The Odyssey vs Book of Job: Compare & Contrast
The Odyssey is an epic poem attributed to the Greek poet Homer. Together with the Iliad, another Homeric work, it is considered as the paradigmatic model of Western literature (Schein 1996 p 3). The Book of Job, on the other hand, is one of the books found in the Old Testament. Like all other books in the OT, it is a religious narrative that has long served as the moral and ethical guidelines of the Hebrew people. Despite the difference in their writing origin The Odyssey and the Book of Job is bound by the same thematic underpinning: they epitomized the religious relationships of man and his god. While The Odyssey, however, pictures the Greek hero, a mere mortal, as possessed of qualities matching or even surpassing that of a god, the Book of Job portrays the Hebrew man as a powerless creature in the presence of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God.
The Odyssey reveals that the Greeks tend to regard heroes as near equal to their deities with only one distinction separating them: immortality. Greeks tend to attribute to their heroes superhuman qualities that can even surpass those of the gods. In The Odyssey, for example, Odysseus is portrayed as a man of extreme cunning and guile that he even outwitted Athena, the goddess of wisdom and discord, during their encounter on the island of Ithaca. Albeit Athena has the power to change her appearance and conceal her true identity, Odysseus is possessed with greater rhetorical skills and shrewdness that can see through Athena’s lies.
The Odyssey, whose story takes off as the Iliad ends, tells of the travails of Odysseus, the cunning Greek hero who planned the surreptitious infiltration of the city of Troy by packing a huge wooden horse, disguised as a gift to the Trojans, with Greek warriors. Having earned the wrath of Athena for relentlessly sacking the city, Odysseus had unusual difficulty reaching home. Ten years after the siege of Troy, Odysseus is still groping for his way home hindered by all kinds of difficult obstacles strewn, deliberately or fortuitously, his path. Central to his success in his journey is Athena, who is Odysseus’ staunchest supporter in Mount Olympus. Athena’s partiality for Odysseus stems from her admiration of the latter’s gift for cunning and deception which he employs in annihilating his enemies (Clay 1997 pp 186-189).
Chapter 13 of the book narrates the encounter of the mortal and the immortal in the island of Ithaca, an encounter that highlights a contest of wit and cunning. In this chapter, Odysseus, without his knowledge, has reached his homeland Ithaca. He is however abandoned, while sleeping, by the Phaeacians who were earlier frightened by the wrath of Poseidon, the god of the underworld and father of the one-eyed Cyclops who was earlier killed by Odysseus. Athena covers the place in the mist to hide the place’s true identity to Odysseus. She is putting in place a trap that would force Odysseus to reveal himself to her while she disguises herself as a shepherd (Clay 1997 pp 192-195).
The trap boomerangs, however, on the goddess as Odysseus proves too cunning even for her supernatural powers. Upon seeing Athena disguised as a shepherd, Odysseus immediately befriends her and tries to draw out information about the place. Athena informs him that the place is Ithaca baiting him by adding that the place is known even by the simplest of people and recognized even in places as remote as the city of Troy. With characteristic craftiness, Odysseus admits to having heard of Ithaca but claims that he is a fugitive from Crete after having killed the son of an illustrious person who tried to rob him of the riches he looted from Troy (Clay 1997 p 196).
Failing to trick Odysseus into revealing himself, the outwitted Athena is forced to reveal her true self instead, chiding him for failing to see through her disguises not only in Ithaca but throughout the times during his journey home when she had been at his side aiding him. With this, the wily Odysseus sees through Athena’s lies. First, he justifies his failure to recognize her disguise as a shepherd as attributable to his being a mere mortal. Next, he rebuts her claim that she was constantly with him in his struggles especially after the sacking of Troy. And for the final blow, Odysseus informs Athena that he recognized her when she guided him to the city of the Phaeacians (Clay 1997 pp 198-205).
While The Odyssey portrays the Greek hero as equal to or even surpassing a deity’s qualities, the Book of Job emphasizes the wide chasm that exists between man and god. It depicts God as a superior being in all aspects and in every respect as opposed to man’s dismal powerlessness. These stories illustrate the vastly different perception of the concept of “god” by the Greeks and the Hebrews. While the polytheistic Greeks saw their deities as endowed with immortality and powers but nevertheless not impervious to a hero’s mortal powers, the monotheistic Hebrews saw God as the Supreme Being whose wisdom and powers are incomprehensible to a man and therefore whose actions and decisions cannot be made subject to question and review. And because gods were regarded as not out of the reach of mere mortals, the Greeks were ready to pit wit and cunning with them. On the other hand, since Hebrews regarded God as beyond the reach and comprehension of man, they were in absolute awe of Him and fear His wrath.
In the Book of Job, the main protagonist is made subject to a two-stage test to prove who between God and Satan has the right opinion about him. God believes that Job, the Hebrew, is a very righteous man but Satan believes that this is only because God has blessed Him with wealth and a happy family. God concedes to Satan’s plan to test Job on the condition that his life is spared. In the first round of tests, Job loses his wealth, his servants, and worse, all his children but this does not drive him to blame God. On the contrary, he exalts God by offering back to Him all blessings that he thinks He has bestowed on him. Unsatisfied, Satan, with the consent of God and on the same condition, inflict the second round of test on Job by afflicting him with skin sores from head to foot. Scraping his body with a fragment of pottery, Job sits on the ashes until four of his friends come to visit and console with him for seven days and seven nights. Unable to hold himself no longer, Job cries out in anguish and curses the day he was born. His friends react by reminding him that God punishes only those who have sinned against Him and Job must therefore atone for his sins. Job tries to defend himself by telling them that the punishments laid on him are unwarranted but his friends are convinced of his guilt and see his outcry as an act of negating his fear of God. A fourth friend Elihu comes in and remarks that physical suffering is God’s way of manifesting himself to his people because once He lifts the suffering, man becomes acutely aware of His presence (Janzen 1985 pp 34-101).
It is at this juncture that God reveals himself to the group. He proffers several questions to Job all of which are geared to show the latter the futility of inquiring and questioning God’s motives. God emphasizes that His power and wisdom are such that man can never comprehend them and therefore there is no use deliberating or analyzing His decisions and actions. Realizing his folly, Job asks for forgiveness. Meanwhile, God chastises Job’s three friends for offering erroneous counsel and demands that they offer sacrifices and that Job prays on their behalf after which He does not only restore all Job’s previous possession but doubles them (Janzen 1985 pp 217-267).
Clay, Jenny Strauss. The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey. Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.
Homer, The Odyssey. Plain Label Books, 1906.
Janzen, Gerald. “Job.” Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching
Interpretation Series, Interpretation Bible Commentaries. Westminster John Knox Press, 1985.
Schein, Seth L. “Reading the Odyssey: Selected Interpretive Essays” Princeton Paperbacks. Princeton University Press, 1996.