Judges of the Jews
by Brandon Marlon
The 15 Judges of Israel, also known as Elders, were civic leaders who guided the nation between the Mosaic and monarchic ages, approximately 1210-1020 B.C.E.. Oftentimes figures already occupying high-profile leadership positions such as prophet, priest, or general were selected to serve additionally as Judges. The Judges were both justices and governors, and essentially possessed the same powers as Israel’s monarchs, but without any hereditary right of succession. Their stories are told in the biblical section Prophets in the books Judges and Samuel I, and later retold in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities. The former works continue the historical account of Israel’s nation formation and treats of the period between the death of Joshua and the birth of Samuel, to whom the authorship of Judges and most of Samuel I is traditionally attributed (the rest of Samuel I and Samuel II are ascribed to the later prophets Gad and Nathan).
- Otniel – The son of Kenaz, of the tribe of Judah, and the first of the Judges, who served Israel for 40 years. He was the younger brother of Caleb, who offered the hand of his daughter Achsah to whoever could conquer Kiryat-Sefer. Otniel accomplished this feat and married his niece. He led Israel to victory over King Cushan-Rishatayim of Aram-Naharayim, who had subjugated Israel for 8 years, and thereafter the land was at peace for several decades.
- Ehud – The son of Gera, of the tribe of Benjamin, who served Israel for 80 years. When the corpulent King Eglon of Moab along with the Ammonites and Amalekites rose up against Israel, capturing Jericho and oppressing Israel for 18 years, the Israelites sent Ehud to present Eglon with a tribute payment as a token of their subservience. The left-handed Ehud concealed a double-edged sword under his garments on his right thigh, and told Eglon he had a secret message to convey to him from the Divine, an implied request for a private audience. When Eglon dismissed his attendants, Ehud thrust the sword, blade and haft, into Eglon’s belly, until it protruded from the king’s back. Ehud fled to the hill country of Ephraim, where he blew a shofar to summon the people to him. He bade them to follow him, which they did, securing the fords of the Jordan River before penetrating into Moab and slaying about 10,000 of the enemy. Almost a century of peace ensued.
- Shamgar – The son of Anat (the name of a war goddess), who is thought to have died in the first year of his judgeship. Shamgar slew 600 Philistines with an ox-goad—an agricultural tool up to ten feet long, spiked at one end with a chiseled blade at the opposite end, usually used for ploughing fields. His brief tenure over Israel, which likely coincided with that of Ehud, occurred during unsettled times that marked the darkest hour before the dawn of deliverance under Devorah and Barak.
- Devorah – An esteemed prophetess, the wife of Lapidot, who sat under a palm tree in the hill country of Ephraim where she settled disputes the Israelites brought to her for adjudication. The Canaanite king Yavin of Hazor possessed 900 iron chariots, giving him mastery over the Jezreel Valley, and allowing him to subject the Israelites to his control for 20 years. Devorah summoned her general Barak ben Avinoam and suggested he take 10,000 fighters from the tribes of Naphtali and Zevulun to Mount Tavor and the Kishon brook in the Galilee to confront Yavin’s general Sisera and soundly defeat the Canaanites. Barak conditionally agreed, provided that Devorah accompany him. She consented, but claimed the future glory upon their victory. Mustering their troops at Kedesh, Barak and Devorah set out for the battlefield, where an alerted Sisera met them with his host and chariot fleet. In the event, the Israelites crushed the Canaanites (perhaps partly the result of the Canaanite chariots getting bogged down in the mud of the rainy season) and Sisera fled on foot while Barak hunted down the enemy in flight. Sisera sought refuge in the tent of Yael (thought by Rashi to be a Judge in her own right), wife of Hever the Kenite, with whom King Yavin had a peace pact. The exhausted general asked for some water, but the wily Yael furnished him with a lordly bowl of milk instead, which facilitated his drowsiness. Once Sisera was in a deep sleep, Yael hammered a wooden tent peg through his temples and into the ground. Pursuing Sisera, Barak was beckoned by Yael into the tent where he discovered the fugitive general slain. Devorah and Barak celebrated their triumph with a thanksgiving song, in which even the stars and the Kishon brook were said to have fought on behalf of the Israelites and in which Yael was vaunted as the most blessed of women. Devorah was ever after commemorated as ‘a mother in Israel’, and subsequently the land knew peace for 40 years.
