Thoughts on the Biblical Heroic Tradition

In the heroic world that is an honor-shame motivated culture, the highest honor falls to those who die a heroic death, i.e. who sacrifice their lives. The biblical heroic literature presents two such examples, namely the story of Samson and that of Jephthah’s daughter…. When Jephthah’s daughter is offered to the deity (she “becomes YHWH’s”), her newly acquired status can be seen as if she became the “bride of YHWH….”

See Also: Heroines, Heroes and Deity (T&T Clark, 2019).

By Dolores Kamrada
Pázmány Péter Catholic University
Budapest, Hungary
April 2019

Gregory Mobley has dedicated an entire monography to the issue of the heroic tradition and the heroic age (Mobley 2005). He also tackled this question in his book on the Samson-saga (Mobley 2006). According to his analysis, the so-called heroic age “spans the books of Joshua, Judges and Samuel” (Mobley 2006:112). These biblical books mostly relate stories about the so-called gibbôrîm (heroes, warriors). The narratives convey the picture of a warrior culture that revolves around the basic concepts of honor and shame (cf. DeMaris and Leeb, 2006:181): for instance, overcoming your enemies or keeping one’s word may be more important than your life and the life of your beloved ones, as you can see in the tales about Samson and Jephthah (Judges 10-16). Actually, a passage in the book of Genesis (6:1-4) powerfully portrays the world of the warrior heroes, although these verses associate the gibbôrîm with the antediluvian era. Yet the actual heroic legends can be found in the books of Joshua, Judges and Samuel, as has been mentioned. The Genesis passage seems to offer a kind of legendary-mythological background against which the heroic tales can be interpreted. All three biblical books and the Genesis passage seem to suggest that they depict a long-gone era - the biblical authors do not appear as contemporary narrators of the stories (this approach is particularly apparent when it comes to the antediluvian, long past era, but cf. also the closing remark of Judges, 21:25a, “in those days there was no king in Israel”: the latter sentence obviously refers to a long bygone age). Significantly, the biblical texts share this viewpoint with the ancient Greek tradition. Namely, in Works and Days Hesiod presents the systematization of ages, and within that scheme the heroic age clearly antecedes Hesiod’s era, i.e. he regards the heroic age as a long past era (see Works and Days, lines 157-175).

          First and foremost, Genesis 6:1-4 portrays the warrior heroes as the offspring of the sons of God and mortal women. This portrayal harmonizes well with the ancient Greek and other mythological traditions about the semi-divine origins of most heroes. Strikingly, in the biblical texts about the greatest hero of all, Samson, there seem to be some references to a divine paternity motif (Bartelmus 1979:95-7, Zakovitch 1982:74-83, and Margalith 1986:397-402), which is even expressed by the same term as in Genesis 6:4 (see Mobley, 2006:40). However, Samson’s presentation as a semi-divine hero is strongly counterbalanced with the conclusion of his saga, which places him beside his mortal father, Manoah, in his tomb (Judges 16:31, cf. by contrast the deification of Hercules after his death). This clear change in tone may bear witness to a demythologization process carried out by the biblical authors in an effort to re-formulate the ancient traditions.

Ezekiel 32.27 gives a very telling, albeit brief, description of the fallen heroes, the gibbôrîm: “...lie with the fallen warriors of long ago [or ‘giant heroes of long ago’, גבורים נפלים מעולם] who went down to Sheol with their weapons of war, whose swords were laid under their heads, and whose shields are upon their bones; for the terror of the warriors was in the land of the living.” (NRSV) The context suggests that, unlike many uncircumcised warriors, “the fallen warriors of long ago” are held in high respect and esteem, as really prominent and honored heroes. The context in Genesis 6 suggests quite the opposite; or rather it offers a more nuanced portrayal, namely that “the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” were not only extremely prominent but also inherently flawed characters (cf. the subsequent Flood narrative, which explains the divine judgment with human wickedness).

Genesis 6:4 associates and even identifies the warrior heroes, the gibbôrîm, with the so-called Nephilim. The latter term can be interpreted as some kind of “giants”, as the renderings in the Septuagint and the Vulgate show, and the text of Numbers 13:33 also powerfully presents (“and there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight”). The gibbôrîm, the Nephilim, and the so-called Rephaim, Anakim, Melakim are frequently identified or associated with each another (see Coxon 1999a, 1999b). They are portrayed as eminent warriors, and giant heroes and/or the long-gone residents of Palestine, and, moreover, the spirits of dead/fallen warriors and kings, as seen above. Several prominent heroes mentioned in the biblical texts represent the “giant”/exceedingly tall type of hero: well-known examples include Goliath, the giant Philistine warrior, Samson and King Saul. As for the latter two heroes, Saul’s characteristic feature is his pre-eminent stature (“he stood head and shoulders above everyone else”, 1 Samuel 9:2), and although in the book of Judges there is no mention specifically of Samson’s height, nonetheless his superhuman feats definitely indicate a larger than life hero. A somewhat less-known example of the “giant” heroes is Og the king of Bashan, whose description reads as follows: “Now only King Og of Bashan was left of the remnant of the Rephaim. In fact his bed, an iron bed, can still be seen in Rabbah of the Ammonites. By the common cubit it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide.” (Deuteronomy 3:11) His figure is also connected to the biblical account of the Israelite conquest (cf. Joshua 12:4-6).

