For millennia, the Bible has served as the most influential and read book in human history. It has been used and interpreted in many ways. One recurring theme in the Bible is the astonishing bravery and determination of both people and divine beings alike. This list features ten people and deities from the Bible who have excelled in their ability to stand up against difficult odds. These individuals have been revered as heroes to many people for generations and as such have been depicted in everything from famous works of Renaissance art to modern cinematic retellings of their famed exploits. Whether you are a believer in the Bible’s stories as historical events or just regard the book as something of a novel, you cannot deny the gripping nature of the following individuals’ impressive exploits that have been part of world culture for much of civilized man’s history.
The Old Testament has a number of bold and inspiring women who stand up for what they believe in. Esther, for example, influenced the Persian king, possibly Xerxes of 300 fame, to save the empire’s Jewish population from a potential massacre. Thus, Esther has been celebrated ever since (I even acquired an Esther action figure and trading card from eBay!). Yael’s historic origins go back even further than Esther, which is why I included Yael instead. Moreover, she gets more personally and physically involved in her most famous action than Esther did.
Yael lived during a perilous time for Israel when King Jabin’s troops threatened Israel. Leading Jabin’s army was a man named Sisera. According to prophetess Deborah, God would give Israel victory after a woman slays Jabin’s captain, i.e. Sisera. Yael would be that woman. She initially treated Sisera as a guest when he came upon her tent after a battle, providing him with refreshments even, but when he fell asleep, she came upon him with a tent peg and a mallet. She proceeded to forcefully hammer the peg into his temple, through his head, and into the ground, obviously killing him. Israel indeed triumphed and as for Yael, she has been considered “blessed” for her actions. Numerous paintings depict her decisive action.
9. Ramesses II
Ramesses II ruled as Pharaoh of Egypt from 1279–1213 BC. He is one of Egypt’s most significant pharaohs and is one of the few to be known as “the Great.” He was responsible for various building activity and monuments during his long reign. Yet, he perhaps best known as a villain in the Bible for Ramesses II is the most commonly designated candidate for the role of “Pharaoh of the Exodus”.
Whether he actually was or was not is disputed, but he lived in about the right time and as such is contemporaneous with Biblical events. Because it is not certain if the Bible is referring to him, I have placed him low on the list, but if he is indeed that particular pharaoh as so many suspect, then villain or not, he was an impressive and determined man. In the Biblical sense, the pharaoh’s heart is hardened many times and in the faces of multiple disastrous plagues before finally giving in. How many people would be so steadfast in the face of such hardships? In the historic sense, Ramesses’s reign saw numerous campaigns and battles against Egypt’s neighbors in Syria, Nubia, and Libya. Among other triumphs, he defeated sea pirates and fought against the Hittites in one of ancient history’s oldest recorded battles before the two sides agreed to a peace treaty. Even if you do not believe the Bible’s version of history, other sources attest to this ancient ruler’s numerous accomplishments as a great builder and military commander.
The second woman on our list and arguably the more famous of the two is a woman also known for getting her hands bloody for the sake of her people. She too has been the subject of over a hundred paintings and sculptures, some of which are so-revered that they typically appear in textbooks. I teach college history and books covering Renaissance and Baroque art, for example, frequently show such scenes.
Judith Slaying Holofernes by the Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi, completed between 1611–12, is a common and particularly gory one that appears regularly in books I use for Western Civilization courses. So, who was Judith and Holofernes? Well, their story is somewhat reminiscent of Yael’s in that it too has to deal with an invading army and is set in tent. In this case, Holofernes is an Assyrian commander working on behalf of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. In that capacity, Holofernes besieged a Jewish city called Bethulia and cut off the water supply to the city.
In such a desperate situation, the beautiful Judith went to see Holofernes. He fell for her and drank to the point of passing out while with her in his tent. Like Sisera before him, he made a fatal blunder in trusting the supposed kindness of a woman coming from his opponents’ people. Yet, instead of having a tent peg driven through his head, Holofernes suffered full on decapitation. Once again, due to a woman’s bravery and willingness to personally execute an aggressor, the ancient Jews were saved from potential disaster.
Noah may not have been a fighting man per se, but anyone who manages to build an ark capable of carrying a massive quantity of wildlife during a cataclysmic and lengthy flood is someone with an extreme degree of fortitude. Considering that, according to the Book of Genesis, this flood resulted in the near extinction of mankind, someone not only surviving such an unprecedented disaster, but then going on to live for another 350 years and dying at age 950, Noah must meet some kind of extreme definition of “ultimate badass”. Enduring for so long and surviving amidst such horrifying events and saving humanity and animal kind, too, earns a place on this list.
6. Alexander the Great
Yes, Alexander III of Macedon is indeed actually mentioned in the Bible. Although the Bible does not cover him at any great length, 1 Maccabees does summarize some key events and mentions Alexander to set the stage for Judas Maccabeus’s revolt against the Seleucid Empire, one of the Greco-Macedonian successor states to Alexander’s former empire. Of any of the people on this list known for fighting prowess and military acumen, Alexander the Great far exceeds them.
The only reason he does not rank higher on the list then is because he is not featured as prominently in the Bible as the others on this list. Nevertheless, few in history rival Alexander as a conqueror. The man personally fought in battles, suffering numerous injuries and personally slaying various opponents. He was almost killed in one battle and later went on to murder the man who saved his life! He led men on a series of campaigns from Europe to Asia to Africa and then further into Asia in an era that predates automobiles and airplanes by millennia. The amount of distance he and his army covered and the amount of fighting he personally participated is almost unmatched in all of history. It is no wonder he has been the subject of multiple major motion pictures and has even been made into an action figure.