- Gideon, a.k.a. Jerubaal, Jerubeshet – The son of Joash the Aviezrite, of the tribe of Menashe, who lived in Ophra and served Israel for 40 years. The impoverished and modest Gideon arose in response to the Midianite threat menacing Israel for 7 years, swarming its territory at harvest time each year to strip it bare. Due to these predatory incursions by Midian and its ally Amalek, the Israelites made dens, caves, and citadels amid the mountains for their protection. After receiving the sign of fire out of a rock from an angel, Gideon accepted his judgeship and erected an altar to the God of Israel in his hometown and toppled the Baal and Asherah apparatus of his father. When the Midianites and Amalekites assembled in the Jezreel Valley, Gideon gathered together the tribes of Menashe, Asher, Zevulun, and Naphtali to mount a response. Seeking another sign of divine favor, Gideon laid a woollen fleece on a dry threshing floor and awoke to find that only the fleece was moist with dew. Still seeking reassurance, however, Gideon proposed the reverse sign of a dry fleece and moistened threshing floor, and awoke the following morn to find dew on the ground while the fleece remained dry. Gideon pitched his camp beside Ein Harod with Midian to the north at Givat Hamoreh in the Jezreel Valley, and bravely obeyed the divine will in dismissing the majority of his army—almost 30,000 men, who might have attributed their expected victory to strength of arms instead of divine intervention—except for 300 fighters. Gideon then eavesdropped on the Midianites that night and overheard one relating a dream to his fellow, who interpreted it as the sword of Gideon overturning the Midianite camp. Leading his tripartite forces, Gideon put the Midianites to flight and pursued, soon joined by the Ephraimites who were upset about having been excluded from the initial foray. The Ephraimites slew the Midianite princes Orev and Ze’ev while Gideon tracked down and slew the Midianite kings Zevach and Zalmuna, and punished the towns of Sukkot and Penuel which had refused him help. The Israelites then offered Gideon hereditary kingship, which he humbly abjured, citing that God alone would rule Israel. He requested of his fellows the golden earrings they had plundered from their foes, with which he fashioned an ephod kept in Ophra as a memorial and a means of ascertaining the divine will (this inadvertently became an object of worship for the people). With the Midianite threat overcome, Gideon retired from public service. He had many wives and sired 70 sons, one of whom by his Shechemite concubine was Avimelech, his successor as Judge. He was buried in his familial sepulcher in Ophra after living to a ripe old age.
- Avimelech – The son of Gideon, who, in a bloody act that foreshadowed those of Israel’s future monarchs, hired a band of mercenaries and murdered all his brothers upon a single stone except for the youngest, Jotham, who escaped by hiding. The Canaanites of Shechem, an alien enclave amid the tribal territory of Menashe, appointed their kinsman Avimelech king. In response, Jotham addressed them from Mount Gerizim in Samaria with a parable of stately trees and lowly bramble, and reminded them of his father’s heroics on their behalf while reproaching them for their ingratitude, before fleeing in fear of his brother Avimelech. Avimelech ruled for 3 years over the territory of Menashe if not beyond, until the Shechemites transferred their allegiance to a certain Gaal ben Eved, who soon challenged Avimelech to a battle. Avimelech lay in ambuscade against Shechem, and with the aid of Zevul, his governor of Shechem, put Gaal and his party to flight, slaughtered the Shechemites, then captured and razed the city, sowing its grounds with salt to ensure its desolation. At Mount Zalmon Avimelech cut down a bough with an axe, telling his men to emulate his act, which they did before following him to set afire 1,000 defiant men and women holed up in the tower of Shechem. Avimelech then besieged and captured Teyveytz, whose residents sought refuge in the town’s own tower which Avimelech sought to similarly burn. This time around a woman cast down an upper millstone on his head, shattering his skull. The dying king called upon his dutiful armiger to deliver the quietus, lest he die ignobly at the hands of a woman.
- Tola – The son of Puah, who lived in Shamir in the hill country of Ephraim bordering on that of Issachar, which was his tribe. He served Israel for 23 years. Despite his substantial period of judgeship, nothing is recorded of his exploits. He was buried in Shamir.
