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Bible Dictionaries

Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words

Judge

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A. Verb.

Shâphaṭ (שָׁפַט, Strong's #8199), “to judge, deliver, rule.” This verb also occurs in Ugaritic, Phoenician, Arabic, Akkadian, and post-biblical Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew attests shâphaṭ around 125 times and in all periods.

In many contexts this root has a judicial sense. Shâphaṭ refers to the activity of a third party who sits over two parties at odds with one another. This third party hears their cases against one another and decides where the right is and what to do about it (he functions as both judge and jury). So Sarai said to Abram: “My wrong [outrage done me] be upon thee [in your lap]: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the Lord judge between me and thee” (Gen. 16:5—the first occurrence of the word). Sarai had given Hagar to Abram in her stead. This act was in keeping with ancient Nuzu law, which Abram apparently knew and followed. The legal rights to the child would be Sarai’s. This would mean that Hagar “did all the work” and received none of the privileges. Consequently she made things miserable for Sarai. As the tribal and family head Abram’s responsibility was to keep things in order. This he did not do. Thus Sarai declares that she is innocent of wrongdoing; she has done nothing to earn Hagar’s mistreatment, and Abram is at fault in not getting the household in order. Her appeal is: since Abram has not done his duty (normally he would be the judge of tribal matters), “the Lord decide” between us, that is, in a judicial sense, as to who is in the right. Abram granted the legitimacy of her case and handed Hagar over to her to be brought into line (Gen. 16:6).

Shâphaṭ also speaks of the accomplishing of a sentence. Both this concept and those of hearing the case and rendering a decision are seen in Gen. 18:25, where Abraham speaks of “the Judge [literally, “One who judges”] of all the earth.” In 1 Sam. 3:13 the emphasis is solely on “delivering” the sentence: “For I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth.…”

In some cases “judging” really means delivering from injustice or oppression. David says to Saul: “The Lord therefore be judge and judge between me and thee, and see, and plead my cause, and deliver me out of thine hand” (1 Sam. 24:15). This sense (in addition to the judicial sense), “to deliver,” is to be understood when one speaks of the judges of Israel (Judg. 2:16): “Nevertheless the Lord raised up judges, which delivered them out of the hand of those that [plundered] them.”

Shâphaṭ can be used not only of an act of deliverance, but of a process whereby order and law are maintained within a group. This idea also is included in the concept of the judges of Israel: “And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time” (Judg. 4:4). This activity was judicial and constituted a kind of ruling over Israel. Certainly ruling is in mind in Num. 25:5: “And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, ‘Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baal-Peor’” (1 Sam. 8:1).

The military deliverer was the head over a volunteer army summoned when danger threatened (militia). In the time of Samuel this procedure proved inadequate for Israel. They wanted a leader who would organize and lead a standing army. They asked Samuel, therefore, for a king such as the other nations had, one who was apt and trained in warfare, and whose successor (son) would be carefully trained, too. There would be more continuity in leadership as a result. Included in this idea of a king who would “judge” them like the other nations was the idea of a ruler; in order to sustain a permanent army and its training, the people had to be organized for taxation and conscription. This is what is in view in 1 Sam. 8:6-18 as Samuel explains.

B. Nouns.

Mishpâṭ (מִשְׁפָּט, Strong's #4941), “judgment; rights.” This noun, which appears around 420 times, also appears in Ugaritic.

This word has two main senses; the first deals with the act of sitting as a judge, hearing a case, and rendering a proper verdict. Eccl. 12:14 is one such occurrence: “For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.”

Mishpâṭ can also refer to the “rights” belonging to someone (Exod. 23:6). This second sense carries several nuances: the sphere in which things are in proper relationship to one’s claims (Gen. 18:19—the first occurrence); a judicial verdict (Deut. 17:9); the statement of the case for the accused (Num. 27:5); and an established ordinance (Exod. 21:1).

The noun shepatim refers to “acts of judgment.” One of the 16 occurrences is in Num. 33:4: “For the Egyptians buried all their firstborn, which the Lord had smitten among them: upon their gods also the Lord executed judgments.”

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Bibliography Information
Vines, W. E., M. A. Entry for 'Judge'. Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/vot/j/judge.html. 1940.

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