By Israel Drazin
The Biblical vs. Greek Creation Stories – 2
The following is the second of two comparisons of the Biblical creation story with the accounts of ancient pagan myths. They are slight variations of what I published in my book Rational Religion, which I wrote under the pseudonym Daniel A. Diamond.
Greek and Jewish myths, reports, and tales appear at first blush to be remarkably similar, but there are stark differences in how each culture views God, the world, the presence of evil, the worth of people, their duty, and their future. Psychologists have recognized that one can understand a subject better by comprehending its opposite and comparing the two. Thus, an examination of these similarities and differences provokes a keener understanding of the biblical view of life.
The myth of Prometheus and Pandora is pessimistic
The ancient Greek herdsman Hesiod (eighth century BCE) was inspired by the muses to write poetry. According to him, evil was cast upon the earth in a fit of spite by the unsympathetic god Zeus to punish humans for two good deeds performed by the Titan Prometheus for their benefit, even though humans were personally innocent. Titans were legendary primordial deities who were beaten, banished, and later controlled by Zeus, the chief god.
Hesiod reports that Prometheus was the wisest of the Titans; his name means “forethought.” He was a master craftsman, one of the last of his breed. He, not the god Zeus, created men out of clay as an act of good will and as a way to vex Zeus.
He was enamored by the people that he created and liked them far more than he liked the multitude of Greek gods. He learned many useful arts from the gods and passed them on to his creatures.
It happened once that Prometheus saw people offering a sacrifice to the gods. He called them over and separated the sacrifice into two hides. He put the meat of the burned animal in one hide, but covered it with tripe, rubbish, the most worthless parts of an animal. He placed bones in a second bag and covered it with a rich enticing layer of fat.
He called to Zeus and offered him the choice of either of the two. Zeus was deceived. He “judged a book by its cover” and selected the bag of bones because it was covered by the glistening fat.
Zeus opened the hide and was furious. As punishment, he made people, who had lived a carefree life, and who had not had to work to produce food, earn their living through hard toil. He also took fire from them.
Prometheus did nothing to soften the toil, but ever solicitous for his creatures, he stole fire from heaven and brought it to them.
Zeus planned to punish him. He had a lower god make a woman called Pandora. She was beautiful and irresistible, but full of trouble. She was foolish, mischievous, and idle; the first, says Hesiod, in a long line of such women. He sent her to Epimetheus, Prometheus’ brother, but wise Prometheus warned him not to take any gifts from the gods, and he sent Pandora back.
Zeus was enraged. He had Prometheus chained to a mountain pillar and sent a ravenous vulture to pluck at his liver every day for years. At night, when the vulture flew off, Prometheus was frozen by the mountain frost, and his liver grew back ready for the next day’s torture.
Epimetheus, seeing how his brother was so cruelly punished and fearful for his own safety, rushed to beg Zeus for Pandora’s hand in marriage. Pandora came with a jar. When Epimetheus opened the box, out sprang sorrows, diseases, old age, labor, sickness, insanity, vice, and passion – Zeus’ revenge upon humanity. Unfortunately for him and humanity, Zeus slammed the jar shut before everything escaped. Hope remained in the jar. People, according to Hesiod, have no hope.
- The Biblical and Greek stories speak about a relationship between man and God. In both man is trying to placate God by offering sacrifices and God is not satisfied. No reason is narrated in Genesis why God rejected Cain’s sacrifice; however, it is interesting that Abel’s sacrifice was an animal with its fat, while Cain offered produce.
- The fat of a sacrificed animal is important in Greek culture and in Judaism. Zeus is deceived because he wanted the fat of the sacrifice and the biblical book of Leviticus requires that the fat be burned on the altar for God. Also, as indicated above, the first acceptable sacrifice mentioned in the Torah, by Abel, included the animal’s fat.
- Prometheus, the hero of this Greek legend, bares the name that means “forethought,” thereby emphasizing the importance of thinking before one acts. According to rational Jewish philosophers, this is the “the image of God” mentioned in Genesis, the item that distinguishes people from God’s other creations, animals and inanimate objects.
- Toil in the two tales was imposed upon people as punishment.
- Fire is significant in both cultures. In the myth, it is seen as a divine article. In the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites were told not to use fire on the Sabbath. Many Bible commentators understand that this prohibition was mandated because the igniting of a fire is an act of creation, and Jews desist from performing acts of creation of the Sabbath to recall that God ceased creating on that day.
