Notes on the Odyssey Books I-IV: The Telemachia

In the Telemachia, the first four books of the Odyssey, we encounter a strange kinship between the speeches and actions of Telemachus and the warrior Achilles. Both are passionate and wrathful, for different reasons, yet as the character of Telemachus begins to emerge in this prelude to the story of Odysseus’s homecoming, so does his guile and tact.

Telemachus welcomes a “stranger,” who is Athena disguised as Mentes lord of Tapian men, and as he joins the goddess for a banquet he also explains the downfall of his father’s house (Book I, 180-205). Telemachus, now twenty years old, laments his father’s probable death. He is also skeptical of his origins -Is Odysseus his true father? With Odysseus absent, Telemachus can only rely on the word of Penelope, his mother (Book I:248-255). Like Oedipus he yearns for knowledge of his origins, and like Orestes, later expounded upon in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Telemachus longs for revenge.

Telemachus soon knows the stranger to whom he speaking as a god, and rather than continuing to call Athena a “stranger”, he calls her a “friend”. One who gives guidance, a teacher, is more a friend than a stranger. Upon her departure, Telemachus is filled with courage and the memory of his father.

Telemachus is regularly compared, or rather contrasted with Orestes, son of Agamemnon, who avenges his father by killing Aegisthus for claiming Agamemnon’s throne by taking Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, as his own. Unlike Orestes, Telemachus is greatly outnumbered by the suitors, particularly Antinous and Eurymachus, who look to grow fat and rich off the pleasures of the house of Odysseus.In response, he calls a council for the leaders of Ithaca, yet he fails to speak to the men in a way that persuades them of his cause and his problem. He is not yet compelling and persuasive like his father. He relies, ultimately, on Athena to guide him as he ventures out. Why does Athena beckon Telemachus to leave his father’s house?

“The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis” by Jacques-Louis David (1819)

Perhaps Telemachus’s naïveté prevents his future kingship from being realized. Athena, rather than simply explaining to Telemachus the current status and whereabouts of Odysseus, must compel him to learn. He must be led out to learn of his father. The son lives according to the story of his father. The question of the life or death of a father cannot remain unanswered.

Curiously, in the courtyard, a beautiful bard is singing of the suffering of the Achaeans in Troy. Perhaps he is recalling Homer’s Iliad. The song causes Penelope much despair, and Telemachus commands that retire to her chambers if she does not like the song of the bard. Rather than putting the poet on trial, Telemachus puts those who weep and lament in a position of choice.

In answering the pressing question of his origins, Telemachus travels to Pylos to encounter Nestor and his children after sailing over the “wine-dark sea.” He tells only Eurycleia, his family’s long-serving nurse of his departure. On Pylos, Nestor recalls the many felled men in Troy: Ajax, Achilles, Patroclus, Antilochus -the son of Nestor. He recounts both his and Menelaus’s speedy plan to flee the inner conflicts breaking out between the Achaeans, while brothers Menelaus and Agamemnon went thier separate ways, Menelaus and Nestor traveled back to Achaea, and Odysseus and Agamemnon stayed behind in Troy sacrifice. Therefore Nestor can only recount hearsay of the fate of the Achaeans. The Myrmidons made it home safe, Orestes claimed revenge on his father Agamemnon by killing Aegisthis who first killed Agamemnon and took Clytemnestra. Nestor tells him to go to Menelaus using his stallions with his son Pisistratus to travel Laedemon, or Sparta.

“More than all other men he was born for pain” (Book III: 106). Telemachus speaking to Nestor about Odysseus.

In the golden banquet halls of King Menelaus, Telemachus beckons  Menelaus to recount his return home from Ilium. Similar to the way in which Homer presents the homecoming of Nestor, a framed narrative -a story within a story -Menelaus tells his story. First, Helen recalls the story of Odysseus dressing as a beggar and infiltrating the walls of Troy, and Agamemnon recounts the tale of the wooden horse, devised by Odysseus. He recalls the suffering they incurred at Troy and his subsequent inability to leave Egypt, a much praised country for its wise healers that is unparalleled on earth. He asks Eidothea, the daughter of Proteas , why he is stranded and prevented from returning home. In council, she recommends that he capture her father, Proteas, when he emerges from the water at noon surrounded by seals. Proteas is unable to tell a lie once tightly grabbed ahold of. Menelaus completes this task, with his three best men, and tightly grabs hold of Proteas as he transforms: first into a lion, then a serpent, then a panther, then a wild boar, then a torrent of water, and finally a tree before assuming his natural form. Proteas tells Menelaus that he must return home via the Nile in Egypt, and he also tells of the death of Ajax and Menelaus’s brother, Agamemnon -avenged by Orestes.

