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February 22, 2010

What does it mean to be a judge within the book of Judges?  Certainly it involves more than simply judging legal proceedings.  The judges are primarily known for their military exploits, after all.  Within this article I wish to advance the hypothesis (of which I am certainly not the originator) that a judge within the book of judges is primarily a ruler.  Unlike kings judges are not hereditary.  Indeed, the closest any judge comes to establishing a dynasty is Gideon, and his son Abimelech is remembered as an evil man whose ambition ultimately destroys him.  This lack of hereditary rule is one part of a larger lack of any system of judge-replacement.  When a judge dies the judge is not replaced, and so there are gaps between judges.  However, despite these differences, judges seem to serve very much like kings in a number of capacities.

Judging already carries connotations of authority.  In Genesis 19:9 the men of Sodom complain of Lot’s attempt to prevent them from raping his guests that he is acting as a judge, despite his status as a non-native to Sodom.  Here Lot’s attempt to exercise moral authority, perceived as simple authority, makes him a judge.  Similarly, when Moses breaks up a fight between two Hebrews (Exodus 2:14) one of them complains to him, “Who made you an officer and judge over us?”  (The word I translate here as “officer”, שר, is used to mean “chief” or “foremost”, as in “chief baker”, officer, in military and royal senses, and, interestingly enough, taskmaster somewhat earlier in Exodus.)

Later it is Moses who appoints judges, and in Numbers 25:5 we learn that they are responsible for executing judgment as well as making it.  In this passage they are charged with killing idolaters.  Importantly, this is the system that appears to give rise to the judge system of Judges, being only a few generations before it.  Joshua, even closer to it, calls three meetings in which judges appear with other important leaders.  In 8:33 it is elders and officials.  In 23:2 it is elders, heads, and officials.  In 24:1 this formula is used again.

Kings are also said to judge.  Indeed, when the Israelites first ask for a king in 1 Samuel 8:5 they ask for a king to judge them.  In verse 20 of the same chapter they describe what they need a king for: to go before them, to fight wars, and to judge them.  Similarly in 2 Samuel 15:4 we find Absalom gathering support for his coup attempt by saying that if he were judge over the land he would give everyone justice.  Solomon is famous for his wise judgments, and is described as having made a hall specifically to judge cases (1 Kings 7:7).  Azariah/Uzziah is struck with leprosy during his reign and his son takes the throne, serving as regent.  2 Kings 15:5 describes this action as “judging Israel”.  Isaiah 16:5 promises that a judge will sit on a throne in the tent of David, which suggests that the monarch will be a judge.  In fact, none of this is particularly new.  Judging is apparently considered one of the primary functions of kings in the Near East.  The idea that being a judge, especially a judge over an entire nation, might involve being a person in great authority is hardly surprising.

There are eleven named judges in the book of Judges by my reckoning: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson.  Two of these judges, Ehud and Shamgar, are not called judges and their actions are never described as judging.  Given the literary structure of the book and the descriptions of these two men, however, it would be hard to argue that they were not judges.  Shamgar is also one of the five judges about whom almost nothing is said.  Shamgar, Tola, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon add almost nothing to our knowledge of judging in the period of the judges.  So what can we learn from the rest?

Othniel goes to war against a Mesopotamian king.  This indicates that he commands an army, which requires some level of authority to begin with.  Ehud, on the other hand, starts as an assassin, whose success in taking out the Moabite king catapults him to leadership of the army that then falls on Moab.  In both these cases a period of peace is described.  In Othniel’s case it is specified that Othniel dies after forty years of peace, which sounds as if the peace (in both cases) is the result of the judge’s continued activity.

Deborah is perhaps more informative.  She is not just a judge, but also a prophetess, and she is clearly not a military hero herself.  However, it appears that she really does settle legal disputes for all Israel, which makes her, at the least, the equivalent of the entire Supreme Court within the U.S. government.  She also has the power to summon and command the head of the army.  She may lean on her power as prophetess to do so (her command to Barak states that the Lord has ordered him) but there is no pretending that Barak is her superior, as when he talks back to her he suffers for this.  It is unfortunate for the purposes of this article that we are never told how Deborah becomes a judge.  This might illuminate quite a lot, but instead we jump into the story partway through, and Deborah already wields considerable power.

