In the Old Testament, much is written of Israelite judges who lead and serve their people. However, theses judges were very different from our modern judges who wear a black robe and oversee cases in a courtroom.
A Biblical judge was a ruler, military leader, and someone who presided over legal hearings. The time period of the judges followed the conquest of Canaan by Joshua until the formation of the first Kingdom of Israel (ca. 1150-1025 BC). During this time, the Israelite Tribes formed a loose confederation. No central government existed in this confederation. So, in times of crisis or war, the people were led by ad hoc chieftains known as judges.
In the Book of Judges, a cyclical pattern is given to show the need for the various judges. These needs included times of a leaderless state of the Israelite people, hardship, and the crying out to the Lord for rescue. The judges were the successive individuals, each from a different tribe of Israel, chosen by God to rescue the people from their enemies and establish justice and the practice of the Torah amongst the Hebrews.
In accordance with the needs of the time, their functions were primarily martial and judicial. However, they were really not comparable to a king. All Biblical Judges performed judicial duties and the institute of Judges was separated from the institute of King.
Their main task was to obtain justice for the tribes of Israel in the face of their enemies, annihilate or drive out their oppressors, and bring salvation, rest and peace to the land. Very little is said about how these judges led the nation once they had delivered it.
There are two notable judges in the Bible. The first was a great field commander and counselor. She was also a woman.
In the Book of Judges, it is stated that Deborah was a judge of Israel. She rendered her judgments beneath a palm tree. Some people today refer to Deborah as the mother of Israel, as she is titled in the Biblical “Song of Deborah and Barak.” Deborah is also known for her gifts of military tactics, strategic planning, and sheer leadership on the battlefield. When the people of Israel were oppressed by a king named Jabib, she effectively incited a rebellion and defeated the king’s armies. Afterward, she would serve as a judge for the next 40 years.
One of the last judges was probably also the most well-known of all the judges. Samson was born to a barren woman by promise. He was given supernatural strength by God in order to combat his enemies and perform heroic feats such as killing a lion, slaying an entire army with only the jawbone of a donkey, and destroying a pagan temple.
Like all men, Samson had weaknesses as well. His three vulnerabilities, (1) attraction to untrustworthy women (2) his hair, without which he was powerless, and (3) his uncontrollable anger would ultimately prove fatal for him.
However, Samson would serve as a judge for a reasonable length of time. At the conclusion of Judges 15 it is said that Samson had “judged” Israel for twenty years.
Unfortunately, Samson falls in love with a treacherous woman named Delilah. She eventually hands Samson over to his enemies, the Philistines.
One day, the Philistine leaders assembled in a temple for a religious sacrifice to their god. They summon the blind and weakened Samson so that people can gather on the roof to see him.
Then Samson prayed to God, “remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.” Then, he pulled the two pillars together and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Samson, while killing himself, killed many more of his enemies that day than he did during his entire life.
These Biblical judges were dynamic in so many ways. The people whom they served trusted them in battle and to settle disputes as American judges do today.