Meanwhile, the Telemachia, concludes with a pending sense of doom for Telemachus. The suitors hatch a plan to cut him down upon his return to Ithaca. Rather than let him reclaim his father’s throne, they hope to kill him and court his mother instead. However, in his travels Telemachus has gained a newfound tact, possibly from the model set forth by Athena. This cunning skill will, no doubt, prove fateful for the suitors. It is fitting that in youth, men venture forth, and that in old age, they find themselves filled with nostalgia.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.

What is the Rage of Achilles?

The rage, or menin sometimes translated as “wrath”, of Achilles is the opening word of the Iliad and bears crucial significance with respect to the remaining content of the epic. This opening word stands in contrast to the first line of the Odyssey, a text about a man, whose opening word is andra, meaning “man.”

If we take the assumption, following from the title, that the Iliad is a book about the city of Ilium, why, then, do we find the rage of Achilles to be a central theme? Is there a connection between the godlike rage of Achilles and either the birth or destruction of the city? What is the rage of Achilles?

 “Achilles has a Dispute with Agamemnon” by Johann Heinrich Tischbein in 1776

In Book I, the rage of Achilles finds its form as a result of Agamemnon ignoring the priest of Apollo, causing the god to send a plague to the Achaeans. Achilles, frustrated with Agamemnon’s tenuous leadership, publicly berates him. A competition ensues between the two men, revealing an Achaean contest for the best of men -the most excellent. Agamemnon believes himself to be the best of men because he rules the greatest number, and therefore he is deserving of the greatest goods. This belief causes Agamemnon to take Briseis, a prize rightfully won by Achilles, to claim her as his own. Achilles, however, believes himself to be the best of men because he is the greatest warrior. His powerful aggression causes fear among the Achaeans and Trojans alike. Both men claim the right to be the most excellent.

In a world governed by force and compulsion, war is redemption for men. Conflict offers the opportunity to gain honor, “where men win glory,” so they can assert their power. Agamemnon commands his great numbers to forcibly take the property of Achilles, thereby reasserting Agamemnon’s greatness. Achilles’s response is to forcibly retaliate against Agamemnon by killing him, but he is prevented by wise Athena. Instead, Achilles pursues a strategy of inaction. He knows that his deadly skills as a warrior are most valuable to Agamemnon and the Achaeans. Therefore, in order to assert his excellence, he withholds his sword and prevents his Myrmidon troops from entering the battle as punishment to Agamemnon.

“The Rage of Achilles” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in 1757

Achilles prays to his mother, the goddess Thetis, to turn the tide of war against the Achaeans. By actively not participating in the battle, a version of what might be called “civil disobedience,” Achilles ponders the question of returning home to the house of Peleus where a long and peaceful life awaits him. Long ago, a prophecy was made that Achilles could either remain in Troy and kill Hector only to die shortly thereafter, or instead, he could return home to a long but forgotten life. Achilles makes a choice between having a glorious and memorable death, or a long but forgotten life at home. The character and quality of a hero’s death is paramount, and being remembered is the only chance at an enduring life among men.

Achilles’s rage, in Book I, is a decisive factor for the Achaeans. By offending the honor of Achilles, Agamemnon seals the fate of the Achaeans. Achilles’s great wrath is the only impulse that can overcome even the will of the gods, though it cannot escape his fate. Rage, the deep desire for vengeance, is a fundamentally human impulse. Like a wild untamed beast, Achilles struggles to force himself to return home, yet he refuses to return to battle as it would require confirmation of Agamemnon’s excellence. He is in a stasis.

