The Iliad and the Bible: Does Great Power Imply Great Responsibility?

The Bible and the Iliad are comparable, not only because their literary canonization has inspired generations of inquiry into the human condition, but also because they vividly describe a multitude of human interactions with divinity. The God(s) of these texts are not distant, detached, and unconcerned beings, but instead make active investments in the human experiment. It is within this context that I show that both the Bible and Iliad invoke paradoxical representations of the divine; they portray God(s) as all-powerful agents who can transcend human limitations and shape universal trajectories; but they also paint them as petty, easily manipulated, and wholly megalomaniacal — entities for which humanity is a mere source of entertainment. By citing these dual-edged depictions of God(s) within both works, I argue that we worship the divine not because they encapsulate the pinnacle of human ideals, but instead because they, by virtue of their immortality, serve as stabilizing forces within our uncertain lives.

It can not be understated that the God(s) in the Iliad and the Bible are immensely powerful. Zeus, for instance, can shift the tides of war almost instantaneously, weighing the fates of the Achaeans and Trojans on his scales and instituting deeply consequential changes to the war’s overall trajectory. Athena, by the same token, with her helmet of gold and flaming chariot, often darts “…furiously everywhere among the hosts of the Achaeans, urging them forward…” and instilling courage in their hearts so that they may prove successful. Even Aphrodite, who occupies a rather relegated position in Olympus’ divine power hierarchy, is both the direct cause of the Trojan war (i.e. seducing Helen) and the principal source of its prolongation (i.e. intervening in Paris and Menelaus’s duel). Similarly, the God of the Bible displays instances of immense power, blessing the descendants of Abraham with lives of luck and wealth, burning to ashes entire cities like Sodom and Gomorrah, and even instantaneously closing the wombs of all women residing in Gerar. And yet, the power of the Abrahamic God is, if such a thing is possible, even more emphasized than that of the Greek gods; his special status as a single and unchecked authority creates the sense that the universe is united in submission to his will, rather than manipulated by multifarious conflicts of interest. In any case, both the Bible and the Iliad portray God(s) as incomprehensibly powerful and firmly invested within human lives, the implications of their actions as diverse as the Earth they’ve created.

A distinction must be made, however, between the raw physical power of God(s) depicted in these texts and the ways in which these entities exercise their omnipresence. This is because both works portray God(s) as innately paradoxical; while immensely influential, they are nonetheless petty, megalomaniacal, and flawed. In the Iliad, for example, Zeus promises to intervene in the war on behalf of the Trojans, not on the basis of which side in the war he thinks has the moral high ground, but instead because of a favor he owes to Thetis. In fact, his initial hesitation in helping Achilles does not concern the thousands of Trojan and Achaean lives at stake, but is instead rooted in a trivial fear of upsetting Hera, “…for never before [had] love for any goddess or woman so melted about the heart inside [him], broken it to submission.” The Book of Job also presents God as generally unconcerned with the way his actions impact the people he has created. When Satan taunts God to “…stretch out [his] hand and touch all that [Job] has…” arguing that taking away Job’s earthly possessions would cause him to “…curse [the Lord] to [his] face,” God readily obliges and puts Job’s entire livelihood in Satan’s crosshairs. In this way, God greenlights Satan’s mistreatment of Job independent of his character, achievements, or failures. While his friends conjure up fabricated explanations for his plight, arguing that “…God exacts of [him] less than [his] guilt deserves,” Job ultimately suffers because God and Satan — like children betting on the outcome of the Super Bowl — settle their dispute using human lives as their currency. 

As such, both the Iliad and the Bible highlight a critical notion about God(s), that while they are supremely powerful, they are equally prone to fallibility and abuses of power. They decide their actions not always on teleological concerns of peace, moral rectification, or general welfare, but instead on instances of self-centered favoritism, hurt feelings, and domestic squabbling that bubble beneath the surface and explode in a cascade of human suffering. Through the consolidation of such moments, the Iliad and the Bible create an unshakeable sense that humanity does not worship God(s) for their spotless record of ethical conduct, but instead because of the sheer ferocity of their power, the grandiosity of their influence, and the unattainability of their immortality — the ways in which they can do an infinite number of things an infinite number of times. Mankind’s principal weakness, according to Achilles, is that it is “…all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings. A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much.” But only if men could “…in all [their] days [be] immortal and ageless and be held in honour as Athene and Apollo are honoured,” then they could become the very gods they worship.  In collections of stories where even the most privileged characters must come to terms with being single blips on the universal timeline, God(s) by virtue of their immortality transcend human limitations and become cosmic constants. It is the fear of upsetting such eternal entities that draws one towards worshipping them, because denying their authority would situate one as diametrically opposed to the world’s natural, ongoing rhythms. 

 

References

Coogan, Michael David., et al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Homer, and Richmond Lattimore. The Iliad of Homer. University of Chicago Press, 2011.

 

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