David was the ideal king and man, and his story is one of the great sagas of the ancient world. But if you read the story itself instead of relying on commentaries, you’ll find a very different character.
David has a lot in common with flawed heroes like Achilles in the Iliad, or Lancelot in the Arthurian legends. He is one of the most remarkable personalities in the Bible, a man with outstanding ability and also very human failings.
He was a brave fighter, a wily politician, and a gifted musician and poet.
The Bible describes David as a good-looking man, red-headed and with beautiful eyes, and he certainly could charm and manipulate people. He was also sexually unrestrained and the head of a tragically dysfunctional family whom he made little effort to control.
With David, the two words that spring to mind are ‘charismatic’ and ‘unscrupulous’.
He had relatively obscure beginnings, but by the end of his life he had established a monarchy that united the twelve tribes of Israel under one leader. He captured the fortress of Jebus then made it his capital, Jerusalem. He founded a dynasty that lasted for four hundred years and created a sense of national identity for the Jewish people, that has lasted to today.
The David and Goliath story has an enduring fascination for people everywhere.
Joseph of Nazareth – an unlikely hero
Joseph was an ordinary man from an obscure village in rural Galilee. He could never have guessed how many millions of people would know about his life and speak of him with respect and affection.
Joseph of Nazareth, by Christopher Eccleston
Joseph remains the model of the ideal husband and father – though given the time and place, it cannot have been easy for him. He lived in a society that demanded virginity in a bride, and yet he was prepared to marry a girl who was already with child, a child whom he knew was not his.
Someone who is never mentioned in the story is Joseph’s mother: being a traditional Jewish mother, one wonders what she said about Joseph’s marriage to Mary, a girl who was clearly no longer a virgin.
Interior of a mud-brick house, similar to the one in which Joseph and Mary lived
Joseph believed in his dreams, but perhaps family disapproval was also part of the reason that Joseph took his wife and child and moved to Egypt for a time. Perhaps there was also more work there.
But when he returned he settled down in Nazareth to supporting and looking after his little family. He may have found work at the nearby town of Sepphoris, which was being rebuilt by the ruler of the area, Herod Antipas. If that was so, he probably took the boy Jesus along to learn the trade of carpentry/building.
Nothing is known of his later life or eventual death, but he has been revered through the centuries for the quiet devotion he showed to Mary and Jesus, and has been seen as a role model for husbands and fathers everywhere.
Moses : relucant leader, lawgiver
Moses in the film ‘The Ten Commandments’
Moses hammered out one of the central ideals of Judaism: concern for social justice. This unique leader freed his people from slavery in Egypt, and led them to freedom, setting an example for later generations of Jews.
Moses was in effect the founder of a nation, and organizer, law-maker, and defender of his people. Perhaps the most remarkable quality of this modest man was his solicitude for his people, in spite of their failings and ingratitude.
Moses was the greatest of the prophets, the only person in the Bible who spoke to God face to face, in contrast to the other prophets to whom God spoke only in visions and dreams.
But he was also something of a tragic figure. He grew up in a foreign court and was rejected at first by his own people when he tried to help them. He became a fugitive when he intervened on behalf of a Hebrew slave and killed an Egyptian. His own people complained when he tried to free them from Pharaoh and slavery.
The irony was that Moses had never sought fame. When God called him to be a leader, he did not want the job. He was unsuitable, he thought, not an inspiring speaker but a mumbler, perhaps a stutterer. But God urged Moses to take up the burden, and he did.
After they escaped from Egypt, the people constantly complained, and there was opposition from his brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, and attempts to dislodge him from his position as leader.
After all this, God did not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land when he finally arrived there – he glimpsed it from Mount Nebo, but did not live to enter it.
He was, it seems, quite sensible in being reluctant to take on the job in the first place – see his hesitation in Exodus 3:11 – 4:16.
Paul – a fierce, passionate man.
Paul‘s dominant characteristic must have been courage, both intellectual and physical, since he never hesitated to stand up for his beliefs, no matter who or what opposed him. It is because of his dedication that Christianity found a foothold in the ancient world and eventually grow into a religion that changed the world.