Although there is an attempt made by Odysseus and a group of Achaean leaders in Book IX to offer to return Agamemnon’s stolen gifts to Achilles, and thereby persuade him to rejoin the battle, this ultimately fails. Achilles remains firm, he will not persuaded. Achilles privately mentions to Patroclus that he will not remain angry forever, though, but only until the Trojans have beaten the Achaeans all the way back the hulls of their ships. He mentions this upon taking “pity” on his friend Patroclus, with tears streaming down Patroclus’s face (Book XVI 1-19). Achilles allows Patroclus to rejoin the battle with the Myrmidons because young and impressionable Patroclus had been moved by the words of Nestor when visiting the Achaean front lines. Upon his tragic death, Achilles redirects his anger instantly.

“…the spirit within does not drive me

to go on living and be among men, except on condition

that Hector first be beaten down under my spear, lose his life

and pay the price for stripping Patroclus, the son of Menoitios” (Book XVIII, 90-93).

He wishes that all the strife and anger of man would go away for both gods and mortals. Due to the death of Patroclus, he will actively forget the past transgression of Agamemnon and refocus his rage on Hector.

Notably the rage of Achilles, a natural outward impulse, is initially directed inward -toward the Achaeans. The greatest threat to Achilles’s power comes from within his own tribe. However, once his great passions are drawn externally, toward Hector, the killer of Patroclus, Achilles immediately relinquishes his rage toward Agamemnon. He, as the archetypal warrior, and can only direct his anger toward one kind of enemy: internal (against the city) or external (toward an enemy of the city). It is, therefore, in the interest of the city to see that the warrior is treated justly internally, but unjustly externally -that he faces an enemy. In this way, the warrior and his unbearable rage, helps to reinforce the city as a cohesive whole.

However, the rage of Achilles is vengeful, and is therefore reactionary. He is driven toward revenge, or perhaps requital. Take, for instance, the stripping of Achilles’s armor from the body Patroclus in Book XVI, an unforgivable act in Achilles’s eyes. In order to claim his vengeance on Hector, Achilles mercilessly slaughters him, and with his dying words, Hector tries to persuade Achilles not to leave his body for the dogs, but stubborn Achilles refuses -he has a “heart of iron” (Book XXII, 288-361). His interaction with Hector stands in stark distinction to other Trojan – Achaean battles, predicated on mutual respect. Achilles, instead, yearns to demoralize and defile the body of Hector. His rage transcends the limits of law and custom in battle.

The Anger of Achilles by Jacques-Louis David (1819)

Finally, the last point to be made in an examination of Achilles’s rage, occurs in Book XXIV, the final book of the Iliad. Priam, king of Ilium, comes to Achilles to plead for his son’s body to make a proper burial. Throughout the text, only two people successfully persuade Achilles and both occur in weepy moments of lament. The first, as discussed earlier, is the weeping plea of Patroclus to rejoin the Achaeans and help push the Trojans back. The second, however, occurs when King Priam approaches Achilles, physically takes his hand, and beckons him to recall his own father, Peleus. How is it that Achilles allows himself to be persuaded during these impassioned moments, but he will not listen to the reason of Odysseus or Ajax? Achilles, the archetypal warrior, does not have the capacity for reason. He, instead, allows his heart and his wild passions to overpower him. In order to persuade the warrior, one must physically regulate his emotions. His only weakness is in what exposes his vulnerabilities, whether it be his heel or his deep affection for a friend or a father. In both cases his heart is softened. Achilles is vulnerable to pity and sorrow. However, this great pity is intimately connected to his deep sorrow -the warrior must be made to feel more than to discourse, yet the problem lies in the need for the city to have warriors who take honor and pity among there own stock, yet feel rage toward the city’s enemies. For Achilles, this rage takes its greatest form in reaction to the death of an intimate friend.

The warrior, unlike the magistrate or king, is dangerous. His untamed passions are the fruit of chaos, both within and without the city. Therefore a wise leader, like Nestor, who compels the spirit of the young Patroclus, can wisely redirect Achilles’s rage by foreseeing the death of his friend. It is far better that the great warrior’s rage is channeled outward, rather than inward, in order for the city to endure.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.

On the Homeric Question

The rising tide of scientific investigation, everywhere pervading our age, begs us, once more, to pose the question of the authenticity of Homer.

