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Genesis as DialogueA Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary$

Thomas L. Brodie

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9780195138368

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0195138368.001.0001

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(p.447) Appendix Three Sources: Genesis's Use of Homer's Odyssey

(p.447) Appendix Three Sources: Genesis's Use of Homer's Odyssey

Genesis as Dialogue

Thomas L. Brodie

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Genesis used epics not only from Mesopotamia, as is generally accepted, but also from the Greeks. The criteria of literary dependence indicate that Genesis 11–50 used Homer's Odyssey. Generally, the dependence is systematic.

Genesis's Use of Mesopotamian Epic

The first awareness that some of Genesis's sources may still exist came in December 1872, when George Smith publicized a translation of Assyrian accounts of the flood (ANET xiii; Hess and Tsumura, 1994, 5) (see Introduction, Chapter 8). Further research eventually led to a major breakthrough on the source question—the realization that, to a significant degree, Genesis 1–11 as a whole (or at least Genesis 1–9) was modeled on epic poetry, especially on the epic poetry of Mesopotamia. (Genesis 10 is elusive, more akin to genealogy and world maps than epic.)

It is now a commonplace to see Genesis as dependent on works such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Atrahasis Epic, and the Enuma Elish (Heidel, 1951; O'Brien and Major, 1982; Clifford, 2:2; 1994, 144–150; on the Near East, cf. Hess and Tsumura, 1994, 75–282; on Genesis 1–11 and several other creation stories, see van Wolde, 1997).

All three texts, Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and Enuma Elish, help in understanding Genesis. With regard to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the task of tracing dependence is complicated by the diversity of versions, but “there are a number of points of possible and probable contact with the OT. Wherever these contacts appear the Hebrew poets and storytellers have transformed the material into a vehicle of their own beliefs” (McKenzie, 1968, 312).

The Enuma Elish also has contributed, even if only in Genesis 1–2; there is significant similarity of content and style. But the older text has been adapted thoroughly. For instance, the Genesis idea of the relationship of the divine to creation is “totally different” (O'Brien and Major, 1982, 195–198, esp. 196).

Particularly important was the Atrahasis Epic. Along with other Mesopotamian materials it provided a model for Genesis 2–11, especially for the plot of Genesis 2–9 (Clifford, 2:2). Kselman expresses the same general idea:

The biblical Flood story . . . depend[s] . . . on such Babylonian sources as the Gilgamesh Epic and the Atrahasis myth. This ancient Near Eastern material was consciously reshaped and altered in accord with Israelite theological perspective: (p.448) e.g., Noah, the survivor of the flood, is not immortal; the cause of the flood is ethical (human sin) and not overpopulation, as in some ancient Near Eastern parallels. (91)

Kselman's words express a key feature of composition. The culture of Mesopotamia, however prestigious it may have been, was not swallowed unthinkingly by Genesis. It was consciously reshaped.

Bergant (1997) clarifies briefly a basic aspect of this reshaping: Genesis demythologized the narratives of Israel's neighbors, and not just the narratives of Mesopotamia but those of Egypt also. This inclusion of Egypt is far from new. It has long been accepted, for instance, that aspects of the Joseph story reflect an Egyptian background (Humphreys, 1988, 154–175). There is also significant affinity with Ugaritic (Parker, 1989, 225).

What is essential, however, is that Genesis 1–11 uses and adapts Mesopotamian epic. Thus, a precedent for Genesis's use of foreign epic is already established.

Widening the Field of Investigation

In recent decades, scholars of Genesis's origins have begun to examine the Greeks. First, it emerges that there is a partial affinity of genre between the Primary History and Greek historiography (see Introduction, Chapters 6–8). In particular, the Hesiod‐related Catalogue of Women, with its mixture of genealogy and narrative, provides a partial analogue to Genesis; it was a form of primeval history, the result “not of a gradual accumulation of materials but . . . [of] a systematic plan with careful construction of its various parts. . . . The Catalogue was perhaps the original archaiologia and the basis for all later attempts at primeval history” (van Seters, 1992, 89–90). Furthermore, Genesis has already been compared to Greek epic—to the work of Hesiod—but without claiming dependence (O'Brien and Major, 1982, 47–65).