Paul never met Jesus face to face, but he believed he had seen Jesus in a vision (see below), and so knew his Savior at a deeper, truer level. This idea, that Jesus was Savior, took hold of Paul, so that he saw it as an overpowering mission to tell other people about Jesus.
Caravaggio’s painting of St Paul at the moment of his conversion
Paul was a doer, and an organizer, and he travelled around from city to city, talking to whomever would listen. The people he talked to were not always hospitable to Paul’s new ideas, and he often ended up in trouble – serious trouble. But he also had an growing band of followers and supporters, and he did not allow himself to be dispirited by setbacks.
His novel idea was that Jesus had come not just to the Jewish people but to everyone, on every social level, religious background or nationality. This meant he clashed with the more traditionally-minded Jerusalem Christians, and on several occasions Paul was arrested and imprisoned. None of this fazed him. Paul was a man with a vision of how the world could be, and he gave his life to making this vision come true.
Map showing the routes of Paul’s missionary journeys
Noah – a good man in a wicked world
Unlike most of us, Noah was able to keep himself clear of the evil around him. He was not naive or stupid – he saw the sins that people did, but he kept himself apart, untainted. He was married, with three sons who were also married, and he and his family lived somewhere in ancient Mesopotamia, the Land of the Two Rivers (see Maps).
Floods in this part of the world were common, but there was one flood that was far worse than ever before, and most of the people and animals were wiped out.
Noah and his family were not – Noah had sensed that the flood was coming and had gathered his family and many animals into a safe place, where they were able to sit out the unprecedented storm and wait for the earth to return to normal.
Noah’s Ark, by Edward Hicks
When it did, the first thing Noah and his family did was give thanks to God for saving them. He and his family started afresh in a new, washed-clean world.
They became tillers of the earth – farmers. Among other things, they grew grapes, and Noah is credited with making the first wine. Unfortunately he misused this gift and got drunk, making himself an object of ridicule to his family. Then when he sobered up and realized what an idiot he had been, he cursed his son Ham, the son who had laughed at him most, instead of admitting his own failing.
So although Noah saved humans and animals during the great flood, he was also a very human hero.
Samson, strongman, but not a gentle giant
Samson was the son of conservative, godly parents, and was consecrated as a Nazirite at his birth – which meant that he was dedicated to God, would never drink alcohol and would always leave his hair uncut, to show his calling. His parents knew he was special, since his birth had been heralded by the appearance of an angel of Jahweh.
Samson grew up to be an exceptionally strong man, but he was never a ‘gentle giant’. Quite the reverse. He never negotiated with an enemy when there was a chance of fighting. He did not fight in the army, as other ancient heroes like Achilles did in the Iliad. Rather, he used his personal strength to take on and vanquish an enemy, whoever they might be.
Samson killing the lion, painting by Luca Giordano
He caused mayhem on numerous occasions. Some of his feats include:
the killing of thirty Philistines who bribed/bullied his new wife into telling them the answer to a riddle Samson had composed
Samson pushed the stone pillars holding up the roof, and the building collapsed, killing everyone including Samson. From the movie ‘Samson & Delilah’.
the burning of Philistine wheat fields just before harvest, as revenge when his wife-to-be was given in marriage to his best man at the cancelled wedding. He lit the tails of 300 unfortunate foxes and released them among the wheat
his final escapades with Delilah, who deceived him so that she could learn the secret of his strength.
When the Philistines finally learned the reason behind his prodigious strength, they captured Samson and put out his eyes making him, they thought, utterly helpless. He was led into the temple of Dagon and made sport of as part of the entertainment.
But unnoticed by the Philistines, his hair had begun to grow back. In one last heroic effort, he pulled the two supporting pillars of the temple down and destroyed himself and up to three thousand Philistines as it collapsed.
Gideon invents guerrilla warfare
Gideon developed a type of warfare that helped the Israelites gain control over land dominated by the Canaanites, who were superior in number and technology, and who seemed to be an unbeatable enemy.
