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Reference: Judges


In Hebrew Shophetim, were the rulers, chiefs, or leaders of Israel, from Joshua to Saul. They were very different from the ordinary administrators of justice among the Hebrews, respecting whom, see JUSTICE. The Carthaginians, a colony of the Tyrians, had likewise governors, whom they called Suffetes, or Sophetim, with authority almost equal to that of kings.

The dignity of judge was for life; but the succession was not always constant. There were anarchies, or intervals, during which the commonwealth was without rulers. There were likewise long intervals of foreign servitude and oppression, under which the Hebrews groaned without deliverers. Although God alone regularly appointed the judges, yet the people, on some occasions, chose that individual who appeared to them most proper to deliver them from oppression; and as it often happened that the oppressions which occasioned recourse to the election of a judge were not felt over all Israel, the power of such judge extended only over that province which he had delivered. Thus it was chiefly the land east of the Jordan that Ehud, Jephthah, Elon, and Jair delivered and governed; Barak and Tola governed the northern tribes; Abdon the central; and Ibzan and Samson the southern. The authority of judges was little inferior to that of kings: it extended to peace and war; they decided causes with absolute authority; but had no power to make new laws, or to impose new burdens on the people. They were protectors of the laws, defenders of religion, and avengers of crimes, particularly of idolatry; they were without salary, pomp, or splendor; and without guards, train, or equipage, other than that their own wealth afforded.

The command of Jehovah to expel or destroy all the Canaanites, was but imperfectly executed; and those who were spared infected the Hebrews with the poison of their idolatry and vice. The affair of Micah and the Levite, and the crime at Gibeah which led to the ruinous war against the Benjamites, though recorded at the close of the book of Jg 17-21, occurred not long after the death of Joshua, and show how soon Israel began to depart from God. To chastise them, he suffered the people of Mesopotamia and of Moab, the Canaanites, Midianites, Ammonites, and Philistines, in turn to oppress by their exactions apart of the tribes, and sometimes the whole nation. But before long, in pity for their sufferings, he would raise up one of the military and civil dictators above described. Fifteen judges are named in the Bible, beginning with Othniel, some twenty years after Joshua, and continuing till the coronation of Saul.

The time from Othniel to Saul, according to the received chronology, it is about 310 years. It is supposed that some periods overlap each other; but chronologists are not agreed as to the mode of reconciling the accounts in Judges with other known dates, and with 1Ki 6:1, and Ac 13:20, though several practicable methods are proposed, the examination of which would exceed the limits of this work.

THE BOOK OF JUDGES contains the annals of the times in which Israel was ruled by judges, and is often referred to in the New Testament and other parts of the Bible. It appears to have been written before David captured Zion, Jg 1:21, and yet after a regal government was introduced, Jg 17:6; 18:11; 21:25. Who was its author is unknown; the majority of critics ascribe it to Samuel, B. C. 1403, but many regard it as a compilation by Ezra. It illustrates God's care over his people, mingling his long-suffering with timely chastisements. The period of the judges was, on the whole, one of prosperity; and while the providence of God confirmed his word, "If ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured by the sword," it is no less faithfully assured the, "If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall east of the good of the land."

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Moses was the nation's judge after Israel left Egypt. At Jethro's suggestion, just before the giving of the Sinaitic law (Exodus 18; De 1:9, etc.), he appointed captains, rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, namely, the recognized heads of tribes or of chief houses in them, to judge at all seasons small matters, reserving the great ones for himself to decide, upon the principles which he should learn from God. These would number 78,600. But the elders (chosen from the elders who headed Israel in seeking freedom, and from the officers, the reluctant instruments of Egyptian tyranny: Ex 3:16; 5:6, etc.), appointed Nu 11:16, etc., were only seventy (the same number as had gone up with Moses unto the Lord in the mountain, Exodus 24), endued by God with the Spirit as Moses' council. This council fell into desuetude under the judges and kings; but after the monarchy the Sanhedrin was modeled on this prototype.

Regard to locality modified the genealogical principle of selection upon Israel's entrance into Canaan (De 16:18). The Levites, as the ultimate sources under God of jurisprudence, taught the people the law, to enable the judges and those judged to understand the right principle of decisions (De 17:8-13). The "judges" are mentioned Jos 24:1. Their sacro-sanctity is marked by their bearing the designation "gods," as exercising some of God's delegated power: Ps 82:1,6; Ex 21:6, Hebrew "gods" for "'judges," God being the source of all justice. The qualifications of a judge are given (Ex 18:21), "able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness"; "not wresting judgment, not respecting persons, neither taking a gift" (so universal a practice with Eastern judges), De 16:19; "not respecting the person of the poor, nor honouring the person of the mighty" (Le 19:15); "not afraid of the face of man, for the judgment is God's" (De 1:17).

