It couldn’t be clearer from the text that “judge” is not being used in the ‘arbitration of law’ sense, at least not purely. Certainly, it’s more Judge Dredd than Judge McLachlin. Since the use of the term is far from clear, I thought I’d take a little time to talk about what the word actually means in the context of this book.
I found it helpful to think of the judges as falling into three separate categories:
Legal Judges lack detail, their function is not explained. The only hint we get is a reference to Deborah doing her judging thing while seated under a palm tree (Judges 4:4-5). This sounds very much like a “keeper of the law” sort of role, where an individual is arbitrating for a community. Deborah (Judges 4-5) certainly fits this model. Tola (Judges 10:1-2), Jair (Judges 10:3-5), Ibzan (Judges 12:8-10), Elon (Judges 12:11-12), and Abdon (Judges 12:13-15) may as well – if only because no details of heroic feats are listed. This leads me to guess that perhaps these names are actual records of judges, keepers of the law. Their names could be a fragment of an actual historical record of real people.
Military Leaders perform great deeds of nationalistic importance. These “judges” lead armies to kill Israel’s enemies. I include Othniel (Judges 3:7-11) and Jephthah (Judges 10-12) in this category.
Folk Heroes also perform great deeds, but theirs are more personal. Rather than commanding an army to achieve victory, these guys personally take up arms (or, rather, oxgoads or donkey jawbones) to beat the ever-loving-crap out of their enemies. While they may be said to deliver Israel, where their motives are recorded, they are generally very personal. Samson (Judges 13-16) is the perfect example – not only does he never deliver Israel from its oppressors, his motives throughout his narrative all come down to 1) get laid, and 2) get revenge. Abimelech (Judges 9) is an implied judge who is motivated by little more than gaining power. Ehud (Judges 3:12-30) delivers Israel, but does so by personally stabbing the Baddie head honcho and then escaping through a toilet chute. Shamgar (Judges 3:31) just kills a bunch of Philistines with an oxgoad, his motives unspecified. I’d also include Gideon (Judges 6-8) in this category; he may lead an army, but it’s a very small one and his victory comes through trickery rather than military might. His story also hints that his motive is personal revenge.
So, as my study Bible puts it, the term may have began as a title of keepers of the law, but “would then later have been extended loosely to military heroes of the same period” (p.308).
Claude Mariottini goes into a bit more detail on his blog, speaking about the term in relation specifically to Deborah and how she fits in with the other characters of the book.
And just because I’m a categorizer, I tried sorting the judges a few different ways:
Gideon and Jephthah’s stories both come with lengthy lectures about how the Israelites are terrible and God is just so mad. Deborah, Othniel, Ehud, and Samson get shorter references to how bad the Israelites are. Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Shamgar get little or no mention of the “falling into sin” narrative. (Neither does Abimelech, but his story seems to be a continuation of Gideon’s.)
The following judges are entered by the Spirit of the Lord: Othniel (Judges 3:10), Jephthah (Judges 11:29), Gideon (Judges 6:34), and Samson (Judges 13:25, 14:6, 14:19, 15:14).
It may be worth noting that none of the characters I sorted as Legal Judges are entered by the Spirit of the Lord, and only Deborah’s story includes the “Israelites are terrible” formula. The notion of holy possession seems tied entirely with feats of military/personal strength, not with wisdom (if anything, the opposite is true since Jephthah makes is awful vow while possessed and Samson gets possessed more than anyone).