This question comes about as a need to discover the sole source for the production of the Homeric works, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Could they have been the creation of one man? Or are they the works of many hands? At the root of these questions lies the deep cultural longing for an author, an authority, to justify the psychology of the texts. It is not unlike the question of the authenticity of the Mosaic texts. By seeking one author, or at least by seeking a satisfying answer to the question of authorship, we look for justification for the texts. As the rise of the internet as proved, there is great power in anonymity, and we moderns have difficulty accepting ambiguous authorship. We prefer to put a particular author on trial, by examining his “social political context” before approaching a text. However, our demand for demonstrable proof finds no kinship in antiquity. Among the multitude of texts attributed to Homeros and the Homeric body of literature, later delineated by Pausanias and others, we have difficulty locating the origins of these vitally important works. We can only find approximations that will not, in the long run, suffice. Therefore, we modern scientific-minded researchers must find alternatives to quench our thirst for comfortable answers.

“Homer and His Guide” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1874)

However, does this mean it is not possible to credibly believe in the mythological story of Homeros? After all, we find greater ease accepting that Homeric texts are mere products of a cultural milieu -emerging from a rich Greek tradition of oral poetry. From this answer we might survey the scene and dust our hands clean of any further need for inquiry -the author is the public, itself. There is no individual agency, but rather great high-minded classical works of art simply emerged out of necessity from populist demands. Under this manner of thinking, Homer is nothing other than a word representing a truth we arrogantly confirm for ourselves -namely that history proceeds dialectically, and that great works of art emerged from a democratic populism. They merely are reactionary pieces of evidence for a particular culture. But what of the truth of mythology, itself? Is there not any truth to mythos that extends beyond what many have called the socio-political-historical context? For example, when Homer is accepted throughout the Greek world to be the author of the texts in question, can we not accept an element of truth in this widespread “historical fact”? Or also, when the Christian narrative of the death of Christ is accepted throughout the Western world, is this not evidence of a kind of truth to the myth? Why must we ask for criteria on the origins of the myth, rather than accepting its significance as justification enough? Again we find ourselves run aground with the infinite multitude of cultural impulses that might lead us to believe in such a truth. The closest we are willing to venture is into the realm of probability.

At any rate, underlying this modern question of Homeric authorship is not simply a need to find a single person who can be responsible for the texts, rather it is the need to find a psychology behind the authorship. Who was Homer? Why did he write these texts? What did he believe? These are all personal and psychological questions that demand answers in order to by modern standards. His authority is not justified on its own account. Instead, a reader of the kind described demands a psychoanalysis be performed on the probability of Homer’s life. The texts, the Iliad and the Odyssey, again become subordinate to the account of the author.

In seeking answers to these questions, our scientists dig for evidence, linguists search for cultural inconsistencies, professors teach the improbability of Homer. We cannot find justification for Homer, only possibilities. While we possess the texts as evidence of a bygone age, they do not come coupled with a biography of the author. We have only the inheritance of classical antiquity to rely on.

However, we moderns don’t deny the greatness of the texts: the Iliad, the Odyssey, and other hymns attributed classically to Homer. It is not as if we believe the artists strung together a series of unrelated thoughts -a montage that happened to fall into place by the work of many hands. Rather we accept that Homeric literature forms a whole, it is consistent, and is a work of beauty. For why else would we call it Homeric? This awe-inspiring beauty and symmetry found in Homer implies that it must have been the work of a very profound poet or poets, as consistency is rarely found among populist rumors.

Therefore, we moderns believe these texts to be the work of a great poet – just not Homer.

“Homerus” by Rembrandt in 1663

We tell ourselves, gloomily, not to accept the Homeric, the Orphic, or the Bacchic, because they are mere mythos. Yet deep down we accept a grain of truth to these stories. If the myths are mere “social constructions,” as is commonly accepted, we then convince ourselves both that there is a dull and dry story confirmed only by evidence, and we also tacitly accept that “social constructions” still have locations deeper than their social context -they are not entirely fabricated out of rumors. Consider a coin passed through many hands (Nietzsche, Homer and Classical Philology 1910). As it proceeds, the coin, perhaps bearing the face of Alexander the Great, is steadily worn by the passage of time. Yet, the vital significance of the coin, itself, remains. Similarly, consider the Homeric epics -once sung by traveling bards throughout the Hellenic world. Did the first bard, who we call Homer, have a perfect recollection of each line and stanza before performing the Iliad for his first Greek audience? And then, following on this absurd insinuation, did the first scribe recall perfectly each verse and stanza to be replicated authentically onto tortoise shells and papyrus scrolls? An affirmative answer to these questions cannot be believed by a thinking person, unless he relies on divine revelation of some kind. However, the Homeric works make no claims to divine revelation, and they instead present a far more human-centered cosmos than, say, the books of the Torah.

