I just left Sparta on my bicycle a couple of days ago. Getting to Sparta was tough. It was quite cold in the middle of the Peloponnese, and riding through the mountains I got a flat on the way into the city. I had one spare tube and two cannisters of gas to inflate it with, so I replaced the tube and filled it up, only to notice that I hadn’t properly set the tire on the bead before filling with air. Oops. So I set the tire and used my second and final cannister of gas to inflate it, but a few seconds after looking at my trusty and repaired road-ready tire, the valve burst and it deflated. So I walked with the bike for a couple of hours through the mountains until I had signal and then through a harrowing ordeal with the receptionist at the hotel I was going to, I was eventually able to call a cab and get to Sparta for a paltry fee of €70. That was how the mighty Jonathan entered the city of warriors.
Leaving was no less of a challenge. The app I use to plan my routes, Komoot, has a setting to tell it to make sure it sends you on paved roads only, in the event that you are like me and riding on a road race Émonda Superlight 5. But be warned, when you do that, if you happen to be in the mountains of Greece, Komoot will send you up nearly vertical cliffs on gravel paths covered in mud and ice, so steep you’ll likely have to walk the bike up the mountain at a snail’s pace, and not only that, but the descent will be equally steep and muddy and icy, so you’ll have to descend at a snails pace to avoid injury. The whole ordeal will make the five-hour trip take the better part of the day, so the latter part of the voyage will have to be completed in the dark, down these narrow mud-paths with dense trees on either side. That’s how it was for me. When the sun went down, the wolves came out to howl at the full moon and growl at each other, and I never knew when they were going to jump out of the trees and devour me alive. You wouldn’t believe how close they appeared to be.
Apparently the Spartans had a custom of leaving their young boys out in the forest over night with the wolves. If the boy made it home the next day he would be initiated into the next phase of the Spartan coming of age categories. If he didn’t come home the next day, it was because he had been initiated into the world of being dog food. At least that’s how the story goes. I now know what it is like to be one of those little boys.
I don’t know much else about the Spartans. I heard a few things here and there about them living in barracks and having regimented phases of life where they weren’t allowed to be with their wives and whatnot, and that Sparta eventually fell because there were only so many of them, and it was just too hard to become a Spartan citizen, and so after their many wars they just dwindled in number. I read these things and a few other academic facts about them during my days of studies of ancient cultures, but frankly, the strongest impression that I had been given about the Spartans came from the movie 300 that was directed by Zack Snyder, one of my favorite film directors.
This movie had quite an impact for a number of years after it came out. I remember when I was in Iraq, the fitness nut guys on my team during my second tour would talk of their Leonidas workouts designed to give them abdominal muscles like Gerard Butler, the actor who played King Leonidas, the leader of the Spartans in that movie. My sister’s fiancé, a Marine body builder, gym owner, and fitness trainer had until recently what I call a “Leonidas Beard” of the same style as Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas in that movie. Rather than reading it in any academic textbook, I actually learned about their practice of sending their children to the wolves in the woods at night from that movie. It was quite an experience being chased around the mountains of Laconia by wolves in the night like one of those boys. I have my Spartan experience now.
The movie was actually about the defense of the Greeks from the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae in the second Greco-Persian war. Of note, the Persian villains attacking Greece were the armies of King Xerxes I of the Archaemenid Persian kings. Xerxes I is actually called King Ahasuerus in the Bible, the husband of Queen Esther in the biblical book of Esther. He was the grandson of King Cyrus the Great, one of the three people called “Messiah” in the Hebrew Bible. The other one being King David, and the third actually being a reference to the office of the High Priest defined in the Torah and by extension applied to Moses’ brother Aaron. So this Greek battle is not disconnected from the history of the Bible and the Jews at all. It took place in 480 BCE.
The battle tells of a heroic stand of 300 Spartans against a force of what the ancient historians numbered to be millions of Persians. Modern scholars bring that number down to hundreds of thousands. The Spartans, including Leonidas, died to the last man in that battle. Images of the Alamo come to mind. Interestingly, the battle was a rear guard action to defend the retreat of Leonidas’ total force of allied Greek tribesman numbered to be seven thousand. While the 300 with the king died, they died as heroes, and they were successful, as the 7,000 did indeed escape, and the Greeks would rally later to defeat the massive Persian invasion.
