Gibbor: Hero, Man of Might

   The historical narratives of the Hebrews often involve individuals that are described as gibborim (the singular is gibbor). Loosely translated, the gibbor is a "man of might" or "hero," but the two concepts are worlds apart. The heroic represents in its most abstract form a dialectic concept, that is, a concept that contains contradictory ideas. On the one hand, the hero represents the greatest potential of a human being in one or more areas. But on the other hand, because the hero represents the greatest potential of human life, the hero also represents the limitations of human life. Achieving the best that a human can achieve paradoxically also defines a limit of achievement beyond which human beings can't go. So the heroic is most often used in cultural histories and stories not to represent so much a positive view of human capability, but mainly the tragic limitations of human life.

   The notion of the heroic in Western culture is founded on the value of autonomy; the hero, from the Greek world onwards, is always defined by his or her capacity to control and order the world. In the story of Gilgamesh and in Greek histories and mythology, the hero struggles against one or more areas that he or she can't control, such as human mortality. But human autonomy is a negative term in Hebrew historiography; the most singular pattern of understanding human experience in the Hebrew scriptures is the conflict between autonomy on the one hand and obedience on the other. The eating of the apple by Adam and Eve is an act of autonomy; the direct result of the eating of the apple, which bestows knowledge of good and evil, is moral knowledge , that is, Adam and Eve gain the power to make independent moral decisions. They are ejected from Eden not as punishment, but because Yahweh fears that if they eat of the Tree of Life and gain immortality that they will be like gods. The same fear reoccurs in the story of Babel, when the peoples of the earth settle down in a single place in order to prevent their dispersion over the earth. On seeing the tower, Yahweh recognizes that if humans were allowed to remain in a single place and to speak a single language, "there would be nothing they wouldn't be capable of," and so Yahweh disperses the languages. This is a curious fear, but its clear that the writer of Genesis sees human potential as infinite. In both the expulsion from Eden and the story of Babel, Yahweh, in his own words, admits that humans could be as powerful as Yahweh himself. In Genesis , then, the real pattern of history is the historical fluctuation between human autonomy and human obedience.

   It's clear that a concept of the heroic based on human autonomy, the power of human beings to control and order the world and human life, doesn't translate to the Hebrew scriptures where humans always get into hot water whenever they begin to act and think for themselves. So the gibbor is not really a "hero" in our sense of the word; the gibbor gains heroism not from inherent power and autonomy, but from obeying god. Any power or capability the gibbor has comes from Yahweh; in the Book of Judges, the Hebrew phrase most often used to describe how the gibborim become powerful is: "and Yahweh breathed his spirit into him."

   The first historical character to be named a gibbor is Moses in Exodus ; this shows how inadequate "man of might" is as a translation of gibbor . As the original and most important of the gibborim , Moses' qualities may serve to illustrate the alien nature of this concept. When Moses is called to intervene in Hebrew history by leading the Hebrew tribes out of Egypt, he is specifically instructed to demand of the king of Egypt the freeing of the Hebrews. His response is instructive: he claims to be unimportant (which he is), of low birth (which he is), ignorant of what to say (which Yahweh confirms), and unable to speak since he is a stutterer (which would be a serious impediment). He is, in other words, the single most unqualified person for the job. However, Yahweh tells Moses that he will speak through him and work miracles through him. In the Book of Judges, Gideon is also illogically chosen as the vehicle to drive the Midianites out of Canaan. Again, Yahweh informs Gideon of his role, and Gideon complains that he is "the least son of the least tribe of Israel," that is, Yahweh couldn't have picked a more inappropriate fellow for the job. Although Yahweh assures Gideon that all will be well, Gideon nevertheless puts Yahweh through a series of tests. When the climactic battle finally comes about, Yahweh demands that Gideon send almost all of his army home, so that the Hebrews are hopelessly outnumbered 1400 to 100. Why does Yahweh demand this absurd thinning of the ranks? Because, according to Yahweh, he wants to make it evident to the Hebrews that it is Yahweh who is bringing their liberation about, not themselves. The only thing Yahweh requires of Gideon and his army is obedience rather than strength, decision, or cleverness.    This strange concept is starting to come into focus: the gibbor , rather than representing the power, autonomy, or potential of the human being instead represents the power, autonomy, and potential of Yahweh. This explains why Yahweh chooses most gibborim from the most unlikely sources. There is, however, one gibbor which seems to stand out from this crowd: Samson. In Judges 6-7, Samson is born among the Hebrews in order to free them from the Philistines. Samson, however, is neither very obedient nor very bright. The principal injunction that Yahweh has given to the Hebrews in Canaan is not to worship foreign gods and not to marry foreign women. The first thing the adult Samson does is marry a foreign woman, the Timnite wife; at the marriage ceremony he lands for the first time in hot water. He had earlier killed a lion and on stumbling on the carcass on his way to the feast, he finds that bees have built a nest in the carcass. So at the feast he bets the other men, all of them non-Hebrew, that they can't solve a riddle. He lays impossible odds that he could never pay, but he's got an ace in the hole. His riddle, "What once was fierce is now sweet," refers to the lion carcass. However, he's the only one in the room that knows about the carcass; in other words, he's cheating. Riddles are only legitimate if everyone knows the answer: the task of the riddle is to find a piece of knowledge you already have in order to fit the question. The feasters, of course, can't answer, and the threaten the Timnite woman and her father with death unless she reveal the answer. She cajoles the answer from him and reports it to the feasters who then win the bet. But Samson cheats again: he kills them all.

   What does this episode tell us? First, Samson is blithely disobeying Yahweh's injunction against marrying foreign women, that is, he is autonomous rather than obedient. Second, Samson is relying on himself solely to win the bet; this faith in himself is misplaced. Third, when Samson later gets involved with yet another foreign woman, this time a Philistine named Delilah, the exact same story repeats itself. The Philistines demand, under pain of death, that Delilah find out the secret of his strength. Samson, who doesn't seem to have learned from his failure with the riddle, ends up telling her anyway and is defeated. So, in addition to being thick-headed, Samson really does cut a pretty poor figure as a hero; his only genuine heroic action is not really heroic: the killing of the Timnite woman, her father, and the feasters with a jawbone of an ass. This act, however, is simple revenge. How does Samson free the Hebrews, how does he qualify as a hero since he doesn't really accomplish anything before he's captured and blinded? It is only when he is at his weakest—weak, blind, and helpless—that Samson becomes the hero that was predicted at his birth. It is at that point that Samson calls on Yahweh to destroy the Philistines: Samson stops behaving autonomously. At that moment, Yahweh "breathes his spirit" into Samson and the gibbor brings the house down around everyone's ears. Samson, then, does fit in the general pattern of the gibbor : his true heroic action, the freeing of the Hebrews from the Philistines, comes at the point when he is least capable of performing heroic or powerful action. His only action is submission to Yahweh; the power and strength to perform the act is clearly derived solely from Yahweh. So Samson proves what Moses and Gideon prove: all purposive action in human history comes from Yahweh. The gibbor represents, through his or her inadequacy, this primacy of Yahweh in the course of human destiny.

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-17-97