Therefore, the Homeric works cannot be the products of perfect algorithms -the Iliad was not born out of a full and complete thought, that was put to song, that was committed to memory, and that was eventually captured perfectly on paper, as if in a museum. Rather the Homeric works and the Homeric identity are organic, living impulses. Homer is an enduring poet, perhaps the most enduring poet, because his epics find homes, even today, in modern impulses. We have not yet capitulated to modern advancements and relinquished our memory the naked truth of antiquity. We may, from time to time, find ourselves in a stasis, condescending to the noble Achaean warrior-chieftains, but we still cannot let go of our deeply held Homeric root.

In our relentlessly Quixotic quest to discover an authentic Homer, the blind bard, we should tread lightly in pursuing its answer. Otherwise we may find ourselves blinded, like Oedipus, in discovering our ill-fated origins. Let us, instead, relinquish the need to unearth the original Homer, and his prove his falsity. Let us, instead, embrace the life-giving truths embodied within the Homeric corpus, and guide our inquiry into the enduring nature of Homeros. Far greater truth, goodness, and beauty can be found in this mode of inquiry.

Political Philosophy in the Iliad

Book Two of the Iliad is the most politically revealing passage found in Homeric literature.

“Achilles Receiving the Ambassadors of Agamemnon” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1801)

Recall our heroes, the disparate Achaean princes feuding with one another. Despite being united under the arrogant leadership of Agamemnon, who is regularly deemed “the shepherd of the people,” the Achaeans are squabbling over property. The Achaeans have banded together to form a collective whole composed of many distinct parts to confront the strong walls of Ilium (Troy) in battle. Paris, son of Priam and brother of Hector, has wrongfully eloped with Helen, the wife of Menelaus, and this gross degradation of Menelaus’s honor causes a series of tribal treaties to be invoked, compelling the greater Achaean territories to war with Troy. Woman, in this case Helen, is the most dangerous creature, an object of immense beauty that impels terrible destruction. She makes inferior men like Paris a salve to their passions. However, in the ninth year of this war, Agamemnon and Achilles are confronted with reasons to return home before Menelaus’s wife is rightfully returned to him. The question of whether the woman is worth pursuing is raised.

After receiving a deceitful Dream from Zeus, Agamemnon gathers his counsel of princes. He speaks first to the leaders, then to the masses, convincing them to return home from Ilium. Remarkably, throughout the proceedings, the Greek body politic is civil -the Greeks are listeners. Each man speaks in his own turn. Homer, as the teacher of the Greeks, presents a highly civilized model for a future culture. Mimesis requires politics as the crucial foundation from which to create. Recall the promise of friendship exchanged by Glaucos and Diomedes of Argos with one another in Book VI, or the exchange of gifts between mortal enemies Ajax and Hector in Book VII.

Amidst this political struggle, Odysseus emerges as the model statesman, the ideal prince. Beckoned by wise Athena, Odysseus moves through the masses of people restraining them. Toward kings or men of influence, he speaks softly in an attempt to persuade them of the need to continue fighting. Toward the loud masses of men, Odysseus forcibly strikes them with his staff. Odysseus, the most cunning of the Greeks, behaves differently toward the noisy crowd than he does toward the leaders of men. His purpose is to marshall the men in support of war, and in order to best shepherd the people, Odysseus employs a combination of speech and force, persuasion and compulsion. Perhaps this is why Homer explicitly identifies Odysseus as “the equal of Zeus in counsel” (Book II, 169)