To facilitate investigation of this wider field it is useful to start mapping it. Accordingly Appendix 5 provides a preliminary skeletal survey of basic aspects of ancient literature. The usefulness of such a survey has yet to be measured. At the very least it alerts readers to some of the Greek writers' views on women. In this regard, Hesiod was deadly (Theogony, 570–620; Works and Days, 47–105; see comment on Gen. 2:18–23; and in Appendix 5, see the final comments on Pythagoras and Parmenides). More generally, Appendix 5 gives a sense of the larger literary world surrounding the Primary History.

In the meantime, it is useful to focus on one Greek work, Homer's Odyssey.

What is true of Genesis 1–9 is true also, in modified form, of later chapters. Genesis 11–50 made use of the great epic poetry of the time. In particular, it used the journeys of Homer's Odyssey as one component—distilled and domesticated—for describing the journeys and lives of the patriarchs.

(p.449) Antiquity's Greatest Epic of Wandering

The word “component” is important. Homer does not dominate Genesis 11–50. The subtext has been used as just one part of an account that has a vision quite different from that of Homer. The heroics of the Odyssey have been distilled and domesticated, often even reversed. As Kselman said about the Mesopotamian epics: the “material was consciously reshaped and altered in accordance with Israelite theological perspectives” (91). The biblical text has affinities with epic, but it may also be described as an anti‐epic (Damrosch, 1987, 47–50). The Greek narrative was adjusted to fit into the broad patterns that had already been established in Genesis 1–9. To that extent, more than the Mesopotamian epics, the Odyssey is secondary.

Furthermore, the dependence of Genesis 11–50 on Greek epic is not as obvious as the dependence of Genesis 1–9 on Mesopotamian epic, especially on Mesopotamian flood accounts. This variation in obviousness is somewhat akin to the variation within the Gospel of Luke: during the infancy narrative (Luke 1–2) the dependence on another literature (the Old Testament) is obvious; but, as the Gospel goes on, the nature of this indebtedness changes; the obviousness fades. In Genesis, the variation in obviousness seems to be part of a larger pattern of graded stylistic changes.

The presence of Homer's epic entails a dimension of fiction—historiographical fiction, but fiction nonetheless. At one level this seems alien to Genesis, alien to the Pentateuch, to the revered Torah. Yet the idea of the presence of fiction is not new. In Whybray's words, “Fiction is, after all, a major genre in the Old Testament. . . . It is well established that a major proportion of the narratives in the Pentateuch are fiction” (1987, 240). What counts is not whether there is a dimension of fiction, but whether that fiction has been incorporated into a larger world of genuine art. Art, including fictional art, expresses the deepest truths: “The fictional mode is adopted because it presents a unity to the imagination more intense than the documentary materials” (Frye, 1981, 25).

Yet in describing the Bible it is generally better to avoid the word “fiction.” “Fiction” may be technically correct, but as plain English it is often misleading; it communicates the idea of something trivial. Genesis is not trivial, neither in itself nor in its sources. The Odyssey is not only a great story and a form of biography; it is also a form of wisdom literature, an encyclopedia of ancient knowledge: “Homer is didactic, and . . . the tale is made subservient to the task of accommodating the weight of educational materials which lie within it” (Havelock, 1963, 61–86, esp. 61).

External Plausibility

The idea of Genesis's dependence on Homer may seem strange at first. Genesis is East, and Homer is West, and ne'er the twain could meet. They are worlds apart.

(p.450) However, as already seen (see Introduction, Chapter 6), this clear East‐West division did not exist in ancient times. The Greeks were interwoven with the Persians and with much of the known world. The land of Homer, and the initial Greek intellectual hub, Ionia, were within the Persian empire, within its developed system of transport and exchange.

