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In ancient Israel, the shoftim (judges) were chieftains who united various Israelite tribes in time of danger to defeat foreign enemies.
From after the conquest of Canaan by Joshua until the formation of the first Kingdom of Israel (ca. 1150-1025 BCE), the Israelite Tribes formed a loose confederation. No central government existed, and in times of crisis the people were led by ad hoc leaders known as Judges.
Biblical judges were chief magistrates of the Hebrews in the ancients' sense, distinct from modern, merely judicial judges. While "judge" is the closest literal translation of the Hebrew term used in the Bible, the position is more one of unelected non-hereditary leadership than that of legal pronouncement, once in office comparable to a king (but not anointed). In the Biblical context of the Book of Judges, the term designates those who act as deliverers. The word, however, means more than this: it refers to leaders who took charge of the affairs of the tribes in case of war, and who assumed leadership of their respective tribes in the succeeding times of peace. In accordance with the needs of the time, their functions were primarily martial and judicial.
The Hebrew verb meant originally "to act as a Divine judge", and was applied to God (Genesis 18:25) and to the prophet Moses acting as the specially inspired lawgiver and judge of Israel (Exodus 18:13). In the book of Judges the term judges (shôphitîm) is applied to the leaders of Israel but differed from that of king only in the absence of hereditary succession.
According to the introduction to the Book of Judges (2:10-3:6), after the death of Joshua, a new generation of Israelites grew up and rather than worshipping Yahweh (God of Israel), worshipped the pagan Baals and the Asherah, provoking God's anger. This divine wrath is described as causing the Israelites to be plundered by raiders and made it so that they were never able to defeat their enemies when they went out to fight. Hence they fell under the influence of the Canaanites, Philistines, Amorites and other foreign rulers.
However, God raised up people from time to time to save them from their enemies - the judges. On many occasions the people did not listen to the judges and refused to obey God's commands. Even though God raises up judges for them several times.
The following list of biblical judges (in chronological order) are identified as Judges in the Book of Judges (besides the last two) - great judges are those deemed worthy of large narratives in the Book:
Biblical critics believe that Abimelech was also originally considered a judge, becoming changed to a "king" owing to his being regarded as evil, at which point Shamgar was added to the list so that there were still 12 in the Book of Judges. Textual criticism also views the minor judges as being added to the list simply to make the total number equal 12, a number of religious significance to the Israelites.
The history of Biblical judges appears in the Book of Judges (Hebrew: Sefer Shoftim ספר שופטים). This book is the 7th book of the Bible, originally written in Hebrew. It appears in the Hebrew Bible (Judaism's Tanakh) and in the Christian Old Testament.
There is a constant event cycle describing the judges' history: oppression by surrounding enemies, repentance by the people of Israel, deliverance by a judge, repeated failure to obey God's demands, oppression (punishment) again and so on.
The First Book of Samuel also mentions two great judges: Eli and Samuel
According to textual criticism the initial portion of the first book of Samuel, containing these two names, was probably originally the final part of the Book of Judges.