In ancient societies, the Zekenim were the adult men, usually older, who were responsible for making decisions in a local village or community. While the term zaqen could simply refer to someone older (as in Genesis 10:21), most often, a reference to “Zekenim” was an allusion to the men who led in local decision-making.

The Hebrew word that is translated "elders" is transliterated "zaqen," and it is found 179 times in the Old Testament.

In the NASB translation, 132 times the word is translated as Zekenim.

The word literally means "old; ancient; aged."

It is mostly used with reference to men, but was occasionally used to refer to women.

We first see an example of Zekenim as community leaders in Genesis 50:7: “So Joseph went up to bury his father. With him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the Zekenim of his household, and all the Zekenim of the land of Egypt” (ESV). The “Zekenim” (or “dignitaries,” NIV) were the leaders who represented the families and community at Jacob’s funeral.

In Exodus 3:16 Moses was told to first tell the Zekenim of Israel about Yahuah’s call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt: “Go, assemble the Zekenim of Israel and say to them, ‘Yahuah, the Yahuah of your fathers—the Yahuah of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me.’” Later, in Exodus 12:21, Moses calls the Zekenim together to communicate the Passover commands.

By Exodus 24, a team of 70 Zekenim had been selected as the governing body of Israel under the leadership of Moses. In Numbers 11 we read of Yahuah’s specific call for this body of leaders to serve with Moses in the wilderness: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s Zekenim who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with you” (verse 16).

It is clear from these and other biblical passages that Zekenim held a place of leadership from an early period. Over time, the position of zaqen progressed from an informal position of leadership to a specific calling of Yahuah. Zekenim continued to serve as local leaders throughout the Old Testament period, including during the return of the Yahudiym to Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah.

Proverbs 31:23 highlights the respect given to a zaqen: “Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the Zekenim of the land.” This verse also reveals that those called “Zekenim” may not have always been “zaqenly” but were mature adult males in Jewish society. In this passage, the husband seems to be of the age at which a family is still having children.

Israel's Zekenim and the exodus

We are introduced to the term "Zekenim" in Ex. 3:16.

Yahuah instructed Moses to gather the Zekenim of Israel together and tell them Yahuah had sent him and was about to deliver them from Egyptian slavery.

(Recall that, before Israel was a great nation, it was a family—the family of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, with whom YAHUAH had made a covenant because of his faith and obedience. Thus, the phrase "the Zekenim of Israel" is a better, more succinct way of saying, "the oldest males of the individual families within the extended family of Jacob.")

The Zekenim of Israel were to accompany Moses to go see Pharaoh (see Ex. 3:18).

Once the time arrived for the final plague upon Egypt, Moses told YAHUAH's instructions for the Passover night to the Zekenim of Israel, which they were to carry out for their individual families (see Ex. 12:21).

On their journey from Egypt, YAHUAH told Moses to take with him some of the Zekenim when he struck the rock at Meribah (see Ex. 17:5-6).

At Mount Sinai, it was the Zekenim of Israel to whom Moses spoke the instructions of YAHUAH (see Ex. 19:7; Deut. 5:23-27).

Once the covenant was agreed upon, 70 of these Zekenim joined Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu atop the mountain to eat with YAHUAH (see Ex. 24:1, 9-11).

Later, in Num. 11:16-17, 25, YAHUAH told Moses to gather 70 Zekenim of Israel for the purpose of placing the Holy Spirit upon them and enabling them to assist Moses in bearing the burden of leading Israel.

Zaqen responsibilities under the Law of Moses

In the Law of Moses, YAHUAH instructed the Zekenim of Israel to lay their hands upon the bull sin offering (for unknown congregational sins) before killing it (see Lev. 4:13-15).

When the tabernacle was erected and the priestly ministry began, Moses called the Zekenim of Israel to the door of the tabernacle. They were front-and-center when YAHUAH consumed the sacrifice upon the altar (see Lev. 9:1, 5, 22-24).

The Zekenim were also standing close by Moses when YAHUAH swallowed Korah's rebellion in the earth (see Num. 16:20-27).

Once the land of Canaan was possessed by Israel, we learn that individual cities had their own Zekenim.

The Zekenim of the cities of refuge were responsible for capturing and removing a murderer who had killed intentionally out of hatred (see Deut. 19:11-12). Likewise, they were responsible for protecting one who had killed unintentionally and had arrived at the gate of a city of refuge (see Josh. 20:4-5).

