1. The Civil Magistrate. In patriarchal times Hebrew life was organized around the family and the clan. Heads of families (“patriarchs”) and elders of the tribes were the judges (Gen.38.24), and their authority was based on custom.
When the monarchy was instituted, the king himself tried important cases (2Sam.15.2; 1Kgs.3.9, 1Kgs.3.28; 1Kgs.7.7; Prov.20.8). David assigned Levites to the judicial office and appointed six thousand men as officers and judges (1Chr.23.4; 1Chr.26.29). According to 2Chr.19.5-2Chr.19.8, Jehoshaphat enlarged the judicial system of Judah with a kind of supreme court at Jerusalem, made up of Levites, priests, and heads of fathers’ houses.
In OT times the judges’ activities were not limited to what today would be considered judicial functions. Our present division of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches is a modern innovation. The word judge is often parallel to king (Ps.2.10; Ps.148.11; Isa.33.22; Isa.40.23; Amos.2.3). In several Semitic languages the term used in the Hebrew Bible for judge (shōphēt) is used for rulers of various kinds. This breadth of meaning attached to the term judge in ancient times leads to its extended use in the Book of Judges.
II. The Leaders During the Period of the Judges. From the time of the death of Joshua to the reign of Saul, Israel’s first king, the principal leaders of the people were called judges. These men and their times are described in the Book of Judges and in 1Sam.1.1-1Sam.1.28-1Sam.7.1-1Sam.7.17. They were charismatic leaders; that is, they were raised up to be Israel’s “saviors” by a special endowment of the Spirit of God. It is clear that they were judges only in the broadest sense of that term. In reality, they were principally military deliverers, raised up to save the people of Israel from oppressing foreign powers. Much general information about the period of the judges, together with a complete list of their names and the regions in which they ruled, is given in the article, Book of Judges.
This discussion will be restricted to a consideration of the careers and times of the most important of the judges. The times were most distressing. The period was cruel, barbarous, and bloody. The tribes, scattered in the hill country of Canaan, were divided into many separate enclaves. Even the tabernacle at Shiloh, which should have provided a religious unity, seems to have been generally neglected in favor of the local high places. Only an unusual crisis, such as the crime that brought on the Benjamite war (Judg.19.1-Judg.19.30; Judg.20.1) could bring the tribes to united action. It appears that Judah in the south was unusually isolated from the other tribes.
The first judge mentioned in detail is Ehud, son of Gera (Judg.3.12-Judg.3.30). A Benjamite, he is said to have been lefthanded, a serious defect in those superstitious times. Few if any of the judges are pictured as ideal individuals. The occasion of God’s raising up Ehud was the oppression by Eglon, king of Moab, who with the Ammonites and Amalekites (all Transjordanian herdsmen or nomads), occupied the region of Jericho (“the City of Palms,” Judg.3.13). After eighteen years of oppression, Ehud led a revolt by killing Eglon when he presented the tribute. The gory details of the deed fit well this violent period. With Ephraimite help Eglon took the fords of the Jordan and killed the Moabites as they sought to flee homeward. An eighty-year period of peace followed.
The account of Gideon’s son Abimelech and his violent rule over the Shechem area in the central hill country is told in Judg.9.1-Judg.9.57. Abimelech is not called a judge, and he appears more as a brigand or political-military adventurer than as a deliverer of Israel from an oppressing enemy. He died as he lived—his skull was cracked by a millstone, and he was finally killed by his armorbearer. Probably his career is described solely to give a feeling of the violent, unsettled state of things during the times of the judges. If that is its purpose, it can be said to have succeeded.
Jephthah, a Transjordanian chieftain, appears next (Judg.11.1-Judg.11.40-Judg.12.1-Judg.12.15) as the deliverer of Gilead and Manasseh (northern Transjordan) from the oppression of the Ammonites—a pastoral people who pressured Manasseh from the south. He is chiefly remembered for his thoughtless vow (Judg.11.30-Judg.11.31). While authorities differ as to what was involved in it, it is not unlikely that the vow involved offering his daughter as a sacrifice to God in the event of victory over the Ammonites (Judg.11.34-Judg.11.39). If it be objected that this was completely out of keeping with Hebrew religious practice, it may be answered that this only emphasized the extent of the religious degradation of the Hebrews during this turbulent period.
The last of the great judges was Samson (Judg.13.1-Judg.13.25-Judg.16.1-Judg.16.31), with whom the scene shifts to a different part of Palestine—the Philistine plain. It is likely that Samson lived late in the judges period, at the time when a large invasion of the Palestinian seacoast was occurring. The invaders, sea peoples from the Aegean area, had been repulsed in their attempt to enter Egypt (by Rameses III) and had subsequently settled in what became known as the Philistine plain. Samson lived in the Shephelah area that bordered that plain. He was dedicated to a life of Nazirite obedience before his birth. His life was the tragedy of one whose great potential was vitiated through a lack of self-discipline.
Hardly a very religious person, Samson was known for his great strength. He thus became the Hebrews’ champion against the Philistines, just as the Philistine Goliath later was against the Hebrews. His failure to discipline his sensuous nature led him into three liaisons with Philistine women. Doubtless each was an instrument of the Philistine lords in their effort to subdue Samson.
We do not read that Samson ever led a Hebrew army against the Philistines. Rather, he made single-handed exploits in Philistine territory, a number of which are described (Judg.14.19; Judg.15.4-Judg.15.5, Judg.15.8, Judg.15.15; Judg.16.3). The account of Samson’s being subdued at the hand of Delilah is well-known. Killing in his death more Philistines than he killed in his life (Judg.16.30), he became at the last a tragic figure. He had judged Israel twenty years.
Eli (1Sam.1.1-1Sam.1.28-1Sam.4.1-1Sam.4.22) and Samuel (1Sam.2.12) are also called judges. Although they did do some of the work of the judges described above, it would seem better to regard them as priest and prophet respectively—transitional figures preparing the way for the monarchy.——JBG