Gideon comes closest to being king.  He starts as a lone warrior, eventually gathers a small army, and, through continued success, is eventually offered kingship (Judges 8:22).  He refuses the kingship, but accepts an addition section of the captured treasure, has many wives and at least one concubine, sets up his own shrine, and apparently exercises enough control over Israel to prevent Israel from worshiping the Ba’als.  Upon Gideon’s death his son Abimelech manages to convince the rulers of Shechem to make him their ruler, arguing that it is better to be ruled by him, a native, than all seventy of Gideon’s other sons.  This sounds as if Abimelech is describing a present reality – they are being ruled by Gideon’s seventy other sons.  Now, he may simply be outlining something plausible enough to convince the important men of Shechem to back him, but it is hard to construct a scenario in which Abimelech’s case sounds like a good deal that does not involve assuming that Gideon’s judgeship looked a lot like kingly rule.

Jephthah is, at the beginning of his judgeship, a mighty warrior with what appears to be a band of fighters, perhaps more accurately bandits, who he leads.  He returns to his home city to fight for them after being offered rule.  The exact phrasing is that he will be “head over all the inhabitants of Gilead”.  Interestingly, Jephthah does not start his career through military action, but through diplomatic means (although they may be formalities).  While this fails it does signal that Jephthah is acting as a political leader and not just a military one.  Jephthah also has conflict with Ephraim, and goes to war against them.  Gideon had similar trouble with specific cities which points us towards the reality of judgeship: a judge may arise, but Israel was not exactly a single nation.  Ruling the coalition of tribes appears to have suffered from some very real limits, imposed by the tendency of Israelites to identify at times with their tribe first, and Israel later.

The last of the judges, Samson, is a bit of an enigma.  He, like Ehud, appears to become a judge after he single-handed causes enormous harm to the enemies of Israel.  However, unlike Ehud his further exploits are described, and they do not appear to be those of a man who is ruling, or at least one who takes ruling seriously.  Part of this, of course, is that Samson is not clever, a prophet, or a great warrior in the traditional sense.  Instead, Samson is a one-man wrecking crew.  Expecting him to calm down and rest on his laurels may be a bit much.  However, he is said to have judged Israel for twenty years, which indicates some sort of active involvement in the affairs of at least most of the tribes for that time period.

There is one last person who may count as a judge.  This is Samuel, who 1 Samuel 7:15-17 describes with judging terms extensively.  In fact, Samuel, like Deborah, actually appears to judge legal cases.  Presumably the other judges do so as well, but we actually hear details here.  Samuel’s power appears to be derived from his position as priest.  When the Philistines are forced to return the Ark of the Covenant to Israel because it has inflicted them with plagues Samuel is the one who reminds Israel to be faithful.  As he steps into this role more fully he convenes a great assembly of Israel (which he judges, we are told), and then performs priestly duties in deflecting a Philistine attack.

Most telling, though, is Samuel’s final set of acts: anointing kings.  He anoints two kings, one while the other still reigns, suggesting a great deal of authority.  However, he anoints Saul because the people demand a king.  Specifically, they tell him that he is old and his sons are worthless.  Therefore they want a king.  This would be a very strange thing to say to someone who was not functioning as ruler.  The logic demands that Samuel (who will soon leave them without replacement) is roughly equivalent to the king they demand (the replacement Samuel is supposed to provide).

So what is a judge in the period of the judges?  There appear to be at least two main types.  The first is the military leader whose successes catapult him to political leadership.  The second, exemplified by Deborah and Samuel, are religious leaders who function as the only authority to which all of Israel will listen.  In both cases these leaders are also credited with military victories, but they have power before these conflicts.

Both sorts of judges, though, wield political power.  Its exact limits cannot be known, although there surely are some.  (Even the kings appear to have some limits.)  However, all the judges are actively involved in the affairs of Israel.  They lead, or direct, armies.  They judge court cases.  They monitor the worship of Israel, and direct Israel to worship the Lord.  They probably differ in the exercise of power and the extent to which all twelve tribes pay attention to them, but all of them act in a role that would elsewhere be termed “king”.  If the city of Sodom can have a king surely Jephthah is a king in all but hereditary leadership.

None of this changes the fact that a judge is a judge, that the Hebrew word is exactly that for any judge, and the action they engage in is judging.  This, however, should not cause us to think that a judge in the book of judges is anything less than a chieftain, and the predecessor to kings.


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