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Biblical judges

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The biblical judges[a] are described in the Hebrew Bible, and mostly in the Book of Judges, as people who served roles as military leaders in times of crisis, in the period before an Israelite monarchy was established.

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The book of Judges. So remember after Joshua led the tribe of Israel into the Promised Land he called them to be faithful to their covenant with God by obeying the commands of the Torah. And if they do this, they will show all the other nations what God is like. So Judges begins with the death of Joshua basically tells the story of Israel's total failure. The book's name comes from the type of leaders Israel had in this period. Before they had any Kings, the tribes were all governed by these "judges". Now don't think of a courtroom. These were regional, political, military leaders more like a tribal chieftain. And you need to be warned the book of Judges is very disturbing and violent. It tells the tragic tale of Israel's moral corruption, of its bad leadership, and basically how they become no different than the Canaanites. But this sad story is also meant to generate hope for the future, and you can see this in how the book is designed. There's a large introduction that sets the stage for Israel's failure as they don't drive out the remaining Canaanites. Then, the large main section of the book has stories about the growing corruption of Israel's judges. And the progression here shows how Israel's leaders go from pretty good, to ok, to bad, to worse. The concluding section is really disturbing and shows the corruption of the people of Israel as a whole. So let's dive in and we can explore each part a bit more. The opening section begins with the tribes of Israel in their territories in the Promised Land, and while Joshua defeated some key Canaanite towns, there is still a lot of land to be taken, and lots of Canaanites living in those areas. And so chapter one gives a long list of Canaanite groups and towns that Israel just failed to drive out from the land. Now remember, the whole point of driving out the Canaanites was to avoid their moral corruption and their way of worshiping the gods through child sacrifice. God had called Israel to be a holy people and that does not happen. Chapter 2 describes how Israel just moved in alongside the Canaanites adopted all their cultural and religious practices. and it's right here that the story stops. For nearly a whole chapter, the narrator gives us an overview of everything that's about to happen in the body of the book. This part of Israel's history, the narrator says, was a series of cycles moving in a downward spiral. Israel became like the Canaanites, and so they would sin against God. So, God would allow them to be conquered and oppressed by the Canaanites, and eventually the Israelites would see the error of their ways and repent. So God would raise up a deliverer of a judge from among Israel, who would defeat the enemy and bring about an era of peace. but eventually Israel would sin again and it will all start over. This cycle provides the literary design and flow for the next main section of the book. It gets repeated for each of the six main judges whose stories are told here. Now the stories of the first three judges Othniel, Ehud and Deborah they’re epic adventures - they're also extremely bloody stories. Either the judge themselves or people who helped the judge - they defeat their enemies and deliver the people of Israel. The stories about the next three judges are longer and they focus in on the character flaws of the judges which get increasingly worse. So Gideon, he begins pretty well, he's a coward of a man but he eventually comes to trust that God CAN SAVE Israel through him and so he defeats a HUGE army of Midianites with only three hundred men carrying torches and clay pots. But Gideon has a nasty temper and he murders a bunch of fellow Israelitas for not helping him in his battle and then it all goes downhill from there. He makes an idol from the gold that he won in his battles and then after he dies all Israel worships the idol as a god and the cycle begins again. The next main judge is Jephthah who's something of a mafia thug living up in the hills and when things get really bad for Israel the elders come to him begging for his help. And Jephthah was a very effective leader, he won lots of battles against the Ammonites. but he was so unfamiliar with the God of Israel he treats him like a Canaanite god - he vows to sacrifice his daughter if he wins the battle. This tragic story it shows just how far Israel has fallen, they no longer know the character of their own God, which leads to murder and to false worship. The last judge Samson is by far the worst. his life began full of promise, but he has no regard for the God of Israel. He was promiscuous, violent and arrogant. He did win brutally strategic victories over the Philistines but only at the expense of his own integrity and his life ends in a violent rush of mass murder. Now a quick note here, you´ll notice a repeated theme in the main section of the book that at key moments God´s Spirit will empower each of these judges to accomplish these great acts of deliverance. Now the fact that God uses these really screwed up people doesn´t mean he endorses all or even any of their decisions. God is committed first and foremost to saving His people but all he has to work with is these corrupt leaders and so work with them he does. This whole section is designed just to show how bad things have gotten - you can´t even tell the Israelites and the Caananites apart anymore, and that´s just the leaders. The final section shows Israel as a whole hitting bottom. There are two tragic stories here and they are not for the faint of heart. They´re structured by this key line that gets repeated four times at the close of the book In those days Israel had no king and everyone did what was right in their own eyes. The first story is about an Israelite named Micah who built a private temple to an idol. And that gets plundered by a private army sent by the tribe of Dan. So they come and they steal everything and then they go and burn down the peaceful city of Laish and murder all of its inhabitants, its a horrifying story. When Israel forgets its God might makes right. The final story of the book is even worse, it's a shocking tale of sexual abuse and violence which all leads to Israel´s first civil war. It's very disturbing and that´s the point. These stories are meant to serve as a warning, Israel´s descent into self destruction is a result of turning away from the God who loves them and saved them out of slavery in Egypt, and now Israel needs to be delivered again from themselves. The only glimmer of hope in this story is found in this repeated line in the last part of the book. It actually forms the last sentence of this story. Israel has no king and so the stage is set for the following books to tell the origins of King David´s family, the book of Ruth, and also the origins of kingship itself in Israel, the book of 1 Samuel. But the story of Judges has value as a tragedy - it's a sobering explanation of the human condition, and ultimately it points out the need for God´s grace to send a king who will rescue His people. And that´s the book of judges.



