What Makes a Hero: A Glimpse into Contrasts

This week I resume teaching World Literature to college students. I adore this course. Among the early topics is a section exploring the question, “What is a hero?” We begin the term by readingimages sections of Homer’s epics—the Iliad and the Odyssey. If the classics are the great books that everyone should have read but few actually have read, then I hope this course mitigates that lamentable state.

We examine the Greek and Roman pagan views of what makes a hero and discover therein that they were created. They were gods that came to be. Unlike the God of the Bible, Greek gods are not eternal. Moreover, they were created out of chaos. And the Greek gods deceived wantonly. To be a Greek god required duplicity. Olympus, e.g., exalted gods of treachery.

But what strikes me each time I read and teach through Homer’s epics is the destruction wrought by their pride–the gods’ and warriors like Achilles, Agamemnon, and Hector. When the Iliad opens Homer sets the epic initially as a bloody struggle of wills between Achilles and Agamemnon. Both warriors boast and taunt the other. Women have been captured and each man feels slighted vis a vis the spoils of war. When Calchas prophesies to Agamemnon, notice the pettiness and pride of Agamemnon, as he excoriates the prophet:

You damn soothsayer!/ You’ve never given me a good omen yet./ You take some kind of perverse pleasure in prophesying/ Doom, don’t you? Not a single favorable omen ever!/ Nothing good ever happens!/ And now you stand here/ Uttering oracles before the Greeks, telling us/ That your great ballistic god is giving us all this trouble/ Because I was unwilling to accept the ransom/ For Chryses’ daughter but preferred instead to keep her/ In my tent! And why shouldn’t I? I like her better than/ My wife Clytemnestra. She’s no worse than her/ When it comes to looks, body, mind, or ability./ Still, I’ll give her back, if that’s what’s best./ I don’t want to see the army destroyed like this./ But I want another prize ready for me right away./ I’m not going to be the only Greek without a prize,/ It wouldn’t be right. And you all see where mine is going.” (I, 112-128)

What traits of a Greek hero do you see here? Pride, wrath, petty jealousy, a preoccupation with glory for oneself.

Contrast this with the Bible’s pictures of what constitutes the heroic. In World Literature, I contrast the Greek and Roman views of heroism with biblical examples of the heroic. Joseph, whose story is recounted in Genesis, is one of our case studies.

Rather than being exalted as a boasting warrior like Achilles or Agamemnon, Joseph was betrayed by his brothers and sold by them to Ishmaelites for so many shekels of silver (Gen 37). Joseph was then taken down to Egypt and sold to Potiphar. He was imprisoned. And yet he entrusted himself to God. He did not exalt himself, his strength, or his wisdom. Even when others recognized his wisdom, Joseph ascribed it to the gift of God (Gen 41:16; 45:8; 50:19-20).

Even students with only a cursory knowledge of the Bible have often heard the words Joseph recounted to his brothers: “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:19-20 ESV).

The contrasts between Greco-Roman pagan views and the biblical view of heroism are nothing if not ample and stark. The Greek and Roman gods were finite, dependent, moody, petulant, fickle, self-absorbed, and prideful. As Francis Schaeffer wrote, they were amplified humanity. In short, they were like we are—sinful.

In glorious contrast, however, is the biblical view of the heroic. And the God of Scripture is instead infinite, transcendent, righteous, and altogether holy. And as to human heroes, rather than exalting themselves, readers see men like Joseph–men who suffer due to others’ sin, men who overcome evil with good, men who bore the wrath others deserved.

As my students will see through the Joseph narrative, the ultimate author of Joseph’s narrative pointed to a later Joseph who would likewise, but in an infinitely superior way, not exalt himself, but do the will of his Father. He would suffer for others’ sin, and even be made sin for them. And he would overcome evil by exiting his grave. He would bear wrath so that others would escape it. This was a different hero indeed.





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