Heroes in the Bible

“…the people that do know their God shall be strong, and do exploits” (Dan 11:32).

The Bible is a book of courageous people –we would call them heroes.  Ordinary people who have faced impossible odds by faith in Jesus and who have overcome: “…Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.  Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.  And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect (Heb 11:33-40).

In our modern society we love to read about fictional heroes and heroines in ancient mythology or contemporary novels because they stir us and reach into our hearts.  But the Bible abounds with stories of genuine heroes, real people with flaws and weakness such as David and Samson, women with undaunted courage such as Deborah and Esther, women of great faith such as Leah, Ruth and Hannah, wise women such as Abigail, wise men such as Solomon, and so on.   The accounts of these true heroes are meant to encourage Christians to face the difficulties and opposition of our enemies and embolden us to live as God’s people on this earth and in this life.

Heroes with Feet of Clay

Hebrews chapter 11 has been called the “Roll Call of the Heroes of the Faith” by some Christians; but some of these Old Testament “heroes” look to be decidedly unheroic as we read the actual accounts of them.


Samson is a classic example of a hero as the secular world understands the concept, due to his superhuman strength and, sad to say, his escapades with various women; he is thus often compared to the mythological Greek hero Heracles (Hercules).  He was a judge in Israel and single-handedly fought the Philistines on Israel’s behalf, killing thousands of them in his lifetime.


Gideon, another judge in Israel, fought against the vast hordes of Midian, Amalek, and “the people of the east” (Judges 6:3).  The biblical account describes their overwhelming numbers: “And they encamped against them, and destroyed the increase of the earth, till thou come unto Gaza, and left no sustenance for Israel, neither sheep, nor ox, nor ass.  For they came up with their cattle and their tents, and they came as grasshoppers for multitude; for both they and their camels were without number: and they entered into the land to destroy it” (Judges 6:4-5). 

But God raised up Gideon, an insignificant young Hebrew, to lead his people Israel against the Midianites.  When Gideon raised an army, God pruned it to just 300 men; and with these men, Israel routed the Midianite hordes through a God-inspired ruse.  And as they fled in panic from these bold 300, Gideon sent messengers throughout Israel to come and help with the slaughter, and they slew 120,000 of the enemy; the rest, only 15,000, escaped (Jud 8:10); but Gideon pursued even these and destroyed them (Jud 8:11-12).  So great was the slaughter, and so complete the victory over the Midianites, that they never again troubled Israel (Jud 28).

Signs from God

But before the battle, when God told Gideon he wanted him to lead Israel against the Midianites, he gave this promise to Gideon: “Surely I will be with thee, and thou shalt smite the Midianites as one man” (Judges 6:16).  When God is standing before you and makes such a binding statement, you’d think that would be enough encouragement for anyone to take on the world.  God says it and that should be all-sufficient.  But it wasn’t enough for Gideon.  He immediately asked God for a sign.  It beats me why Gideon would want a sign from God when he is actually talking to God!  Isn’t that sign enough that God will be with him?  Why would anyone want more than that?!  But God is gracious and he indulged Gideon and gave Gideon the sign he had requested.  This was the first of four signs that God gave to Gideon, each of which Gideon had requested (Judges 6:14-24; 36-40; 7:9-15).  When Gideon received these signs as confirmation that God would be with him in the battle, he was assured. 

Unfortunately, Christians today often use the example of Gideon’s fleece (Judges 6:36-40) as an encouragement to ask God for a sign of their own but, while God is gracious and still gives signs for his people today as he sees fit, we ought not to ask for them, because we have the Bible and we are to live by faith.  If we depend on signs from God every time we’re confronted with a choice or a difficulty, then we’re walking by sight and not by faith.  “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign….” (Matt 16:4).  There is enough in the bible to encourage and motivate us to serve God in whatever he calls us to do, without us having to also seek a sign for confirmation.  “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58).

But signs aren’t always what we would like.  I find it curious that when Moses, in similar circumstances to Gideon, in response to God calling him to confront Pharaoh, asked for a sign that he would be with him, God promised: “Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee: when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain” (Exod 3:12).

