Balancing the Sword - A comprehensive study guide to life's manual
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Definition of word.


The antagonist, in contrast to the protagonist, is the character who plays the primary villain.  The antagonist, instead of being an individual, can be an opposing group or opposing force (e.g., “the spirit of the world” [1Co. 2:12; cf., Eph. 2:2]).  A narrative cannot have an agonist (either protagonist or antagonist) without an agony or a conflict.  From a literary perspective, the ultimate antagonist in the Bible is Satan.  Those who afflicted the weak were often called "sons of Belial" (or the like) in the King James Version (Dt. 13:13; Jdg. 19:22; 1Sa. 2:12). 

The Bible portrays humans with realism.  The bad guy was not always presented clearly marked as though dressed in black.  To the contrary, Jesus warned, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Mt. 7:15).  The apostle Paul amplified that even “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” and some of his deceitful workers were “transformed as the ministers of righteousness” (2Co. 11:13-15).

Some of the antagonists of the Bible were antivillains, figures who lacked traditional villainous qualities or whose behavior was admirable at times.  An example of an antivillain was Joab the son of Zeruiah and the commanding general over King David's armies.  Joab was underhanded, murderous, and ultimately put to death as a criminal, but Joab had previously led Israel to victory against the enemies of God, advised David against sinfully numbering Israel, and saved David's life.  The Pharisees—Jesus’ most constant enemies—were upstanding citizens who promoted righteousness and were given to acute outward adherence to the Mosaic Law (Mt. 5:20; 23:3, 5, 14, 23, 29).  Further, those who sought righteousness by mere self-imposed good deeds were condemned.  “For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (Ro. 10:3; cf., Ro. 9:30-32; Php. 3:9).  Thus, the moralist could be the antagonist.

Solomon in Proverbs and the apostle John in his epistles defined the world in simple terms of black or white, wise or foolish, righteous or wicked, loving or hateful, etc.  The individuals described in Scripture were not always easy to classify, especially in the eyes of their contemporaries.  Antivillains and antiheroes describe the more complex characters (1) who do good for evil motives (e.g., pray to be seen of men [Mk. 12:40; Mt. 23:5]) or (2) who do bad for good motives (e.g., lie to save a life [Ex. 1:15-21; Jos. 2:1-8]).

Examples of antagonists in the Bible include

  • Laban in Genesis,
  • Pharaoh of Egypt in Exodus,
  • Balaam in Numbers,
  • the five kings of the Amorites in Joshua,
  • Sisera of Judges,
  • Goliath of 1 Samuel,
  • Absalom of 2 Samuel,
  • Ahab of 1 Kings,
  • Tiglath-pileser in 2 Kings,
  • Sanballat in Nehemiah,
  • Haman in Esther,
  • Judas Iscariot in the Gospels,
  • unbelieving Jews in Acts, and
  • the false prophets in 2 Peter.

Author: Allen B. Wolfe

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Balancing the Sword is a structured study guide for every chapter of the Bible.