Judges in the biblical sense were God honoring, God fearing men and women who were military leaders who were divinely inspired by God to deliver the Israelites from their enemies in whatever area of the nation God called them to defend. These were the heroes (though not necessarily 100% God followers (p. 184)) who brought victory over Israelís enemies, but did not reign as kings or queens over the people once the battle was won. They remained the leaders of the people until they died, just not in the capacity of royalty.
As judges came and went, so did the Israeli nation. When a judge led the people they tended to stay away from sin and embrace God. But when the judge died the people went back and followed the religion of their godless neighbors. The circumstances in which God would send a judge was -- the people would sin; God would hand them over to their enemies; the people would cry out; God would then send a judge to deliver them once again (p. 184). This cycle happened numerous times throughout the history of the nation of Israel, of which Othniel was the first, and included such judges as Deborah, Gideon and Samson.
Not every judge was a God-fearer and tended to follow their own hearts. Gideon tested God with his fleece and Samson continually played with the fire of Delilahís wanton tactics. The time of the judges was a time that focused on God and His dealings with His people, not a time that focused on the judges. All the judges of the period were successful in their endeavors even if they didnít exactly give God their all in heart, life, and duty.
Arnold, B., Beyer, B. (1999, 2008). Encountering the old testament: a christian survey, second edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic