A Biblical judge (Hebrew: שופט šōp̄êṭ/shofet, pl. שופטים šōp̄əṭîm/shoftim) was "a ruler or a military leader as well as someone who presided over legal hearings." These judges appear most often in the Book of Judges, which is named after them.
Historicity of Biblical Judges
Kenneth Kitchen argues that following the conquest of Canaan by Joshua until the formation of the first Kingdom of Israel and Judah (ca. 1150–1025 BC), the Israelite tribes formed a loose confederation. No central government existed in this confederation; in times of crisis, the people were led by ad hoc chieftains, known as judges (shoftim).
However, "almost all" scholars have abandoned the idea that Joshua carried out a conquest of Canaan similar to that described in the Book of Joshua. Likewise, there is considerable doubt among scholars that a period resembling the one described in the Book of Judges ever existed in ancient Israel.
Judges mentioned in Bible
Moses was a shofet over the Israelites and appointed others to whom cases were delegated in accordance with the advice of Jethro, his Midianite father-in-law. The Book of Judges mentions twelve leaders who judged Israel: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson. The First Book of Samuel mentions Eli and Samuel, as well as Joel and Abiah (two sons of Samuel). The First Book of Chronicles mentions Kenaniah and his sons. The Second Book of Chronicles mentions Amariah and Zebadiah (son of Ishmael).
The biblical text does not generally describe these leaders as "a judge", but says that they "judged Israel". Thus, Othniel "judged Israel" (Judges 3:10), Tola "judged Israel twenty-three years" (Judges 10:2), and Jair judged Israel twenty-two years (Judges 10:3).
In the Book of Judges found in the Bible, a cyclical pattern is recounted to show the need for the various judges: apostasy of the Israelite people, hardship brought on as punishment from God, crying out to the Lord for rescue. The story of the judges seem to be successive individuals, each from a different tribe of Israel, chosen by God to rescue the people from their enemies and establish justice and the practice of the Torah amongst the Hebrews. This is most likely not the case though as if "all the figures given in Judges (years of oppression, years the judges led Israel, years of peace achieved by the judges) are treated as consecutive, then the total duration of the events described in Judges is 410 years. If we accept a date of 1000 bce for the beginning of David’s reign over all Israel, which puts the beginning of Eli’s leadership of Israel at about 1100 bce, then the judges period would begin no later than 1510 bce—impossible even for those who date the conquest to the fifteenth century BC"
While judge is the closest literal translation of the Hebrew term used in the Masoretic text, the position is more one of unelected non-hereditary leadership than that of legal pronouncement. However, Cyrus H. Gordon argued that they were normally from among the hereditary leaders of the fighting, landed and ruling aristocracy, like the kings (basileis) in Homer. The shoftim many times played the role as an official with the authority to administer justice but not always. Most shoftim acted primarily as military leaders in times of war. The leaders were thought of as being sent by God to deliver the people from a threat. After the threat had passed, shoftim were generally expected to give up their position as military leaders. They were most likely tribal or local leaders, contrary to the Deuteronomistic historian's portrayal of them as leaders of all of Israel, but their authority was recognized by local groups or tribes beyond their own. In accordance with the needs of the time, their functions were primarily martial and judicial but not comparable to those of a king. All biblical Judges performed judicial duties and the institution of Judges was separated from the institute of King (1 Samuel 10:25).