Greek writers were not cut off from the East—from the world of Mesopotamia and the Bible. Genesis's literary genre finds its closest analogue in Greek historiography (van Seters, 1983, 1992). Greek writing—including that of Hesiod, on the Greek mainland (in Boetia)—was itself heavily influenced by Mesopotamia (Burkert, 1992; Morris, 1992; Feldman, 1996; Marblestone, 1996). Greek historians wrote of the East (Drews, 1973). The Iliad has affinity with Iran and India (Baldick, 1994). In particular, the Odyssey sometimes echoes the Epic of Gilgamesh:

The plot of the Odyssey has more detailed antecedents than the Iliad in the literatures of the Near East. To recapitulate: the plot, insofar as it is the episodic wanderings of a hero that end in coming home, has marked similarities to the Gilgamesh Epic. Both texts start out with descriptions of the hero who traveled far and wide, gaining great experience. Nor is the resemblance limited to such generalities. The two epics share detailed episodes. (Gordon, 1962, 223)

If Genesis used aspects of the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is unlikely to have objected to the epic of Homer. The gap between Genesis and Homer is much greater in modern imagination than in historical reality.

Freedman (1991, 9–10) compares and contrasts the Primary History with the Iliad and Odyssey, particularly the diverse ways in which the Iliad and the Primary History focus on the fall of a great city. Interestingly, too, the way in which the Primary History manages to locate the Commandments at the center of the whole work—largely through a massive process of recalling (Moses' speeches in Deuteronomy recall Sinai; Freedman, 1991, 11)—has a basic affinity with the way Odysseus recalls his journey (Odyssey, Bks. 9–12, Odysseus's banquet speech to the assembled Phaeacians).

The Odyssey is at least a century or two older than Genesis. Homer's epic, whatever its distant roots, seemingly existed in written form around the year 700 BCE: “There is general agreement that the Homeric epics . . . were composed and written down—essentially in the form in which we have them—in the second half of the 8th century BC, the Odyssey somewhat later than the Iliad” (Crielaard, 1995, 201). Apparently the text was further standardized around 550 BCE, on orders of the Athenian ruler, Peisistratus (Rieu, 1991, xxxiii). Genesis probably was not completed until some time in the Persian Empire (ca. 550–330 BCE). Many of Genesis's roots of course may be older than those of Homer, but in the end Genesis is a single unified book, and most researchers place its completion after 550 BCE.

(p.451) Like the Epics of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis, but more so, the Homeric epics were the known world's most famous stories. For many, Homer was almost a form of bible. “Fifth‐century authors, such as Herodotus and Thucydides, speak of Homeric epic as the outstanding classical and virtually canonical text of antiquity” (Gordon, 1962, 219). Homer of course was written in another language. But so were the epics of Mesopotamia. And, like the Mesopotamian epics, the Homeric epics would have been accessible. If courier services from Homer's country could reach Susa in nine days (see Introduction, Chapter 6), there should have no problem about reaching the author of Genesis in a century or two. A writer who thought on a world scale and who used epics is unlikely to have ignored such an opportunity.

Homer as Model and Foil: Initial Comparison

With the exception of the Bible, Homer has been the most used text of all time, the most adapted and rewritten—from the first apparent echoes in Hesiod to later echoes in James Joyce. He pervaded Greek education, and partly through Virgil's Romanizing of him, overshadowed Roman education also. Later he was Christianized, but Christians treated him with ambiguity, part model, part foil: “In the Church . . . he was banished and embraced, excoriated and adduced, repudiated and imitated” (MacDonald, 1994, 26; see Lamberton and Keaney, 1992).

