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The Period of Judges in the Old Testament - Biblical Perspectives on Government

Traditionally, the Book of Judges is taught as a period of rebellion against God with short periods of obedience. This is probably true and I am not disputing it. Indeed, Judges 2:16-19 says,

"Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to
other gods and worshiped them. Unlike their fathers, they quickly
turned from the way in which their fathers had walked, the way of
obedience to the LORD's commands. Whenever the LORD raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and
saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge
lived; for the LORD had compassion on them as they groaned under those
who oppressed and afflicted them.
But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt
than those of their fathers, following other gods and serving and
worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and
stubborn ways."

Because of this view, however, we largely ignore the governing system they had at this time and see the governance of kings as an improvement, especially with the reign of kings like David and Josiah. Yet, the reign of kings had its problems as well, quickly splitting the kingdoms and eventually leading to each of their exiles through a succession of poor reigns.

Meanwhile, we see in Samuel that the system of Judges was preferred by God over a reign of kings. Here is 1 Samuel 8:6-18,

"But when they said, "Give us a king to lead us," this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: "Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as
their king. As they
have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day,
forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do."


Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, "This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses,
and they will run in front of his chariots.
Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of
fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still
others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day."


First of all, God declares the Israelite's desire for a king as rejecting him as their ruler. With the system of Judges, the people had to rely on God to raise up a ruler to lead them. Such a ruler did not desire power, but only took it up under the command of God. The ones who did continue ruling after the war was over did not pass it on to their children. Meanwhile, even if a ruler was raised up, they did not have power over everyone, but only over those who gave it up to them. This rule was very different from the rule of kings, because it relied on God to rescue them from their times of trouble, not on the central ruler. There were long periods of time without a God appointed authority and the people had to protect themselves.

Second, God declared that a king would violate their natural rights by taking their private property as well as enslaving them, forcing them to fight his wars and build his civil projects.

After establishing an interest in this form of government, we ask, "What type of government was it?". In one sense, it was a monarchy, ruled by God himself. As I explained back in the blog article on the Suzerainty / Vassal Covenant in Deuteronomy, the people pledged themselves in service to God in exchange for protection. While this explanation works, it lacks substance. We might declare any government with a Christian or religious leader a monarchy under such a system, even though they had very different systems for choosing that leader(s). Yes, the people formally declared their allegiance in a covenant. Christians also make a similar declaration of allegiance and the Jews are still around, many still holding themselves accountable to the original covenant established back in Deuteronomy. For the purpose of this discussion, I will focus on the role of the "Judges" government executed through the people of Israel.

Through the covenant with God and the religious nature of Jewish society, we first suspect that Israel was a theocracy, ruled by the priests. With God as their ruler after all, wouldn't his earthly authorities be the priests? Outside of possibly Samuel, we see that the priests actually had very little political authority. The people were expected to carry out the dictates of the law voluntarily or at least locally. There was no established police force or body responsible for enforcing the law. For resolving disputes, the people would bring their cases before a local judge. Therefore, we see that this was not a theocracy.

First of all, we see that this system of government cannot be a monarchy, because some of the judges had overlapping periods of rule.

Second, it cannot be a democracy or a republic, because there were no elections.

While I could eliminate other forms of government, the best model that fits for me is "Anarcho-Capitalism". Locally, the people were organized into clans through their family trees. They were not completely ungoverned. Under Anarcho-Capitalism, the government develops out of the free market. The Judges were all selected as a last resort to rescue the people out of oppression from invading forces. While they were technically selected by God, they were all supported by the people, as the people volunteered for their militia to push out the invaders. In other words, any authority that they had was given them directly by the people. After being chosen, they acted responsibly and led the people back into fellowship with God. This is in contrast to the later period of kings, who mostly led Israel away from God.

In this series of articles, I am focusing on education for myself and others, so I will save recommendations and application from this for later.

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Comment by Clive-φ-Davidson Ex-NM on February 12, 2010 at 1:14am
Very informative, thank you.

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