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Abraham Lincoln and the Book of Judges

David Cowles

Jun 30, 2022

“If time travel is perfected in my lifetime, I know exactly where…and when…I’ll visit first!”

“…That government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” – Abraham Lincoln (Gettysburg Address)

Shall not perish? Where can I find this imperishable utopia of which Mr. Lincoln speaks so reverentially? I’m googling it…waiting…ah, got it, Israel. Ok, but Israel between 1250 and 1000 B.C. Well, if time travel is perfected in my lifetime, at least I know exactly where I want to go…and when!

“In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes,” (Judges 21: 25) During this period, Israel had no formal political authority. It was ruled by so-called ‘Judges.' Caveat lector! Do not confuse these Judges with the sober men and women, often unelected, often with life tenure, who preside over our courtrooms, gods of guilt. Old Testament (OT) judges were nothing like that!

In the absence of traditional institutions of government, charismatic leaders emerged from among the people to secure and advance the collective welfare of the people. These leaders relied for their authority, not on power, but on (1) their devotion to the law of God (Torah) and (2) the popular, if informal, consent of the governed.

In our era, a variety of actors compete to fill the role of an OT judge: populist politicians, military heroes, movement leaders, mob bosses, even celebrities. But the influence of these modern day pseudo-judges, unlike ancient Israel’s judges, is tightly circumscribed by our formal institutions of government.

During the period of Judges, there were no formal institutions of government in Israel. People did what was right in their own eyes and the Judges were their instruments. OT judges did not make law! It was assumed that all laws had already been made…with direct input from God. These are the 613 statutes, the Torah, now recorded in the first 5 books of the Bible.

Judges ruled Israel from the death of Joshua (following Moses) to the coronation of Saul (prior to David). They settled disputes and they defended Israel ‘against all enemies, foreign or domestic.' Along with the priests, they saw to it that God’s statutes were observed, but they were less about enforcement than they were about consensus.

For 250 years, Israel prospered under informally chosen, but popular, Judges. But the Israelites looked around and saw the pomp and power of neighboring nations, all of whom we governed by kings. So, Israel wanted a king…and eventually they got one: Saul. And the rest as they say is ‘history,' quite literally!


Image: Gideon Gathering His Army, Scene from the Book of Judges. Etienne Parrocel (French, Avignon 1696–1776 Rouen), Formerly attributed to Anonymous, Italian, first half of the 18th century.

As part of the Met's Open Access policy, you can freely copy, modify and distribute this image, even for commercial purposes. Public domain data for this object can also be accessed using the Met's Open Access API.


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