The translation “judge” is misleading, for it suggests that the person it describes had judgment as his or her primary duty. However, the judges of Israel lived in a time before the powers of government had been separated into anything like legislative, executive, or judicial functions. As a result, “leader” or perhaps even “chief” would be a more accurate translation, for the people that the King James translation calls the judges of Israel were leaders more than they were judges. They were leaders of the groups they oversaw, persons to whom one could go for advice and good judgment, who would consult the law and use it to give wise advice or to make a wise decision—more than someone whose job was to apply the law to a case and render a judgment of guilty or innocent. And when necessary, they might act as a military leader.
In addition, the word “judge” is misleading because of the way we think about law and judgment. We understand the rule of law and the function of a judge under that rule; however, the ancients did not see government as a matter of the rule of law. Of course they knew what laws were. But whereas we understand ourselves to be governed by laws that are created and administered by people, they understood themselves to be governed by people who had the wisdom or the right to make laws, or who had the ability to interpret the previous decisions of other judges and the documents (such as religious texts) that were relevant.