The Book of Judges is Not About Judges (Judg. 1)

The Book of Judges, the next book in the Old Testament that we will examine, has nothing to do with judges—unlike some of the other books we have looked at before, which seem to describe, broadly, their contents (Genesis and Exodus, for example), understanding why the Book of Judges is so named requires a little knowledge of Hebrew.

Upon its original writing—it forms part of the Deuteronomistic History, and was likely completed and/or entirely composed in the 6th Century BCE—the book was correctly named: it was called the Book of Shofetim, which is usually translated as “judges,” but only because the word only took a later meaning (of what we consider to be a “judge” now). At the time of the Book of Judges’ titling and composition, shofet meant “a leader,” or “a chief.” Hence why it doesn’t contain much of anything we would consider judge-related.

Thus, the main subjects of Judges—Ehud, Deborah, Samson, and Gideon, among others—are actually the former leaders of Israel, and one should really consider it to be, as scholar James Kugel notes, “The Book of Chiefs.”

For the purposes of Holey Books, we have to dig a little deeper on this note. What other words, we should ask, are mistranslated in this book? Language changes, inevitably, and the meanings of even common words fades in and out. Translation is messy and difficult, and, for those of us reading exclusively translated versions (I admit to not knowing a whit of Hebrew or Greek), we’re captive of the translation we’re given, and maybe the few footnotes also supplied. The Book of Judges’s eventual misnomer should remind us that knowing the exact meaning of anything in the text, at least if it hinges on a single word, is a precarious exercise.

So with that, we’ll move on into the substance of the “Book of Chiefs,” and all of the leaders of Israel it depicts.

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