- Yair – A Gileadite from the tribe of Menashe, who served Israel for 22 years. His 30 sons rode on 30 donkey colts, indicating their rank and affluence, and possessed 30 cities in Gilead (east of the Jordan River) which were known as Villages of Yair. He was buried in Kamon (perhaps lying between the Yarmuk and Yabok tributaries of the Jordan). Like Tola, Yair ruled for a significant length of time but nothing is preserved of his acts (quite possibly an indication of the prevalence of peace in Israel throughout his term).
- Jephtah – A mighty man of valor, who was Judge of Israel for 6 eventful years. He was another Gileadite, the son of Gilead and a harlot, who was driven from Mizpah by his step-brothers. When the Ammonites mustered for war against Israel, the Gileadites recalled and elected Jephtah as their chief to mount a defense. He engaged in an exchange with the King of Ammon, clarifying Israel’s right to the disputed land east of the Jordan River before calling on his adversary to surrender peaceably. Jephtah carelessly pledged to sacrifice to the God of Israel whatever came forth from the doors of his house upon his peaceful homecoming, if only he would triumph over the recalcitrant Ammonites in battle. He did just that, conquering 20 of their towns. Upon his victorious return to Mizpah, the proud Jephtah was greeted by his virgin daughter, his only child, dancing with timbrels. He tore his clothes and lamented his vow, but did not annul it (by seeking absolution from the high priest Pinchas and paying a token ransom to the Tabernacle treasury). He granted her the 2-month reprieve in the mountains that she asked for; when the resigned maiden returned, the inflexible Judge carried out his vow. It is uncertain whether the daughter was actually immolated on an altar or if she was set aside in her own house in which she lived a solitary life until her death. 4 days every year thereafter the daughters of Israel lamented the fate of Jephtah’s daughter. Jephtah also went to war against the tribe of Ephraim, who had assembled and threatened to burn down his house for not including them in the battle against the Ammonites (a similar but less tragic ruction had previously occurred between Ephraim and Gideon regarding the Midianites). 42,000 Ephraimites fell in this internecine warfare. Upon his death, Jephtah was buried in the Gileadite towns (without children to perpetuate his memory, his limbs may have been dismembered and distributed throughout the region to serve as memorials).
- Ibzan – Ibzan lived in Bethlehem and served as Judge of Israel for 7 years. He had 30 sons and 30 daughters. He sent his own daughters to be married off to husbands from other tribes of Israel while importing 30 wives from other tribes for his sons. This may have been his policy in order to extend his influence over a broad region. As with Yair, Judges mentions Ibzan’s abundance but virtually nothing of his exploits. Ibzan is sometimes identified as Boaz from Ruth. He was buried in Bethlehem.
- Elon – A Zevulunite who judged Israel for 10 years. He was buried in Ayalon in his tribal territory. Of all the Judges of Israel, the least is recorded about Elon.
- Abdon – The son of Hillel of Piraton, an Ephraimite who judged Israel for 8 years. He had 40 sons and 30 grandsons who rode on 70 donkey colts (thereby outdoing Yair’s progeny). He was buried in Piraton in the hill country of Ephraim, where Amalekites also dwelled. Along with Tola, Yair, Ibzan, and Elon, Abdon is considered one of the minor Judges.
- Samson – The son of Manoah from Zorah (a border town between Dan and Judah), from the tribe of Dan, and a lifelong Nazirite who judged Israel for 20 years. As with Gideon, Samson’s mother was approached by an angel who informed her of the call to judgeship (in this case, of her future son). The thitherto barren woman was adjured to drink no wine and avoid impure things, and that the razor must be kept from her son’s head. Samson had a predilection for Philistine women: he fell for a woman from Timnata, and tore up a lion cub while en route to woo her (the carcass was later aswarm with bees and full of honey, which Samson sampled). He put a riddle to 30 Philistine companions attending his wedding feast, which they could not solve in the 7 days agreed upon, with 30 linen garments and 30 changes of raiment at stake, until his bride wheedled the solution from him and shared it. Samson killed 30 men of Ashkelon to settle his debt with the resultant spoils. He abandoned his wife in anger and she was then given away to a friend of his. When he tried to reclaim her, his father-in-law deprived him of her and offered her younger sister instead. Samson caught 300 foxes and used them to set fire to the crops of Philistines, angering them to the point that they burned Samson’s erstwhile wife and her father. Samson slaughtered them in revenge then sought refuge in the Judahite town of Eytam. The Philistines tracked him down, prompting 3,000 Judahites to bind and surrender Samson to them. Just as he was being delivered to the Philistines, Samson broke free and seized the jawbone of a donkey and