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Biblical judges (Hebrew: shôphatîm or shoftim שופטים) were Israelite leaders during the period of the Israelite confederacy.

From after the conquest of Canaan by Joshua in c. 1200 BCE until the formation of the first Kingdom of Israel in c. 1050 BCE, the Israelite Tribes formed a loose confederation. No central government existed, and in times of crisis the people were led by ad hoc leaders known as Judges.[1] While judge is the closest literal translation of the Hebrew term used in the masoretic text, the position is more one of unelected non-hereditary leadership[2] than that of legal pronouncement. In accordance with the needs of the time, their functions were primarily martial and judicial, comparable to a king (but not anointed).


The Hebrew name of the Book of Judges was transliterated by Origen Safateím and by St. Jerome Sophtim; it was translated into Greek by Melito and Origen Kritaí, by the Septuagint ì tôn kritôn bíblos or tôn kritôn, so too by the Greek Fathers; it was translated into Latin as liber Judicum (or for short Judicum).

It is worth noting that the Phoenicians, according to the Roman historian Titus Livius, called their city states' chief magistrates suffetes,[3] apparently a cognate title, and gave to the two suffetes of Carthage a power analogous to that of the Roman consuls.[4][5]

Historically, the Hebrew verb meant to act as a Divine judge, and was applied to God [6] and to the prophet Moses acting as the specially inspired lawgiver and judge of Israel.[7] In the Biblical context of the Book of Judges, the term designates those who act as deliverers. The word, however, means more than this; it refers to leaders who took charge of the affairs of the tribes in case of war (similar to a 'war king' amongst the Germanic tribes, for example), and who assumed leadership of their respective tribes in the succeeding times of peace.

Biblical origin

According to the introduction to the Book of Judges,[8] after the death of Joshua, a new generation of Israelites grew up and rather than worshipping Yahweh, instead worshipped Baal and Asherah, provoking God to anger. This divine wrath is described as causing the Israelites to be plundered by raiders and preventing them from defeating their enemies when they went out to fight. Hence they fell under the influence of the Canaanites, Philistines, Amorites and other foreign rulers.

The text argues that the remaining Canaanite tribes were left for the purpose of testing whether the Israelites would keep the way of Yahweh and walk in it as their forefathers did.[9] It describes Yahweh as offering an olive branch, in raising up judges from time to time to save the people from their enemies. On many occasions the people did not listen to the judges and refused to obey God's commands; and even when they did, they went back to their old ways when the judge died.

List of Biblical Judges

In the Book of Exodus, the elders of the Israelites eventually became the judges.[10] In the Book of Judges the term judges (shôphitîm) is applied to the leaders of Israel, and would seem to indicate that their right was Divine.[11]

Judges in the Bible
In the Book of Judges
Deborah (and Barak)*
In the First Book of Samuel
* Not explicitly described as a judge

12 people are identified as judges by the Book of Judges. The position of Shamgar in the list varies between versions of the ancient text (see below); most modern translations of the masoretic text list them in the following order:

  1. Othniel, the son of Kenaz from the tribe of Judah[12]
  2. Ehud, the son of Gerah from the tribe of Benjamin[13]
  3. Shamgar, the son of Anath from the tribe of Levi[14]
  4. Deborah, from the tribe of Ephraim (with Barak, her general)[15]
  5. Gideon (also named Jerubbaal), the son of Joash from the tribe of Manasseh[16]
  6. Tola, the son of Puah from the tribe of Issachar[17]
  7. Jair, from Gilead[18]
  8. Jephthah, from Gilead[19]
  9. Ibzan, from the tribe of Judah[20]
  10. Elon, from the tribe of Zebulun[21]
  11. Abdon, the son of Hillel, the Piratoni, from the tribe of Ephraim[22]
  12. Samson, the son of Manoah, from the tribe of Dan[23]

Of these, only Ehud, Deborah, Gideon/Jerubbaal, Jephtah, and Samson are given extensive narratives. Textual criticism views the other judges as being added to the list simply to make the total number equal 12, a number of religious significance to the Israelites[24].

Shamgar's position in the list

It is worth noting that Shamgar's presence in the text[25] is an awkward fit;[26] the text immediately after the Shamgar passage is the final verse of the Ehud narrative,[27] most of which precedes the mention of Shamgar.[13] Indeed, in ancient versions of the text, such as the Syriac Hexapla, Mesrob's Armenian version, and the Old Church Slavonic version of Cyril and Methodius, Shamgar is actually listed after Samson instead,[28] thus and there arose after Samson, Shamgar the son of Anath .....[26][29] Also, unlike the other minor judges (those who only have brief descriptions), Shamgar appears in the text without a full introduction or conclusion, nor is the duration of oppression or subsequent rest given; the Philistines similarly appear abruptly, and then immediately disappear until much later in the text.[26]

Abimelech, the son of Jerubbaal, is given an extensive narrative in the Book of Judges, despite being characterised as a wicked king rather than as a judge, and despite no other judge being identified for his period. Some Biblical critics, though not all, therefore believe that Abimelech was originally considered a judge, but later writers had qualms about his behaviour, and so recast him as a king, adding Shamgar to the list of judges so that it continued to total 12 judges[30].

The presence of Shamgar after Samson, in ancient versions of the Book of Judges, may be related to the mention of a Shammah[26][29] in the appendix of the Books of Samuel, who also is briefly described as single-handedly defeating the Philistines.[31] It is possible that Shamgar became inserted in its present position because[29] the name appears as a historic figure in the Song of Deborah;[32] since that poem connects Shamgar with a time of oppression, scholars think it more likely that Shamgar was a foreign oppressor of Israel, than a judge.[26]

The judges of the Books of Samuel

The First Book of Samuel describes two further individuals as being judges:

According to some textual critics, the initial portion of the first book of Samuel, which contains these two names, and uses the same ...and he had judged Israel for [number] years formula, was probably originally the final part of the Book of Judges, with it ending at the final speech by Samuel.[29][33] Thus, the original form of the book (i.e. including Abimelech, Eli, and Samuel, but excluding the minor Judges), according to some textual critics, listed 8 judges, 7 good and 1 bad (Abimelech), 7 being a religiously significant number.

Sources and references

  1. Kitchen, Kenneth A. (2003), "On the Reliability of the Old Testament" (Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)(ISBN 0-8028-4960-1)
  2. Judges 12:7-15
  3. Titus Livius, Ab Urbe condita, 28:37
  4. Titus Livius, Ab Urbe condita, 30:7
  5. Titus Livius, Ab Urbe condita, 34:61
  6. Genesis 18:25
  7. Exodus 18:13-16
  8. Judges 2:10-3:6
  9. Judges 2:20-23
  10. Exodus 18:25-26
  11. Judges 10:2-3
  12. Judges 3:7-11
  13. 13.0 13.1 Judges 3:12-30
  14. Judges 3:31
  15. Judges 4:1-5:31
  16. Judges 6:1-8:32
  17. Judges 10:1-5
  18. Judges 10:1-5
  19. Judges 10:6-12:7
  20. Judges 12:8-15
  21. Judges 12:8-15
  22. Judges 12:8-15
  23. Judges 13:1-16:31
  24. Jewish Encyclopedia, Judges, Book of
  25. Judges 3:31
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 26.4 Jewish Encyclopedia, Shamgar
  27. Judges 4:1
  28. specifically, after Judges 16:31
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 Peake's commentary on the bible, Judges
  30. Jewish Encyclopedia, Judges, Book of
  31. 2 Samuel 23:11-12
  32. Judges 5:6
  33. 1 Samuel 12
  • This article incorporates text from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, a publication now in the public domain. Judges

See also