Ambiguity toward Homer occurs already in Hesiod. C. M. Bowra, while describing Hesiod in near‐biblical terms, points to a critical attitude:

Tending his sheep under Mount Helicon, [Hesiod] had a vision of the Muses, who said to him . . . “We can . . . reveal in words what the truth is.” Then they gave him a staff . . . and breathed into him a divine voice. . . . This vivid revelation made Hesiod a poet without ceasing to be a farmer. That he believed in its authoritative authenticity we cannot doubt, and the result was his Theogony. . . . Hesiod . . . claims for himself an authority far greater than Homer claims. . . . He seems to go back to a distant past when poets were prophets. (1966, 61)

Writing perhaps a generation after Homer, Hesiod does indeed pay due homage to the heroic tradition (Works and Days, 156–172), but much of his poem is an antithesis to Homer—a call not to heroics but to daily work and honesty. “His view of life is not that of a king or noble, but of a struggling farmer” (Bowra, 1966, 60). Hesiod, then, in part, is like a protest against Homer. Later (ca. 400), Plato's attitude to Homer was one of “passionate opposition” (Griffin, 1980, 1). Genesis's critical attitude to Homer therefore is not unique.

The central plot—in the Odyssey—is that of a journey in quest of land and family. Odysseus, after a ten‐year war in ancient Troy (ca. 1200 BCE), seeks his homeland, Ithaca; and during his journey, lasting another ten years, he wonders (p.452) about the fate of his wife, his young son, and his elderly father. Old age threatens the father. And suitors threaten the wife and son; they want to marry her and kill him. Eventually, in disguise, he returns. The finale is like a great drama of judgment—a tense mixture of recognition and revenge (he and his son kill the suitors).

These elements are present in Genesis also, but they are spread over two narratives—those of Abraham (chaps. 12–25) and Jacob (chaps. 25–50)—and they are but part of a larger story. Both Abraham and Jacob spend much time journeying, searching for aspects of land and family. The Abraham account lays the emphasis on the wife and young son, and the Jacob account gives more space to an elderly father and to a drama of climactic recognition.

Genesis involves some radical reversals. Instead of son and father exacting final revenge, Abraham has to let go completely of his son (chap. 22; death in Genesis is not a vengeful punishment or a dread abode but something that in varying ways is accepted; cf. chaps. 22–23 and 48–49). And the finale, in the Joseph story, is not avenging punishment but forgiveness.

To compare the texts more closely it is first necessary to summarize the Odyssey.

The Homeric Epic

The Odyssey (traditionally divided into twenty‐four books)1 recounts events that cover the entire life of Odysseus—from his father (24:375–382), mother (11:85), and hunt‐loving youth (17:291–317; 19:405–454) to his eventual peaceful death (foretold in 11:134–137). Within that lifetime the primary focus is on the twenty‐year period of war and wandering. But even these years are not recounted in sequence. Instead, the action begins near the end, and the sequential narrative fills just about forty days: (p.453)

  • six days for the beginning of the journey of young Telemachus (Bks. 1–4);

  • twenty‐five days approximately for Odysseus's raft‐building and for his twenty‐day voyage from captivity to the hospitality of the Phaeacians (Bk. 5);

  • three days among the friendly Phaeacians (Bks. 6–12);

  • and six days back in his native Ithaca (three at his country estate, Bks. 13–16; and three in his own house and in that of his father, 17–24).

During this intense forty‐day narrative there are a series of flashbacks and prophecies, which fill out the larger picture of Odysseus's life. Furthermore, the epic as a whole evokes something of the full dimensions of a human life: it begins with a picture of youth (Telemachus, Bks. 1–4), and concludes with pictures of death, mourning, and old age (Bk. 24).

  • It is useful to divide the Odyssey into four main parts:

  • The departure and journey of young Telemachus (Bks. 1–4);

  • The journey of Odysseus (Bks. 5–12);

  • The return to Ithaca (Bks. 13–18);

  • The judgment: recognition and vengeance (Bks. 19–24).

