In 480 B.C., so the legend goes, a band of 300 Spartans heroically positioned themselves, under the leadership of King Leonidas, in the narrow pass of Thermopylae. This was directly in the path of an oncoming force of Persians numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
The people of Sparta were nurtured in what is arguably human history’s most warlike culture. All Spartan boys at the age of 7 were entered into a demanding program—known as the Agoge—of education, military training, and indoctrination. It emphasized duty, discipline, and endurance.
The historical account of Thermopylae reports that the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae were killed to the last man.
This event has become a part of Western tradition, including occasional references in popular culture. In 1962, Hollywood produced a film entitled The 300 Spartans, recounting, as only Hollywood can do, the depiction of heroic, selfless sacrifice for home and country. The spirit of the film resonated strongly with American sentiment when it was released at precisely the same time as the Cuban missile crisis.
In 1998, inspired by The 300 Spartans, Frank Miller, an American comic-book artist and writer, authored 300, a graphic novel of a fictional account of Thermopylae. It consisted of a series of five monthly comic books.
And then in 2007 another film entitled simply 300 took up the story again, this time based on Miller’s comic-book series. Using unique cinematic techniques, the director sought to imitate much of the visual style in the graphic novel.
To return to actual history, however, the Persians won that three-day battle but ultimately lost in their quest to conquer Greece. Modern historians have adjusted the numbers a bit with regard to the courageous 300. Estimates suggest that there may have been as many as 1,500 Greeks (including Spartans) at Thermopylae. But the Spartans have always been credited with forming the backbone of that “last stand.” And even if there were 1,500 facing as many as 300,000, the heroism is undiminished.
The Greek lyric poet Simonides’ composed the well-known epitaph for those who perished at Thermopylae: “Go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”
History has many accounts of small groups of men who faced certain death with heroic resolve. At the Battle of the Alamo, the number was 200 to 300. At the Battle of Balaclava, it was 600—according to Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
But about seven or eight centuries before Thermopylae, an earlier battle involved a heroic contingent of exactly the same number—300—that has not received the same attention from Western culture as many of the others have.
To those who consider the Jewish Scriptures—the Christian Old Testament—as a truly historical canon of documents and not merely myth, the story of Gideon and his 300 is even more inspiring than that of Leonidas at Thermopylae.
God’s people—the Israelites—had been subjected to regular invasions of the Midianites for seven consecutive years. During the annual harvest time, like a plague of locusts, the nomadic Midianites swept through the land, plundered the grain, scattered the livestock, and then stole back into the desert. Israel was on the verge of starvation. Her people were hiding in caves.
Then one day Gideon, a self-styled nobody, was secretly attempting to thresh some grain in a hollowed-out winepress, apparently hoping he would be able to do so without attracting any attention. As one scholar has commented: “It is not very heroic to attend to your wheat while skulking in a winepress."1 Even though there was little to distinguish Gideon, however, an angel appeared to him and convicted him, ultimately, to put out a call to arms.
To this summons among four tribes of Israel, 32,000 men showed up—not nearly as many as any newly commissioned commander would hope for to engage the 135,000 Midianites that were on the way. But, astonishingly, God said, “Too many”! And 22,000 were sent home.
Then among the remaining 10,000, there was yet to be another culling in the form of a test—a kind of metaphorical water-filtration system. Only 300 remained.
For the coming battle, to expel the horde of 135,000 Midianites from the land of His people, God appeared to prefer His own kind of “special forces.” There was no mention of discipline or endurance. He was looking for men of character. “The men of His choice were the few who would not permit their own wants to delay them in the discharge of duty. The three hundred chosen men not only possessed courage and self-control, but they were men of faith. . . . God could direct them, and through them He could work deliverance for Israel. Success does not depend upon numbers. God can deliver by few as well as by many. He is honored not so much by the great numbers as by the character of those who serve Him."2
It could possibly be said that the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae demonstrated character, that they had a kind of faith—in the pride, honor, tradition, and posterity of humankind. Heavily outnumbered, they fully expected to sacrifice their lives in that battle with the Persians.
But the faith of the 300 Israelites gave them assurance of a victory against their Midianite opponents. They expected to win!
There was no human pride in this confidence. “Before honor is humility” (Prov. 15:33, NKJV). Through a surprise nighttime attack and a ruse that implied a force much greater than a mere 300, the Midianites were put to rout. “[T]he most unpromising methods will succeed when divinely appointed and entered upon with humility and faith.”3
From a 12th-century chronicle, the story has been told of Canute the Great, the Danish king of England during the 11th century. One day he grew tired of the flattery of his courtiers, who were constantly praising him for his greatness. He ordered that his throne be taken to the seashore and placed on the verge of the water. There, before them all, he commanded the waves of the sea not to touch him. Soon the advancing tide inevitably lapped over his feet and proved the true worth of human power—even those of kings.
King Canute never forgot this important lesson—even when his followers were telling him how great he was. From the time of his demonstration at the seashore, the story goes, he never again wore his crown. Instead he placed it upon the head of a statue of the crucified Christ. Though for a time he was a great king of an enormous domain, Canute ever recognized that all human achievement truly comes from God.
Similarly, a close reading of the rout of the Midianites makes it very clear who was responsible for this victory. Though Gideon’s name appears at the very head of the list of worthies in Hebrews 11:32 (before such heroes as Samson, David, and Samuel), the military account outlined in Judges 6–8 indicates clearly that all deliverance was from God’s initiative. One of His reasons for paring down the number from 32,000 to 300 was to prevent the possibility of Israel’s taking credit for its success (Judges 7:2). And He reinforces this in His assurance that “‘I will save you’” (vs. 7, NKJV).
There was a significant difference between Gideon’s 300 and Leonidas’ 300. Truly both groups demonstrated uncommon courage. But only Gideon’s 300, through their uncommon faith, had absolute assurance of victory.
3. Ibid., p. 554.
Gary B. Swanson