Joshua is one of several figures on this list to appear as the subject of an episode of the History Channel’s Battles BC (the others being Alexander, David, Moses, and Ramesses). Joshua reportedly lived to the ripe old age of 110. Perhaps not as impressive as Noah, but during those 110 years, Joshua served first as a major subordinate to Moses and then as his successor as leader of the Israelites. As such, he endured the events of the Exodus out of Egypt and spied on behalf of Moses. He then commanded the Israelites in their first battle against the Amalekites, in which Joshua triumphed.
According to the Bible, none other than God selected Joshua as Moses’s successor, which is pretty much the ultimate endorsement for any leader. Joshua won his greatest and most celebrated victory by taking Jericho after his army blew down the city’s walls with their trumpets. Joshua even managed to defeat the Amorite kings at Gibeon thanks to divine intervention. In this case, God made the Sun stand still so that the battle could go on for a bit longer during daylight.
Now, yes, many of these events may be disputed by people who are neither Jewish nor Christian, but again, for the purpose of this list, we are largely focusing on what the Bible either claims or does not dispute about the people described within it. Moreover, even if you do not believe that God backed Joshua, then that means his historic victories were accomplished by more mortals means, which arguably makes his accomplishments even more impressive.
David is not only the name of my brother (a police officer capable of bench pressing over 500 lbs and former wrestling team captain), it was also the name of one of Judeo-Christianity’s great biblical heroes. David is the original Rocky Balboa. After refusing to wear armor, David manages to slew the massive and formidable Goliath in one on one combat using his sling and a single stone to Goliath’s head. But David does not stop there. He then proceeds to behead Goliath as well.
David next becomes a commander in King Saul’s army and gets to marry the king’s daughter after bringing more than 200 foreskins (don’t ask!) of dead and defeated Philistines to the Israelite king. After Saul’s death, David soon becomes the new king and continues the country’s military successes over various neighbors. David’s forces even defeat a rebellion by his son Absalom. The shear number of victories David wins and people he slays is incredible. Not to forget that in the Biblical version of things, he also has the backing of God. As such, in terms of someone you neither want to fight one on one or in battle, David is one of history’s ultimate badasses!
One might visualize Moses as a stereotyped old man holding the Ten Commandments, but he is so much more both in the Bible and historically. Once again, he has divine backing, which makes him and his cause a force to be reckoned with. His Biblical odyssey has been retold numerous times and is one of the most celebrated stories in world history. From the plagues of Egypt to crossing the Red Sea to receiving the Ten Commandments, being able to lead people through so many hardships and adventures is beyond remarkable. In the aftermath of the Exodus, Moses’s people also faced military challenges.
Although Joshua did a good deal of Moses’s fighting, Moses was nevertheless the supreme human commander in a sense and as such was technically leader of the Israelites during their earliest military victories. Thus, Moses led his people to freedom from Egyptian rule and in victory over the Amalekites and thereby put them in a position to enjoy continued success under Joshua before settling down and establishing a Kingdom of their own under Saul.
For playing such a key role in laying the foundations of three major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) amidst amazing hardships and struggles, Moses is definitely one of the key protagonists of the Bible and has been celebrated as such for so long that few in history have had such an enduring reputation among so many people in so many different places of the world.
On one hand, the suffering that Job endures while remaining faithful is about as determined and steadfast as one can find from anyone in the Bible. Yet, Job’s story largely ends with the account of his perils and rewards for persevering. Jesus, however, not only endures brutal torment and betrayal as reenacted in numerous passion plays and films, he also goes on to be resurrected. Anyone who can perform miracles, come back from barbaric torture, and inspire billions of people for over nearly thousand years to do praiseworthy acts of charity is unique to history.
No one has been more polarizing and yet more influential in a religious sense (Christianity is the world’s most followed religion today) than Jesus. Napoleon once said, “I know men and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between Him and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creation of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.” Indeed, Jesus was not a military man. He did not personally kill people and even advised his followers to literally turn the other cheek. Yet, he did things and suffered in ways that no other person in the Bible did. For his sacrifice, he must rank so high on our list, for as Napoleon recognized, Jesus towers over even Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon as probably the most influential person in history.
1. Yahweh a.k.a. Jehovah
Yahweh, Jehovah, God the Father, whatever you want to call Him is without a doubt the most significant presence in the Bible. No man can compare to a God. Nothing is more awe-inspiring than an omnipotent and omniscient being capable of creating worlds and life and destroying it when displeased only to start anew as well. Throughout the Bible, any enemies of God meet frightening fates whether it be turned into salt or drowned in the Great Flood. Those who persecute his chosen people suffer devastating plagues and catastrophic military defeats.
If there is anyone/thing you do not want to cross in the Bible it is ultimately God, because it is He who backs and motivates everyone else in this list and as such in the Bible’s version of things, none of the great victories of the Israelites would have been possible without Him. Again, yes, it is of course a matter of faith whether you personally believe in God’s existence, but even if you read the Bible as a novel, clearly the most powerful “character” is God himself. The fact that billions of people have been persuaded to believe in His existence in the real world makes him that much more astonishing.
No one or thing else in all of human literature has had anywhere near the influence on world events and attitudes as God from the Bible. As such, nothing else could possibly justifiably come in first on this list.