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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Who Should Rule? The Office of Judge

The stories of the judges preserved in biblical literature thus stem from varied sources, with both the framework of the book of Judges and the chronology of the era “when the judges judged” provided secondarily. But what of the office of judge itself? Is there anything authentic in the ascription of such an office to leaders in the period before the monarchy? What precisely was meant by the title judge in ancient Israel? The root in Hebrew that is used for the heroes in the book of Judges is sh-p-t, and a judge is a shōphēt. This root describes judicial activity first and foremost, hence the title judge for the deliverers in our texts; but it has other uses in the Bible as well. Moreover, this same root, or its related forms in cognate languages, is used in other ancient texts, and these clarify the biblical usages. A survey of this evidence will enhance our picture of the biblical judges and their likely position in Iron I society, confirming our inductive impression of the variety of functions Israel's judges performed.

The vast majority of the occurrences of the root sh-p-t in the Bible have a decision-making context: to judge, to decide between. This meaning is extended to the carrying out of the verdict, either in punishment or in vindication. For example, in Genesis 16.5 Sarah asks that Yahweh judge between her and her husband Abraham, whom she believes has wronged her. In Exodus 18.13–26 , Moses sets up a dispute-resolution system for Israel, on his father-in-law's advice, and the decision-making activity is described using the root sh-p-t. In the resolution of dispute legislation in Deuteronomy 25.2 , the “judge” (shōphēt) is also commissioned to carry out the punishment.

In the Bible sh-p-t can also mean “to defend the rights of the powerless.” In Isaiah 11.1–4 we read that a shoot from Jesse will judge the poor with righteousness, and in Psalm 72.1–4 the root is used along with other verbs to describe what the king asks of God: to make it possible for him to judge (here the root is d-y-n) with righteousness, defend the cause (sh-p-t) of the poor among the people, and deliver the needy. In Psalm 10.18 Yahweh is asked to judge the fatherless and oppressed, that is, to defend their rights. A famous example of this nuance occurs in Psalm 82.3 , where Yahweh sits in judgment over other gods in a divine council and chastises them for not defending the rights (sh-p-t) of the powerless.

In 2 Kings 15.5 (2 Chron. 26.21 ), in the context of the annalistic notice about King Uzziah's leprosy, we are told that Uzziah lived in a house apart, leprous until the day he died, and that his son Jotham was in charge of the palace, judging (sh-p-t) the people of the land. Presumably Jotham exercised all the governing functions of a king because of his father's illness, functions described using the root sh-p-t.

In 1 Samuel 8 the people ask Samuel to give them a king to judge them (v. 5 ); the same phrase is used in verse 6 . In this context, “judging” is what a king does. Other words can be used to describe a king's function; sh-p-t may have been chosen here because Samuel himself was a shōphēt. The people want someone to replace Samuel because he is old and his sons are corrupt, but they decide to ask for a king like all the other nations to perform for them the governing functions that Samuel (and others) had performed as their “judge.” The people are asking for Samuel's functions to be perpetuated and stabilized, especially to meet the Philistine threat at that time, and the kingly office is a comparable substitute.

There is also evidence about the term from nonbiblical sources. Much comes from Mesopotamia, and several texts from the eighteenth-century BCE city of Mari on the Euphrates, for instance, illustrate the broad usage of the title. One case concerns a man named Bahdi-Lim, who was the prefect of the palace at Mari and the administrator of the capital during the absence of the king, Zimri-Lim. (This regency is comparable to that of King Uzziah's son Jotham, mentioned above, who officiated during the king's illness.) Bahdi-Lim's title was shāpit(um), a cognate to biblical shōphēt. His duties are described as maintenance of the canals and dams, care of religious and judicial matters and diverse administrative questions, supervision of royal property, intervention in military affairs, and keeping the king informed of the happenings in the city. These are governing duties, but Bahdi-Lim is not ruling as a dynast. Rather, his title refers to his governing functions while the dynast is away.

From ancient Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) on the Syrian coast, we also have texts that use a cognate term for judging (th-p-t at Ugarit, related to Hebrew sh-p-t). In parallel lines of poetry, the sea-god Yamm is called Prince Yamm and th-p-t River, that is, Prince Sea and Judge River. Since sea and river are synonyms, the epithets that go with them must be synonymous as well, so that prince and judge are similar descriptions of authority. Elsewhere in Ugaritic literature, throne of kingship is used in parallel with “staff of th-p-t-hood”; here too the root describes a ruling or governing function rather than simply a judicial one. Moreover, as in the Bible, the term can also mean “to defend the rights of the powerless.” In Psalm 82, the gods’ failure to carry out this particular responsibility is grounds for replacing them; in the Kirta epic from Ugarit, King Kirta's similar failure was proposed as a reason to depose Kirta as king and substitute his son.