Additionally, the Zekenim had a role in:

  • An odd ritual for atoning for shed blood in unsolved murders (see Deut. 21:1-9).
  • The execution of rebellious children (see Deut. 21:18-21).
  • Resolving marital disputes involving suspected unfaithfulness or adultery (see Deut. 22:13-30).
  • Widowed sister-in-law responsibilities (see Deut. 25:5-10; ).

The custom during this time was for the Zekenim to assemble at the city gates, keeping watch over who entered and left, judging, providing guidance and assisting in making important decisions (see Deut. 21:21; 22:15; 25:7; Ruth 4:1-12; Prov. 31:23).

Zekenim' teaching responsibilities

The Zekenim of Israel were also responsible for helping to teach the people (see Deut. 27:1; 32:7-9; Josh. 8:33-35).

Moses delivered a copy of the Law to the Zekenim, along with the priests (see Deut. 31:9). Moses taught the Zekenim (see Deut. 31:28), as did Joshua (see Josh. 23:1-24:28).

The Zekenim of Joshua's day played a key role in the spiritual leadership of Israel, for Israel served YAHUAH all the days of their life (see Josh. 24:31; Judg. 2:7).

It would seem, however, that these Zekenim failed to instill a knowledge of YAHUAH and His great works for Israel in the hearts of their children (see Judg. 2:10). This critical mistake ultimately led to the downfall of the nation as idolatry invaded thereafter.

Zekenim' leadership responsibilities

The Zekenim of Israel were involved in problem-solving (see 1 Sam. 4:1-3) and leadership.

Recall that it was the Zekenim who asked Samuel to give them a king because they thought it a wise move "to be like all the nations" (see 1 Sam. 8:4-6). Once the king was in place, the Zekenim had an ongoing role in conversing with him (see 2 Sam. 3:17; 5:3-5; 12:15-17; 17:1-4, 15; 19:11; 1 Kings 8:1).

Perhaps the most well-known of these occasions is where Rehoboam sought counsel from the Zekenim and separately from his young peers regarding taxing Israel (see 1 Kings 12:1-24).

Sadly, as Israel and Judah became increasingly wicked, the advice and actions of the Zekenim also became wicked. An example is the Zekenim' obedience to Queen Jezebel's instructions to arrange Naboth's murder (see 1 Kings 21:8-11).

YAHUAH repeatedly rebuked the Zekenim through the prophets because of their failure to lead and, instead, actually destroying the flock of Israel (see Isa. 3:14-15; 9:13-16; Lam. 2:10; 4:16; Eze. 8:1-9:11).

It is worth noting that other nations discussed in the Old Testament also had Zekenim who held leadership or advisory roles (see Num. 22:4, 7; Josh. 9:11; Judg. 11:5-11).

The Old Testament Scriptures reveal that the Zekenim of Israel:

  • Were looked to as the "wise men" of the people, and thus were sought out for important decisions, guidance, and rulings.
  • Were responsible for teaching the people.
  • Were responsible for watching over the children of Israel.
  • Were leaders in principles and by example—when they were living holy lives, the nation prospered; when they followed the path of idolatry, the nation decayed and suffered.
  • Lived among the people of Israel, being actively involved in the community and in the lives of one another.

As we think about Zekenim within the Great Awakening, there are (or should be, at least) strong parallels between the Zekenim of physical Israel and the spiritual shepherds of the body of Ha’Mashiach.


In the New Testament period, local Zekenim continued to lead. In addition, the 70-member Yahudim Sanhedrin helped lead the religious body of Israel. In the early assembly, Zekenim became synonymous in many cases with pastors and served as the local assembly leaders. The Zekenim’ role of teaching and leading is emphasized in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.

Zekenim are not given authority to tyrannically dictate in matters of no consequence. They are not authorized to give commands in trivial, non-moral matters. Neither are they permitted to demand total compliance in matters involving the Hebraic Believer's liberty. Nor can their rule be followed when and if that rule is in conflict with the Word of Yah. Their authority is in the Word as it applies to matters of Assembly and personal life and extends to the managing of the Assembly in general.

Therefore, the judgments of Zekenim in regard to faith and its related practice are to be obeyed (of course, so long as such judgments are not in violation of the Word of Yah; cf. Acts 5:29). It would be in keeping with these principles to further give certain priority to their judgments in extra- scriptural matters of concern to the Assembly (e.g., decisions regarding Assembly organization, administration, etc.), although this privilege must not be abused.

Of great importance in the appointing of spiritual rulers is the issue of their qualifications. Because of the nature of the office, better no Zekenim than wrong ones.

To help in that regard, in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 Paul lists at least twenty-six different requirements which must be met for a man to be a zaqen. This chapter will briefly examine these qualifications.

I Timothy 3:1-7

  1. Blameless. The Greek term (anepilemptos) signifies "not able to be taken hold of," that is, above reproach, unassailable. It suggests that he is truly worthy of his good reputation. This word does not mean sinless or faultless, but it indicates that his character and piety are unassailable. There are no glaring kinks in his armor.

This qualification is basic. It is basic in that it is so broad and all-inclusive that all the remaining qualifications are gathered up into it, and they expand on it.

  1. Husband of one wife, or more accurately, a one woman man (mias gunaikos andra). This is not, as some imagine, a requirement that all Zekenim be married, although that the zaqen (bishop) is married may well be Paul's assumption. Nor does this qualification concern the subject of divorce specifically. Rather it is a moral requirement: he must be a "one woman kind of man," a man who is not flirtatious and does not have eyes for all the women but is faithful to his own wife.

Incidentally, this is one qualification that can never be filled by a woman. No matter how gifted the woman may be, she can never be the husband of one wife, a one woman man. Paul requires that only men be Zekenim, contemporary objections notwithstanding (cf. I Timothy 2:12; I Corinthians 14:34).

  1. Vigilant or temperate. This word (nephalios) originally implied abstinence from alcohol but came to have a figurative sense signifying "sober" or "sober-minded," "clear-headed." In other words he is alert, cautious, circumspect.
  1. Sober. This word (sophron) speaks of self control. It implies the ideas of thoughtful, sensible, sane. He is not always the clown; he is serious minded.
  1. Of good behavior. This means "orderly, well arranged" (kosmios). His mind and inner man are in good order and are evident by his outward living and his demeanor.
  1. Given to hospitality. This term (philoxenos) literally means "lover of strangers" and implies the ideas of hospitality, generosity to guests, and openness to all, not a select few only. His front door is always open and his welcome mat is always out, especially for the people under his care. Nor is he hesitant to have others view him in his home life.
  1. Apt to teach. While some Zekenim are more gifted than others and while some may be given more to the public ministry of the Word, all Zekenim must be "skillful in teaching" nonetheless. This qualification is often minimized but only to the detriment of the Assembly. Good character is essential, but that alone will not replace skillful teaching.

This qualification implies that the zaqen have a superior grasp of the Word of Yah and a resolved commitment to teaching. He must have proven himself to be able to set forth the Word of Yah with a measure of effectiveness. Furthermore, he must be a diligent student of the Scriptures, with a passion for truth and willing to "labor" in the Word (kopiao; I Timothy 5:17; I Thessalonians 5:12. This word, as the apostle uses it often, implies a thorough diligence in the work of Yah, in these passages the preparation and ministering of the Word of Yah specifically). If a pastor is to feed his flock, he must have some ability to communicate the Word, and he must have attained some degree of knowledge of it.

  1. Not given to wine. This term (paroinos, from para, beside, and oinos wine) signifies literally, "not [one who lingers] beside [his] wine." That is, he is not addicted to wine. He can control it, it does not control him.
  1. No striker. A zaqen must be in control of self (see number 4 above) and further must not be "given to blows" (me pletes) or given to violence. He must not be pugnacious or easily riled. He must not be the kind of man who wears a chip on his shoulder or who has a quick temper.
  1. But patient (next in order of Greek text). In contrast to being violent the zaqen is "lenient" and gentle, genial, conciliatory, forbearing, equitable.
  1. Not a brawler (amachos, again following the order of the Greek text). Neither is the zaqen contentious. He is "not a fighter, averse to fighting." This qualification probes deeper than number 9 above: not only does he refrain from fighting, but he is not even inclined to that sort of thing, whether physically or verbally. He does not fight or quarrel.
  1. Not greedy of filthy lucre. This term (aphilarguros) signifies "not a lover of money, not fond of money." Earthly treasure is not his goal, and he is not in the ministry for money. This further implies, then, that he is generous, not overly-possessive of his material blessings.
  1. One that ruleth well his own house having his children in subjection with all gravity. The zaqen is not run by an unruly wife or family; rather he rules his home well. Accordingly his children are obedient, submissive. He is "grave," dignified and courteous. The picture is that of a man who is gentle and kind but having unquestioned rule.

This qualification is expanded upon; an explanation is given: "for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the Assembly of Yah?" Here Paul argues from the lesser to the greater.

Every man should rule his house well; if this man can not, how could we expect him to rule the Assembly? A man who can not rule his own home well is not only unfit but unable to rule in the Assembly.

  1. Not a novice. He is not "newly planted," a new convert. The idea of age is obviously involved, but the emphasis is on maturity, whether he is eighteen or fifty. Nor does maturity come automatically with a degree, even if it is from a Hebraic Intuition.

