The Judges of Israel
The judges of Israel did not serve in a judiciary role, neither presiding over nor ruling in civil or criminal cases. Instead, they acted as deliverers or saviors. As saviors, they did not spiritually save the people but redeemed the people from physical bondage and oppression. However, the modern Christian reader may be confused by the usage of the title “savior” because of its connection with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Therefore, this series of posts uses the title “deliverer” to describe the judges. The title “deliverer” is faithful to the original Hebrew word that implies their primary role was leading and delivering the people.
The judges can be broken into two groups that are commonly referred to as major and minor judges. The minor judges appear in the narrative primarily to support the theological intentions of the author, which includes an indictment of all of Israel. The major judges, on the other hand, act as the primary characters in theologically-rich drama wherein the people continue a downward spiral into deeper rebellion. The major judges, far from being heroes, are themselves illustrations of this rebellion against God and the covenant.
Writing on the character of the judges, Daniel Block, refers to them as the antitheses to our modern understanding of a charismatic leader (Judges, 35.) He writes, “Othniel is not a native Israelite; as left-handed, Ehud is considered handicapped; Barak is unmanly; Gideon is a skeptic; Jephthah is a [law breaker]. Samson also falls short, …he waisted his energy in self-indulgent philandering with foreign women; and…accomplished more in his death than in his life” (35). The flaws of the judges are a theological thread upon which the author continuously points his audience to their true need: a righteous king, who would unite and lead the people in adoration and worship of the heavenly king, Yahweh (the LORD).
Minor Judges: Because of the minimal role they play in the book, half of the judges have been described as the “minor” judges. Their inconsequential places in the narrative do not mean that any or all were of no consequence in Israel’s history. On the contrary, the author attempts to, in the shortest terms possible, provide each with some honor. However, their roles in the narrative are likely to complete the author’s theological agenda by presenting 12 judges, which would correlate with the 12 tribes.
1. Shamgar the son of Anath (Judges 3:31): Anath was a Canaanite goddess of war, who was originally part of the Egyptian pantheon. Shamgar is likely an Egyptian or Canaanite mercenary who served God’s greater purposes. Although he is not referred to as a judge (deliverer) or to have been empowered by the Spirit, he is listed as one who delivered Israel. While this may be troubling to the modern reader, it reveals the scarcity of leadership in the dark days of Israel’s history.
2. Tola of the tribe of Issachar (Judges 10:1-2): Little is known of Tola; however, his death includes the city he was buried in, which is a reference typically reserved for kings. George Schwab acknowledges this fact and writes, “[Tola’s] record resembles that of a king. Gideon is the first with such a notation, and all judges after him have it as well” (Right In Their Own Eyes, 133). Furthermore, Schwab observes that beginning with Tola that no judge is listed with a reference to the land resting, which may be the author’s way of showing that the situation was growing darker and the need for a righteous king growing greater.
3. Jair of Gilead, the tribe of Gad (Judges 10:3-5): Jair had a substantial governorship of 30 cities, which he led for 22 years. Yet, apart from him having 30 sons, who appear to be identified as princes, little is known of Jair.
4. Ibzan the Zebulinite (Judges 12:8-10): Ibzan is juxtaposed to Jephthah, who appears to have sacrificed his only daughter. Unlike Jephthah, Ibzan is blessed with 30 sons and 30 daughters. As a wise political leader, he allows his children to marry outside the clan, which likely created 60 political alliances. Beyond being presented as a blessed father, little is known of Ibzan.
5. Elon the Zebulunite (Judges 12:11-12): All that is known of Elon is his tribal affiliation, duration of his governorship, and where he was buried.
6. Abdon of Ephraim (Judges 12:13-15): Abdon’s tenure as a judge is highlighted by his family. He is recorded as having 40 sons and 30 grandsons, who all rode donkeys—an animal associated with royalty and peace. Beyond his clan and tribal affiliation, number of offspring, length of governorship, and place of burial, little is known of Abdon.
Major Judges: The major judges (Othniel, Ehud, Deborah/Barak, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson) are those that play significant roles in the theologically-interpreted history of the book of Judges. Each of these deliverers is described in other posts in this series.