As is well-known, both Samson and Saul represent the physically prominent type of heroes. These two heroes exemplify the classical heroic ideal; they may act trickily and shrewdly in certain situations (cf. Samson’s riddles and Saul’s calculating attitude in 1 Samuel 15), yet their characteristic feature is their physical prowess. Saul excels in stature far above everyone else, and Samson’s superhuman strength cannot be surpassed in combat. David, however, represents a totally different heroic type. Albeit being a mighty warrior, a gibbôr ayil (cf. 1 Samuel 16.18; 17.34-36), David appears first and foremost as a bright and intelligent character, who is “prudent in speech” (1 Samuel 16.18). Furthermore, his handsome short/average figure (16.12, 18) is put in sharp contrast to the giant Goliath and the extremely tall Saul (cf. 1 Samuel 16-17). 1 Samuel 16:7 powerfully highlights the significance of this contrast as follows: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” The figure of David embodies a new heroic ideal, whose dominant feature is his overpowering cleverness (cf. the accounts about his encounters with Goliath, Saul and Achish in 1 Samuel 17-27). Significantly, a similar shift in the evaluation of heroic virtues can be seen in the ancient Greek tradition: in fact, the “astute Odysseus” replaces the greatest heroes of the Achaeans, Achilles and Aias, who both stand out as physically invincible heroes (on Odysseus’ conflict with Aias, see Odyssey 11.548-551).

When “David intones a lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan” (2 Samuel 1:17), he also laments over the fall of the classical, bodily excellent heroes. As a matter of fact, the sentence “How the heroes have fallen!” (2 Sam 1:19b, איך נפלו גבורים) may well be intended as a pun that refers to the “giant” Nephilim, whose name derives from the verb נפל, i.e. “fall.” Finally, the son of David, Solomon is depicted not only as a famously wise king but also as a typically unmilitary, unheroic character: “I am a small lad (naʻar). I do not know going out or returning.” As Mobley points out, “The latter phrase, ‘going out and returning,’ is an idiom for battle. Solomon makes no claim to be a gibbôr; he admits to being its opposite, a naʻar.” (Mobley 2005:229) In other words, according to the biblical traditions the heroic era has finally concluded with the end of David’s reign.

In the heroic world that is an honor-shame motivated culture, the highest honor falls to those who die a heroic death, i.e. who sacrifice their lives. The biblical heroic literature presents two such examples, namely the story of Samson and that of Jephthah’s daughter. In the latter narrative, it has long been understood that the term beûlāh (traditionally rendered “virgin”) in reality denotes the status of Jephthah’s daughter – she is a “girl of marriageable age” (e.g. Wenham 1972, Keukens 1982; see Judg. 11.37-38). On the other hand, it has also long been pointed out that the ritual retreat which she goes on with her female companions and the annual festival celebrated by the “daughters of Israel” in honor of Jephthah’s daughter probably refer to an initiation ritual, which the nubile girls have to get through in order to receive their new adult female status (Bal 1988:41-68, Day, 1989, esp. p. 60; see Judges 11:38-40). Interpreted within this context, Jephthah’s daughter appears to be such a heroine who embodies a certain age group and the related status. All the more so, since in the biblical text there seems to be a reference to her relationship with the deity. In the heroic world, no one equals the heroic status of the deity; he is the greatest hero of all. When Jephthah’s daughter is offered to the deity (she “becomes YHWH’s”), her newly acquired status can be seen as if she became the “bride of YHWH” (cf. in Frolov 2013:203 the title of the chapter on the Jephthah narrative, and p. 223). This is to be understood figuratively, in a spiritual sense (cf. the references to Israel and Judah, the “brides of YHWH” e.g. in Ezekiel 16). Given her young adult age and her consent to the offering, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter can be interpreted as a self-sacrifice, unlike the binding of Isaac, who is a mere boy, a naʻar (see above; cf. Gen 22.5, 12) and thus he certainly cannot give his consent to his sacrifice. Being the “bride of YHWH” and giving women the opportunity to celebrate their own, exclusively female rituals, Jephthah’s daughter embodies the summit of female heroism. As for Jephthah, he dies without offspring, and thus his “vow becomes its own punishment.” (Frolov 2013:223).

