The Role of Judges in Israel


The Book of Judges covers a period in Israel probably around 1050 BC and is widely believed along the scholarly of theological circles to have been written by Samuel. Functionally, the characters and office of the judges stand as transitional, between the departure of Moses the lawgiver and the monarchical system which would later take over in Israel.

Similarly, the period in which the judges remain operational stand between the point in which the Israelites cross the Jordan to start settling into Canaan, and the point in which the nation of Israel ceases to become a theocracy, to be a monarchy. Basically, the role and office of the judges is totally extirpated by the advent of Israel monarchy.  Herein, it is Joshua who is seen as the first judge, and Samuel, the last judge.

The Roles of the Judges in Israel

At the time of the nation of Israel settling in the land of Canaan, there are many kingdoms which occupied the same land, existing juxtaposed along Israel; with examples of these nations being the Jebuzzites, the Prezzites, the Ammonites, the Moabites and the Philistines among others. Joshua is seen to play this role at the point of Israel making incursion on the land of Canaan. It was therefore the duty of the judges to mobilize the forces of the nation of Israel to combat.

At the same time, in the case of spiritual lapse and moral putrefaction on a nationwide scale, God would punish the nation of Israel by delivering Israel to these nations. Upon repentance, it was the judge who mobilized the Israeli forces to battle against their captors- a role which runs through the book with Gideon, Ehud, Barrack, Jephthah, Deborah, Samson and Samuel playing distinct roles to this end.

At the same time, just as the name of the office they held would have, judges assumed the role of judging the whole nation of Israel. This means that judges were national figures vested with authority to allocate economic values. Armstrong (2007) points out that this is clearly seen when Joshua apportioned land among the eleven tribes of Israel (the Levites were not allotted any land).

At the same time, the judges had the authority to judge Israel on moral grounds too. Right after a botched attack on a small city, the oracle reveals to Joshua that it is the thievery by the house of Achan which wrought the defeat. After the exposure of this dossier to the limelight, Joshua is seen to exercise this role, to an extent that he is able to make a ruling as serious as capital punishment (death sentence). Achan and his family are executed. Other judges are seen to carry on with this role too.

In another wavelength, the role of the office of the judges was seen to overlap with those of the prophet. To Brown, Fitzmyer and Edmund (2001), this clearly means that the judge could in the place of God speak to man, God’s oracle, and vise versa, stand for man to speak with God, mostly in intercession. In the event of the former happening, Samuel is seen rendering a heart rending judgment of God to Eli the High Priest.

By this virtue of duality in acting as a prophet, the judges could also remain important in divulging on the will of God to the people. This act is clearly exemplified in Joshua leading the people meticulously on the way to invade successfully the Canaanites in Canaan. Similarly, before he passes on, he delivers a farewell message which is multiply attested as being the will of God.

Merrill (1993) explains that while still on the spiritual front where the role of the judges is seen to be dual, it remains also true that the role of the judges also overlapped those of the priests.  To this extent, the judges could also make intercession for the people whenever the masses sinned. Alongside this role, the judges had the power to call people to a day of prayer, lead people in prayer and lead people (the whole nation) to repentance. More importantly, the judge also made sacrifice to atone for the sin of the nation- a role which was practiced by the priest alone. Samuel discharges this duty (I Samuel 7).


It is based on the above fact that many have seen that the office of the judges was seen as being more of a makeshift than a permanent institution. To this effect, the lucidity in the above postulations is seen to be considerable, given the fact that the functions of the judges mainly overlapped with those of the prophets (of whom Moses was), the priests and the kings. To this effect, the postulation that the role of the judges in Israel was expedient, given that the roles or the offices of the priesthood, prophet and the king had not found proper footing and institutionalization in the new land of Canaan cannot be easily gainsaid. It is after these offices taking definite shape that the institution of judges dissipates.


  • Armstrong, K. (2007). A Commentary and Guide to the Bible. Washington: Atlantic Monthly.
  • Brown, R., Fitzmyer, J. and Edmund, R. (2001). The New Jerome Bible Commentary.   New York: Prentice Hall.
  • Merrill, H.E. (1993). An Historical Survey of the Old Testament. Dallas: Baker Academic.