Numbers can be important. For instance, around 850 BCE, 400 years prior to the Battle of Thermopylae, the Prophet Elijah would complain to God that he was alone in his war against an evil king, to which God had a response.
When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice addressed him: “Why are you here, Elijah?” He answered, “I am moved by zeal for the LORD, the God of Hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and have put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.” The LORD said to him, “Go back by the way you came, [and] on to the wilderness of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Also anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah to succeed you as prophet. Whoever escapes the sword of Hazael shall be slain by Jehu, and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu shall be slain by Elisha. I will leave in Israel only seven thousand—every knee that has not knelt to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him.”1 Kings 19:13-18
This text shows God telling Elijah that although he feels alone, his mission is to put kings in their places, and that Elijah actually is not alone, but there are out there unknown to him seven thousand who are loyal to God. So I have connected a Greek history in 480 BCE to a Hebrew one in 850 BCE using the number seven thousand. You’d think this would be a stretch, but it doesn’t end there. The Bible also has a tale of three hundred. Around 1200 BCE a guy from the Israelite tribe of Mannaseh lead a force of three hundred to defeat a much larger force of Midianites during the bibilcal period of the judges, described in the book of Judges. That would be Gideon. The namesake of the Gideon Society, the people who used to leave Bibles in hotel rooms for people to read. The Bibles that featured in the Beatles song Rocky Raccoon.
He is quite a famous biblical hero, on par with Samson the strong man and Deborah the judge as the more famous heroes of that period, and probably one of the more famous bibical characters in general. Unlike King Leonidas, he had absolutely no confidence in his ability to save Israel and forced God to perform multiple miracles before he would accept his destiny to champion the people. Also unlike Leonidas, he lived through his battles and won them. He didn’t die saving the seven thousand like Leonidas did. He just had in common with Leonidas that he was the leader of three hundred warriors who would win against impossible odds.
I am not even going to make an attempt to talk about all of the angles of the Gideon story here, as it is just too rich and multifaceted to talk about the whole thing. Maybe I could have made a post just about Gideon, but I am trying to show the connections between my personal life, a movie I saw, a Greek history, and a biblical history. So I am just going to focus on Gideon’s three hundred for my purposes here. Leonidas’ three hundred were from the elites of Sparta, a warrior class that didn’t even make it out of elementary school without evading wolves in the night. Gideon’s three hundred were selected a little differently.
Early next day, Jerubbaal—that is, Gideon—and all the troops with him encamped above En-harod, while the camp of Midian was in the plain to the north of him, at Gibeath-moreh. The LORD said to Gideon, “You have too many troops with you for Me to deliver Midian into their hands; Israel might claim for themselves the glory due to Me, thinking, ‘Our own hand has brought us victory.’ Therefore, announce to the men, ‘Let anybody who is timid and fearful turn back, as a bird flies from Mount Gilead.'” Thereupon, 22,000 of the troops turned back and 10,000 remained. “There are still too many troops,” the LORD said to Gideon. “Take them down to the water and I will sift them for you there. Anyone of whom I tell you, ‘This one is to go with you,’ that one shall go with you; and anyone of whom I tell you, ‘This one is not to go with you,’ that one shall not go.” So he took the troops down to the water. Then the LORD said to Gideon, “Set apart all those who lap up the water with their tongues like dogs from all those who get down on their knees to drink.” Now those who “lapped” the water into their mouths by hand numbered three hundred; all the rest of the troops got down on their knees to drink. Then the LORD said to Gideon, “I will deliver you and I will put Midian into your hands through the three hundred ‘lappers’; let the rest of the troops go home.”Judges 7:1-7
What we see here is fairly interesting. God actually doesn’t want Gideon to have a lot of men. He wants this victory to be a miracle of impossible odds. Remember that when you think God is destroying your ability to win. He might just want to make his presence in your victory a little more obvious.
