The Birth of Death in Athens and Jerusalem
Glouberman, Mark, The Midwest Quarterly
THE SECOND OF the epics attributed to Homer resembles the second of the books attributed to Moses. Like Exodus, the Odyssey is the telling of a journey of return.
For narrative to loop back to its point of origin is, to be sure, nothing unusual. The Bible identifies the prolific mother of such closed trajectories. "[O]ut of [the ground] you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). ("Bible" refers throughout to the Hebrew Scriptures; the translation is the New Revised Standard Version.) But the resemblance between the works goes beyond mere congruency. In the Odyssey as in Exodus the returnees, Odysseus and the Children of Israel, meet temptations to abandon the homegoing, and confront obstacles to concluding the trek. In the one story as in the other the protagonists complete the circle with an altered grasp both of the place they departed long years earlier and also of their own situation.
The typical consumer of the Western canon won't need to be informed of these likenesses. The conjoint mention of the two literary second installments is however stimulative of a question that such a one might not have asked my question. Does any text in the Greek corpus stand to the Odyssey in the thematic way that Genesis, the curtain raiser of the Torah, stands to its sequel?
Although Hesiod's Theogony, like Genesis, starts with "each thing as it first came into being," it soon emerges that this a differs substantially from the N. True to its title, the Theogony takes for its subject the origin of divinity. Genesis, by contrast, caters primarily to an anthropogenic wonderment. We men and women, what are we? Where do we come from? What is our place? It is in the frame of the answers to these questions that the Israelites' journey of return fits. The Theogony, for lacking a comparable account of how we came to be delivered onto the scene, does not then appear to be connected to Odysseus's homegoing.
Genesis is a cosmogony and anthropogeny, not a theogony; Hesiod's work, the reverse. But should we not expect as intricate a depiction as the Theogony gives of the birth of the gods and the manner in which the relations between them fall out to reflect how the world's flesh-and-blood dwellers, who are doing the depicting, think of their own comings and goings? Living in the world over which the deathless beings are conceived to preside, a world in which they themselves play no more than bit parts, how could the world's flesh-and-blood dwellers turn oblivious of their own precariousness when they set to work? By the same token, a self-reflective account such as Genesis's of the birth of men and women is likely to tell us how those who supply it think of the wider world into which they are born and in which they have to make their way. While those seeking a Genesis for the Odyssey would therefore be hasty to scratch Hesiod's work from the running just on the ground that it pulls towards the theogonic, I believe that another Hellenic horse, precisely the one that the alignment of the Odyssey with Exodus suggests, has the inside track: the Iliad.
Had I asked after a Hellenic stable mate for Genesis without having mentioned the Odyssey/Exodus resemblance, odds are the Iliad would not have come to mind. If at all anthropogenic, Hesiod's work, I just now said, is anthropogenic only in a recessive way. This fact I advanced as working against the Theogony's placement alongside Genesis. The designation of the Iliad as the more suitable partner thus commits me to identifying in it a story of human beginnings comparable to the one in Holy Writ. That I shall do. As to why the Iliad's anthropogeny is so elusive, my conjecture is that the biblical story of humankind's creation is culturally so dominant as virtually to hard-wire the expectation that any such story will have an obstetrical cast.
Homer, then, is my Greek Moses; Moses, my Israelite Homer. The parallel is illuminating on both sides, and illuminating of some of the most vexed issues--and not just issues of scholarly interpretation.
Mortality and Eden
The Bible addresses the mortality that is so basic to how we men and women in the West think of ourselves. Eastwards, to Eden, we therefore look to see the dawning of our self-conception as here today, gone tomorrow.
On the massively influential Christian decoding of the story, chapter-and-verse relates the avoidable loss of immortality, the tragedy of which "one greater Man" will ultimately redeem. The first pentameters of Milton's Paradise Lost (from which I just now quoted) constitute a nice distillate. We are, Milton writes, told in the Pentateuch
Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste Brought Death into the World, and all our Woe, With loss of Eden....
I shall proceed by confirming a trinity of claims that severally conflict with this, the standard view of the Bible on mortality, and that combine to leave no doubt that whoever is behind Genesis doesn't regard our mortality as a cicatrix.
 Whatever sapience purports, to acquire it the man and the woman had to eat of the fruit of the tree designated "knowledge of good and evil." At the start, the pair thus suffers from an epistemic deficit. Since the second tree goes by the label "life," the inference may be made that to acquire its commodity--identified in 3:23 as unending life--they had to bite into its fruit. Prior to eating, the condition of the man and the woman is therefore as indeterminate relative to the characteristic called "life" as it is in respect of "knowledge of good and evil." Accordingly, no plausibility attaches to the claim that because of what the man and the woman do they are stripped of an immortality that antecedently was theirs. The fruit of the forbidden tree (or the act of tasting of it) does not therefore "[bring] death into the world."
 The logic of the standard view entails that Adam and Eve would have had to be banished no matter what. Just imagine that the originals of mankind had eaten of the permitted tree. Unless the food eaten (or the act of eating) reprogrammed them to be uninterested in the tree of knowledge, would not the reason for the banishment still apply? In the verse lately alluded to, 3:23, God, referring to the fact that the man has partaken of the prohibited fruit, observes:
See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.
Members of Milton's party hold that "both knowledgeable and everlasting" converts with "exactly like one of us." It may be inferred that the quoted words continue to apply in the scenario that reverses the biblical menu. Unless the man and the woman, having eaten of the tree of life, are distanced from the garden, the danger remains that they will eat of the other tree, thereby becoming …
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Publication information: Article title: The Birth of Death in Athens and Jerusalem. Contributors: Glouberman, Mark - Author. Journal title: The Midwest Quarterly. Volume: 48. Issue: 2 Publication date: Winter 2007. Page number: 210+. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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