In Hebrew Shophetim, were the rulers, chiefs, or leaders of Israel, from Joshua to Saul. They were very different from the ordinary administrators of justice among the Hebrews, respecting whom, see JUSTICE. The Carthaginians, a colony of the Tyrians, had likewise governors, whom they called Suffetes, or Sophetim, with authority almost equal to that of kings.
The dignity of judge was for life; but the succession was not always constant. There were anarchies, or intervals, during which the commonwealth was without rulers. There were likewise long intervals of foreign servitude and oppression, under which the Hebrews groaned without deliverers. Although God alone regularly appointed the judges, yet the people, on some occasions, chose that individual who appeared to them most proper to deliver them from oppression; and as it often happened that the oppressions which occasioned recourse to the election of a judge were not felt over all Israel, the power of such judge extended only over that province which he had delivered. Thus it was chiefly the land east of the Jordan that Ehud, Jephthah, Elon, and Jair delivered and governed; Barak and Tola governed the northern tribes; Abdon the central; and Ibzan and Samson the southern. The authority of judges was little inferior to that of kings: it extended to peace and war; they decided causes with absolute authority; but had no power to make new laws, or to impose new burdens on the people. They were protectors of the laws, defenders of religion, and avengers of crimes, particularly of idolatry; they were without salary, pomp, or splendor; and without guards, train, or equipage, other than that their own wealth afforded.
The command of Jehovah to expel or destroy all the Canaanites, was but imperfectly executed; and those who were spared infected the Hebrews with the poison of their idolatry and vice. The affair of Micah and the Levite, and the crime at Gibeah which led to the ruinous war against the Benjamites, though recorded at the close of the book of Judges 17:1-21:25, occurred not long after the death of Joshua, and show how soon Israel began to depart from God. To chastise them, he suffered the people of Mesopotamia and of Moab, the Canaanites, Midianites, Ammonites, and Philistines, in turn to oppress by their exactions apart of the tribes, and sometimes the whole nation. But before long, in pity for their sufferings, he would raise up one of the military and civil dictators above described. Fifteen judges are named in the Bible, beginning with Othniel, some twenty years after Joshua, and continuing till the coronation of Saul.
The time from Othniel to Saul, according to the received chronology, it is about 310 years. It is supposed that some periods overlap each other; but chronologists are not agreed as to the mode of reconciling the accounts in Judges with other known dates, and with 1 Kings 6:1, and Acts 13:20, though several practicable methods are proposed, the examination of which would exceed the limits of this work.
THE BOOK OF JUDGES contains the annals of the times in which Israel was ruled by judges, and is often referred to in the New Testament and other parts of the Bible. It appears to have been written before David captured Zion, Judges 1:21, and yet after a regal government was introduced, Judges 17:6 18:11 21:25. Who was its author is unknown; the majority of critics ascribe it to Samuel, B. C. 1403, but many regard it as a compilation by Ezra. It illustrates God’s care over his people, mingling his long-suffering with timely chastisements. The period of the judges was, on the whole, one of prosperity; and while the providence of God confirmed his word, "If ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured by the sword," it is no less faithfully assured the, "If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall east of the good of the land."
These dictionary topics are from American Tract Society Bible Dictionary published in 1859. Public Domain, copy freely.
Rand, W. W. "Entry for 'JUDGES'". "American Tract Society Bible Dictionary".