The Young Telemachus (Bks. 1–4)

In the tenth year after the fall of Troy, while Odysseus was enduring a seventh year of captivity on the island of the beautiful goddess Calypso, and while his wife Penelope, at home in Ithaca, was beset by greedy suitors, the gods agreed in principle that Odysseus be released. Furthermore, Athena, the daughter of Zeus, directed the young son, Telemachus, who till then had been intimidated by the suitors, to confront them and to embark on his journey. The purpose of this journey was both to find his father and to establish his own name (Bk. 1). The confrontation with the suitors is tense—they tell him to banish his mother—and Telemachus secretly sails away (Bk. 2). His voyage brings him to two old friends of his father, Nestor, king of Pylos (Bk. 3), and Menelaus, king of Sparta (Bk. 4). The first, Nestor, is extremely gracious, and, apart from giving his son Peisistratus as companion, gives some initial information about those who returned from Troy. But it is the second, Menelaus, along with his wife, Helen, who has information about Odysseus—that he is still alive—and who gives the best accounts of the struggle to return home from the war. Meanwhile, back in Ithaca (end of Bk. 4), word of Telemachus's departure spreads. His mother, Penelope, is distressed, and the suitors plan to kill him.

The Journey (Bks. 5–12)

Odysseus, helped by Athena, finally escapes captivity, and, following an almost‐fatal storm, lands on an unknown shore (Bk. 5). Next day he meets the beautiful (p.454) Nausicaa and she introduces him to her land, that of the Phaeacians—a friendly people, who receive him with feasting (Bks. 6–7) and contentious games (Bk. 8).

Books 9–12 are a massive flashback. During a Phaeacian banquet Odysseus recounts his years of traveling—including his encounters with the deathly Cyclops (Bk. 9), with dangerous women (when betrothal‐like scenes turned nasty, Bk. 10), and with the shades of the dead (Bk. 11). He concludes by telling of the triple peril that led to the destruction of his ship (and to his consequent captivity by Calypso, Bk. 12).

The Return (Bks. 13–18)

The Phaeacians give gifts to Odysseus and bring him, at last, to the shores of his native land, Ithaca (Bk. 13). Athena disguises Odysseus as an old beggar, and the wily traveler cautiously approaches his property. Coming first to the hut of his herdsman, Eumaeus the swineherd, the disguised Odysseus is welcomed, as Eumaeus cares faithfully for the animals and property of his absent master. The old beggar recounts his apparent story, telling of years in Egypt (Bk. 14).

The epic switches to Telemachus: after a complex journey—including a meal, a prophet, and an escape from the suitors' trap—he, too, approaches the herdsman's hut (Bk. 15). Soon afterward, while the herdsman is gone into the city to tell Penelope that Telemachus is back, Odysseus reveals himself to his son (Bk. 16). Finally, following this self‐revelation, Telemachus and Odysseus decide to leave the herdsman's hut and go separately down to the city, to Odysseus's manor or palatial home (Bk. 17). Odysseus is still disguised as an old beggar, and soon after arriving at his own house is pushed by the suitors into fighting another beggar—for food. In the suitors' presence, Penelope now appears—seductive, and eliciting gifts (Bk. 18).

The Judgment (Books 19–24)

As the disguised Odysseus is planning to punish the suitors—by killing them—Penelope questions him mournfully about her long‐lost husband. When he describes a tunic he had once seen on the wandering Odysseus, she recognizes from the description that it is the tunic she herself had once made for him. Later she tells him of her dreams. And, unknown to Penelope, there is a further recognition: the old nurse recognizes Odysseus's scar—inflicted long ago by a wild animal (Bk. 19).

The next day brings two events: first, a high feast, with a solemn sacrificial assembly (the assembly includes a new ally, Philoitios, an oxherd and leader; Bk. 20); and second, a fateful test—the stringing of the bow (the suitor who most easily strings Odysseus's old bow is to marry Penelope, Bk. 21).