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

A cyclical pattern is regularly recounted in the Book of Judges 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.[1][page needed]

The story of the judges seems to describe successive individuals, each from a different tribe of Israel, described as chosen by God to rescue the people from their enemies and establish justice.

While judge is a literalistic translation of the Hebrew term used in the Masoretic text, the position as described is more one of unelected non-hereditary leadership[2] than that of legal pronouncement. However, Cyrus H. Gordon argued that they may have come from among the hereditary leaders of the fighting, landed and ruling aristocracy, like the kings (basileis) in Homer.[3] Coogan says that they were most likely tribal or local leaders, contrary to the Deuteronomistic historian's portrayal of them as leaders of all of Israel,[4] but Malamat pointed out that in the text, their authority is described as being recognized by local groups or tribes beyond their own.[5]

Historicity and timeline

Timeline of biblical judges (one interpretation)
Timeline of biblical judges (one interpretation)

The biblical scholar Kenneth Kitchen argues that, from the conquest of Canaan by Joshua until the formation of the first Kingdom of Israel and Judah (c. 1150–1025 BCE), the Israelite tribes may have formed a loose confederation. In this conception, no central government would have existed but in times of crisis, the people would have been led by ad hoc chieftains, known as judges (shoftim).[6][page needed] However, some scholars are uncertain whether such a role existed in ancient Israel.[7]

Working with the chronology in Judges, Payne points out that although the timescale of Judges is indicated by Jephthah's statement (Judges 11:26) that Israel had occupied the land for around 300 years, some of the judges overlapped one another. Claiming that Deborah's victory has been confirmed as taking place in 1216 from archaeology undertaken at Hazor, he suggests that the period may have lasted from c. 1382 to c. 1063.[8]

Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson wrote that if

all the figures given in Judges (years of oppression, years the judges led Israel, years of peace achieved by the judges) are treated as consecutive, then the total duration of the events described in Judges is 410 years. If we accept a date of 1000 BCE for the beginning of David's reign over all Israel, which puts the beginning of Eli's leadership of Israel at about 1100 BCE, then the judges period would begin no later than 1510 BCE – impossible even for those who date the conquest to the fifteenth century BCE[9]

There is also doubt among some scholars about any historicity of the Book of Judges.[10]

Judges mentioned in the Hebrew Bible

In the Hebrew Bible, Moses is described as a shofet over the Israelites and appoints others to whom cases were delegated in accordance with the advice of Jethro, his Midianite father-in-law.[11] The Book of Judges mentions twelve leaders who judged Israel: 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).

The biblical text does not generally describe these leaders as "a judge", but says that they "judged Israel", using the verb שָׁפַט (š-f-t).[12][page needed] Thus, Othniel "judged Israel" (Judges 3:10), Tola "judged Israel twenty-three years" (Judges 10:2), and Jair judged Israel twenty-two years (Judges 10:3).

See also


  1. ^ (sing. Hebrew: שופטšōp̄êṭ/shofet, pl. שופטיםšōp̄əṭîm/shoftim)


  1. ^ Boling & Nelson 2006.
  2. ^ Judges 12:7–15.
  3. ^ Gordon 1962, pp. 296–297.
  4. ^ Coogan 2009, p. 178.
  5. ^ Malamat 1971, p. 129.
  6. ^ Kitchen 2003.
  7. ^ Thompson 2000, p. 96.
  8. ^ Payne 1996, pp. 630–631.
  9. ^ Arnold & Williamson 2005, p. 590.
  10. ^ Brettler 2002, p. 107; Davies 2006, p. 26; Thompson 2000, p. 96.
  11. ^ Exodus 18:13–26.
  12. ^ Hauser 1975.


Arnold, Bill T.; Williamson, H. G. M. (2005). Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press. ISBN 978-0-8308-1782-5.
Boling, Robert G.; Nelson, Richard D. (2006). "Judges". In Attridge, Harold W.; Meeks, Wayne A. The HarperCollins Study Bible (rev. ed.). HarperCollins Publishers.
Brettler, Marc Zvi (2002). The Book of Judges. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-16216-6.
Coogan, Michael D. (2009). A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-533272-8.
Davies, Philip R. (2006) [1992]. In Search of "Ancient Israel": A Study in Biblical Origins. London: Continuum. ISBN 978-1-85075-737-5.
Drum, Walter (1910). "Judges". In Herbermann, Charles G.; Pace, Edward A.; Pallen, Condé B.; Shahan, Thomas J.; Wynne, John J. Catholic Encyclopedia. 8. New York: Encyclopedia Press (published 1913). pp. 547–549.
This article incorporates text from this public-domain publication.
Gordon, Cyrus H. (1962). Greek and Hebrew Civilizations.
Hauser, Alan J. (1975). "The 'Minor Judges': A Re-Evaluation". Journal of Biblical Literature. 94 (2): 190–200. doi:10.2307/3265729. ISSN 0021-9231.
Kitchen, K. A. (2003). On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-8028-4960-1.
Malamat, A. (1971). Mazor, Benjamin, ed. Judges. Givatayim, Israel: Rutgers University Press. pp. 129–163.
Payne, J. P. (1996). "Book of Judges". In Marshall, I. Howard; Millard, A. R.; Packer, J. I.; Wiseman, D. J. New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press. ISBN 978-0-8308-1439-8.
Thompson, Thomas L. (2000). Early History of the Israelite People: From the Written & Archaeological Sources. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-11943-7.

Further reading

  • Wolf, C. U. (1962). "Judge". The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. Abingdon Press.

This page was last edited on 18 November 2018, at 18:35
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