Back in the day, when humans didn’t live sedentary lives, the concept of fitness was taken a bit more literally. People trained for war if they were professional soldiers, or if they had the leisure time to do so. Otherwise, they spent the majority of their waking lives hustling to put food on the table and enjoying the fruits of their labor with family and friends. The “fittest” people, those most likely to survive and thrive, were largely determined by genetics and avoiding disease. The concept of training specifically for aesthetics and health first appeared with the Greeks, and it didn’t crop up again in force until the rise of modern fitness culture in the 20th century.
Then they took a 1,500 year break from the Olympics. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Even so, we know there were standouts in ancient times, elite specimens of their day, the historical equivalents of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bear Grylls. Whatever your view of the historicity of the Bible (a subject you could easily devote your life to), it is a 1000+ page source for stories and brave deeds that often go overlooked, featuring men such as…
4. Jacob – Wrassling with an Angel
Jacob didn’t start out with a reputation for toughness. He is famous for tricking his older brother Esau out of his birthright and then promptly fleeing the country in fear. However, 14 years of backbreaking labor in pursuit of the woman he loved was apparently enough to set him straight.
Jacob when he realized he had 7 more years to go.
As he left his father-in-law’s land to return home, he sent his wives, children, and servants ahead of him so that he could be alone. One can infer that he probably wanted a little peace and quiet for a change. Quiet he received, but not peace. An angel crept up on Jacob in the middle of the night and, without ever saying a word, proceeded to wrestle with him for hours. There was no tapping out of this fight, and Jacob was probably highly unsure of what would happen if he lost, so he kept fighting.
When day finally broke with no victor in sight, the angel popped Jacob’s hip out of socket with a holy finger poke and told Jacob to let him go. Expecting compliance, he was undoubtedly surprised when Jacob refused to let go until the angel blessed him. So Jacob was blessed and renamed Israel, meaning “He who struggles with God.” Jacob’s new name proved to be rather significant when it came time to name a certain country in that part of the world. I don’t know what Google Maps would read if Jacob hadn’t been ready to take it to the mat that night, but it would probably have something to do with getting owned.
3. David – The Original Robin Hood
Following his defeat of Goliath, David went from being the archetypal underdog to the commander of the king’s armies and most beloved man in the kingdom (we’re talking Disney prince-level swooning here). Unfortunately for him, his father-in-law, King Saul, was not overly pleased by this turn of events. Saul ordered an assassination attempt on David, and when the first one failed, he tried again. With each failure, David’s stock with the people increased. The breaking point came when Saul attempted to assassinate his own son and David’s best friend, Jonathan. Since David wasn’t willing to fight back, his only choice was to flee into the wilderness.
We’re talking the Middle East here, a place where the wilderness is known for being inhospitable even among wildernesses. David traveled from city to city, and living off the land and constantly looking over his shoulder. Over the course of 4 years and enough excitement to fill an HBO miniseries, David’s skill, charisma, and just plain old handsomeness eventually had him leading a band of 400 “merry men” around the country, helping the poor and standing up for the downtrodden. (No record of him stealing from the rich, but then again there weren’t many rich back then.)
Like Robin Hood, but with more spears and less arrows. (James J. Tissot, ‘David in the Wilderness of Ziph’)
As his renown spread, Saul’s hatred grew. However, before there could be a final showdown, Saul and his sons were killed in battle by the Philistines. Shortly afterwards, David was named king of Judah and Israel for no reason other than his immense popularity with the people.
2. Gideon – Dredd Meets Leonidas
Everyone has seen a Gideon Bible in a hotel room before. What you may not realize is that the namesake for this group of peaceful Bible publishers was the exact opposite of peaceful. Gideon began his career as a young man with little faith his own ability or the existence of a divine plan. When Gideon was chosen to be the next judge, he demanded that God perform three miracles before he would accept the position. Rather than firing a lighting bolt at him for his gall, God actually performed three miracles (YMMV).
YMMV = Don’t try this at home.
In those days, judges were military leaders in charge of defending their people and conquering neighboring lands, and Gideon was the one judge you didn’t want to mess with. Imagine the most violent scenes from any Judge Dredd movie but with fewer guns and a higher body count, and that gives you an idea of the destruction that Gideon left in his wake. When the Midianite army 135,000 strong crossed the river to prepare an attack, Gideon’s army (artificially decreased to just 300 men to make it more challenging) encircled the Midianite camp in the dead of night. With trumpets blaring and torches suddenly surrounding them, the Midianites panicked and began the slaughter each other. Gideon’s army helpfully joined in the action.
In the rout that followed, Gideon not only caught up to the two Midianite leaders and killed them, but also destroyed a small city that refused to render aid. One can only assume that they were unaware of who they were dealing with. Gideon eventually returned home to Israel and promptly refused a kingship offered by the people, although he remained a judge. Israel’s neighbors found that they had had enough of Gideon for a few decades, and Israel enjoyed forty years of peace (that not coincidentally ended when Gideon died).
1. Samson – The Juggernaut
Samson was a one-man Mongolian horde. He personally laid waste to an entire generation of Philistines, although in all fairness, they started it. As a Nazarite (ancient version of straight edge) and one of the last judges of the Israelites, Samson loved to combine his supernatural strength with a flair for the dramatic. His only weaknesses were his hair (which had to remain long to keep his power) and fast women.
Good thing PETA wasn’t around back then.
After several misadventures, Samson was “hiding” in a cave (realistically, probably just resting) from the Philistines, who were angry because Samson had destroyed their crops and killed a lot of other Philistines. Rather than try to capture him themselves, the Philistines hired 3,000 of Samson’s own people to tie him up and hand him over. Samson, seeing an opportunity for a win-win, allowed his people to tie him up and deliver him to his enemies. Just as the Philistines started to laugh gleefully, Samson broke free, snatched up a donkey’s jawbone, and killed 1,000 Philistines.
I wonder how the 1,000th guy felt about his chances.
Of course, Samson was eventually captured by the Philistines–who by this time were super freaking pissed–thanks to a beautiful woman tricking him into getting his hair cut. The Philistines blinded Samson and hosted a celebration at a temple in Gaza, where they planned to sacrifice him to Dagon in thanks for helping them capture Samson. Two birds with one stone, right?
Everything was going so well for the Philistines until Samson had a bright idea. Apparently having forgotten about all the times he’d outwitted them in the past, Samson convinced them to lead him to the two pillars holding up the temple. (“It will be a much better show from there, trust me.”) Summoning one last burst of strength from on high, Samson pushed the pillars out of alignment and brought the house down, literally. In that period of history, there wasn’t much more you could ask for in life than taking out a few thousand of your mortal enemies with your last breath.
Samson also changed building design forever.
Fitness is all about surviving and thriving. The specifics may vary from century to century, but a strong body, a little cunning, and a sense of purpose never seem to go out of style. In addition to working out regularly and eating healthily, you can prepare yourself for survival by getting out into the world, challenging yourself, and familiarizing yourself with the skills and gear utilized by the experts.
Women can survive and kick butt just as well as men. Deborah, the only female judge of the Israelites, isn’t quite as well known as her male counterparts, but she was truly a BAMF of her time.