On the Heroic in Primeval Genesis
Those of us living in twenty-first century America find ourselves in a culture obsessed with the heroic. The popularity of the current spate of superhero movies, which shows no sign of going away any time soon, is perhaps the most flamboyant manifestation. But the issue is even more pervasive, extending to heroes of all kinds: sports heroes, war heroes, even the “everyday” heroes featured at the ends of newscasts.
While it is not necessarily a good idea for the church to run around chasing after the concerns de jour of the broader culture, this is an area where we will do well, not only to sit up and take notice, but also to formulate a biblical understanding of the topic. Observing the theological theme of heroism in just the first eleven chapters of Scripture, this post is offered as a brief sketch of a study that might serve as a foundation for such a construct.
Scripture's glossary of heroism
The Hebrew Scriptures are endowed with a vocabulary for talking about heroism in the GBR word family. Here we find words like geber, a word for “[manly] man” and the verb gabar, to “prevail.” But the chief member of the family is the intensive adjective gibbôr (plural: gibbôrim), “mighty” or “heroic.” Most of the time this adjective is substantival and acts as a noun, typically referring to a “mighty man,” a “champion,” or a “hero.
The New Testament never employs such terminology — not even the Greek word hērōs. But that does not mean that the theological theme of heroism is absent there. Rather, the New Testament takes up the theme of heroism in the same way that it expands on the Old Testament theme of atonement without using the word itself. Further explanation of this, however, will have to wait for a future discussion. Here, our aim is to sketch the theme in primeval Genesis, where the language of heroism first appears.
Heroism in primeval Genesis
The Bible, it turns out, is very concerned to give us a God’s-eye view of heroes and heroism, and this concern begins in the earliest pages of Scripture. Literarily, the structure of Primeval Genesis (chapters 1-11) may be seen as arranged in three great acts, each of which, in turn, is composed of three movements.
In each of these three great acts that supply the structure for Primeval Genesis, we see an example of the theme of heroism (indicated by the colored “H” in each column on the chart above).
Heroism in Act 1
And antagonism I will put between you and the woman,
Between your seed and her seed,
He will smash your head,
And you will smash His heel.— Genesis 3:15
This part of the divine judgment of the serpent has traditionally been called the proto-evangelium, “first gospel.” While not everyone has always agreed that it refers to Messiah and His work, those of us who affirm that the Bible is a book about Christ should have no trouble seeing Him in this promise.
The words in Genesis 3:15 specifically predict the eventual arrival of a Person who will deal with the serpent. But beginning very early, humans understand that the implications are far greater than that. This One will put right all that has gone wrong, the painful and toilsome labors of men and women and the brokenness of relationships.
Among the three examples of heroism in primeval Genesis, this first is unique. Unlike the second and third instances, it does not feature the specific vocabulary of heroism used in the Hebrew Scriptures, namely the GBR word family. Consequently, the very fact that it is an example of the theme of heroism is not as obvious at first glance. But further attention indicates that heroism is indeed in view.
Here in Genesis 3:15, we are provided with a prototype for the Hero. This is not a Hero of human conception, but rather, a figure whose identity and mission is described by God. In him is the only true hope for restoration and greatness.
Heroism in Act 2
The second occasion of the theme of heroism comes as part of Genesis 6:1-8, which is mostly devoted to explaining the conditions that give rise to the flood. Here are the first five verses of this passage:
Now it happened that, as man began to multiply on the face of the earth, daughters were born to them. And the sons of God saw the daughters of man — that they were good, and they took for themselves wives from all around, whomever they chose. So YHWH said, “My Spirit shall not remain with man forever, inasmuch as he is flesh too. Thus, his days will be one hundred and twenty years.”
The Nephilim were in the land in those days — and so also afterward (whenever the sons of God went to the daughters of man so that they gave birth for them); they were the heroes of antiquity, men of name. And YHWH saw that the evil of man was abundant in the land, and that the entire framework of the thoughts of his heart was only evil every day.— Genesis 6:1-5
Here we find that humanity has gone astray, especially in the areas of sexuality, matrimony and procreation. Following the pattern of the woman in the garden, who “saw… good… and took” (3:6), men have turned sex and marriage into matters of indiscriminate personal preference.
But that is not all. We also learn that “the Nephilim were in the land in those days… they were the heroes of antiquity, men of name” (v. 4). This is the Bible’s first use of the term gibbôr, “mighty man” or “hero,” and it refers to a big problem. Quite simply, that there are Nephilim-heroes in the land is a major cause of the flood
It is significant that the presence of these heroes in the land is a major reason for God to wipe out all of humanity (except for Noah and family). The clear implication of the text is that the Nephilim problem is one that is shared by all people. Indeed, the verse portrays women as the willing partners of men, as they give birth for them. Human beings are making their own heroes. Rather than calling on the name of YHWH, they seek to find hope (salvation), and greatness (glory) in the celebrity of their own names or in those of their Nephilim-heroes.
By perverting their child-bearing, human beings are effectively showing contempt for the first part of God’s creation blessing, “be fruitful and multiply.” These distortions of sex, marriage and child-bearing into idolatrous hero-making leads to the corruption of the second part of the blessing, the enjoinment to “fill the land,” for humanity is filling the land with violence. This is a state of affairs that grieves the heart of God, such that He observes of man “that the entire framework of the thoughts of his heart was only every day” (v.5).
Heroism in Act 3
Once God has renovated creation with the flood, we find that the same two parts of the blessing, fruitful multiplying and the filling of the land, are once again major concerns of the text. Chapters 10 and 11 are entirely taken up with genealogies (multiplying) and a brief little narrative about man’s refusal to “scatter” (filling the land).
Standing out as unique among all those in the table of nations (ch. 10), is a particular character who is the Bible’s first individually named gibbôr.
And Cush Begat Nimrod. He began to be a hero in the land. He was a hero of hunting before YHWH. Therefore, it is said, ‘Like Nimrod,’ that is, a hero of hunting before YHWH. — Gen. 10:8-9
That Nimrod is a “hero of hunting” probably means that he is a great provider and, thereby, a civic leader. The most basic and straightforward way to understand Nimrod’s name is to see it as a form of the verb marad, meaning “we will rebel.” And, tellingly, it is this hero that, during his time, the entirety of the human race chooses to follow.
Nimrod is the first person in the Bible specifically said to have a kingdom. In fact, he has two. The first will eventually become Babylon, and the second, Assyria. He leads the people to unify as one and to build a city with a tower to reach the heavens. Ironically, in following this hero, the people of the earth find not unity and greatness, but are ultimately scattered
Heroism, Then and Now
Not much has changed since the Primeval Age. Human beings still long for restoration and greatness. After all, the echo of God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 to send a Hero to right all the wrongs of the world still resounds in the human heart. There is a yearning for this Hero. However, sadly, we prefer heroes of our own making.
Perhaps a way forward can be found in looking back: within the confines of Primeval Genesis, God allowed the label of “hero” (gibbôr) to be the province of the proud. However, these heroes never brought about any lasting greatness. On the other hand, among these so-called heroes, we find a fellowship of comparatively quiet souls who walk with the One True God in simple obedience, trusting Him as they occupy boats and tents. These are they who call on the name of YHWH and believe that there is salvation in no one else.
In doing so, they looked forward to the true Hero who has come, and who we can now look back upon. And, it is the sort of heroism that he modeled — a heroism that involved selfless humility rather than selfish pride — that we ought to stake our hopes on today, rather than that variety of heroism embraced by the modern-day “Nephilim” or “Nimrod.”