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Both Hesiod’s epic poem Theogony and the early chapters of Genesis from the Hebrew Bible offer unique creation stories for their respective religions. Though these two religions are vastly different, one being monotheistic and the other polytheistic, their tales of origin each portray gods (or a singular God) as exceedingly holy and formidable yet at times undeniably human-like. These contrasting character traits serve to depict gods that humans can more easily relate to and understand, while still remaining in awe and fear of their limitless power.
In Theogony, Hesiod describes the gods as “deathless,” “sublime,” and “great,” often repeating these phrases throughout the poem for emphasis (Hesiod 37, 38). Zeus is even said to be a “father,” which most would consider to be a position of authority and reverence (Hesiod 38). These descriptions of the gods clearly illustrate the hierarchy that is in place: the immortal gods are ranked far above the mere mortals who reside on Earth. Later in the poem, Hesiod provides hyperbolic-seeming accounts of the gods’ strength and stature, stating that Kottos, Briareos, and Gyges, the sons of Gaia and Ouranos, have “a hundred invincible arms” and “fifty heads” (Hesiod 40). He goes on to say that these three male deities are “so great and mighty that their names are best left unspoken” and that they possess “matchless strength” (Hesiod 40). Again, these depictions create a sense that the gods are all-powerful and not to be reckoned with.
Chapters one through seven of Genesis also reinforce the image of a strong and unrelenting God. In his creation of the earth and all of its inhabitants, God is remarkably organized and meticulous, accomplishing the task in a mere seven days and even providing “fixed times…for days and years,” as well as trees that reproduce and bear fruit autonomously (Genesis 117). After completing each task, God extends his heavenly approval by declaring that he “saw that it was good” (Genesis 117). These details reveal a capable, intelligent, and of course highly powerful God. More subtly, God’s inherent authority is insinuated by both the title “the Lord God” and the capitalization of pronouns that refer to him, as these distinctions are applied to him and no one else in the narrative. Additionally, God’s total dominance over humans is shown when he effectively punishes humans for their wrongdoings, especially when he banishes Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden and when he curses Cain to a lonesome life as “a restless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 121).
Despite their obvious supremacy over the human race, the deities chronicled by Hesiod and Genesis each embody markedly human traits, especially emotions like jealousy and rage. A prominent example of this temperamental state occurs in Theogony when Gaia devises “a crafty and evil scheme” to thwart Ouranos (Hesiod 40). She orders her son Kronos to slice off Ouranos’ reproductive parts, asserting that it was Ouranos “who first plotted shameful actions” (Hesiod 40). This logic, though flawed, is undeniably human: Gaia is angry with Ouranos for his actions against her and thus seeks retribution in the form of violence. The gods also display human emotions other than anger; Gaia’s “heart is filled with grief” and Ouranos “long[s] for Gaia’s love” (Hesiod 40). Sadness and lust are both extremely common human sentiments. The intended purpose of these depictions is clear: to humanize the gods who, for all their glory and divinity, may otherwise seem so far removed from their human counterparts.
Genesis, too, portrays a God who determines the fate of the human race while also displaying several of humanity’s defining characteristics. Indeed, it is stated that “God created the human in his image”; therefore, similarities between the two must exist (Genesis 118). On a physical level, God is said to “walk around in the garden [of Eden] in the evening breeze,” just as a human might; thus, he seems less like an elusive spirit lingering in the heavens than like an approachable God who exists among mortals (Genesis 119). Later on, in chapter six, it is revealed that God “regretted having made the human on earth” and that he “was grieved to the heart” because of this mistake (Genesis 122). While God’s experience of the human feelings of both regret and sorrow is important to note, another humanizing effect of this passage is the fact that God has made a mistake; however almighty he may be, he is by no means perfect. After realizing his lapse in judgment, he proclaims that “I will wipe out the human race I created from the face of the earth” (Genesis 122). In this statement, God owns up to his error, being sure to confess that it was he who created such a depraved race of humans. This candid admission of his failure humanizes him even further–since he has done something wrong and must compensate for it, just as humans do.
Initially, the representations of gods in Theogony and Genesis as both divinely powerful and clearly human-like seem to contrast starkly and perhaps nonsensically. However, under closer analysis, it seems that the purpose of these dissimilar descriptions is to create an image of deities as strong, dominant, and even fear-inspiring while still rendering these deities understandable to the humans who must obey and honor them. This technique appears to be highly effective, as many thousands of people once chose to worship the Greek gods, and Christianity and Judaism are still among the most widely practiced religions in the world.
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