(p.455) The only one able to string the bow is the old beggar, and the stringing is the cue for imposing on the household—suitors, officials, and maidservants—a terrible judgment: Odysseus, Telemachus, and two herdsmen kill or hang all those who are judged guilty (Bk. 22).

Penelope is called, yet when she is told that the avenging visitor is her husband, she does not believe it; she simply looks at him, then tests him. Eventually there is a transformation and rapprochement: he undergoes a certain transformation, and together, in bed, husband and wife reach a heartfelt rapprochement (Bk. 23).

At the end, as the shades of the dead suitors arrive in Hades, there is an account from Hades of the extraordinary mourning that once accompanied the death of the great Achilles. Meanwhile, Odysseus discloses his presence to his old father, and, in face of impending trouble from the suitors' relatives, brings about a quick reconciliation (Bk. 24).

Homer and Genesis 11–50: Further General Comparison

Basic Differences

Form. Unlike the Odyssey, with its focus on a climactic period of forty days, Genesis, at one level, is like history, a sequential account—one thing after another; there is a strong sense of memory and promise, but there are few flashbacks.

The Odyssey is voluminous poetry; Genesis, dense prose. This prose is powerfully poetic, but, unlike Homer, it does not follow a set meter. It has its own distinct history‐like rhythm.

Setting. There is a major difference in setting—not so much a contrast between West and East as between sea and land. Homer's world includes Troy, Phoenicia, and Egypt, but it centers on the sea—and Ithaca. The vast world narrative of Genesis centers on the land from Babylonia to Egypt, especially the land of Canaan—and Hebron.

Content. There is a basic difference also in content. The epic is heroic—full of deeds that are extraordinary. Genesis by and large is prosaic, close to the day‐to‐day reality of historical existence. There are indeed some extraordinary events and people, especially in Genesis 1–11, but, generally speaking, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are ordinary people living ordinary lives. They drive donkeys, not flashy chariots.

The gods, too, are different. In the Odyssey there is a whole complex pantheon. Apparently it was partly because of this complexity that, shortly after Homer, Hesiod sought, in his Theogony, to introduce some order in the portrayal of the gods. In any case, the God of Genesis is one. Within this unity—already clear in the prophets—there is some complexity, some diversity of names, and this complexity may perhaps reflect aspects of Homer's pantheon, but the basic sense of a single God is a major change from Homer.

(p.456) Basic Similarities—And Further Contrasts

The sense of a life. Largely through the figures of Odysseus and Jacob, both books evoke the sense of life as a whole, from origin to death (Od. 19:395–412; 11:119–137; Gen. 25:19–34; 49:29–33), and both lay special emphasis on a central period, away from home, of twenty years (for Odysseus, twenty years of war and wandering; for Jacob, twenty years of working for Laban—and against him).

Jacob's lifestyle is poorer than that of Odysseus (Genesis has fewer chariots, baths, and feasts). Yet the dimensions of Jacob's life are richer: his struggle is set against the background of the faith of Abraham; and his old age is surrounded by the providence that is embodied in Joseph. In a sense, Odysseus can seem one‐dimensional: twenty years of youthful strength. But Jacob is three‐dimensional: youthful strength; courageous old age; and all founded on the faith that is linked to Abraham. The author of Genesis has taken the Odyssey apart and used it to build something which, though simpler, is deeper and more inclusive of old age.

When closely examined the Odyssey in fact is not one‐dimensional; it has its own human richness and depth. “The heroic ideal finds physical gifts indispensable, but sets hardly less value on gifts of mind and character” (Bowra, 1966, 26). To some degree, Genesis's task has been to unpack that depth. However, as well as unpacking, Genesis has added further factors, thus opening a new vista.