“The Love of Paris and Helen” by Jacques-Louis David in 1788

As the title of the text reveals to us, the book is about the city. The birth of Greek identity. Broadly speaking, the Iliad acknowledges and reveals to us the concealed forces that govern our actions and reactions, as they are apportioned to the city. For example, Eris and Envy are ever present gods to the Greek mind. Conflict and pain are necessary forces that govern life. For the Greeks, the Iliad reveals to us our inner human pains and envies, as our churning will manifests itself in politics and war. Rather than denying and suppressing our inner drive toward arete, our will to power, the Homeric politeia acknowledges envy, spite, anger, and honor as elemental life-yielding truths. Each Greek leader believes himself to be the best of men, and a competition of excellence necessarily ensues. A timocratic politeia begins to develop -each caring not for his own individual self-preservation, but rather for his honor and respect. Each man believes he is owed due goods so that he may not lose his respect and honor. Agamemnon believes he is the best of men because he rules the largest number. Achilles believes he is the best of men because he is the mightiest warrior. Odysseus seeks no justification for his excellence. He is both wily and wise, so much so that he “knows” the voice of Athena when she speaks to him. Much like the serpent in Genesis, Odysseus is “cunning,” and a leader of men. When Thersites of the “endless speech” who was the “ugliest man” (Book II, 210-216) verbally abuses Agamemnon, Odysseus publicly threatens him and strikes Thersites, forcing a tear in his eye as the Achaeans laugh. We moderns must resist the urge to read this passage as tragicomic, lest we find ourselves in a dizzying Quixotic bind. To the classical audience, it is a merely comic scene. The Greek citizen laughs in the face of weakness, like that of Thersites. Hellenism shows no kindness toward the meek and mild. How foreign is this kind of laughter to the modern mind!

However, the Homeric tale leads us not only into the Achaean camp, but also behind the walls of the Trojan city. Here, in Troy we encounter the aging Priam, the shining strength of Hector, and the weakness of Paris, sometimes called Alexandros. Hector is an equally admirable hero to any of those we find in the Achaean camp. He is determined to preserve his city’s honor, Hector leads the Trojan armies despite his younger brother’s impassioned disrespect for custom. After young Paris is swept away from battling with Menelaus over possession of Helen, Hector enters the mighty gates of Ilium and berates Paris. More than three times he addresses Paris as, “Strange man.” Paris is a stranger not only to nomos, but also to his own brother. His disrespect for law is foreign to the people of Ilium. The downfall of Troy is in the decision to protect this stranger, a native son, who follows the wayward whims of his heart over the political demands of the city. He poses a threat to the honor of the city, and is thus a potential weakness.

A careful examination of where Homer’s temporal presentation leads is also helpful. During scenes of politics, the author recollects the moment. It is presented to the audience in the past tense. However, during scenes of battle, the author often uses the word “now” to indicate urgency or immediacy. Politics is better understood in reverse, knowledge comes when one engages in the activity of recollection -and knowledge of things political is the highest form of knowledge attained within the city. The chaotic motion of the battle makes it more difficult and dizzying to have knowledge the moment. In order to understand political things, men must climb higher than the ground-level to survey the scene. They must stand on high mountains, to see things a little more clearly. Men must also have space and order to recollect things past.

A 1st century fresco found in the house of a tragic poet on Pompeii depicting Achilles surrendering Briseis

Politics escapes none in the Iliad, not even the gods. Zeus is compelled to balance the wishes of Hera, Athena supports the Achaeans, Ares is easily angered by the battalions. The will of each god also comes into conflict with the humans in their war, and their politics. However, the frivolity of the gods binds the fate of the warriors. The humans fight each other to become “like the gods” and yet they surpass even the gods in their desire to be best. Not even the gods can stop the strong-willed Greeks. Their competing inner intentions are embroiled to overcome the status of being human, of the finality of life. The highest political thing to the Greeks, honor, transcends the value of self-preservation, and they fight to overcome death. The gods are envious of the humans and the terminal finitude to their lives. They live an existential life wherein the character and quality of death can cause angst. Our heroes ask themselves: How will I die? When will I die? For what purpose will I die? Achilles must decide between dying honorably in battle or returning home for a lengthy but forgotten life.

Therefore, Homer exposes to us not merely the dynamics of the city, but also the underlying tensions that form the body politic. The Iliad reveals to us our nature. The inner competing wills that lie beneath the politeia.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.

