Greek Mythology and the Judeo-Christian God
Many cultures throughout history have written accounts of how creation happened, and these various stories of creation tell a great deal about the cultures that created them. Between the account of creation given by Hesiod in the Theogany, a tale of Greek mythology, and the one we find in the book of Genesis in the Bible, there are very few similarities, and many differences. In both texts, God or the gods punish man, but this comes about in two very different ways. In the Theogany, mankind is punished and must accept it, even though they did not do anything to deserve it. In fact, man gets punished by a god for something another god did. In Genesis, however, humans knowingly disobey God’s orders, and so bring about their own punishment. The way the justice of the gods is depicted in these two stories can give us insights to the differences in the religious cultures these stories came from.
In the Theogany, the god Prometheus “whose mind was labyrinthine and swift” (page 24, line 511), tricks Zeus, the king of the gods, into accepting bones instead of meat as an offering. Zeus, because of his anger at Prometheus’ trickery, “never gave to ash trees the power of unwearying fire for the good of men who live on this earth” (page 25, line 563-564). He was going to withhold fire from men because he was angry with Prometheus. However, Prometheus again deceived the king of gods, and stole the fire from Zeus and gave it to men. “This stung the depths of Zeus’ mind, Zeus who roars on high, and filled his heart with anger, when he saw among mortal men the far-seen flash of fire; so straightaway because of the stolen fire he contrived evil for men” (page 25, line 567-570). The evil he sent to punish men was women. Women (by Hesiod’s account) were nagging, selfish, lazy, malicious burdens, but men could not escape women, for no man wanted to reach old age with no one to care for him, or have his name die out because he didn’t procreate. So this was the punishment that man received, and the way Hesiod tells it, it was a bad one. Prometheus disobeyed Zeus, and angry Zeus made mankind suffer for it.
In Genesis, God created Adam and Eve and gave to them the Garden of Eden, which had everything they wanted or needed. God said to Adam, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die” (2:16-17). Later on, Eve encountered a serpent in the garden. The serpent told her that if she were to eat of the forbidden tree, “your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad” (3:5). So Eve took some of the fruit and ate it, and also gave some to Adam. When God found out that they ate from the forbidden tree he was angry, but Eve told him that the serpent tricked her into it. So God first punished the serpent. “On your belly shall you crawl and dirt shall you eat all the days of your life” (3:14), God said to the serpent. To Eve he gave pain in childbirth, and also told her that her husband would rule over her, when before they had been equals. To Adam he said, “Cursed be the ground because of you, by toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (3:17). So God punished Eve, Adam, and the serpent, and it’s clear that they were all punished because of their wrongdoings.
The differences between the God(s) that are doing the punishing are critical to why the circumstances of the punishments are so different. In the Theogany, the gods have very human characteristics, including human-like faults. Near the beginning of the story, for example, the god Kronos chops off his father’s genitals and takes the throne, then eats his own offspring so the same doesn’t happen to him. While this is certainly not something many humans would do, the impetus behind his actions were human-like flaws such as competitiveness and paranoia. Zeus was Kronos’ son, but his mother hid him from Kronos and when he grew up he overthrew his father and took the throne. The Theogany is full of stories like these: anger, jealousy, and violence are driving forces among the gods, and mortal men seem relatively unimportant in comparison to the conflicts of the gods. Zeus punished man because Prometheus disobeyed him, not because man did anything wrong. Unlike the God of Genesis, there is little or no direct contact between the gods and mortal men, so Zeus doesn’t seem to think twice when he sends the “evil” of women to earth.
In Genesis, however, God is portrayed as a leader who has a very close relationship with the humans he created. He speaks directly to Adam, and later Eve, in the Garden of Eden. “God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth’” (1:28). What God actually says here is less important to this point than the fact that God is speaking directly to Adam and Eve as a gentle instructor. He does not seem to be an unkind God, for he provides for man, even giving Adam a “helper” in the form of a woman when God notices that “It is not good for man to be alone” (2:18). So when God punishes Adam and Eve because they disobeyed his explicit instructions, it is clear that they brought the punishment upon themselves. The God of Genesis is not an unkind one that arbitrarily punishes people whenever he feels like it. He warned Adam and Eve, they disobeyed him, and now they must suffer the consequences.