The changes wrought by Genesis may spring partly from sociological factors and from changes that occurred in the Greek literary world between the eighth and seventh centuries BCE:

In the eighth century the old system of local kings still prevailed in most parts of the Greek world, and it was they who patronized and encouraged the epic. But in the seventh century kings gave place in many districts to small classes of nobles, who divided among themselves the royal powers and privileges. Full of the pride of success, and eager to draw attention to themselves, they turned from the past to the present, from the old heroic ideal to a new sense of personality and individual worth. . . . Poetry was brought down from its majestic detachment to play a fuller part in common life. (Bowra, 1966, 57–58)

Aspects of these changes appear already in Hesiod, and his “performance shows that the emergence of the self in poetry was by no means confined to a few privileged nobles” (Bowra, 166, 66). Literature, in effect, was entering more and more into the flesh‐and‐blood reality of daily life.

Variation in style. Both the Odyssey and Genesis change style toward the end. The Joseph story brings a variation, and there is a variation also in the Odyssey: “for every hundred who study the first half of the Odyssey in the Greek, perhaps hardly a dozen carry their study to the end” (Merry, 1899, vi). In the (p.457) Odyssey “the action becomes simpler and more concentrated in the later books, as the various threads are brought together towards the dramatic finale” (Bowra, 1966, 25). In particular there is a change from diverse episodes (Od. 1–12; Gen. 12–35) to a flowing narrative, which is more unified (Od. 13–24; Gen. 37–50).

Shared Themes

As already mentioned, some themes are reversed (the finale is not revenge but forgiveness; and the attitude to death is more positive). But other themes are quite similar, among them the following:

  • The wandering (with a special emphasis on twenty years).

  • The endangered wife (Penelope; Sarah/Rebekah).

  • The greedy presence (the suitors; Lot).

  • The friendly foreigners, with whom one sometimes contends (the Phaeacians and their king, Alkinoös; the Philistines and King Abimelech).

  • Egypt as a place of service and opportunity.

  • Wondering if the separated one is alive and well (the Joseph story).

  • Reunion and recognition.

A full comparison of the Odyssey and Genesis would require a separate volume—an undertaking that, for the present writer, does not seem advisable. What follows therefore is essentially a preliminary survey.

Genesis and the Odyssey: General Outline

The affinity between the Odyssey and Genesis is not limited exclusively to Genesis 11–50; Homeric elements occur also in Genesis 1–10. But within Genesis 1–10 such elements are more secondary and apparently less systematic than in Genesis 11–50.

The approximate relationship between the two texts is summarized in the accompanying outline (Table A.2).

Genesis tends to keep the order of the Odyssey. Within Books 1–11, only two Books are out of order (4 and 5). Rearrangements, such as they are, seem due partly to internal structures. For instance, the Odyssey, has two inherently connected beginnings—concerning Telemachus and Odysseus (Bks. 1 and 5 respectively)—and so Genesis, in telling of Abraham, combines these beginnings: Books 1 and 5 are used in Genesis 12–15.

Genesis, however, has two major stories, two endings—concerning Abraham and Jacob/Joseph. So the prolonged finale of the Odyssey (Bks. 12–24) has been divided between the final parts of these two stories—divided between Genesis 18–23 and Genesis 37–47, 50. (p.458)

Table A.2. The Odyssey and Genesis 11–50. General Outline


Genesis 11–50 (minus genealogies)

The Young Man

The initial journey is planned (1)

The initial journey of Abraham (11–13)

Telemachus, banish your mother (2)

Banishing Hagar (16)

Nestor: conduct and ritual (3)

Covenant of conduct and ritual (17)

Menelaus's struggle for home (4)

Jacob's struggle to reach home (31–33)

The Journey

Odysseus's exile ends; storm (5)

Battle; exile will end (14–15)

Meeting Nausicaa (6–7)

Meeting Rebecca (24)

Odysseus contends (8)

Jacob contends with Esau, Abimelech (25–26)

Odysseus outwits the Cyclops (9)

Jacob outwits Isaac (27–29)

Betrothals turn nasty (10)

Dinah (34–35)

