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Biblical judges (Hebrew: shoftim שופטים) were chief magistrates of the Hebrews in the ancients' sense (against the principle of separation of powers), distinct from modern, merely judicial judges. While judge is the closest literal translation of the Hebrew term used in the Bible, the position is more one of unelected non-hereditary leadership than that of legal pronouncement, once in office comparable to a king (but not anointed). 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 (like a war king amongst the Germanic tribes, for example), and who assumed leadership of their respective tribes in the succeeding times of peace. In accordance with the needs of the time, their functions were primarily martial and judicial.

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; the Latins translated liber Judicum (or for short Judicum).

The Hebrew verb meant originally "to act as a Divine judge", and was applied to God (Genesis 18:25) and to the prophet Moses acting as the specially inspired lawgiver and judge of Israel (Exodus 18:13, 16). In time the elders of the Hebrew people became the "judges" (vv. 25, 26). 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 (Judges 10:2, 3). The office of judge differed from that of king only in the absence of hereditary succession (xii, 7-15).

It is worth noting that the Phoenicians, according to the Roman historian Livy, called their city states' chief magistrates suffetes (XXVIII, xxxvii), apparently a cognate title, and gave to the two suffetes of Carthage a power analogous to that of the Roman consuls (XXX, vii; XXXIV, lxi).

Biblical origin[]

According to the introduction to the Book of Judges (2:10-3:6), after the death of Joshua, a new generation of Israelites grew up and rather than worshipping Yahweh, instead worshipped the pagan Baal and the Asherah, provoking God to anger. This divine wrath is described as causing the Israelites to be plundered by raiders and made it so that they were never able to defeat their enemies when they went out to fight. Hence they fell under the influence of the Canaanites, Philistines, Amorites and other foreign rulers.

However, God offered an olive branch, raising up people from time to time to save them from their enemies, referred to as judges. However on many occasions the people did not listen to the judges and refused to obey God's commands. Even though God raised up judges for them several times, each time the judge died and they went back to their old ways. Finally (Judges 2:20-23) it is revealed that it was part of God's plan for the Israelites to be unable to drive out the remnant Canaanite tribes -- they were left to test whether the people would "keep the way of the LORD and walk in it as their forefathers did".

List of Biblical Judges[]

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The following (in order) are identified as Judges in the Book of Judges - great judges are those deemed worthy of large narratives in the Book:

  • Othniel
  • Ehud (great judge)
  • Shamgar
  • Deborah (great judge)
  • Gideon (great judge)
  • Tola
  • Jair
  • Jephthah (great judge)
  • Ibzan
  • Elon
  • Abdon
  • Samson (great judge)

Some Biblical critics, though not all, believe that Abimelech was also originally considered a judge, becoming changed to a "king" owing to his being regarded as evil, at which point Shamgar was added to the list so that there were still 12 in the Book. Textual criticism also views the minor judges as being added to the list simply to make the total number equal 12, a number of religious significance to the Israelites.

The First Book of Samuel also mentions:

  • Eli (great judge)
  • Samuel (great judge)

According to some textual critics the initial portion of the first book of Samuel, containing these two names, was probably originally the final part of the Book of Judges. Hence the original form of the book, according to some textual critics, listed 8 judges, 7 good and 1 bad, 7 being a religiously significant number.

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