Some people may find it easy to understand why God punished Adam and Eve, and this is partially because the Christian ideal of justice found in the Bible is still a part of American culture today. Though many would like to think of church and state as being separate entities, we cannot deny that America was founded by a group of mainly Christian Protestants, and so the ideals found in the Bible are still reflected in our culture in some ways, for better or worse. Our society today believes, or at least claims to believe, that our leaders, be they God, government, or anyone else, should be fair and just administrators of punishment. We can immediately recognize that it’s wrong to punish someone for something he or she didn’t do. We say someone is “innocent until proven guilty” to prevent the unjust punishment of people. The Christian God, on whose example and teachings this country was in some ways founded on, is considered by Christians to be the supreme example of a just leader. Though he administered punishment, it was only to those who did wrong or disobeyed him. While some people might say that the God of Genesis wasn’t justified in punishing every generation of humankind for Adam and Eve’s sins, no one could say that Zeus was justified in punishing man for something he didn’t do at all.
This is why it is more difficult for some people to understand why Zeus punishes mankind for Prometheus’ wrongdoing. We consider it wrong to punish someone who didn’t do anything. It goes against purported Christian and American ideals. Zeus’ “punishment” was not really a punishment for man at all, in the sense that punishment is meant to teach someone a lesson, or that it comes as a consequence for their actions. It was just a blatant display of anger at Prometheus that happened to be directed at a third party who couldn’t do anything about it. Does this mean the Ancient Greeks had a different view of justice than modern Americans do? I don’t think so. As many people know, the Greeks were one of the first, if not the first, cultures to institute a democracy. Ideally, everyone had a fair say in how the state was run. Also, people in ancient Greece were given a trial before being punished. One could say that Greek trials were sometimes unfair and biased, but then again, one could say that about trials in America too. The point is, the Ancient Greeks did seem to consider justice an important part of their culture, just as we do in America today. However, it would seem that the Greek gods were exempt from the rules of justice, and in this they differed greatly from the Christian God. Greek gods were not just; they just were. If Zeus punished man for what Prometheus did, that was just the way it was. Hesiod doesn’t become indignant or say that the punishment is unfair when he tells the story. He simply recounts it as it happened. Why was justice so important to the God of Genesis, and not at all to Hesiod’s Zeus? The reason is that Christian cultures and ancient Greek cultures saw their relationship with God(s) very differently.
In Christianity, the connection between God and humans is strong. Anybody can talk to God, whether or not he or she is someone special, and the people that God favors in the Bible were not necessarily anyone remarkable; they were just faithful to God. The Christian God is caring; he always provides for his people. His greatest concern seems to be the welfare of human beings. God even took on human form, as the story goes, when he sent Jesus to the earth as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity. In ancient Greek culture, however, the lives of the gods were far removed from mortals. While the Bible focuses mainly on what happens on Earth, the Theogany focuses almost exclusively on the affairs of the gods. The gods were too busy warring, making love, bickering and so on to care what happened to humans. No humans are even noted in Greek mythology unless there is something truly remarkable about them or they are related to a god. Because the gods were considered so far removed from humans, the same rules that applied to humanity did not apply to the gods, and so justice simply wasn’t expected of them. Their conflicts were their conflicts and if mortal man had to suffer the side effects of the gods’ wrath, so be it. The Judeo-Christian culture that the Bible comes from, however, saw God as a leader of mankind, directly involved in the lives of humans, who gave people good things, and who also dealt out punishment. God’s punishments could be harsh, but were never totally uncalled for.
Though both Christian and Greek cultures valued justice, their views on the justice of God(s) were very different. Both God and Zeus were supreme beings who dealt out punishment, but in Christianity, God’s punishment had to be justified, because the rules of ethics that applied to people were derived from God’s example and therefore also applied to God. To the Ancient Greeks, however, the gods were above and beyond human rules and so were not required to show justice in their actions toward humans. In the differences between the God of Genesis and Zeus of the Theogany, we can see the ways the two cultures viewed their relationships with their gods.