Since stories began, humankind has been obsessed with heroes. I’m not just talking about comic book stars like Iron Man and Wolverine, I’m talking about the mortal sons of Greek gods like Heracles and the noble monster-slaying men of Norse folklore like Beowulf. The nations around ancient Israel were no different, with heroes such as the Babylonian Gilgamesh still known and spoken about today (the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh is often compared with the Noah’s Ark story in the Bible). So, did the Hebrews have heroes?
Yes…and no. They had great men (and a good amount of great women, too), but these people weren’t like the heroes of neighbouring countries. The heroes of other cultures fought more for their own honour and fame than they did for the benefit of anyone else, constantly striving for recognition and acknowledgement. A cynic might say that they were very insecure! To these heroes, personal honour was everything, and it is remarkable how this sense of honour has pervaded cultures from all across the world. From the mythical warriors of the Greek epics and the Norse tales, to the native tribes of North America, to the supreme samurai warriors of Japan, personal honour is a core ingredient in both mythology and reality.
For the historic figures of ancient Israel, the greatest people were those who didn’t fight for their own honour, but fought for God’s honour. They did not trust in their own strength, but trusted in that which the Lord had given them. The words of the Psalmists sum up this attitude perfectly:
“The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” – Psalm 18:2
“The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me.” – Psalm 28:7a
“The Lord is my strength and my defence; he has become my salvation.” – Psalm 118:14
Those that we may consider heroes of the Bible always had one thing in common: they put God before anything else in their lives. Often, there was nothing remarkable about these people, yet they became ‘heroes of the faith’ because they acted for the glory of God. Moses, Joshua, David, Gideon, Elijah…all of these put God first and acted on what he told them to do. Were they perfect? Of course not! But they gave themselves over to God.
The same cannot be said for the heroes of other nations. For one thing, birth and ancestry were vital. Heroes were the sons of gods and kings; commoners were decent soldiers at best. Sure, heroes were pious enough in cultures where piety was valued – I’m thinking of the Roman hero Aeneas – but by and large, heroes were great men who were heroes simply because they were more powerful than others.
The heroes of ancient Greece weren’t even particularly good people, either! They acted in accordance with ‘heroic code’, a way of life that was different from normal men, based on strength and extreme honour. Today, Christians can look at people in the Bible and learn from them, particularly in the examples of faith given in Hebrews 11. We can identify with them because most of them started out as no more extraordinary than us. The faith that they showed encourages us to show faith in our own lives.
So the answer to my question is yes, the Bible had heroes in the sense that there were people who we can look up to, people who stood out from the crowd and did great things, but they were not heroes as other nations would understand them. These heroes didn’t fight for themselves; they fought for the God that gave them their strength. It always came back to God, and because of this they were able to help a lot more people than if they had only been out for themselves. If you ask me, that makes them more heroic than any of those only out for honour and fame.