A man may be gifted with great and unusual abilities, but if he is not yet mature, he may become "lifted up with pride" and "fall into the condemnation of the devil." A man taking such a responsibility before he is ready for it surely approaches pride which could bring disaster upon him and those under his care also. Maturity is essential.

  1. A good report of them who are without. He must have a good reputation with those outside the Assembly. He must be one who has a good name in the community. He may be persecuted because of his holy life (II Timothy 3:12), but he must be recognized as having high character and good and honest behavior.

Titus 1:6-9

Turning now to Titus 1:6-9, we find that the qualifications are basically parallel. Only those not found in I Timothy will be examined here.

  1. Blameless (anegkletos). Basically the same as I Timothy 3:1 although not the same word. The zaqen must be "above reproach, without indictment."
  1. Having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. Again basically the same as I Timothy 3:4-5 but adds the idea of the children's faith: they are not only well behaved and well disciplined, but they also are believers. Their life follows the faith.
  1. Blameless as the steward of Yah. "Blameless" is the same as I Timothy 3:2 but this adds the idea of stewardship to it. He must be a good manager of the things which Yah has given him.
  1. Not self-willed. An zaqen must not be obstinate, stubborn, or unwilling to listen to others. He must not always insist on his own point of view or rights. He is rather "others-willed" and is concerned for the feelings and rights of others.
  1. Not soon angry. He is not inclined to anger. He is not quick-tempered.
  2. Not given to filthy lucre. This term (me aischrokerdes) signifies "not greedy of shameful gain." The zaqen must not be one who is willing to make money by questionable methods. Again (as number 12 above), his focus is not on material things but spiritual.
  1. A lover of good men. This translation is too restrictive. The word (philagathos) implies much more; he is "a lover of that which is good," whether men or women or things or truth itself.
  1. Just. He is "righteous," fair, impartial, objective, able to make decisions based upon principle alone.
  1. Holy. A zaqen must be a "devout" man (osios).
  1. Temperate. He must be "self-controlled, self-mastered," able to control impulsive passions. He is subject to the will of Yah.
  1. Holding fast the faithful Word. This implies both a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures and a commitment to it. He is stable in the faith in every respect so that he can be trusted to live what he teaches and "refute those who contradict."

These are the qualifications which must be filled by each zaqen.

The Importance of the Office

It is evident that the Bible took very seriously the office of zaqen. The qualifications touch virtually every area of life. Yah requires of the Zekenim an impeccable reputation both from within and without. Yah expects spiritual rulers to be exemplary, indeed, examples to the flock. The office and its responsibilities are too important to be given out indiscriminately.

The Emphasis

While several abilities are required, such as teaching and ruling, the emphasis of these qualifications is clearly on character. The Bible is not so concerned with gifts, degrees, popularity, or other matters which are today deemed important. He is concerned primarily with the man's character. He must be mature and sanctified.

Other Requirements?

There are other requirements not so stated in these passages, such as the man's ability to fulfill the necessary duties of his office; a man who cannot fulfill these is not qualified for the office. (For an excellent examination of the basic qualifications/responsibilities of a minister and the corresponding obligations of the Assembly.


It is clear, by the nature of the case, that a man who does not meet these requirements or who at some time fails to meet them is not qualified for the office. Furthermore, one implication of I Timothy 5:19-20 is that it may become necessary for the other Zekenim to judge that a man duly qualified for the office has become disqualified by reason of some personal sin or character flaw.

This is a very serious matter, and it must be recognized that only Scriptural reason is sufficient justification for such disqualification. The all-too-well-known custom of dismissing a zaqen by the whim of an Zekenim Council or a majority opinion is a prideful rising above the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.

Specific Instructions & Commands

The Brit Hadasha (New Testament) writers give many specific instructions and commands (both by precept and by example) to Zekenim concerning the fulfilling of their ministry. These commands, all taken together, provide a basic job description for them. A few of them are surveyed here.

*In Acts 6:4 the apostles give matters of lesser concern to others so that they may give themselves "to prayer and to the ministry of the Word." This verse is significant in that it views prayer as one half of the Zekenim' ministry. Zekenim must teach and pray.

*Throughout the first letter to Timothy it says over and again of doctrine and teaching (1:3, 10; 3:2; 4:6, 13, 14, 16; 5:17; etc.). His second letter to Timothy emphasizes the same (1:6, 8, 13; 2:2; etc.), as well as his letter to Titus (1:9; 2:1; etc.). Zekenim are to teach.

*According to Acts 20:20 Zekenim are responsible for both public and private teaching.

