In the Persian Empire fast horses were used, along with relay stations, or posts, where fresh couriers and horses waited to carry important messages on their way. (Esther 3:13-15; 8:10, 14) They rushed messages to their destinations night and day and in all kinds of weather. In the Roman Empire there were stations placed every five or six miles for the couriers where forty horses were constantly kept. Roman couriers could travel a hundred miles (161 kilometers) a day, a considerable speed in those times. With this system of post horses royal messages could be dispatched to the ends of an empire in a relatively short period of time. The only messages they carried were official ones. Letters by private individuals were carried to their destination by private means.
Jehovah God as the Creator of the universe has the supreme sovereignty. As acknowledged by the ancient nation of Israel, so he is to the universe, namely, Judge, Statute-giver and King. (Isa. 33:22) The family head Abraham acknowledged him as “Judge of all the earth.” (Gen. 18:25) Jehovah portrays himself as Supreme Judge in a legal case against Israel (Mic. 6:2), also in a legal case in behalf of his people against the nations. (Isa. 34:8) He calls on his people as witnesses in a case involving a challenge of his Godship by the worshipers of false gods.—Isa. 43:9-12.
After the flood Noah emerged as the family head or patriarch and God made a covenant with him and his sons as representatives of the human race. (Gen. 9:12-16) Noah also received basic laws in addition to what God had stated previously. (Gen. 9:3-6) As patriarch Noah made decisions that affected not only his immediate household but also his married sons and their offspring.—Gen. 9:20-27.
The family head was judge of the family, which included the slaves and all those living under the household of the family head, just as Jehovah God is the great family Head and Judge. (Gen. 38:24) Disputes between families were settled between family heads when it was possible to settle them peaceably.
Among the worshipers of the true God, Jehovah was always acknowledged as the Supreme Judge. The family head as judge was reckoned as accountable to God, who himself sat in judgment in the cases of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:8-24); of Cain (Gen. 4:9-15); of humankind at the time of the Flood (Gen. 6:1-3, 11-13, 17-21); of the builders of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9); of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:20-33); and of Abimelech.—Gen. 20:3–7.
Jacob acted as judge for those in his household when Laban brought accusations that his teraphim had been stolen by someone in Jacob’s camp. Jacob said: “Whoever it is with whom you may find your gods, let him not live.” (Gen. 31:32) However, Jacob did not know that Rachel had taken them, and Laban did not find them, so Rachel was not accused. When Joseph’s brothers had sold him into Egypt and presented Joseph’s blood-soaked garment to make it appear that he had been killed by a wild beast, Jacob sat in judgment, examined the evidence and made a judicial decision: “Joseph is surely torn to pieces!” (Gen. 37:33) Judah sat in judgment when he found that Tamar was pregnant, sentencing her to be put to death. But when he found that she had maneuvered him into performing that which he legally should have caused his son Shelah to perform, he pronounced Tamar more righteous than himself.—Gen. 38:24-26.
UNDER THE LAW
With the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, Moses as Jehovah’s representative became judge. At first he was trying to handle all the cases, which were so numerous that he was busy from morning to evening. On the counsel of Jethro he appointed capable men as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. (Ex. 18:13-26) Moses thereby established an efficient judicial system to administer justice to the body of approximately three million people under his care. If we take the figure of 600,000 able-bodied men as a basis for the divisions and appointments, this would mean the appointing of 78,600 judges. (Ex. 12:37) These were to handle ordinary cases, but anything unusually complicated or difficult, or a matter of national importance, was to be brought to Moses or to the sanctuary before the priests.
These hard matters for judgment included the following: Where the husband was suspicious of the chastity of his wife (Num. 5:11-31); a case of bloodshed where there was a dispute (Deut. 17:8, 9); and certain cases where revolt was charged against a man but where the evidence was unclear or suspicious. (Deut. 19:15-20) The priests would officiate in a case of unsolved murder.—Deut. 21:1-9.
There were no regular provisions for appeal from the lower courts to the higher, but if the chiefs of tens could not decide a case they could refer it to the chiefs of fifties, and so on, or directly to the sanctuary or to Moses.—Ex. 18:26; Deut. 1:17; 17:8-11.
The men selected as judges were to be capable, trustworthy men, fearing Jehovah, hating unjust profit. (Ex. 18:21) They were generally family heads and heads of tribes, older men of the city in which they acted as judges. The Levites, who were set aside by Jehovah as special instructors in the Law, served prominently also as judges.—Deut. 1:15.
Many are the admonitions against the perversion of judgment, taking of bribes, or partiality. (Ex. 23:6-8; Deut. 1:16, 17; 16:19; Prov. 17:23; 24:23; 28:21; 29:4) A poor man was not to be favored merely because he was poor, nor was the rich man to be given advantage over the poor. (Lev. 19:15) The rights of the alien resident were to be regarded and they were not to be treated unjustly. The judges were not to oppress such ones, nor widows and orphans, who seemed to have no protector, for Jehovah was their fatherly Judge and Protector. (Lev. 19:33, 34; Ex. 22:21; 23:9; Deut. 10:18; 24:17, 18; 27:19; Ps. 68:5) Accordingly, the alien residents were required to respect the law of the land. (Lev. 18:26) But these statutes and counsels from Jehovah came to be disregarded by the princes and judges in Israel, being one of the causes for God’s adverse judgment of the nation.—Isa. 1:23; Ezek. 22:12; 1 Sam. 8:3; Ps. 26:10; Amos 5:12.
Since the judges were to be upright men, judging according to Jehovah’s law, they represented Jehovah. Therefore, standing before the judges was considered as standing before Jehovah. (Deut. 1:17; 19:17; Josh. 7:19; 2 Chron. 19:6) The term “assembly” or “congregation” in most cases means the general assembly of the people, but in speaking of taking cases for judgment before the assembly or congregation the Bible refers to the representative members thereof, the judges, as at Numbers 35:12, 24, 25 and Matthew 18:17.
The local court was situated at the gate of a city. (Deut. 16:18; 21:19; 22:15, 24; 25:7; Ruth 4:1) By “gate” is meant the open space inside the city near the gate. The gates were places where the law was read to the congregated people and where ordinances were proclaimed. At the gate it was easy to acquire: witnesses to a civil matter, such as property sales, and so forth, as most persons would go in and out of the gate during the day. Also, the publicity that would be afforded any trial at the gate would tend to influence the judges toward carefulness and justice in the trial proceedings and in their decisions. Evidently there was a place provided near the gate where the judges could comfortably preside. (Job 29:7) Samuel traveled in a circuit of Bethel, Gilgal