The Book of Judges, I recently posted, is not in fact about judges. While the name stems from a translation issue—the ever-shifting meaning of language—regardless of what we call them, the judges in the Book of Judges will, to paraphrase Juliet, still smell as sweet (or, perhaps more accurately, be as barbarous, at least if Joshua is any guide). So who were these “judges”?
At the time of the happenings of the Book of Judges, Israel was a nation without a king: instead, each tribe was ruled by ad hoc elders or chiefs, who were the “judges” of the title and were all without any prior claim to rule:
Instead, their rise to power was created by a crisis; something occurred that required someone to take over, and the person in question suddenly emerged. (How to Read the Bible, p 388)
Like Joshua, sometimes the “judges” (really, better termed “chiefs’) were tapped by an angel; for Gideon, the “spirit of the Lord took possession” (Judg. 6:34) and helped make him a letter. Before the divine imprimatur, Gideon was wholly unprepared for leadership—at least the text says so—but after the benison, he manages victories over the Midianites. Other chiefs, like Jepthah and Samson, come from “colorful” (as we would say now, to be politically correct) backgrounds.
So why are none of these individuals royals? Well, Judges covers that too: “I will not rule over you,” Gideon tells the Israelites, “and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you” (Judg. 8:23). Does this seem like a flimsy justification? I think so: all Gideon is saying is that “God” will watch over the Israelites, which doesn’t seem like much of a justification for political organization. (Then again, at this point YHWH was really a tribal ruler type of deity.) Kugel notes that the historical reality contains a different reason for governmental structure: “The political situation was such that neither Gideon nor any of the other judges was able to establish a royal dynasty or to unify the various tribes under one rule” (How to Read the Bible, p 390). In other words, it was hard to bring, at that time, a loose confederation of groups together under a single ruler. (Providing further evidence that the text could only have been written at a later time, when there was such a ruler.)
So what to make of this? It is more of the same from what we have already examined thus far on the blog: theology becomes a stand-in for history. Things are explained in theological terms—say, like the Ten Commandments and the shift form monolatry to monotheism—that really have historical reasons. The “judges” are just one more example.