Samson definitely fulfils the role of the superhero in the biblical heroic world (see the above discussion about his possible semi-divine origins). The hair motif serves as a leading thread throughout the Samson cycle. His unshorn hair signals his Nazirite status, i.e. his extraordinary relationship with the deity (the term nāzîr denotes that Samson is “consecrated” to Elohim, cf. Judg. 13.5, 7). Interestingly, as soon as Delilah cuts Samson’s hair, his heroic power instantly evaporates (ויסר כחו מעליו, Judg. 16.19), and simultaneously YHWH departs from him (יהוה סר מעליו, v. 20). Actually, two completely identical phrases signify these two events, and this wording suggests that the latter sentence clarifies the previous one, as if Samson’s power were identified with YHWH, i.e. YHWH were his power. It seems that not only does his power reside in Samson’s hair but as if the deity too exhibits himself in his hair.

Eliezer Diamond convincingly explains some problematic points in the Samson narrative: “In the case of Samson and his mother, the roles of the offerer and offering have been divided; Samson’s mother is the offerer, and he is the oblation….Hence it is the mother…who is subject to the restrictions of wine consumption and impurity until she has brought her offering…Samson, on the other hand, is the offering. As a symbol and consequence of his perpetual dedication to God, he must let his hair grow throughout his lifetime.” (Diamond 1997:8-9) What makes Samson a truly exceptional hero is that finally no other person but Samson himself offers his life to the deity (Judges 16:28-30). Samson represents the pinnacle of male heroism, and he achieves this super-excellent status by offering himself to the deity (to the divine hero) and thus entering the sphere of holiness through his heroic death.

The fate of the equally outstanding hero, Saul, however, exemplifies the downfall of a great hero, the final, irreversible separation from God. Saul’s tragic, heroic death seems to be rather disgraceful as well. The Saul cycle centers around the theme of divination, communication with the deity (see Kamrada 2016:120-169). Since Saul’s communication with the deity deteriorates, both his close relationship with YHWH and his whole life gradually fall apart. Saul’s demise also signals the decline of the heroic era. David is a similarly great hero, the chosen one of YHWH. Still, David does not die a heroic death but founds a long-lasting dynasty. Thus the figure of David and his reign appear to conclude the heroic era within the Deuteronomistic History.



Bal, M. (1988) Death and Dissymetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bartelmus, R. (1979) Heroentum in Israel und seiner Umwelt: Eine traditionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung zu Gen. 6, 1—4 und verwandten Texten im Alten Testament und der altorientalischen Literature (ATANT 65). Zürich: Theologischer Verlag.

Coxon, P. W. (1999a) Gibborim. In K. van der Toorn, B. Becking and P.W. van der Horst (eds.) Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 345—6. Leiden: Brill. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Coxon, P. W. (1999b) Nephilim. In K. van der Toorn, B. Becking and P.W. van der Horst (eds.) Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 618—20. Leiden: Brill. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Day, P. L. (1989) From the child is born the woman: The story of Jephthah’s daughter. In P.L. Day (ed.) Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, 58—74. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

DeMaris, R. E. and Leeb, C. S. (2006) Judges - (dis)honor and ritual enactment. The Jephthah story: Judges 10:16-12:1. In P.F. Esler (ed.) Ancient Israel: The Old Testament in Its Social Context, 177-190. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Diamond, E. (1997) An Israelite Self-Offering in the Priestly Code: A New Perspective on the Nazirite. JQR 88/1—2: 1—18.

Frolov, S. (2013) Judges. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Kamrada, D. G. (2016) Heroines, Heroes and Deity: Three Narratives of the Biblical Heroic Tradition. London-New York: Bloomsbury, T&T Clark.

Keukens, K. H. (1982) Richter 11, 37f: Rite de passage und Übersetzungsprobleme. BN 19: 41—42.

Margalith, O. (1986) More Samson Legends. VT 36: 397—405.

Mobley, G. (2005) The Empty Men. The Heroic Tradition of Ancient Israel. New York: Doubleday.

Mobley, G. (2006) Samson and the Liminal Hero in the Ancient Near East. New York/London: T&T Clark.

Wenham, G. J. (1972) bĕtûlāh, ‘A girl of marriageable age’. VT 22: 326—348.

Zakovitch, Y. (1982) The Life of Samson (Hebrew). Jerusalem: Magnes.




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