When judges led armies into battle

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | September 14, 2021

What being a judge meant in biblical days

This bas-relief of the biblical judge, Deborah, is from 1849 and the artist A.V. Loganovsky. It was originally in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, but the church was destroyed in 1931 on the orders of Joseph Stalin. It has since been rebuilt.

Next week, the Diocese of Green Bay will hold its annual Red Mass (5 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 23 at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, Green Bay).

Red Masses, honoring the Holy Spirit and seeking divine guidance upon those in public office, date back to 1245 in Paris. From there, the tradition spread to England, during the reign of King Edward II (1307-1327). Red Masses then spread from England throughout Europe. 

In the United States, a Red Mass is held at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington, D.C., on the Sunday before the first Monday of October, the traditional opening day of the current Supreme Court. In Wisconsin, the St. Thomas More Society, a Catholic law society, has sponsored an annual Red Mass since the mid-1950s. Red Masses usually include members of the legal system, including judges, attorneys, legal staff, paralegals and law school faculty.

The history of religious ties to legal institutions could be said to go back to the biblical time of the Judges of Israel. These judges, while not judicial leaders as we think of them today, were individuals chosen by God to lead the Israelite people in times of trouble and war.

The Book of Judges tells stories of these judges — six major and six minor judges. They were part of Israel’s history from the death of Joshua — the successor of Moses — to the time of the first King of Israel, Saul. This was a span of about 200 years.

These two centuries came after the 12 tribes of Israel had entered the Promised Land and while they were in the process of conquering the Canaanites who lived there. This effort was not completely successful — each tribe varied in their level of success. Because of this, the Israelites began to lose some of their individual traditions and take on the culture and even religious practices of their neighbors. This led to problems.

The Book of Judges shows how the people struggled to obey God’s commands. When they turned from the Law given by God to Moses, the 12 tribes suffered at the hands of various groups, including the Philistines, the Moabites and the Ammonites. When Israel repented and turned back to God, God would send a leader to save them. While we call these leaders “judges,” the correct Hebrew is shôphatîm, which more correctly means “a military leader chosen by God.”

The cycle of failure, military assaults and repentance repeats and finally leads to the rise of the monarchy, with Saul as the first king. Each of the judges mentioned in the Book of Judges came from a different tribe and some of their work overlapped chronologically.

As Antonio Fuentes, a Spanish theology professor, explained in Catholic Answers: “The Book of Judges shows how the covenant made at Sinai worked out in practice: Yahweh is protective of Israel as long as it stays faithful to its commitments, and punishes it whenever it violates them. God wishes to show the Israelites that oppression is a punishment for impiety and victory a reward for faithfulness.”

The way all this worked out for the everyday person is explained in the Book of Judges itself: “In those days there was no king in Israel. All the people did what was right in their own eyes” (21:25).

The first of the 12 judges was Othniel ben Kenaz (3:9-11). He came from the tribe of Judah and defeated the King of Aram. Forty years of peace followed.

Deborah was the only female judge and she came from the tribe of Ephraim. She was really a seer, prophet and poet, but was partnered with the military commander, Barak. Her story appears twice in the Book of Judges, both in chapter five and poetically in chapter six, better known as “the Song of Deborah.”

Two other famous major judges were Gideon and Samson, the strong man who was captured by the Philistines. Gideon came from the tribe of Manasseh and led the people against the Midianites. He was so successful that the people wanted him to become king. Gideon refused. After his death, his son, Abimelech, killed all 68 of his brothers and tried to become king himself. Only Jotham survived and he later became King of Judah.

The last of the major judges was Samuel. He was born to Hannah, the childless mother who prayed for a child at Shiloh and later dedicated that child to God and left him to be raised by the priest at Shiloh, Eli. Samuel was of the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe. He eventually led the people against the Philistines and conquered them. 

Going back to the request that had been given to Gideon earlier, the Israelite people again asked for a king during Samuel’s time. This angered Samuel, but at God’s counsel, he anointed Saul as king. When Saul did not follow God’s directions, Samuel was sent to secretly anoint the boy, David, as the next king.

The other major judges were Ehud and Jephthah. 

The minor judges were Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan (who was born in Bethlehem, like Jesus), Elon and Abdon.

While the judges varied in their tribal background, their training and even their gender, they had a common purpose: they followed God and divine law, just as Moses and Joshua had done. They shared other traits as well, including charisma. As the Encyclopedia Britannica explains, “The quality that enabled a person selected by (God) to be a judge was charisma, a spiritual power that enabled the judge to influence, lead and control the people caught between the allurements of the sophisticated Canaanite culture and the memory of the nomadic way of life. … (S)uch leaders, under the guidance and spiritual powers granted to them by (the Lord God), were able to lead their tribes in successfully defeating or driving back their opponents.”

We remember these 12 judges as we approach our diocesan Red Mass and pray for God’s guidance on our own judges and leaders.

Sources: Bible.usccb.org; Britannica.com; thomasmoresociety.org; johncarrollsociety.org; jewishvirtuallibrary.org; myjewishlearning.com; Catholic Encyclopedia; Encyclopedia of the Bible at biblegateway.com; Jewishencyclopedia.com; catholicnewsagency.com and Catholic Answers at catholic.com.

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