Biblical judges

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Biblical judges
The judge Shamgar slaughters 600 men with an ox goad. From a medieval German manuscript.

A Biblical judge (Hebrew: שופט šōp̄êṭ/shofet, pl. שופטים šōp̄əṭîm/shoftim) was "a ruler or a military leader as well as someone who presided over legal hearings."[1]

Following the conquest of Canaan by Joshua until the formation of the first Kingdom of Israel and Judah (ca. 1150–1025 BC), the Israelite tribes formed a loose confederation. No central government existed in this confederation; in times of crisis, the people were led by ad hoc chieftains, known as judges (shoftim).[2]

Judges mentioned in Bible[edit]

Moses was a shofet over the Israelites and appointed others to whom cases were delegated in accordance with the advice of Jethro, his Midianite father-in-law.[3] The Book of Judges mentions twelve shoftim: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson. The First Book of Samuel mentions Eli and Samuel, as well as Joel and Abiah (two sons of Samuel). The First Book of Chronicles mentions Kenaniah and his sons. The Second Book of Chronicles mentions Amariah and Zebadiah (son of Ishmael).


In the Book of Judges, a cyclical pattern is recounted to show the need for the various judges: apostasy of the Israelite people, hardship brought on as punishment from God, crying out to the Lord for rescue.[4] The judges were the successive individuals, each from a different tribe of Israel, chosen by God to rescue the people from their enemies and establish justice and the practice of the Torah amongst the Hebrews.

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 [5] than that of legal pronouncement. However, Cyrus H. Gordon argued that they were normally from among the hereditary leaders of the fighting, landed and ruling aristocracy, like the kings (basileis) in Homer.[6] The shoftim many times played the role as an official with the authority to administer justice but not always.[7] Most shoftim acted primarily as military leaders in times of war. The leaders were thought of as being sent by God to deliver the people from a threat. After the threat had passed, shoftim were generally expected to give up their position as military leaders. They were most likely tribal or local leaders, contrary to the Deuteronomistic historian's portrayal of them as leaders of all of Israel,[8] but their authority was recognized by local groups or tribes beyond their own.[9] In accordance with the needs of the time, their functions were primarily martial and judicial but not comparable to those of a king. All biblical Judges performed judicial duties and the institute of Judges was separated from the institute of King (malik) (First Book of Samuel 10:25).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Coogan, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament, Glossary, pg. 426
  2. ^ Kitchen, Kenneth A. (2003), On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)(ISBN 0-8028-4960-1)
  3. ^ Exodus 18:13-26
  4. ^ Boling, Robert G., revised by Richard D. Nelson, Harper Collins Study Bible: The Book of Judges
  5. ^ Judges 12:7–15
  6. ^ Cyrus H. Gordon, Greek and Hebrew Civilizations (1962) Ch.VIII, pp. 296–297
  7. ^ Wolf, C. U., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, pg 1012
  8. ^ Coogan, pg 178
  9. ^ Malamat, 129


  • Boling, Robert G., revised by Richard D. Nelson, The Harper Collins Study Bible: Book of Judges, Harper Collins Publishers, 2006
  • Malamat, A. Judges. Ed. Benjamin Mazor. Givatayim, Israel: Rutgers University Press, 1971. 129–63. Print.
  • Coogan, Michael D., A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament, Oxford University Press, 2009
  • Wolf, C. U., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible: Judge, Abingdon Press, 1962