The 300 Israelites vs. The 300 Spartans
“The Lord said to Gideon, ‘The people who are with you are too many for me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, staying, ‘My own power has delivered me’” (Judges 7:2).
As I was working on an upcoming sermon on the book of Judges I found myself amazed by God’s power that he showed in crushing the Midianite army with a force of only 300 Israelite men. One of the points of the narrative is to rob Israel of any right to claim it contributed to its victory. One of the ways that God robs them of this right is that he pares down the army of Israel from 32,000 men to 300 men.
As I thought about this text my mind wandered to the places a skeptic might go with regard to this text. I can imagine a skeptical person saying, “It’s no sign of God’s favor that Israel conquered the Midianites (who at least numbered over 135,000 – see Judges 8:10).” After all, such a person might say, 300 Spartans repelled the Persian army with over 100,000 soldiers in it, and they didn’t have God with them, presumably.
This event (which took place around approximately 1150 BC) drove me back to thinking about the Battle of Thermopolae, which took place about 600 years later in Greece around 480 B.C. Without going too deep into the history I suppose I might summarize this episode in Greek history by explaining that Xerxes was the king of the Persians. Xerxes was determined to conquer Greece, but to do so he had to funnel his massive army through the Greek pass of Thermopolae.
Realizing that the Persian army was about to march over their lands and conquer them, a bold Greek force of about 7000 men (including King Leonidas and 300 of his Spartan warriors) marched north to the pass of Thermopolae (Greek for “the hot gates”).
The Persian army crashed upon the hot gates the way the waves of the ocean crash against rocks on the seashore, but the Greeks repelled them.
The Greeks stood in the narrowest part of the pass so that they exposed as few warriors as possible to the Persian onslaught. They also rotated tired units out regularly so that refreshed soldiers could continue to fight.
Xerxes was frustrated by the slow progress of his army, so he sent in his famed units known as “The Immortals,” but these supposed immortals fared no better than the other units who fought. Xerxes was distressed, but on the second day of fighting a man named Ephialtes who knew the land came to Xerxes and told him about a pass that could allow them to flank the Greeks who were holding the pass against the Persians.
When they realized that they were betrayed by Ephialtes, the Greeks discussed what to do. King Leonidas of Sparta made the decision to hold the pass with his 300 elite soldiers while the rest of the army made a retreat so that they could defend their homes and live to fight another day.
Leonidas willingly planned to die in what he knew was a suicide mission. In one of the greatest last stands in human history Leonidas and his soldiers held the pass long enough for the others to escape. The men fought until their spears broke. Once their spears broke they fought until their swords shattered. And once their swords shattered they used their shields as weapons until they finally had to be killed by Xerxes raining down arrows on the soldiers until they finally stopped fighting. Even today archaelologists continue to find arrow heads in the pass of Thermopolae.
The sacrifice of the 300 spartans is still remembered in popular culture. There have been comic books and movies made about the story. In ancient days there was a stone burial mound left at Thermopolae. Usually in Greek history an epigram would contain a message for passersby to contemplate. But the epigram that was left for one of the soldiers at Thermopolae was different. Presuming that there was no one left to tell what happened in that fateful pass the epigram reads,
Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
It’s a testimony to the bravery and self-sacrifice of great warriors and patriots who loved their homes and lands such that they would sacrifice themselves to save thousands of others of their compatriots. The epigram is a message telling those who pass by to tell those back in Sparta what became of them. The words cry out: “Remember us. Remember our sacrifice and bravery.”
Why do I relate the story of the Battle of Thermopolae here? For one simple reason: when you think of the 300 spartans, what comes to mind? For me, what comes to mind is respect, awe, and even a desire to be bold and brave. They are an inspiration to any who admire self-sacrifice and bravery.
Now, look at the army that Gideon went into battle with in Judges chapter 7. Think of how different the Spartan 300 are from the Israelite 300. The Israelite 300 are cowardly, untrained, and unarmed. Their number is tiny. There is no worldly explanation for how they could have won the battle. They go into battle carrying clay pots, trumpets, and torches. They have no strategic mountain pass or superior training or weaponry. They are a trembling group not known for their bravery or fighting prowess.
But also notice this: the Spartan 300 didn’t beat the army of 100,000. They held back the Persians but were overtaken. Modern estimates are that 20,000 Persians were felled by the swords of these incredible warriors. The book of Judges tells us in 8:10 that 135,000 Midianites fell in the battle of the 300 Israelites. There is a qualitative and quantitative difference between the Greek and Israelite 300, and the difference is that the Israelites were not brave, or bold, or great in number. Their 300 were less in power than the Spartans, and their victory was far, far greater.
What was the difference? That’s the question God wants us to ask. He intentionally handicapped the Israelite army so that we would all look on and ask that exact question. And the answer is found in Judges 7:7: “The Lord said to Gideon, ‘I will deliver you with the 300 men who lapped and will give the Midianites into your hands; so let all the other people go, each man to his home.’”
Who delivered Midian into Gideon’s hands? It was God. “The Lord set the sword of one against another even throughout the whole army; and the army fled…and they pursued Midian” (Judges 7:22-23). There is no worldly explanation for this. There is no doubt who is with Israel, because God has stripped Israel of any worldly claims to victory or bravery.
And the beauty is that in the Gospel Jesus Christ claims all the victory for rescuing sinners. There is no place for you or me to proclaim: “I helped do this. I helped earn this. I contributed.” No. We’re just weak, cowardly, helpless men and women holding pots and torches. It’s our God who makes all the difference, and he reserves the glory or salvation totally for himself.