Especially compare Jehoshaphat's charge to his judges (2Ch 19:6-7). Judging was the only royal function, under the theocracy, which was committed to man, and being moreover in the hands of the people's natural leaders it held a very high place in popular estimation. The place of judgment was the open space before the gate, the place of public resort (Ps 69:12; Pr 8:15). The higher order of judges were called "princes," the lower "elders" (Jg 8:14; Ex 2:14; representing the Hebrew nasiy', sar, nadiyb, nagid; nasiy' expressing "high birth", nadiyb "princely qualities", nagid "prominent station", sar "active official authority). In Jg 8:14 the elders of Succoth are 77, i.e. 70, the number of Jacob's family with which Succoth was connected (Ge 33:17; 46:27), with the sacred seven added (Ex 24:9).

The custody, in the sanctuary, of the standard weights and measures made an appeal to the priesthood in disputes a necessity; and in final appeals the high priest, as chief legal authority, decided difficult cases before the time of the kings (De 17:8,12). The Hebrew shophetim, "judges", correspond to the suffetes, the chief magistrates of Phoenician colonies. None of the nation's deliverers called "judges" (Jg 2:16-19; Ac 13:20) were of a priest's family; Eli was not a deliverer or saviour (Ob 1:21; Jg 3:9,15). Their main office was to judge or rule righteously ("feed" or tend, 1Ch 17:6) in deciding cases (Jg 4:5; 10:2; 1Sa 7:15; 8:3), this function of the priesthood being in abeyance after the time of Joshua; their delivering Israel was an act of Jehovah's "righteousness" or faithfulness to His covenant, consequent upon the people's penitently turning to Him (Jg 5:11; Isa 45:8).

These extraordinary judges, raised by God, the temporal as well as spiritual King of Israel, as His vicegerents, between Joshua and the kings were 13: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah and Barak, Gideon, Abimelech (an usurper), Tola, Jair Jephtha, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon (Bedan 1Sa 12:11), Samson. (On the dates see CHRONOLOGY.) "Saving" Israel is applied to them frequently (Jg 3:9 margin, Judges 31; Jg 6:15; 7:7; 11:1, margin); the Lord "raised them up" (Jg 2:16) at intervals, as need required, by causing His Spirit to come upon them (Jg 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25); Barak was called by a prophetess, Deborah (Judges 4); His providence overruled the people's choice in Jephthah's case. The judges ruled more continuously from Gideon's time; his sons are regarded as his natural successors (Jg 9:1-3); so Samuel's sons (1Sa 8:1; 7:15), he ruled until his death; so too Eli (Jg 4:18).

Afterward, the king was expected to hear causes in person, and therefore should write and read continually a copy of the law (2Sa 15:1-4; De 17:18-19). David probably delegated some of the judicial office to the 6,000 Levites, and especially Chenaniah and his sons (1Ch 23:4; 26:29). Solomon was most famed for his judgments (1Ki 3:9,16; Ps 72:1-4; 1Ki 2:5-6,33-34,46).

Two examples of forms of procedure occur: a civil case (Ru 4:2), in which Boaz calls in ten elders to witness the redemption by him of the kinsman's right from the one whose claim was first, and whom he summoned to appear"in the gate," the usual place of judgment; and a criminal one (1Ki 21:8-14), where the eiders and nobles judge, on the testimony of witnesses, in the presence of the people. So in the case of the manslayer (Jos 20:4-6; De 19:12; Nu 35:24-25). Fees were not allowed judges (1Sa 12:3), but were regarded as bribery. Professed advocates were unknown in early times; but voluntary pleading for the defenseless was esteemed meritorious (Job 16:21; Pr 31:9; Isa 1:17).

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An examination of Ex 18 shows that the Hebrew word for to 'judge' means originally to pronounce the oracle; thus, when we read of Moses sitting to 'judge the people' (Ex 18:13), a reference to Ex 18:15-16 shows that what is meant is the giving of Divine decisions: '

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The judges were temporary and special deliverers, sent by God to deliver the Israelites from their oppressors; not supreme magistrates, succeeding to the authority of Moses and Joshua. Their power only extended over portions of the country, and some of them were contemporaneous. Their first work was that of deliverers and leaders in war; they then administered justice to the people, and their authority supplied the want of a regular government. Even while the administration of Samuel gave something like a settled government to the south, there was scope for the irregular exploits of Samson on the borders of the Philistines; and Samuel at last established his authority as judge and prophet, but still as the servant of Jehovah, only to see it so abused by his sons as to exhaust the patience of the people, who at length demanded a king, after the pattern of the surrounding nations. The following is a list of judges, whose history is given under their respective names:-- First servitude, to Mesopotamia -- 8 years. First judge: Othniel. 40 years. Second servitude, to Moab -- 18 years. Second judge: Ehud; 80 years. Third judge: Shamgar. --- Third servitude, to Jabin and Sisera-- 20 years. Fourth judge: Deborah and Barak. 40 years. Fourth servitude, to Midian-- 7 years. Fifth judge: Gideon; 40 years. Sixth judge: Abimelech; 3 years. Seventh judge: Tola; 23 years. Eighth judge: Jair. 22 years. Fifth servitude, to Ammon-- 18 years. Ninth judge: Jephthah; 6 years. Tenth judge: Ibzan; 7 years. Eleventh judge: Elon; 10 years. Twelfth judge: Abdon. 8 years. Sixth servitude, to the Philistines-- 40 years. Thirteenth judge: Samson 20 years. Fourteenth judge: Eli; 40 years. Fifteenth judge: Samuel. More than likely some of these ruled simultaneously. On the chronology of the judges, see the following article.


