Judges (in the Bible)

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The term used in the Book of judges to describe the book's heroes. The word in Hebrew (šōfēt ) designates one who restores justice or right to someone. Broadly speaking, a judge is one appointed to settle quarrels and assist men to obtain their rights. Yet, even such a fluid concept scarcely justifies applying this term alone to the varying functions described in the Book of Judges. R. de Vaux thinks the title has been wrongly extended to the heroes of the period between Joshua and the monarchy who saved some part of the people from oppression; it would belong properly to the minor judges along with Jephthah (and, probably, Deborah), who combined the judge's office with that of savior. These minor judges were a permanent institution of the tribal federation, elected officials whose function was to interpret Yahweh's law for all Israel and to adjudicate controversial cases between clans.

Actually, the author of the book has included under a generic name (national juridical institution) much more; the great deeds of the major judges, not institutional activities, are the outstanding things in the book. For the Deuteronomist author all judgments are rooted in the historical covenant; justice is God's saving justice. Judges and saviors are equally signs of the divine saving activity in this heroic age. God alone is the ultimate savior; saving activity comes exclusively from Him (Jgs 6.34, 3637;7.2, 9, 1415). Theological considerations, then, probably directed the choice of the title as applied to all the heroes of the book.

Bibliography: r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 143163. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 123839.

[j. moriarity]