wielded it in slaying 1,000 of the enemy then and there. His subsequent thirst was quenched by a miraculous spring in answer to his prayer. Next Samson enjoyed a harlot in Gaza where the Philistines sought to ambush him at dawn; Samson arose at midnight and broke off the city gate’s doors and doorposts, carrying them upon his shoulders away to Hebron. Then Samson fell in love with Delilah from the Sorek Valley. Philistine chieftains promised her 1,100 silver pieces each if she would wangle from Samson the secret of his power. Samson misled her thrice, yet the frustrated Delilah pressed him until finally through relentless blandishments she inveigled him into betraying the secret source of his divinely-derived strength. She sold the knowledge of Samson’s Nazirite pledge to the Philistine chiefs, lulled him to sleep in her lap, and had a man cut off the seven locks of his hair. She roused him, and the Philistines seized and cruelly blinded him, hauling him off to Gaza in brass fetters to do grinding work in a prison. But soon his hair began to grow back. The Philistines packed a pagan hall to offer a thanksgiving sacrifice to their god Dagon for the capture of Samson, who was dragged before them for their amusement and positioned between pillars. Samson got help in order to lean against the pillars supporting a roof on which 3,000 Philistines spectated while Samson was on display. He entreated the Divine for one last burst of might with which to avenge himself against his cruel captors, then leaned with a hand placed on each pillar and toppled the temple on the heads of his hosts. He thereby killed more Philistines at his death than he had previously done in his life. Samson’s corpse was retrieved from the rubble by his family, who returned him to Zorah for burial in the tomb of Manoah his father.
- Eli – The high priest at Shiloh, a descendant of Aaron’s son Itamar, and father of Hofni and Pinchas. Eli judged Israel for 40 years. When Elkanah’s childless wife Hannah made pilgrimage from Ramah to the Tabernacle at Shiloh and whispered prayers at length and wept, Eli rashly accused her of drunkenness. When she explained her sorrowful plight, he wished her success with her plea. Hannah finally conceived and bore a son she named Samuel, whom she delivered to Eli at Shiloh after weaning the baby. Eli trained Samuel in the holy service at Shiloh, and offered a blessing on behalf of Hannah and Elkanah for further offspring (the couple had another 3 sons and 2 daughters). Eli’s own sons, however, became a source of grief; evil reports of their misbehaviour reached him and he rebuked them but mildly. Hofni and Pinchas ignored their father Eli, who was divinely informed that his dynasty would be replaced by another and that his sons would both die on the same day. One night the divine voice thrice called upon Samuel, who believed it to be that of his mentor Eli, until the latter intuited the Almighty at work. He told Samuel how to answer the next time, and the youth was enlightened as to the coming punishment concerning Eli’s house. Samuel was reluctant to relate the message to Eli, who insisted he do so. Thenceforth Samuel was established as a prophet of Israel. When the Israelites required the Ark of the Covenant on the battlefield against the powerful Philistines, it was Hofni and Pinchas that conveyed the emblem of the divine presence from the Tabernacle in Shiloh to boost the army’s morale at camp. The Philistines nevertheless slew 30,000 Israelites, including Eli’s priestly sons Hofni and Pinchas, and captured the Ark. That day a fighter from the tribe of Benjamin reached Shiloh and Eli and relayed the tragic news. Eli, 98 years old, fell backward off his seat, broke his neck, and died. He did not live to see his grandchild Ichavod born soon thereafter.
- Samuel – The son of Hannah and Elkanah of Ramah, and the fifteenth and final Judge of Israel who served the nation for 11 years. He was a Levite of the family of Kochat. Samuel judged Israel from a series of towns: Beth El, Gilgal, Mizpah, and finally his hometown of Ramah. He urged the Israelites gathered at Mizpah to forsake idolatry, which they did before triumphing over the Philistines in battle. Samuel appointed his sons Joel and Abijah as Judges over Israel, based in Beersheba, but they became venal and perverted justice. It was this corruption that prompted the elders of Israel to confront Samuel with the fateful appeal for the kind of ruler other nations had. He hesitantly acquiesced to the popular will and agreed to their demand for a king, but he cautioned the nation regarding the drawbacks of monarchy. He further warned the Israelites to remain loyal to the Almighty, lest catastrophe afflict them. Samuel dutifully anointed Saul but in time contended with him when the king disregarded the directives given him on behalf of the God of Israel. In accordance with divine instruction, Samuel chose Saul’s successor—David of Bethlehem—and anointed him as well. When Saul tried to kill David, the latter found a haven with Samuel in Ramah. Samuel was widely mourned upon his death, and was buried at home in Ramah.