Genesis III: In Defense of the Serpent

Michelangelo’s The Fall and Expulsion From Paradise, a fresco from the Sistine Chapel (1510)

In the garden of Eden, we encounter two trees: the tree of knowledge (good and evil) and the tree of life. Both trees presumably represent differing pathways for humanity. In Genesis Chapter III, we start to discover humans in the garden (assuming we accept either the seven day creation narrative of Genesis I, or the ‘soil and rib’ narrative of Genesis II). The humans freely roam in the garden, eating of the vegetation as they please. We have no textual evidence that they are carnivorous at the outset. It is safe to assume that humans in the garden live a simple life like animals. They are given the unique privilege of naming all the animals, and thus humans are distinct among living creatures.

Now, of all the beasts in the field, the serpent is described as the most “cunning” (the original Hebrew employs a clever pun connecting the two words “cunning” and “nakedness”). While the humans are naked, exposed, and vulnerable; the serpent remains concealed, masking his inner intentions like Odysseus. He, thus, has greater power over the humans. Latter theological interpretations of the serpent’s power will find evil, but removing any sense of revisionism, we find the serpent to be a curious character. He demonstrates to us the capacity for persuasion.

Up until Genesis III, we are given no textual evidence that the humans have had greater ambition other than to obey the will of God who commands them not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, good and evil. The humans up until this point are docile and obedient. It should be noted that God’s commandment carried with it a warning of punishment if the law is disobeyed. If the forbidden fruit is eaten, the humans shall surely be doomed to die. The law is supported by a threat, the potential for punishment. This is the birth of law in Genesis. But how well to humans obey laws?

The crafty serpent successfully persuades the woman that she will not die if she eats the fruit, but rather that she will possess new knowledge of good and evil and she will become “like a god.” What do we make of the serpent in this speech? Surely his motives are at odds with God’s, but could it be in the best interest of the humans to become like a god? The prideful Greeks, after all, were honored at the thought of becoming like a god. The woman rebuts the serpent, yet she cannot resist the lustful temptation of forbidden fruit. Humans respond to incentives rather than punishments. It can be said that the woman, rather than wishing to be like a god, eats of the fruit solely of her own wish. The fruit is so desirous simply for its own sake -but the law has made it even more compelling. She desires to break the law because she forgets about God’s threat of death in order to focus on becoming like a god. She is allured by the promise of the serpent. As St. Augustine later notes in his Confessions, the sin of eating an apple arises merely from the apple being an object of terrible beauty, stemming from its own sinful desire (see also Paul’s discussion of the law in his Epistle to the Romans). The woman’s actions in Genesis, and all human actions for that matter, render perfect obedience to law an impossibility, leaving an Edenic Kallipoli (a la Plato’s Republic) to be nothing more than a city in speech. Perhaps this is why God notably omits labeling his human creation as “good” at the close of the sixth day. Presumably, law and goodness are at least connected. At any rate, the woman’s desire to become “like a god” overpowers her.

The Fall of Man by Venetian artist, Titian (1550)

Upon eating the fruit the woman gives it to the man and, contrary to God’s bluff, the humans do not die. Indeed God does not make good on his vow that the humans shall surely perish. Rather, their eyes are opened, as promised by the serpent, and they see good and evil. The serpent was true to his word unlike God. Ashamed and guilt-ridden, the humans rush to conceal themselves, thereby protecting their vulnerabilities. With new moral knowledge, the humans gain a unique sense of separation from the beasts who are not bound by law. In learning about the existence of evil, it is fitting for the humans to seek ways to protect and preserve their substance. They immediately cling to what we might call personal property -leaves and branches- used to cloak themselves.

Do the humans “become like gods?” Though they are banished from the garden, they produce offspring and become political. The man and woman live for an extended period of time, but they do eventually die seeing their many offspring populate the earth. They die, while gods surely do not die. Because we are not given any textual evidence that the man and woman would have died had they remained in the garden, latter more sophisticated theology suggests this is because the humans were meant to be eternal, thus overturning the serpent’s promise of godlike knowledge.