He introduced guerilla warfare, and is credited with being the military leader who defeated the Midianites, one of Israel’s enemies at that time.
He was an unlikely hero, a man from an obscure clan, and at first he doubted his ability to win any battle at all. But God kept nudging him into action, and eventually Gideon gathered quite a large group of soldiers to attack the enemy. He thought that was the way to go, that size mattered. But it was not what God wanted.
‘You’ve got it wrong’ said God, ‘There are too many men in your army, making too much noise and needing too much military equipment’ – or words to that effect.
So Gideon cut down the numbers until he had only a small force, and then he attacked at night, surprising the enemy and panicking them so that they were easy to kill.
Gideon’s lightly armed soldiers defeat the better-equipped army of their enemies
This became the pattern of battle for the under-equipped and ill-trained Israelite soldiers when they faced a superior enemy – and it worked well for them many times. They would attack when and where they were least expected, harassing the enemy and then drawing back into the hills where a large army could not follow them. Gideon had invented the military version of the David/Goliath strategy.
Mordecai, savior of his people
Mordecai was a descendent of King Saul, but he lived far away from Israel – in Shushan (Susa), the capital of the Persian Empire, during the Exile.
He had a young cousin, an orphan, whom he looked after. Her name was Esther, and she was unusually beautiful and intelligent. When she was chosen to be the new wife of King Ahasuerus, the Persian king, he advised her not to tell people she was Jewish. She wisely took his advice.
Mordecai was instrumental in foiling a plot to assassinate the king, and this was duly noted. He also made a dangerous enemy in Haman, the king’s top minister, who became obsessed with hatred not only for Mordecai, but for the whole Jewish population. Haman did not know that Esther was Jewish.
Reconstruction of a gallows
Eventually Haman persuaded King Ahasuerus to conduct a nation-wide pogrom against the Jewish people.
This would have gone ahead had not Mordecia suggested a way that Esther could save her people. It was a dangerous plan but it worked, and Haman was defeated and hanged on the very gallows he had erected for Mordecai – as were his ten sons.
Mordecai became the king’s chief minister, the most influential man in the kingdom, and the events of this story are celebrated each year at the festival of Purim.
Joseph – loved, envied, generous and wily
Joseph was the son of Jacob and Rachel. He was his father’s favorite, and as a mark of this favor Jacob gave him a long-sleeved coat, a garment of multi-colored strips unsuitable for day-to-day work. Joseph dreamt he would be greater than any of his eleven older brothers, and when he told them this they were angry at what they saw as his vanity.
This Egyptian mural from the tombs at Beni-hasan may show Hebrew merchants and traders
One day their anger spilt over into rage, and they trapped him and sold him to passing slave-traders. He was taken to Egypt, where he soon had great success, rising to the senior position in the house of his Egyptian owner Potiphar.
Unfortunately he attracted the attentions of his owner’s wife, who took a passionate fancy to him – Joseph was also exceptionally handsome and attractive. When he rejected her advances she accused him of trying to rape her, and Joseph was imprisoned.
Even in prison, however, his ability could not be hidden, and he succeeded in gaining the trust and admiration of all around him. He was able to interpret the dreams of fellow-prisoners, and one of them told Pharaoh about him. Since Pharaoh was plagued by a recurring dream he sent for Joseph, who was able to tell him exactly what the dream meant – that a terrible famine was coming. Pharaoh decided to prepare for the famine, and put
Mural of an Egyptian official or ruler, from the Altes Museum
Joseph in charge of the task. Joseph was of course successful, and saved Egypt from famine.
Meanwhile, Joseph’s family was also suffering from the famine. They decided to go down into Egypt to buy grain, and of course they met up with Joseph.
The irony was that they did not recognize this Egyptianized official as the brother they had sold long ago. But he recognized them, and played a rather cruel trick on them.
In the end he was reconciled with them all, and reunited with his father before the old man died.
Bible Study Resource for the Bible’s greatest Heroes: David, Joseph of Nazareth, Joseph of Egypt, Noah, Gideon, Moses, Noah, Mordecai, Samson