I say “curious” because, while Gideon received four signs before the battle, the sign, the assurance, that Moses (who also made it into Hebrews 11) requested would come only after he had confronted Pharaoh; this seems to me a tad late.  Why did God do it that way?  How would a sign that God would be with Moses in a dangerous situation be reassuring if it was to be fulfilled only after the event.  What was the point or use of such a sign?  Once Moses and the people of Israel were safely on the mountain, the sign would be superfluous because they were already there.  One can sympathise with Moses if he still felt insecure when God told him this.


Again, when Israel was oppressed by their enemy, this time the Ammonites, Jephthah, the son of a harlot (Jud 11:1) and consequently an outcast in the Israelite tribe of Ephraim, was chosen by God to be the deliverer of his people.  He, too, routed Israel’s enemy in battle and saved God’s people.  Before the battle he prayed that if God gave him victory, he would offer up as a sacrifice to him: “…whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (Jud 11:29-31). 

But what or who did he expect to come through the door – his pet cat?  His favourite war hound?  He wouldn’t have had either of these and possibly didn’t even have servants or slaves, being the son of a slave woman himself; so why was he surprised when his daughter came out to greet him after his victory?  Of the few people who might have been in his house, they would be relatives (including his wife/wives) and friends.  And Jephthah is surprised when his daughter comes through the door?  Jephthah, knowing the small circle of people who supported him, was prepared to sacrifice one of them anyway.  What kind of a man – what kind of fool – was Jephthah?  And he gets praised by God and his name memorialised and commended forever in Hebrews chapter 11?  If ever there was an example of how differently man sees compared to how God sees, this is the crown!  “…for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).  Jephthah is the epitome of a hero with feet of clay.


God called David “a man after his own heart” (1 Sam 13:14).  His most well-known act, which is proverbial even in our day amongst believers and non-believers alike, is his slaying the Philistine giant, Goliath.  Goliath, we’re told, was “a man of war from his youth”; whereas, King Saul said to David, “thou art but a youth” (1 Sam 17:33).  Every Israelite soldier in the camp was afraid of Goliath due to his huge size, his height being nearly ten feet.  His armour was heavy and his weapons proportionally far larger than the same weapons of the ordinary soldier.  But David was outraged at Goliath’s blasphemy and contemptuous of him, saying, “…who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Sam 17:26).  Brave words indeed, and brimming with righteous religious fervour.  And because there was no man in all the Israelite camp who was game to accept Goliath’s challenge to mortal combat, David accepted the challenge himself.  Saying to Saul that he had killed a lion and a bear in defence of his sheep, he said, “…this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God….The LORD that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine” (1 Sam 17:34-37).  And meeting Goliath face-to-face on the battlefield, he slung a stone which lodged between the giant’s eyes, and he toppled over, as lifeless as the stone sticking out of his face.  This deed of heroism is proverbial, as well-known as any other historical event, and continues to motivate and inspire people today.

But….when David had become king, he committed a sin which was as heinous as slaying Goliath was heroic; and it is just as well-known – his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah, to cover up his adultery with Uriah’s wife (2 Sam 11:1-17).

Unlikely Heroes

These unlikely heroes were victorious over the enemies of Israel and did amazing exploits; under normal circumstances their achievements would have been impossible – but when people trust in God, and God intervenes, all things are possible.  We look at such achievements and marvel.   But as we’ve seen, God sees the heart and he commended them for their faith rather than their physical achievements.  That Samson killed a lion with his bare hands, or slew a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, means nothing to God.  That Gideon defeated the vast armies of the Midianites and their allies with just 300 men; or that Jephthah defeated the superior forces of the Ammonites and saved Israel – these are only impressive in the eyes of humans.  God overlooks the bad, the weak, the shameful, and only sees the faith of the individual as they trust in him and obey in whatever it is he has commanded them to do. 

This famous chapter – Hebrews 11 – begins: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  For by it the elders received a good report” (Heb 11:1-2).  It then goes on to list those unlikely heroes – heroes in our eyes, but whom God regards as faithful and obedient servants: “…So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which were commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do” (Lk 17:9-10).