So the first thing that God does is just tell the fearful guys to get out of dodge. Not wanted. Courageous people only. That much the army of Leonidas and Gideon have in common. Fearlessness. But then things get a little crazier. God tells everybody who kneels to drink to go. Only those who lap up water like a dog are gonna win this fight. Now this is interesting. Very interesting for religious people. You see, kneeling is what you do when you are obedient to laws. When you recognize that there is an authority over you, who you must obey. But those guys weren’t wanted. The guys who God wanted to with the war with were the dogs. The ones that lapped water like dogs. The ones who were really freaking thirsty, and who were shoving that water to their face and lapping it up like ravishing filthy animals.
It seems to me like God wanted the ones who really cared. The ones who were really enthusiastic. Was this in common with the army of Leonidas? Maybe. I think so. His story isn’t as powerful in that sense. But if you look at the movie, you see that it took a lot more than a kneeling obedient spirit to do what they did. It took unlimited courage and unbridled enthusiasm to do what they did. Yes, they were an elite warrior class, but they had to have the hearts of dogs of war to get the job done.
That’s really all I am going to say about Gideon’s three hundred, even though I could write pages and pages about the whole event. Needless to say, they won. They didn’t die like Leonidas’ three hundred, but they won just like Leonidas’ three hundred.
What am I trying to get at with all this? Christianity and Islam are some of the more exclusionary religions in the world. Christianity is an odd one. You either confess Jesus and go to heaven, or otherwise go to hell. Yet supposedly the grand inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, murderer of thousands, confessed Jesus. But King David lived a thousand years before Jesus. Surely Christians can’t say he went to hell. And what about those Eskimoes at the North Pole who never heard the name Jesus? What about the Aztecs who only ever heard of a Jesus who was annihilating them and who would send them to hell if they didn’t go to confession on a regular basis?
I’d like to posit that powerful stories like Leonidas and his three hundred are not the same as the biblical stories such as Gideon’s three hundred, but contain a lot of the same elements and powerful themes in their own right that people all over the world can interact with and find God on some kind of a level. One difference between Gideon, the biblical, holy story, and Leonidas, the story of those paltry pagan Greeks, is that Gideon didn’t die accomplishing the mission. So how about this for some food for thought:
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.John 15:13
So the story of those grubby pagans actually does have on detail in common with that New Testament story that some people consider kinda holy.
I am not an “all religions are one and the same guy.” I am a biblicist. I think there is only one perfect set of stories: Bible. But I think that themes of the Bible are all over in art and literature and in nature and in human history. And I think people can find God through them on some level. In many cases an emotive level, occacionally even lacking a cognitive acknowledgement that they’ve found God at all. That people can have found God even without realizing it, and express it through behaviors and a variety of philosophies.
I found a lot by running away from the wolves in the night. I think people find a lot by hearing the story of Leonidas and even watching the movie 300. Of course I think people find a lot by reading the story of Gideon. And yes, I say this as a Jew, but I think people find a lot by reading about and loving Jesus.
So I’m not an all religions are one guy. I am sure that the Bible is the best set of stories about God anyone is ever going to run into. But I don’t want people to think things like “what about my uncle who only ever heard Jesus was a false idol?” and get turned off to the idea of coming to God through powerful stories. I do think God talks to everyone everywhere through all kinds of art and history and through nature itself, and that all kinds of people all over are getting the message even though they may not be confessing this or that creed that they might be expected to.
This idea, that spiritual things are going on in the human heard on a deeper level, that often underlies conscious thought even, and that spiritual things are conveyed through a lot of concepts all over the world, even though some are better than others, will be a nugget to keep in mind when I get to some ideas that I will want to present down the road. For now, though, it is my hope that when you engage with powerful stories about God and human nature and the meaning of all things, that you engage with them on your own, as you, in your circumstance, and do not let yourself be bothered with the idea of how your dear uncle dealt with them, or the Eksimos at the north pole dealt with them, or even how King David dealt with them. Engage the divine as you, with your understanding and your heart. Maybe the Eskimos got from some Eskimo version of Leonidas the same thing that you get out of Gideon.
This post is a little meandering and muddy, but I am going to leave it like this because it’s a really big idea that kind of needs to be a little foggy from a read, but that can be helpful to those who think about the issue on their own later. So am just going to finish it without any further ado. Have a good week.