Posted in theology

What was the difference between a Judge and a King?

By Elizabeth Prata

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A friend asked me the titular question yesterday. It’s a good one. I was encouraged because this was a young person, and the question reveals how she thinks- biblically.

It’s a big question which would require multi-week study for me, so I went to my Logos, and my answer is copied and pasted from the resources Logos offers.

Samuel served as the pivotal transitional figure between the time of the judges and the inauguration of the monarchy. He led Israel in several roles:

• Prophet
• Seer
• Priest
• Judge
• Father

Samuel was the last judge presented in the Bible. He is described as a judge in two places. In 1 Samuel 7:6 he judged the people at Mizpah. Also, 1 Samuel 7:15–17 records that he judged Israel all of the days of his life and travelled on a circuit throughout Israel. Additionally, in 1 Sam 12:6 he tells the people that he is entering into judgment with them. Samuel is also presented in a list of judges who presided over Israel in 1 Sam 12:11 (Stuessy, Samuel, 35–36).

Part of his duties in being a judge seem to have been calling Israel to battle (1 Sam 4:1) and subduing the Philistine threat (1 Sam 7:13).

~Source: Samuel the Prophet. In The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Lexham Press.

The Emergence of the Role of Judge

Moses acts as Israel’s first judge (Exod 18:13), among his many roles. He describes his judgeship by saying, “And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a matter, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor and make known the statutes of God and His laws.” (Exod 18:15–16).

It is Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who suggests that Moses stop doing this task alone and appoint others to help him.

It may be that the reference to these judges in military terms (“commanders”) and their roles around the time of the invasion of Canaan foreshadows the judges becoming not just arbitrators but also military leaders (Josh 8:33; 23:2; 24:1; compare Num 25:18).

Moses’ description of this office also incorporates spiritual leadership over the people, as he is careful to note that the people come to him to seek God and to know God’s rule and instructions. It is this same spiritual leadership that seems to be expected of the judges within the book of Judges, although many do not live up to the expectation.

~Source: Judge, Role in Israel. In The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Lexham Press.

Israel’s Monarchy

Much of the material in Judges relates to the idea of leadership and the monarchy. For example, Gideon refuses kingship, declaring that only Yahweh is king (8:23). Yet he and his sons looked like kings (8:18); Gideon lived like a king (8:30–31) and named one of his sons “Abimelech,” which means “my father is king” (9:1). The narrative shows negative aspects of kingship. For instance, Abimelech kills his 70 brothers to gain the position of leader (9:5), and Jotham gives a scathing parable against kingship (9:7–21). Such features have led to the perception that Judges argues against any type of monarchy.

However, the concluding chapters of Judges (17–21) include stories that show the need for a king, leading to the perception that Judges is an apologetic for the monarchy. In addition, this section explicitly states the lack of royal leadership four times: “In those days, there was no king in Israel” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). The final occurrence of this statement is the closing line of the book.

There are a variety of views regarding what or whom the author of Judges has in mind when it comes to kingship:

  1. Israel needs a king (Lilley, “Literary Appreciation“; Cundall, “An Apology,” 178–81).
  2. Judges’ main theme is the Israelites’ failure to realize their goal because they had no king (Wolf, “Judges”).
  3. Josiah is portrayed as the ideal earthly king, but Yahweh is the divine king (Matthew, Judges, Ruth).
  4. Judges represents three stages of kings—Hezekiah, Josiah, and a future king (Stone, “Judges, Book of”).
  5. Jeroboam and Rehoboam are in view (Butler, Judges).
  6. Judges sets David against Saul and his followers (O’Connell, Rhetoric; Sweeney, “Davidic Polemics”).
  7. Kingship is not ideal, but it is preferred over the judge system (Amit, The Book of Judges, 93).
  8. All forms of leadership are imperfect; kingship will vanish in Israel just as judgeship did (Olson, “Judges”).
  9. Judges originates in the Josianic Deuteronomistic History and uncovers a polemic against the Levites and their taking of tax money (Yee, “Ideological Criticism”).
  10. Deteriorated relationship with Yahweh ultimately leads to monarchy as Israel’s only way out of its leadership crisis (Schneider, Judges, xii—xiii).

Judges appears to examine various types of candidates for leadership in Israel, demonstrating that none qualifies as a proper model for kingship:

  1. Othniel is the top choice as a model king, but he is inactive and passive.
  2. Ehud’s straightforward, violent approach is effective but unsuitable for all situations.
  3. Shamgar may be foreign and leaves no sign of action.
  4. Gideon becomes a demanding leader who follows his own vengeful path and ultimately forsakes Yahweh for better financial arrangements.
  5. Abimelech is a bloodthirsty, self-centered warrior who lives recklessly.
  6. Jephthah knows Israel’s history and negotiates well, but he recklessly makes deals with Yahweh, resulting in his sacrifice of his daughter and the eventual decimation of the tribe of Ephraim.
  7. Samson has great strength but doesn’t show respect for anyone; he acts to protect himself and is highly independent.

The text of Judges ultimately provides no clear resolution about the monarchy. Would a king serve Yahweh or personal power? Is monarchy with anyone as king better than moral anarchy? These questions are left unanswered as the book draws to a close.

~Source: Judges, Book of. In The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Lexham Press.

Jehoshaphat also stressed the connection between human and divine justice, recognizing that decisions of the appointed judges were being made on behalf of Yahweh Himself (2 Chr 19:6–7; Jung, “Judicial System in Ancient Israel,” 290). However, while the judges in early Israel saw themselves in more of a discerning role, seeking to determine Yahweh’s will, the judges in Jehoshaphat’s time saw themselves in more of a representative role, judging on Yahweh’s behalf.

Generations later, King Hezekiah consolidated the judicial system further. Puckett argues that under King Hezekiah’s leadership, the state took up most of the judicial authority, as judges were tasked with hearing and deciding cases in the king’s name.

~Source: Judicial Courts. In The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Lexham Press.

There was a difference between a king and a judge. A judge was a leader raised up by God, usually to meet a specific need in a time of crisis. When the crisis was over usually the judge went back to doing what he did before. A king not only held his office as king as long as he lived, he also passed his throne down to his descendants. Judges did not make a “government.” They met a specific need in a time of crisis. Kings establish a standing government with a bureaucracy, which can be both a blessing and a curse to any people. ~Source: Enduring Word Commentary

So…clear as mud, right? The idea is to always ask questions. As you read God’s word, ask, why is this word here, what does that mean? What does this topography, tree/plant look like, and so on. The word IS living and active, so ask it questions. Pray for wisdom, and then go for it in researching the answer.


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.