with envy.

Perhaps we tend to look at the story of Jesus in the Gospels as a kind of youth movement. Jesus has not grown old, and he assembles a circle of young disciples (Jünger, in German). It might seem that the seventy youngsters Jesus sends into mission stand in contrast to the seventy elders installed by Moses.

But when Christian congregations come into existence and the witness of the Gospels is being recorded, precisely these young disciples of Jesus have become old people themselves, for whom time has come to hand down to younger generations what they have seen and heard. Apart from that, John particularly is portraying Jesus as a man who is not yet fifty years old, but who at the same time is preceding Abraham (8:56v) and has witnessed the genesis of the cosmos, which makes him the Elder of elders.

 

In church, we often tell each other that youth has the future. But in biblical times it were the elders who, as transmitters of tradition, guaranteed continuity. Their knowledge of the past allowed them to span an arch into the future.

And this is still the case. Strikingly often, organizations with a preference for young and fresh management will lose sight of long-term interests, because they aim at quick gains and speedy success. Statistically, youth would have more time to spend, but old age has more patience.

Henk Mali, a former manager director of SKVR (a Rotterdam municipal institution in art education), coined a new expression full of hope in his 2005 retirement speech. Regrettably, the expression does work only in Dutch. Instead of the common and negative verb of 'greying' (vergrijzen) used for an ageing population, he introduced the verb verzilveren, which normally means 'cashing in' but literally says 'silvering'. Mali said: 'Not the spectre of greying is haunting the Netherlands, as politicians keep warning us. Growing older is a process of verzilveren (silvering, cashing), for society as well. As a person you cash the gains of life experience, and if society will be able to cash these gains as well, we all will be better off'.

This silver truth can be validated in the Christian congregation as well. A congregation should have elderly elders, not because it lacks younger substitutes, but because this particular ministry and old age belong together. This would, like in biblical times, require a full involvement in current life, so seniors would have to be ready to stay involved. That does not necessarily mean that they should be able to handle digital infrastructure - more importantly, they should feel responsible for the world as it is today and for younger generations. They should not entrench themselves in seniors' interests, but together with younger generations they should envisage a future. In the congregation, they embody the flux of time, and they will be credible if they do not brace themselves, but dare to follow the stream. Wherever they do so, elderly people often prove to be more progressive and prospective than younger people, because their vision has a longer reach.

Like the synagogue, the church is a community in which all ages, each with its own strength, convene to be lifted up into a reality which transcends them all. This truth is expressed concisely in the prophecy of Joël 3, cited in Acts 2 where the church originates: in the community, the dreams of the elderly and the vivions of the young come together.

In the Bible, 1 Kings 12 may be the most alarming story about a segregation of generations that is threatening our times as well. There, the Davidic empire falls apart because a young king ignores the older counselors, listening to counselors of his own age. The elderly are not necessary in the right. But the dialogue among te generations is a preserving force in church and society.

Piet van Veldhuizen