The Biblical Judges: Flesh and Blood Heroes

Unlike heroic leadership stories in other cultures, the Book of Judges presents the leaders of Israel following Joshua's conquest of Canaan (ca. 1150 – 1025 BCE), with all their strengths and weaknesses. "We learn about their greatness, and of their major downfalls – often resulting from excessive of pride," notes BIU Bible Prof. Elie Assis, Dean of the Faculty of Jewish Studies.

"Each of the 12 judges is portrayed with unique traits. At times they demonstrate spectacular courage, charisma, ingenuity and leadership, and sometimes they are seen as possessing a problematic personality, which leads them into oblivion. This is the greatness of the book, and of the Bible as a whole."

For example, the brave, left-handed Ehud Ben-Gera was able to fool the guards of Eglon, King of Moab, and hide his double-edged sword on the unexpected side of his garment. Thus he managed to assassinate the king and led his people to salvation after 18 years of slavery. "This heroic act changed the political status in the region, leading Israel to gain freedom from Moab." 

Deborah, the wife of Lapidoth, was publicly accepted as a religious authority and was responsible for the appointment of senior military personnel, e.g. Barak Ben-Avinoam. She worked behind the scenes, along with Yael, in eliminating Sisera, commander of the Canaanite army of King Jabin of Hazor, a daring act resulting in dramatic political change. "Deborah the Prophetess was a central figure even before she became a leader who came to save the people of Israel," says Assis, "There weren’t many women of her stature in the Bible."

"Gideon son of Joash, a model of leadership, reason and general boldness, is initially described as having an unstable belief in God. Even later on in his leadership, Gideon questions whether God will help Israel when needed. Only later on do his doubts disappear."  Notes Assis: "Nowhere else in the entire Bible, do we see a similar phenomenon of a person chosen by God, but who expresses his doubts."  Assis explains that the Biblical story describes his pain and concern for the nation and through his story one of the greatest messages of the Book of Judges is expressed: a worthy leader is one who first and foremost worries about his nation.

When the nation asked to crown Gideon as king, he refuses and does not want to have personal gain from his success as a judge. The opposite is the case with Jephthah of Gilead, who "comes across as a great person of faith, but at the same time, works for personal benefit, to gain honor, as he (as the son of a harlot) was initially an outcast. This is not the altruistic leader that God seeks, and he pays the price for his actions in the end, sacrificing his daughter for victory in battle.  Assis says the Biblical message is very straightforward: "Despite the compassion felt from Jephthah’s story people cannot afford such leadership. A leader has to fight solely for the good of his people.

Samson is described as crass and a womanizer but also as a judge and a man with superpowers. "He is the prototype of an extremely strong person, a fighter with great power who demonstrates great heroism, yet also an individual with a short temper and a great weakness for women, and in order to get the Philistine Delilah to give herself to him, he was willing to reveal to her his secret. "

Delilah cut Samson's hair, and thus he lost his physical strength. Nevertheless, God chooses him, weak of all people, and transforms him into a character that cannot be compared to in strength. "This brings us back to the central idea embodied in the Book of Judges," says BIU's Prof. Assis, "that reality entirely depends on who God chooses to lead, and that without the help of God, the leader is destitute."