- Deception is a repeating theme in both the Bible and the Greek myth. In the Bible, for example, the snake deceives Eve; Joseph’s brothers lie to their father Jacob and claim that he died after they sold him into slavery; Joseph hides his identity from his brothers when they came to Egypt to buy food. In the Greek myths, the gods constantly deceive human females in order to seduce them. In Hesiod’s fable, Prometheus tricks Zeus to keep more of the sacrifice for people. In the Bible, people also try to trick God on occasions, but it is more respectful, subtle, and indirect. Cain dissembles by asking “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Adam and Eve try to hide from God in the Garden of Eden after eating the forbidden fruit.
- The biblical account is said to be from God, but Hesiod’s tale is the work of an inspired herdsman.
- God, not a Titan or anything else, created humanity in the Bible.
- In Hesiod’s fable, Prometheus created a group of people simultaneously. The first humans in Scripture are one male and one female. The rabbis say that a larger crowd was not created to preclude individuals from claiming that they are descended from the better first beings; instead all are descend from one pair, and all are equal before God, no matter their religion or sex.
- In the Bible, the man is formed from earth and the woman from his rib. In Hesiod, both were born from the earth.
- There is only one God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
- Unlike the Greek myth, there are no beings in the Bible that are greater than man but lower than God (although, of course, there are many people today who believe in angels and demons).
- The way Prometheus needed to help people presupposes that humans are inadequate. The Bible recognizes that people, by their very nature have the tendency to make wrong decisions (as they did in the Garden of Eden, shortly after creation). But the Bible also insists that people can and should rise to a higher level.
- The biblical God does not punish Cain for bringing an inadequate sacrifice but for murder: showing that humans are important in the Bible.
- Maimonides, who argued that God does not want sacrifices and only allowed it to appease the needs of people, would probably point out, as a difference, that Zeus wants the sacrifice in the Greek tale and is furious when he does not get it.
- Scripture teaches that a person is not punished for the deeds of others like the people were punished for Prometheus’ act.
- Humans learned useful arts from the Titan Prometheus in the myth, but had to struggle to learn it themselves in Genesis, and it took generations to do so.
- Both emphasize the role of the woman in bringing misfortune to mankind. However, the Greek legend stresses that the god used her to hurt people and that the harm she brought was from a magical jar. In Judaism, the woman is not sent by God to punish Adam, but to be his helpmate. The Hebrew is ezer k’negdo, literally “a help by his side,” suggesting that she is an equal. The punishment for eating the fruit of the forbidden tree was given to both because both, not the woman alone, acted improperly. The misfortunes, Genesis makes clear, are not magical; they are part of natural law: pain in childbirth and difficulties in daily work.
- Hesiod lists all kinds of evils that descended upon people because Zeus wanted to punish them. The only item that could have softened the blow was hope, but Zeus sealed it in Pandora’s jar, stopping people from having this solace. There are all kinds of theories in Judaism about the origin of evil. Maimonides’ approach is radically different than Hesiod’s pessimism. He contends that God is good and produces only good. Evil, he insists, comes from one of three sources: (1) The laws of nature are good for the universe as a whole, but may harm individuals and groups. (2) People harm one another. (3) Individuals are frequently not careful and harm themselves.
- The legend ends in a pessimistic tone: there is no hope. As it began with powerless man, so it ends. It seems to suggest that all that people can do is sit back and suffer. No action will help feeble and incapable humanity. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam speak about humans improving themselves and society.
By examining the Greek myth about Prometheus and comparing it to the Genesis creation story, the differences between the two stand out in stark relief. Hesiod’s view of the world is pessimistic. He sees the gods selfishly seeking their own enjoyment and harming any individual who attempts to interfere. His myth perceives of man as a powerless being who needs external help. He envisions no hope for humanity. The Hebrew Bible, in contrast, sees man being created with power, in the image of God, with the duty to work to bring about a perfect world.
The concept of sacrifices is different in both stories. Women are not ridiculed and seen as the source of misfortune in the Bible, as in the Greek culture.
Hesiod’s myth, in short, gives a fantastic explanation of the presence of evil in the word and offers no remedy. The Bible, in contrast, lists practices that can produce a better world.