In recent years, biblicists have argued that the “judge of Israel” and the “era of judges” are simply the editorial invention of the Deuteronomist(s). Central to the debate is the place of Judg 2:11–19, the only passage within the book of Judges where the leaders of early Israel are specifically designated with the Hebrew title שפט, conventionally translated “judge.” Since, according to recent scholarship, שפטים never existed in Israel’s premonarchic past, their biblical attestation in Judg 2:11–19 demands an explanation. Over the past several decades, scholars have offered various ideas, none of which has been fully satisfactory. In this article, I challenge prevailing claims about the שפט of premonarchic Israel through a reexamination of the composition history of Judg 2:11–19. I argue that this literary unit underwent two phases of editing—one in Israelite circles, and another in Judahite (Deuteronomistic) circles. Behind these editorial layers of Judg 2:11–19 is what I propose may have been a substratum on which later editors built. Notwithstanding the hypothetical nature of this substratum, I show how it corresponds to certain sociopolitical realities that would have been foreign at later times of writing and how it coheres with recent models of composition history for the book of Judges. Thus, I argue that the שפט of Israel was not the invention of the Deuteronomist(s). Moreover, the findings suggest that Judg 2:11–19 may preserve a genuine memory of שפטים in premonarchic Israel. While recent scholarship has sought to explain cultural phenomena of early Israel (e.g., the שפטים) as the product of later writings, my study invites a discussion of possible links with older cultural settings.

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