"The Iliad" recounts the destruction between 1250-1200 B.C. of the city-state of Troy. A coalition of Greek armies sacked Troy after 10 years of war and the use of the so-called Trojan horse, a secret weapon containing hidden "special operations" troops.
Achilles, the charismatic and indestructible leader of his commando-like Myrmidon soldiers, was part of the huge force aligned against Troy. But he was an unwilling partner in the coalition. Achilles was a mercurial free agent who chose when and where to fight. Following someone else's orders was not his thing.
Enormously skilled at warfare, Achilles killed many men, including Hector, a prince of Troy in a climactic duel. However, the young godlike Achilles was ultimately killed himself after a Trojan arrow severed his vulnerable heel tendon.
Homer declares that fate and the Greek gods were the driving forces in Achilles' life and career. Thetis, his mother, instead of cooling her son's ardor for war and gore, urged Achilles to pursue his destiny as a glorious warrior: "Doomed to a short life, you have so little time."
Achilles realized he would never father children or delight in being a grandfather. Instead, the gods -- fate -- have decreed a brief life. Achilles also knew he must ultimately die in the midst of battle. Whatever his personal misgivings about a life of warfare, Achilles was aware, as Homer writes, "... the will of Zeus will always overpower the will of men."
Achilles bore no moral responsibility for his actions, whether cruel or kind. Homer even has Achilles' horse say: "But the day of death already hovers near ... the great god is the strong force of fate."
In sharp contrast to Homer and his Achilles character, is the Hebrew Bible and its account of another ancient superstar warrior of the Mediterranean area. David, king of Israel, lived about 250 years after Achilles, and at first glance, the two men had much in common.
Like the Greek warrior, David was charismatic, and attracted devoted soldiers and adoring women. David first gained fame as the 17-year-old slayer of Goliath, the Philistine Terminator, and the Bible records that David slew tens of thousands of enemies. David and Achilles each played the lyre, a stringed musical instrument that subdued the violent urges in both men.
Achilles' "soul mate" was his male cousin, Patroclus, and it is the battlefield death of Patroclus, and not politics that finally compelled Achilles to actively join the anti-Trojan coalition. The Bible describes the close friendship between David and Jonathan, King Saul's son. Like Patroclus, Jonathan was also killed in battle, and David deeply mourned the loss.
But there are enormous differences between Achilles and David, reflecting the dichotomy between classic Greek and Hebrew views of human behavior. "The Iliad" opens with the phrase "the will of Zeus," indicating that the gods control our destinies.
David, unlike Achilles, lived a long life complete with multiple wives and disappointing rebellious children. However, David's errors and sins, and there are many, are not attributed to God or fate, but to the man himself. David, unlike Achilles, shaped his own destiny with acts of bravery and beauty, and with acts of cruelty and callousness. But the Hebrew monarch always had the ability to change his behavior.
At the end of David's life, there was a reckoning of the soul and a price paid for his sins. God prevented David from erecting the Holy Temple in Jerusalem because the king's hands were bloody and sinful. The honor of building the Temple was left to Solomon, David's son.
Young Achilles exited history in warfare, a victim of the gods. At his death, David was no victim of unchanging fate. Instead God rendered moral judgment upon Israel's king and the life of virtue and sin David chose for himself.
Blind fate vs. conscious choice: the great difference between Homer and the Bible.