The Role of Judges in
the Book of Mormon
When Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon, he was misled by the use of the term “judge” in the KJV Bible. He assumed that the judges of ancient Israel were like those of his own day, holding court to hear cases against wrongdoers. But we know that the Old Testament judges were actually charismatic political leaders who arose spontaneously in ancient times, not elected judicial officials.
Both the Bible and the Book of Mormon mention rule by judges, and the Nephite record also terms them “governor” (Alma 2:16; 30:29; 50:39; 60:1; Helaman 1:5, 13; 3 Nephi 1:1). The office of judge existed in the time of Moses, who had commanded “the judges of Israel” to slay a group of sinners (Numbers 25:5). The mosaic law provided for judges to “hear the causes between your brethren,” making “diligent inquisition” of witnesses, and settling every “controversy between men” (Deuteronomy 1:5; 16:18; 19:17-19; 21:1-2; 25:1-2). Judges in the time of Joshua are listed with the elders and officers (Joshua 8:33; 23:2; 24:1).
The Israelite leaders called “judges” in the biblical book of that name may well have been charismatic leaders whose main role was to deliver the people from their enemies, but other judges in the Bible were clearly involved in judicial matters. Note, however, that Deborah served in judging matters between the people (Judges 4:5). Moreover, some Book of Mormon passages indicate that the Nephite judges, like some of the ones in the book of Judges, led armies into battle (Alma 2:16; 3 Nephi 3).
In the Book of Mormon, at least two of the chief judges, Alma1 and Helaman2, are also high priests. The Bible assigns the responsibility for judgment to both priest and judge (Deuteronomy 17:9, 12; 19:17; 26:3; in the Apocrypha, see also Judith 4:6 and cf. 6:14f).[i] By Christ’s time, the high priest was able to both “judge and be judged” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 2.1), reminding us that King Mosiah made provision for higher judges to be judged by a “small number of your lower judges” (Mosiah 29:28-29).
For more information, see:
John A. Tvedtnes, “Kings and Judges in the Bible and the Book of Mormon,” posted on this web site.