In closing, is it possible to entertain the notion that the serpent has actually aided the humans by beguiling them with new godlike knowledge, good and evil? Without falling prey to more recent and sophisticated theological interpretations involving comparisons between the serpent and ha-satan, or the “adversary,” let us instead reassess the serpent in Genesis III as a creature of good will, bringing truth, moral knowledge, and also politics to the humans. God, envious and threatened by the humans’ new knowledge, quickly banishes them from the garden before they can eat of the tree of life and become immortal, too. Theology, as confirmed by God’s character in the Torah, remains skeptical of the human quest for knowledge. The desire, or lust, to learn is evil in the eyes of God and can be dangerous to humans. Perhaps there is some truth to these claims, however much we may find them problematic. Jerusalem, in contrast to Athens, is the theological city. One might also call it the tension between God’s law and human law. God desires obedience, absolute invigilation, though latter Christian theology finds hope in life through forgiveness from an entirely different glimpse of the divine than we find in early Canaanite mythology found in Genesis. Theology rejects human greatness in favor of human safety, whereas the cunning serpent encourages the humans to become like gods, in pursuit of knowledge because it is both good and also rewarding, though he notably makes no mention of the dangers in the pursuit of knowledge.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s illuminating translation of the Torah.

The Words of Moses

Deuteronomy comes to us from the Greek meaning “second law,” and the Hebrew Devarim meaning “spoken words” or also “these are the words.” It is presented as the valedictory speech of Moses which he delivers across the Jordan shortly before his death. It is the most rhetorical book of the Torah, and since rhetoric can be considered the art of persuasion, Deuteronomy is meant to persuade its audiences. What is the book of Deuteronomy attempting to persuade its audience of? Could the text be trying to compel its readers to action?

Moses recounts the sojourns of the Israelites based on what God had said to him. He speaks with a rare assumption of authority -to call the Israelites to battle and to not forget their God who will lead them in conquering the tribes of the Canaanites so they can claim their land. What is Moses’s purpose in making this extended booming declaration? Several times he alludes to Joshua and the forthcoming of his leadership, while Moses will not be permitted by God to dwell in the promised land of ‘milk and honey.’ Moses looks to instill fear about the ‘great and evil’ things that God is capable of, should they neglect His demands. Moses reminds the people of the laws, so that they may be remembered and obeyed.

He reminds the people of Israel that the Lord presented them with laws and led them to wander in the wilderness in order to test their obedience to his commands, and also he presented them with manna in order that they know that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by the words of God. Hence why the title of Torah, meaning guidance. Moses is very much aware of the audience to which he is speaking. This is a message for the mass of people, many of whom are not wealthy, and thus he reminds them that blessings and wealth emerge only from the divine. In addition, he hopes to make it clear that the guidelines provided by God must be remembered. They must be able to recall the speeches and deeds of God, through the mouthpiece of Moses.

It is Moses’s task in Deuteronomy to persuade the Israelites of the importance of the laws and rules they have been handed (Exodus through Numbers), not only from the two tablets of “words” from Mt. Sinai, but also orally through the words of Moses. They must be made to fear God, but go without fear into battle against their fellow human beings. Otherwise, the Lord will encounter the same problem he faced after the death of Noah, the death of Abraham, and the death of Joseph -namely that his covenant will no longer endure among new generations of people.

Moses closes his booming speech with a solemn poem, sometimes called the Song of Moses, in Hebrew called the Shirat Ha’azinu. The poem itself is thought to be much older than the work of Deuteronomy, and may date back to the early era of the judges, as the structure of the poem mirrors other significant and early Ugaritic writings.

Throughout this poem God is compared to a great many things, such as a rock, and is also referred as Elyon, the Canaanite sky god who was apparently adopted by the Israelite from the Canaanite pantheon.

Upon finishing the poem that Moses sings to the people, the Lord invites him up the mountain of Abarim and Nebo to look over Jericho and see the whole Canaanite land that He plans to give to the Israelites. Then Moses the “Man of God” gives one last song, a poem of blessing to the Israelites before he goes up the mountain to die. The poem gives a short blessing to each of the twelve tribes of Israel, promising them crushing victory against their enemies in the Canaanite region.

Moses dies atop the mountain and he is buried at the age of 120, though no one knows where Moses found his final resting place. Upon the death of Moses, political power is transferred to Joshua, as commanded by the Lord. Although Joshua becomes filled with the spirit of wisdom, by the touch of Moses, no one in Israel ever is able to lead like Moses, who was face-to-face with God and led them out of Egypt and performed acts of great fear. All of these were performed “before the eyes of Israel,” as the book of Deuteronomy is a book of witnessing.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s masterful translation of the Torah.