(Heb. shophet, pl. shophetim), properly a magistrate or ruler, rather than one who judges in the sense of trying a cause. This is the name given to those rulers who presided over the affairs of the Israelites during the interval between the death of Joshua and the accession of Saul (Judg. 2:18), a period of general anarchy and confusion. "The office of judges or regents was held during life, but it was not hereditary, neither could they appoint their successors. Their authority was limited by the law alone, and in doubtful cases they were directed to consult the divine King through the priest by Urim and Thummim (Num. 27:21). Their authority extended only over those tribes by whom they had been elected or acknowledged. There was no income attached to their office, and they bore no external marks of dignity. The only cases of direct divine appointment are those of Gideon and Samson, and the latter stood in the peculiar position of having been from before his birth ordained 'to begin to deliver Israel.' Deborah was called to deliver Israel, but was already a judge. Samuel was called by the Lord to be a prophet but not a judge, which ensued from the high gifts the people recognized as dwelling in him; and as to Eli, the office of judge seems to have devolved naturally or rather ex officio upon him." Of five of the judges, Tola (Judg. 10:1), Jair (3), Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon (12:8-15), we have no record at all beyond the bare fact that they were judges. Sacred history is not the history of individuals but of the kingdom of God in its onward progress.
In Ex. 2:14 Moses is so styled. This fact may indicate that while for revenue purposes the "taskmasters" were over the people, they were yet, just as at a later time when under the Romans, governed by their own rulers.
- juj (shopheT; New Testament dikastes, krites): In the early patriarchal times the heads of families and the elders of the tribes were the judges (compare Gen 38:24
), and their authority was based on custom. In the wilderness Moses alone was the judge until Jethro suggested a scheme of devolution. On his advice Moses divided the people into groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and over each group a wise and good man was set as a judge. Thereafter only the most important cases were brought before Moses (Ex 18:13-26
; Dt 1:9-17
). This arrangement ceased to be practicable when the children of Israel settled down in Canaan. Although David took counsel with the heads of thousands and hundreds (1 Ch 13:1
), it need not be assumed that this was a continuation of the plan adopted by Moses. Probably the local courts were not organized till the time of David. In the days of the Judges justice was ministered by those who had risen by wisdom or valor to that rank (Jdg 4:5
). An organized circuit court was established by Samuel, who judged cases himself, and also made his sons judges (1 Sam 7:16
). After the monarchy was instituted, the king tried all cases, when requested to do so by the wronged person, in the palace gate (1 Ki 7:7
; Prov 20:8
). There was no public prosecutor (2 Sam 14:4
; 1 Ch 18:14
; 1 Ki 3:16
; 2 Ki 15:5
). Under David and Solomon there were probably local courts (1 Ch 23:4
). Jehoshaphat organized a high court of justice (2 Ch 19:8
). The prophets often complain bitterly that the purity of justice is corrupted by bribery and false witness (Isa 1:23
; Am 5:12
; Mic 3:11
; Prov 6:19
). Even kings sometimes pronounced unjust sentences, especially in criminal cases (1 Sam 22:6-19
; 1 Ki 22:26
; 2 Ki 21:16
; Jer 36:26
). An evil king could also bend local courts to do his will, as may be gathered from the case of Naboth's vineyard (1 Ki 21:1-13
The first duty of a judge was to execute absolute justice, showing the same impartiality to rich and poor, to Jew and foreigner. He was forbidden to accept bribes or to wrest the judgment of the poor (Ex 23:6-8; Dt 16:19). He must not let himself be swayed by popular opinion, or unduly favor the poor (Ex 23:2,3).
The court was open to the public (Ex 18:13; Ruth 4:1,2). Each party presented his view of the case to the judge (Dt 1:16; 25:1). Possibly the accused appeared in court clad in mourning (Zec 3:3). The accuser stood on the right hand of the accused (Zec 3:1; Ps 109:6). Sentence was pronounced after the hearing of the case, and the judgment carried out (Josh 7:24,25). The only evidence considered by the court was that given by the witnesses. In criminal cases, not less than two witnesses were necessary (Dt 19:15; Nu 35:30; Dt 17:6; compare Mt 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19). In cases other than criminal the oath (see OATH) was applied (Ex 22:11; compare Heb 6:16). The lot was sometimes appealed to (Josh 7:14-18), especially in private disputes (Prov 18:18), but this was exceptional. When the law was not quite definite, recourse was had to the Divine oracle (Lev 24:12; Nu 15:34).