Greek Heroes vs. Hebrew Heroes

These are the notes I made for a presentation to a theological discussion group. They’re raw, but I think you will get the point.


Recently I was reading an essay by a historian who said the following, “The Greeks invented hero-based history.” That is to say, to study history by studying great leaders was invented by Herodotus, Plutarch, and Thucydides. That statement floored me. As I am studying through Judges, I wanted to show that Yahweh invented the study of history, and if we’re talking about civilizations, the Greeks likely gained what they learned about this historical method from the Jews.

The book of Judges is a book of heroes; the term “judge” can mean leader in more than a judicial sense. These heroes are great leaders but none can truly lead reformation in Israel (because Reformation begins in the house of God, a.k.a. the Levites).

The word “hero” comes from the Greek word “heros” which means “great warrior, defender, or protector.” The historian Thomas Carlyle developed an entire theory of heroes, saying that great men move events in history. He published a book, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, that listed six types of heroes: The hero as divine, the hero as prophet, the hero as poet, the hero as priest, man of letters, and king. Another book, entitled The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama, by Lord Ragland, listed 22 elements of a hero in ancient literature. Our own good teacher, Dr. Leithart published a book on the subject entitled Heroes in the City of Man, a study in Greek literary heroes.

The main difference I see between the Greek view of heroes and the Hebraic view (if you could even call it a view) is the Greeks view heroes as the makers of their history, whereas the people of Yahweh understand that Yahweh providentially guides history while raising up men and in some cases women to complete His work.  Most of the Greek heroes are men whose strength and power to perform bold exploits. Men like Hercules, Theseus, Achilles, and Odysseus all were warriors, most of whom defeated terrible enemies and protected their people. Alexander the Great held Achilles as one of his primary examples. The Greek heroes are ends in themselves, that is they accomplish their work and things go back to normal. The Hebraic view of heroes is that they work toward the fulfillment of Yahweh’s purposes. There are similarities in the two civilization’s views of heroes, but they are not working toward the same ends. All the heroes in the Old Testament are shadows of the one true warrior and protector of God’s people: Jesus the Messiah.

If we look at the entire book of Judges, we see hero after hero. Although flawed, they all accomplish great victories on behalf of God’s people. Judges is structured as a chiasm, which I’m borrowing from Prof. Bruce Waltke, with the exception of adding an “F” and “G” section, partially from Mr. James Jordan’s chiasm, and some on my own.

Chiastic Structure (Bruce Waltke) – the integrity and authority of the Book is demonstrated in this

Chiastic structure – there is little question this was done deliberately:

A. Introduction 1: Judah/Israel versus Canaanite dismemberment – 1:1-2:5

B. Introduction 2: Israel forsakes God for Baalim – 2:6-3:6

C. Orthniel: an Israelite wife is the secret of his success – 3:7-11

D. Ehud: takes ‘message’ to a foreign king; slays Moabites at Jordan – 3:12-31

E. Jael: slays Sisera and ends war – 4:1-5:31

F. Gideon is faithful in leading Israel (6:1-8:21)

G. The Kingship of Yahweh is rejected (8:22-23)

F. Gideon is unfaithful by leading Israel into idolatry (8:27-35)

E’ A woman slays Abimelech and ends war – 9:1-56

D’ Jephthah: sends messages to a foreign king; slays Ephraimites at Jordan – 10:1-12:14

C’ Samson: his foreign woman is the secret to his downfall – 13:1-16:31

B’ Epilogue 1: Idolatry is rampant – 17:1-18:31

A’ Epilogue 2: Israel/Judah versus Benjaminites and dismemberment – 19:1-21:25


Oddly enough, the judge who most resembles a Greek hero in his later attributes is Gideon. His making of the ephod was a display of the great salvation wrought in Israel. But we see in the text that Gideon was himself seeking for glory in that he outwardly resisted the title of King but gave his son a name that means, “My father is king.” This establishes a pattern of glory seeking by future judges, beginning with Gideon’s own son, Abimelech. The rest of the book of Judges shows the consequences of Israel’s failure to submit to the Kingship of Yahweh. Gideon’s sin leaves an empty space in the chiasm; where his obedience would have been the center of the book, his sin left a void in the chiasm, and in Israel.

There are many great men and women in the book of Judges. They could even be considered heroes in a sense because they were protectors and warriors on behalf of God’s people. The Greeks didn’t invent the heroic narrative; that belongs to the Hebrews. But the difference in heroic literature of the two civilizations is definite. The heroes of Judges and the rest of the Old Testament either failed or at best only led temporary reformation. They shadowed Jesus Christ, the only true warrior, protector, and defender of Yahweh’s people.

1 I added the “G” portion of this chiasm, as well as inserting a few points of James Jordan’s chiasm into Waltke’s. Those interested can consult Jordan’s work here and Waltke’s here (scroll to page 2).

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