Bequeathed the substantial material achievements of Joshua, the Israelites and their leaders necessarily campaigned to maintain possession of their national homeland, continuously embattled and beleaguered by onslaughts of invaders and interlopers. Despite Joshua’s prior, general campaign against the Canaanites, the Israelites were left dwelling among Canaanites, Philistines, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, among whom they soon intermarried. While initially the warlike tribe of Judah, along with that of Shimon headed the tribal confederacy, in time the tribe of Ephraim emerged as most prominent owing to the Tabernacle being erected in Shiloh within Ephraimite territory and additionally because it was Joshua’s own tribe.
Judges and Samuel I depict several types whose antitypes are iterated later on in the biblical narrative, especially during the monarchy: Shamgar slays Philistines with an ox-goad much as Samson later slays Philistines with the jawbone of an ass; the appointment of the young agrarian Gideon prefigures that of the young shepherd David, and Gideon’s humble response to his call to greatness is rehearsed by King Saul; Avimelech ascends to power with a purge emulated by King Jehoram and Queen Ataliah of Judah and Kings Baasha, Zimri, and Jehu of Israel; Avimelech meets his demise in much the same fashion as will King Saul; Jephtah’s daughter dances with timbrels upon his triumphant return as will Israel’s women greet King Saul after David’s victory over the Philistine champion Goliath; Samson is blinded by his Philistine captors as will be King Zedekiah of Judah by his Babylonian captors; an angel visits Manoah and his wife promising them a special child, a type-scene appropriated by the Gospel authors in the Nativity story; Samson’s mother pledges her future son as a Nazirite as will Hannah; Goliath is struck in the forehead which is where King Uzziah will be afflicted with leprosy; Samson is offered the younger sister of the woman whom he was meant to be with, as David will be offered Saul’s daughter Michal instead of Merav; etc.
Likewise, Judges and Samuel I portray a number of antitypes whose types are prefigured in the biblical narrative: like Abraham and Rachel before him, Gideon dispensed with his father’s idolatry; like Ishmael, Jephtah is driven from his paternal home by the legitimate heirs of their common father; like Isaac, Jephtah’s daughter is made to serve as a sacrifice to fulfill a paternal obligation); Samson’s father Manoah inquires as to the name of the angel, as Moses once inquired as to the divine name; Manoah believes he will surely die for having beheld an angel, as did Gideon; and, like the patriarch Jacob, Samson is offered the sister of the woman he wishes to be with; Lot’s protecting of his angelic guests from sodomy is repeated in the interposed Givah episode; like the Matriarchs Sarah and Rachel, Hannah is the preferred wife who nonetheless suffers from a painful rivalry with a co-wife, and like Sarah she is a barren woman who only late in life bears a child destined to become a national leader; etc.
In the final analysis, the Judges should be regarded not so much as role models but as popular saviors, champions brought to the fore by the critical circumstances of their epoch. The rise and rule of a new Judge brought about a return to traditional religious practice and worship of the God of Israel, while the death of the Judges invariably signalled a lapse into the idolatrous ways of Israel’s influential neighbors. Still, the Judges themselves were notably fallible: Jephtah displayed his sheer ignorance of Mosaic Law, while Samson comes across as lascivious, gullible, and lacking judgment. In the case of both the former and the latter, physical prowess proved the decisive factor in propelling strongmen into the highest office in Israel. Indeed, the foremost task of any Judge was to re-establish security for the people, for which the possession and projection of power were crucial.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Judges’ narratives, then, is the wide ranging character of the Judges themselves. Samson’s wanton indulgence sharply contrasts with Gideon’s principled discipline. The offer of kingship made to Gideon evidences the Israelites’ recognition of the need for enhanced cooperation among their tribes, and Gideon’s abnegation represents the extraordinary and exemplary leadership of one whose humility evinced greatness, and who innately understood Israel’s destiny as subject to divine sovereignty, not human monarchy. Ultimately, the tribes of Israel ignored Gideon’s message. Instead of taking his lesson to heart, the people clamored for a king, forever altering the course of Jewish history.