JUDGES is applied to certain eminent persons chosen by God himself to govern the Jews from the time of Joshua till the establishment of the kings. For the nature and duration of their office, and the powers with which they were invested, see Jews. The judges were not ordinary magistrates, but were appointed by God on extraordinary occasions; as to head the armies, to deliver the people from their enemies, &c. Salian has observed, that they not only presided in courts of justice, but were also at the head of the councils, the armies, and of every thing that concerned the government of the state; though they never assumed the title either of princes, governors, or the like.

Salian remarks seven points wherein they differed from kings,

1. They were not hereditary. 2. They had no absolute power of life and death, but only according to the laws, and dependently upon them. 3. They never undertook war at their own pleasure, but only when they were commanded by God, or called to it by the people. 4. They exacted no tribute. 5. They did not succeed each other immediately, but after the death of one there was frequently an interval of several years before a successor was appointed. 6. They did not use the ensigns of sovereignty, the sceptre or diadem. 7. They had no authority to make any laws, but were only to take care of the observance of those of Moses.

Godwin, in his "Moses and Aaron," compares them to the Roman dictators, who were appointed only on extraordinary emergencies, as in case of war abroad, or conspiracies at home, and whose power, while they continued in office, was great, and even absolute. Thus the Hebrew judges seem to have been appointed only in cases of national trouble and danger. This was the case particularly with respect to Othniel, Ehud, and Gideon. The power of the judges, while in office, was very great; nor does it seem to have been limited to a certain time, like that of the Roman dictators, which continued for half a year; nevertheless, it is reasonable to suppose, that, when they had performed the business for which they were appointed, they retired to a private life. This Godwin infers from Gideon's refusing to take upon him the perpetual government of Israel, as being inconsistent with the theocracy.

Beside these superior judges, every city in the commonwealth had its elders, who formed a court of judicature, with a power of determining lesser matters in their respective districts. The rabbies say, there were three such elders or judges in each lesser city, and twenty-three in the greater. But Josephus, whose authority has greater weight, speaks of seven judges in each, without any such distinction of greater and less. Sigonius supposes that these elders and judges of cities were the original constitution settled in the wilderness by Moses, upon the advice given him by Jethro, Ex 18:21-22, and continued by divine appointment after the settlement in the land of Canaan; whereas others imagine that the Jethronian prefectures were a peculiar constitution, suited to their condition while encamped in the wilderness, but laid aside after they came into Canaan. It is certain, however, that there was a court of judges and officers, appointed in every city, by the law of Moses, De 16:18. How far, and in what respects, these judges differed from the elders of the city, it is not easy to ascertain; and whether they were the same or different persons. Perhaps the title elders may denote their seniority and dignity; and that of judges, the office they sustained. The lower courts of justice, in their several cities, were held in their gates, De 16:15. Each tribe had its respective prince, whose office related chiefly, if not altogether, to military affairs. We read also of the princes of the congregation, who presided in judiciary matters. These are called elders, and were seventy in number, Nu 11:16-17,24-25. But it does not appear whether or not this consistory of seventy elders was a perpetual, or only a temporary, institution. Some have supposed that it was the same that afterward became famous under the appellation of sanhedrim; but others conceive the institution of the seventy elders to have been only temporary, for the assistance of Moses in the government, before the settlement in the land of Canaan; and that the sanhedrim was first set up in the time of the Maccabees. See SANHEDRIM.

JUDGES, BOOK OF, a canonical book of the Old Testament, containing the history of the Israelitish judges, of whom we have been speaking in the preceding article. The author is not known. It is probable the work did not come from any single hand, being rather a collection of several little histories, which at first were separate, but were afterward collected by Ezra or Samuel into a single volume; and, in all likelihood, were taken from the ancient journals, annals, or memoirs, composed by the several judges. The antiquity of this book is unquestionable, as it must have been written before the time of David, since the description, Jg 1:21, was no longer true of Jerusalem after he had taken possession of it, and had introduced a third class of inhabitants of the tribe of Judah. Eichorn acknowledges that it does not bear the marks of subsequent interpolation. Dr. Patrick is of opinion that the five last chapters are a distinct history, in which the author gives an account of several memorable transactions, which occurred in or about the time of the judges; whose history he would not interrupt by intermixing these matters with it, and therefore reserved them to be related by themselves in the second part, or appendix.

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