The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Pentateuch and Historical Books course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
As indicated by the book’s title, the office of judge serves as a key component of the book’s storyline. Therefore, it goes without saying that a solid comprehension of this office and its function(s) is necessary to understand the book well. However, this ancient near eastern position is likely quite foreign to many contemporary readers and interpreters. Consequently, the astute exegete of any text in Judges, but particularly of 2:11-23, does well to thoroughly investigate this office of judge.
שׁפט is traditionally rendered “judge.” However, this translation can be misleading to the modern reader for several reasons. Interestingly, none of the characters typically identified as judges (e.g., Samson, Gideon, Ehud, etc.) are ever identified as “judges” in the book itself. On the other hand, “judge” serves as a general description for leaders, of course including those traditionally considered judges, during this time in Israel (2:16-19) (Block, 21-22). As a verb, שָׁפַט describes the action of many of these so-called judges (e.g., Othniel [3:10], Deborah [4:4], Tola [10:2], Jair [10:3], Jephthah [12:7], Ibzan [12:8, 9], Elon [12:11], Abdon [12:13, 14], and Samson [15:20; 16:31]). But only Deborah actually demonstrates a judicial function of sorts (4:4-5). On the contrary, these judges function more so as socio-political delivers (Block, 23). For example, in 2:16, the author specifies the judges as leaders who had the following characteristics. (1) They were God’s agents of Israel’s deliverance from oppressors. (2) They were to be listened to, implying some sort of instructive-exhortative role. As Niditch says, the judge was “to be a leader who models proper covenantal behavior, inspiring Israel to maintain loyalty to Yhwh.” Note that Deborah is called a prophetess (4:4), implying this exhortative function. (3) They had YHWH’s presence with them, designating that, if nothing else, God worked through these individuals. And as Niditch points out, this latter characteristic is intimately related to the first; this charisma leads to military success. However, if their function was primarily soteriological rather than judicial (Block, 23), then why were they called “judges” in 2:16-19? Fundamental to answering this question is recognizing the semantic range of שָׁפַט. It appears that שָׁפַט carries the general sense of seeking justice. At times, this might imply a judicial function. However, at other times it might mean executing justice through deliverance. Block provides the following helpful semantic diagram (23):
This non-judicial sense is also attested to in other Old Testament texts (e.g., 1 Sam 8:5; 2 Kgs 15:5; Isa 40:23; Amos 2:3; Pss 2:10; 94:2; 96:13; 148:11. Niditch notes that Ruth 1:1 seems to assume that this era of the judges demarcates a particular time period defined by a certain type of government, namely, a time in which so-called judges ruled (2). In like vein, Block suggests “tribal rulers” as an accurate interpretation/translation (25).
In conclusion, although retaining the traditional translation of “judges” is preferred, this author suggests that these so-called judges should be understood to be tribal leaders appointed and anointed by God with a special charisma to rule Israel (potentially including a judicial function), deliver her, and exhort her to repentance and obedience.