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 yields a keener understanding of Judaism.
The myth of Prometheus and Pandora is pessimistic
The ancient Greek herdsman Hesiod (eighth century BCE) writes that he was inspired by the muses to write poetry. He contends that 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 they are personally innocent. Titans like Prometheus were legendary ancient deities who were beaten, banished and later controlled by Zeus, who became the chief god.
Hesiod reports that Prometheus is the wisest of the Titans; his name means “forethought.” He is a master craftsman, one of the last of his breed. He, not the god Zeus, creates humans out of clay as an act of good will and to vex Zeus.
He is enamored by the people that he creates and likes them far more than the multitude of Greek gods. He learns many useful arts from the gods and passes them on to his creatures.
It happens once that Prometheus sees people offering a sacrifice to the gods. He calls them over and separates the sacrifice into two parts. He places the meat of the burned animal in one hide, but covers it with tripe, the most worthless parts of an animal. He puts bones in a second bag and covers it with a rich enticing layer of fat.
He calls Zeus and offers him the choice of either of the two. Zeus is deceived. He “judges a book by its cover” and selects the bag of bones because it is covered by glistening fat.
Zeus opens the hide and is enraged. As punishment, he makes 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 takes fire from people.
Prometheus does nothing to soften the punishing toil, but ever solicitous for his creatures, he steals fire from heaven and brings it to them.
Zeus is outraged by his new actions and decides to punish him. He has a lower god make a woman called Pandora. She is beautiful and irresistible, but full of trouble. She is foolish, mischievous and idle; the first, says Hesiod, in a long line of such women. He sends her to Epimetheus, Prometheus’ brother, but wise Prometheus warns him not to take any gifts from the gods, and he sends Pandora back.
Zeus is furious. He decides to punish Prometheus himself. He has Prometheus chained to a mountain pillar and sends a ravenous vulture to pluck at his liver every day for years. At night, when the vulture flies off, Prometheus is frozen by the mountain frost, and his liver grows back ready for the next day’s torture.
Epimetheus, seeing how his brother is so cruelly punished and fearful for his own safety, rushes to Zeus and begs for Pandora’s hand in marriage. His request is granted. Pandora comes with a jar. When Epimetheus opens the box, out springs sorrows, diseases, old age, labor, sickness, insanity, vice and passion. Zeus has again inflicting his revenge upon humanity. Unfortunately for Epimetheus and humanity, Zeus slams the jar shut before everything escapes. Hope remains in the jar. People, according to Hesiod, are left with no hope.
- The Biblical and Greek stories speak about a relationship between humans and God. In both people are trying to placate God – that is, bribe His favor – 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 accepted 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, has the animal’s fat.
- Prometheus, the hero of the Greek legend, bears 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 all other of God’s creations.
- 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 Bible, the Israelites are told not to use fire on the Sabbath. Many Bible commentators understand that this prohibition is 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 come to Egypt to buy food. In Hesiod’s fable, Prometheus tricks Zeus to keep more of the sacrificial meat 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 vengeful Titan or anything else, creates humanity in the Bible.
- In Hesiod’s fable, Prometheus creates 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 people of all races and cultures descend from one pair.
- In the Bible, the man is formed from the earth and the woman from his side. In Hesiod, both are born from the earth.
- There is only one God in Judaism.
- 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 Jews who believe in angels and demons).
- The way Prometheus needs to help people presupposes that humans are resourceless. The Bible recognizes that people 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 improve themselves.
- 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 offerings as a concession 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, unlike the myth were the people are repeatedly punished for Prometheus’ acts.
- Humans learn useful arts from the Titan Prometheus in the Greek tale but must struggle to learn it themselves in Genesis, and it takes generations to do so.
- Both emphasize the role of the woman in bringing misfortune to humanity. However, the Greek legend stresses that the god uses 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,” suggests that she is an equal. The punishment for eating the fruit of the forbidden tree is given to both because both, not the woman alone, act improperly. The misfortunes that follow the misdeed, 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 descend upon people because Zeus wants to punish them. The only item that could have softened the blow was hope, but Zeus seals 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 people, 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 and resourceless humanity. Judaism speaks of the coming of a messianic age that people can produce by their work.
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 that attempts to interfere. His myth depicts people as powerless beings who need external help. He envisions no hope for humanity. Judaism, in contrast, sees people possessing power – they are formed in the image of God – with the duty to work to produce 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 fatalistic explanation of the presence of evil in the word and offers no remedy. The Bible, in contrast, lists practices that can improve individuals and produce a better world.