*Zekenim are to contend for the faith, refuting and rebuking false teachers (I Timothy 1:18; Jude 3; Titus 1:9-16).

*Zekenim are to guard their people from errors and sins and dangers of all kinds, both from within and without (Acts 20:28-31; Hebrews 13:7; I Timothy 4:16).

*Zekenim are to exhort (Titus 1:9; II Timothy 4:2), which combines all the ideas of encouragement, comfort, persuasion, counseling, teaching, rebuking, etc.

*Zekenim are to rule (I Peter 5:1-2; I Timothy 5:17).

*Zekenim are to lead both by precept and example (I Timothy 4:12; I Peter 5:3).

How many spiritual rulers are there to be in the local Assembly? The Brit Hadasha (New Testament) teaches that a plurality of Zekenim is to be the norm in each local Assembly.


Surveying The Evidence

Only a quick look at the passages involved demonstrates that the apostles and other Brit Hadasha (New Testament) writers understood that each Assembly had a plurality of righteous men ruling. The reference is consistently in the plural ("Zekenim" not "zaqen").

*Acts 11:30 speaks of the Zekenim of the Jerusalem Assembly. Evidently James was not the only one.

*Acts 14:23 informs us that it was the customary practice of Paul and Barnabas in their missionary work to appoint Zekenim (plural) in each Assembly (singular).

*Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, and 23 all refer to the Zekenim of the Jerusalem Assembly.

*Acts 16:4 again speaks of the Zekenim of the Jerusalem Assembly.

*In Acts 20:17 Paul sent for the Zekenim of the Assembly in Ephesus.

*In Acts 21:18 Luke speaks of "all the Zekenim" of the Jerusalem Assembly.

*In Philippians 1:1 Paul addresses the "bishops" of the Assembly in Philippi.

*In I Thessalonians 5:12-13 Paul instructs the believers of the Thessalonian Assembly in regard to their responsibilities to "those who labor among you and are over you in Yahuah." The repeated reference is to "them" rather than "he."

*I Timothy 4:14 speaks of a body of Zekenim laying their hands on Timothy.

*In I Timothy 5:17 Paul again speaks of Zekenim in the plural.

*In Titus 1:5 Paul commands Titus to appoint Zekenim in every city. Evidently this was a part of "setting in order the things that lack"; the implication of this verse, then, is that if an Assembly had only one zaqen, it would be "lacking" and not in keeping with the norm.

*Hebrews 13:7, 17, and 24 all refer to a plurality of rulers in the Assembly ("them" and "they").

*In James 5:14 James prescribes for the one sick to summon to himself the Zekenim of his Assembly.

*Finally, in I Peter 5:1 Peter addresses a plurality of Zekenim as well.

In short, the Brit Hadasha (New Testament) writers never refer to the office as held by a single man. The terms "zaqen" and "bishop" as they refer to the Assembly office of zaqen, appear in the singular only in passages which give instruction concerning the treatment of individual Zekenim (I Timothy 5:1, 19), or which list the qualifications which must be met by each individual zaqen (I Timothy 3:1-2), or where individual Zekenim write in reference to themselves individually (I Peter 5:1; II John 1; III John 1). When referring to the office as such in relation to the Assembly, it is always in the plural. This is the norm.


Drawing from these passages, a number of facts become evident.

1) It is significant that while the Thessalonian Assembly was only months (perhaps weeks) old when Paul wrote to them, it still was an Assembly with a plurality of Zekenim.

2) Some have argued that the only reason Paul referred to a plurality of Zekenim in each Assembly was that he had in mind the entire "city Assembly" (the collective number of Hebraic Believers in a given city) and not the individual local congregations which made up that larger "Assembly." Whether or not this was so in some instances may be impossible to determine, but in either case the fact remains that there was a plurality of men to whom the believers in question were responsible.

3) It is noteworthy that Paul's inspired solution to the problem of only one zaqen (Titus 1:5) is not to establish a new form of Assembly government (i.e., democracy) but to appoint more Zekenim.

4) Only an Assembly with a plurality of morim is able to fulfill the instruction of James 5:14, which prescribes that the one in severe sickness is to summon "the Zekenim [plural] of the Assembly [singular]."

5) Assembly Zekenim-bishops-pastors are consistently referred to in the plural. This is clearly the norm for the Brit Hadasha (New Testament) Assembly (Acts 14:23). If any Assembly in the Brit Hadasha (New Testament) period had only one zaqen, it is not mentioned (unless Titus 1:5 be the exception, in which case such a condition is said to be "lacking"). Plurality of Zekenim is at least as evident as the plurality of deacons.

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