It continues: “By faith Abel… (verse 4); By faith Enoch… (verse 5); By faith Noah… (verse 7); By faith Abraham… (verse 8)….These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen from afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth (verse 13); By faith Jacob… (verse 21); By faith Joseph… (verse 22); By faith Moses… (verse 23); By faith Rahab the prostitute … (verse 31)….And what should I say? For the time would fail me to tell of…..” (verse 32). 

Noticeable by their Absence

But where is Joshua in this list?  Why was he omitted?  If ever a person was worthy of being honoured by God, Joshua should be the first pick from the Old Testament.  But he isn’t there.  Gideon and Moses asked for a sign.  Jephthah made a bargain with God for success.  Samson and David were adulterers, and David a callous murderer.  But, in stark contrast to these other weaker saints, Joshua never questioned God, never doubted him, always instantly obeyed him without question – and yet their names are immortalised as heroes of faith; while Joshua, despite his unwavering confidence and obedience to God, is absent from the list of faith and faithfulness.

And what about faithful Deborah, a prophetess and judge of Israel (Judges 4:4)?  She had a message from God to Barak, commanding him to raise an army of 10,000 men to fight against “Sisera the captain of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into thine hand.  And Barak said unto her, If thou wilt go with me, then will I go: but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go.  And she said, I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for the LORD shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Jud 4:6-9). 

So Barak fought Sisera and destroyed his whole army and the chariots, and Sisera escaped on foot.  Seeking refuge in the tent of a woman named Jael, Sisera fell asleep from exhaustion; and Jael took a hammer and smashed a nail through his head and killed him and cut off his head (Jud 5:18-22, 26).

But it wasn’t Deborah who was enrolled in Hebrews 11; neither was it Jael, despite her courage and the prophecy about her.  No, it was Barak, who had refused to go into battle at God’s command unless Deborah went with him!  Not faithful Deborah; not courageous and patriotic Jael; but disobedient Barak who gets the glory, despite that Deborah warned it would not be for his glory.

So what are we to do with this?  How are we to understand the seeming unfair treatment of these two worthies, and others like them in the OT, having been overlooked to be immortalised for their outstanding faithful and obedient service to God; while those who were singled out for this honour were distinctly unworthy, humanly speaking?

The first thing to say is that, as I mentioned above, God doesn’t see things as we do: “…for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

The second thing, which is related to the first, is that God is a God of grace: “….where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Rom 5:20).

The third thing is that God acts with wisdom.  God is not bound by the concept of what seems unfair to us.  He challenges: “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world…the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (1 Cor 2:20, 25).

The fourth, and most important thing, is that God is absolutely sovereign.  As King Nebuchadnezzar, when his sanity was restored to him by God who had initially taken it from him, so wisely and with absolute conviction, stated: “….all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Dan 4:35); please also read Romans chapter 9.

The Saints of God

So, getting back to Hebrews 11 then, the passage goes on to describe many other acts of incredible courage and perseverance under the severest persecutions and physical torturesas these worthies endured, all for the sake of God.  Truly, the world has not seen the like of them, either before or since, who endured appalling suffering for the sake of their faith; and their example has inspired countless numbers of people to likewise endure the worst with which devils and men have tormented them; and many of them have praised God, thanking him that he has counted them worthy to suffer for him (Acts 5:41).

It is these worthies, ordinary people who achieved greatness in the eyes of humanity and commendation from God for their faith, by whom we should be motivated and inspired, rather than fictional characters, some of whom are indeed heroic, but many more of them being more bestial and devilish than human.  These are the characters that fill the novels and the games and the TV shows and movies which gain the attention and admiration of the world.  But when Jesus returns – and he will return – to judge the earth, all the fiction, all the myth and the legend, will be shown to be just that, and unbelievers will see, too late, that they literally chased a fantasy instead of Jesus and are therefore now condemned forever.  They will regret and mourn and weep that they didn’t use the time they wasted on games and fantasies instead of using it in seeking to know Jesus as their Saviour, and securing the safety of their eternity (Rev 6:12-17).

Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls (1 Pet 1:8-9).