Our Understanding of Judges by Daniel Block
Sometimes to understand the Bible, it is not the translation of a word that we need, but the translation of an idea. The very name of the book of "Judges" is a case in point. When we read the English word "Judge" certain ideas are associated with that word. This is not a bad translation of the Hebrew word, but the Hebrew word does not carry the same Ideas with it. We need to probe the ancient world and the biblical text to discover what the role of these judges was. In his Judges contribution to ZIBBCOT, Daniel Block brings some clarity to our understanding.
Unlike the English word "judge," which is usually associated with judicial activity, the meaning of šopetîm in the book of Judges is established in Judges 2:16-19: Each one functioned as a "deliverer, liberator," who rescued the Israelites from outside oppressors. Although the verb "judge" is applied to several individuals in this book,1 none of these persons is portrayed as exercising judicial function. The expression should therefore be interpreted more broadly as "to govern, administer, exercise leadership,"2 either in internal or in external affairs.3 Note how in the Mari texts, the Akkadian šapatum applied to "administrative heads of districts" accountable to the king.4 Ugaritic texts employ tzpt similarly, as in the following citation:
Surely he will remove the support of your throne,
Surely he will overturn the seat of your kingship;
Surely he will break the scepter of your rule [mtzptk].5
There may be some merit in G. W. Ahlström’s suggestion that these "judges" should be perceived like all other Canaanite princes and petty kings of the presettlement time.6
This information should be quite a relief. It would be incredible (not to mention frightening) to think that a fellow such as Samson was sitting and judging cases that the Israelites brought to him. With the textual and background information we can conclude that as "Judges" these individuals were indeed bringing about justice, but not through serving a role in the courts. Instead they brought justice to the people of Israel by freeing them from the persecution of other peoples.
Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.
1 To three primary "judges": Othniel (3:10), Jephthah (12:7), Samson (15:20; 16:30); to Deborah (4:4); and to five secondary judges: Tola (10:2), Jair (10:3), Ibzan (12:8, 9), Elon (12:11), Abdon (12:13–14).
2 T. L. J. Mafico notes that the role of judges was "to restore shalom, harmonious relations." See "Judge, Judging," ABD, 3:1104–5.
3 The nonjudicial sense of the verb is evident elsewhere in 2 Kings 15:5; Ps. 2:10; 94:2; 96:13; 148:11; Isa. 40:23; Amos 2:3.
4 Heimpel, Letters to the King of Mari, 582; Fleming, Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors, 76. For a study of the root in Akkadian, see T. J. Mafico, "The Term šapixtdum in Akkadian Documents," JNSL 13 (1987): 69–87.
5 As translated by M. S. Smith in Ugaritic Narrative, ed. S. B. Parker (SBLWAWS 9; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997), 163. See further F. C. Fensham, "The Ugaritic Root tzpt," JNSL 12 (1984): 63–69; H. Cazelles, "Mtzpt à Ugarit," Or 53 (1984): 177–82.
6 G. W. Ahlström, The History of Ancient Palestine from the Paleolithic Period to Alexander’s Conquest (JSOTSup 146; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 372.