Overseers in the Old Testament
While not used nearly as frequently as either shepherds or elders, the Old Testament does provide some context for the use of the term overseer in the New Testament. In Numbers 4:16, Eleazar the son of Aaron was given oversight of certain aspects of the priests’ ministry in the tabernacle. Later in Numbers, Moses was furious with the officers of the army, with those who had oversight over the soldiers in the army (31:14). In 2 Kings, the term overseer is used to refer both to the commanders of the army (11:15) and to watchmen appointed to guard the temple (11:18).
Often those given oversight were specifically placed over aspects of the temple. 2 Kings 12:11 records how the priest Jehoiada had money distributed to those who were responsible for overseeing the Lord’s temple. As Josiah repaired the temple in 2 Chronicles, the term was used to refer to those who oversaw the work being done on the temple (24:12, 17). Finally, Nehemiah 11:22 refers specifically to Uzzi as the overseer of the Levites in Jerusalem.
While this brief sketch of the term overseer in the Old Testament shows that the uses of the term are not extensive, we do see a general pattern. An overseer was one given charge of the oversight of a group of people, often including a specific work that was to be done. So while some English translations use the term bishop to describe this office in the New Testament, the Old Testament context for this term fits very well with the English translation “overseer.”
Leaders in the Old Testament
The term for leader, while not as commonly used for church leaders in the New Testament is found three times in the book of Hebrews to refer to church leaders (13:7, 17, 24). This word too has its background in the Old Testament , and the word is often used in very significant contexts in the Old Testament. This is the word used for the ruler’s staff that would not depart from the tribe of Judah in Genesis 49:10. In Deuteronomy 1, when leaders were appointed from the tribes to help Moses, these men were appointed as the “heads” or the leaders of the people (1:13-15).
Several times this word for leaders in Hebrews 13 is found connected to David as a shepherd in the Old Testament. In 2 Samuel 5:2, when David was told that he would be the shepherd of God’s people, God also said that David would be the “prince” or leader over Israel. In 1 Chronicles 17:7, God took David from being a shepherd and made him “prince” or leader over the people. In 2 Chronicles 7:18, God reminded Solomon of his promise to David that David would not lack a man from his family to “rule” or lead Israel. So this term for leader in the Old Testament could be connected with God leading the people (Exodus 13:21), but more often the term was used to refer to a human leader of God’s people, specifically the Davidic king who was appointed to be the leader, ruler, or prince over the people.
Elders in the Old Testament
When we think of the term elder in the Old Testament, we often think of those who are advanced in age, perhaps a group of men generally known for wisdom that came from years of experience. In fact the term can be used simply to refer to those advanced in years, such as Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18:11-12. Or the term could be used to refer to a first-born son (Genesis 19:37). But a closer look at the term for elder in the Old Testament points toward a very clear office referred to as the elders of the people.
In the Old Testament law, we find several ways in which the elders represent the whole people of God. In Exodus 19:7-8, Moses laid the word of God before the elders of the people, and then all the people responded that they would be obedient to the word of the Lord. In Exodus 24, we find references to the 70 elders of Israel who served alongside Moses with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu (24:1-9). In Leviticus, the elders were very specifically representatives of the people as they laid their hands on the head of a bull that was to be slaughtered for a sin of the whole people (4:13-15). In Numbers 11:16-25, we again see a reference to 70 elders who were commissioned to help Moses. God “took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders” (11:25).
As Deuteronomy looks forward to the people’s life in the land, the elders of the people were to be responsible for carrying out and enforcing the law (see especially Deuteronomy 21-22). After the people had settled in the land, the elders made a convent with David and anointed him king over Israel (2 Samuel 5:3). And the elders took part in the procession as Solomon had the ark of the convent brought into the completed temple (1 Kings 8:1-9). Elders still existed among God’s people at the time of the exile, as Jeremiah addressed the his letter in part to the “surviving elders of the exile” (29:1). Numerous references to the elders in Ezra demonstrate that the office of elder survived past the time of the exile into the time when the people were reestablished in the land.
Unlike the overseers, however, we see in the Old Testament a clear corruption of the office of elder. In Isaiah, the elders were listed among a group of leaders that God was going to remove from office as part of his judgment against Judah (3:1-3). God would specifically bring a charge against the elders of the people, “It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” (3:14-15). Multiple times in Ezekiel, the elders of the people approached Ezekiel apparently with the desire to hear from God. In Ezekiel 8, these same elders committed detestable acts, thinking that God did not see them (8:12-13). In Ezekiel 14, when the elders approached Ezekiel to inquire of God, God responded, “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them?” (14:3). And again in Ezekiel 20, God would not let these wicked elders inquire anything of him (20:1-3).
Shepherds in the Old Testament
The shepherd imagery in the Old Testament begins quite literally, with God’s people being shepherds by trade. When Jacob brought his family from the land of Israel to live in the land of Egypt, Jacob’s family ended up living in the land of Goshen because shepherds were an abomination to the Egyptians (Genesis 46:31-34). Even after they came out of Egypt in the exodus, the people served as shepherds during their years wandering in the wildness (Numbers 14:33).
But this literal occupation soon turned into a figurative use of the term shepherd to refer to the human leaders God placed over his people. As Moses prepared the people to enter the Promised Land after his death, “Moses spoke to the LORD, saying, ‘Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep that have no shepherd’” (Numbers 27:15-17). Joshua as the shepherd of God’s people eventually gave way to David, as God said to David, “You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel” (2 Samuel 5:2).
So in the Old Testament, shepherd became a figurative term for the leader of God’s people, the one whom God charged to guide and protect his people. This role of shepherd found its clearest expression in the one leader over God’s people. This shepherd leader progressed from Joshua to the judges (1 Chronicles 17:6), and eventually to the king over God’s people represented by David and his descendants.
As is common to the story of the Old Testament, this ideal of a Davidic shepherd over God’s people quickly deteriorated into a morass of wickedness and despair. By the time of the prophets, we see both the wickedness of the shepherds over God’s people and the promise of a better Davidic shepherd yet to come. Two chapters in particular emphasize this point. In Jeremiah 23, the human shepherds of God’s people had “scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them” (23:2). Because of their wickedness, God would judge those shepherds, and God would grant his people good shepherds (23:2-4). Not only that, but in the future, God would “raise up for David a righteous Branch” (23:5), who would rule wisely over God’s people (23:5-6).
This same pattern is seen in Ezekiel 34, one of the most important chapters in the Old Testament on the role of the pastor. Once again, the shepherds of God’s people were corrupt, gorging themselves while failing to care for God’s sheep (34:1-4). So God’s people had become scattered because of the cruel and vicious rule of their shepherds (34:5-9). As in Jeremiah, God would step in to rescue his people and to judge the wicked shepherds. God himself would tend to his sheep (34:10-16). God would establish a Davidic shepherd over his people who would actually tend to God’s sheep (23:23). Then God’s people would dwell securely and know that he indeed was their God and that they were his people, his flock (23:30-31).
As we step back and look at the overall picture of pastoral leadership in the Old Testament, we see a God-appointed model of leadership that became corrupt and wicked. God intended for his people to have righteous human leaders who would watch over them and care for them. But the Old Testament story is a story of rebellion against the good commands of God. So we see in the Old Testament a long history of the failure of God’s appointed leaders, but we also are left longing for a time when God would establish faithful leaders over his people, the kind of leaders who would demonstrate the character of God in their leadership. “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40:11).