The inscription on the sepulcher of King Ahiram of the Phoenician city Byblos, dated to the early tenth century BCE, includes the phrase, “let the staff of his sh-p-t-hood be broken, let his royal throne be upset!” The “his” refers to individuals mentioned in the lines preceding this curse: any king, governor, or army commander who would open Ahiram's sarcophagus. Again, the meaning of the root concerns governing in a broad sense.

The first-century CE historian Josephus relates that the Phoenician city of Tyre was ruled in the sixth century BCE both by kings and by a series of appointed “judges.” Josephus wrote in Greek, so the exact Phoenician term is not known, but other evidence we have examined suggests something from the root sh-p-t. There is a distinction between this office and that of king, but its function was similar to that of a king's, and there is no indication that the office was only judicial. Furthermore, there is evidence in inscriptions from the Punic colony at Carthage of administrators called suffetes, a word easily related to the root sh-p-t and to the Hebrew term for judge, shōphēt. (Punic is the term used for the colonies the Phoenicians established around the Mediterranean, such as Carthage, and subsequently for the colonies established by Carthage itself and for the language they used, a form of Phoenician.) The Roman historian Livy notes that these suffetes convened the Carthaginian senate and were comparable to Roman consuls.

So the term judge denotes one who not only was responsible for the administration of justice but also could perform duties that include some sort of governing. While there are in the Bible many examples of judges who hold a purely judicial office, that does not limit our understanding of the judges in the book of Judges: they were administrators and leaders in peacetime and in war. And in this premonarchic time period, it is important to stress the difference between this title and that of king or dynast. The Israelite leaders in the period of the judges were not called king even though their duties may have been similar, for this was an era of ad hoc charismatic leadership.

In fact, biblical writers have different views about which type of rule was appropriate for Israel. Some stories and editorial asides stem from a promonarchic stance, such as the stories in the latter part of the book of Judges, where social and political anarchy are summed up with “in those days there was no king in Israel” (Judg. 17.6; 18.1; 19.1; 21.25 ), twice followed by the remark that “everyone did as he wished” ( 17.6; 21.25 ). But other passages see the era of charismatic leadership as the ideal and denigrate the office of king. For instance, the end of Gideon's story is antimonarchic. Because of his success against Midian, the Israelites ask Gideon to establish a hereditary ruling line in Israel. Despite his near-royal lifestyle at the end of his life (he takes tribute from the people, falls into religious pluralism, possesses a harem), Gideon's answer is instructive: “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you” (Judg. 8.23 ). Israel can have leaders in moments of crisis, and those leaders may even maintain power and prestige during the remainder of their lifetimes, but Israel is to have no king but Yahweh. The antimonarchic passages, then, proceed from the assumption that Israel is not a nation like others, with rule concentrated in one human line, but that only Yahweh truly rules Israel and raises up deliverers when Israel needs them. This is reflected in the language used earlier in the Gideon story, that Yahweh will deliver Israel through Gideon ( 6.36, 37; 7.2–7 ). The ultimate judge and deliverer, and only king, who rules Israel is Yahweh. (Yahweh is called the shōphēt in 11.27 .) This is the importance of the phrases: Yahweh “raised up” deliverers or judges to deliver Israel (Judg. 2.16, 18; 3.9, 15 ); Yahweh was “with” the judge (Judg. 2.18; 6.12, 16 ); “the spirit of Yahweh came upon him and he judged Israel” (and the like; Judg. 3.10; 6.34; 11.29; 13.25; 14.6, 19; 15.14; 1 Sam. 11.6 ); and the many instances where Israel's victory in battle is claimed as Yahweh's victory, Yahweh's delivering the enemy into Israel's hand, Yahweh's confusing the camp of the enemy, and Yahweh's host in the heavens fighting Israel's battles.

A similar sentiment is voiced in 1 Samuel 8 , a lengthy antimonarchic passage, which reports Samuel's and Yahweh's anger that the people have asked for a king to rule them. When Samuel prays about the situation, Yahweh responds that it is actually Yahweh that the people have rejected. At Yahweh's command, Samuel agrees to find a king, but describes for the people all the abuses they can expect under a monarchy.

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