The dead speak (11)

Dying Jacob speaks (48–49)

Destruction of the ship (12)

Destruction of Sodom (18–19)

The Return

At last: the land (Odyssey 13)

At last: the son (Gen. 19:30–chap. 21)

The faithful servant/swineherd (14)

Joseph as faithful servant (39)

Telemachus: journey home (15)

Journey to Egypt and back (43–44)

Odysseus's self revelation (16)

Joseph's self‐revelation (45)

Odysseus goes down to the manor (17)

Jacob goes down to Pharaoh (46:1–47:11

Fighting physically for food (18)

Fighting morally for food (47:12–28)??

The Judgement

Recognitions and dreams (19)

Joseph dreams; Jacob, Judah recognize (37–38)

The assembly and the test (20–21)

The test and the assembly (22–23)

Judging the suitors, officials (22)

Judging the officials (40)

Transformation and rapprochment (23)

Transformation and rapprochment (41–42)

Mourning Achilles; reconciliation (24)

Mourning Jacob; reconciliation (50)

Apparently the Odyssey did not contribute significantly to the genealogical material—to the genealogies and the generating of family and herds (Gen. 25: 1–18; 29:31–chap. 30; 35:21–37:1).

Preliminary Analysis: A Survey

The following exploratory comparison is not meant to be read at speed. It consists mostly of headings—one‐line summaries of large passages; and for each book of the Odyssey that is summarized the reader will probably need hours—sometimes (p.459) longer—to check the dense headings against the relevant sections of the Odyssey and Genesis.

In the following comparison, references in brackets [ ] are out of order or do not seem to fit the pattern. The purpose of the occasional marks (*, +, − =) is to facilitate comparison. Double question marks (??) indicate tentativeness.

Book 1: The Initial Sending (Od. 1; Gen. 11–13)

In Book 1, Athena sends Telemachus away from home, partly to find news of his father, but also to establish his own identity—to make his own renown or reputation (1:94–95). Apart from the invocation (1:1–10), the Book may be divided into three scenes, scenes which—when distilled, domesticated, and Israelitized—find echoes in Genesis 11–13:

Odyssey, Book 1

  • Invocation: The fall of Troy and the wandering (1–10).

  • Odysseus's captivity (11–21); his captivity and his aged father (187–199).

  • The endangered wife and the missions of father and son (22–186, 200–251).

  • Anger; the mission restated and pondered (252–444).

Genesis 11–13

  • The failure of Babel and the scattering (11:1–9).

  • [Genealogy, 11:10–26;] Abram and his father under the shadow of death (11:27–32).

  • The mission, with its promise; and the endangered wife (12:1–13:1).

  • Quarrel; the mission's promise restated and deepened (13:2–18).

The fall of Troy is partly reflected in the failure of Babel. The dilemma of trapped Odysseus and his aged father, Laertes, contribute to the picture of Abram and his father, Terah, as living in the shadow of death (see comment on 11:27–32). The Odyssey apparently provides no precedent for the genealogy (11:10–26).

The basic content of Odyssey 1:22–444, a divine mission, which is first given, then deepened (1:306–424), finds a significant equivalent in the way Abram is sent (12:1–13:1) and then the promise is deepened (13:2–18). In both cases there is a moment of anger or quarrelling (Od 1:252; Gen. 13:7) between the initial mission and its deepening. Despite affinities, there are perpetual contrasts. Telemachus, for instance, is to make his own name (his reputation or renown, 1: (p.460) 95). But in Genesis the name is made by God (12:2, unlike the builders at Babel, 11:4). For further comment, see below, “Toward a More Complete Analysis.”

Books 2 and 3: Banishing the Mother, But Welcoming the Foreigner and Servant (Od. 2–3; Gen. 16–17)

Books 2 and 3 of the Odyssey show Telemachus as undergoing two very diverse experiences. At home, the murderous suitors press him to banish his mother (Bk. 2). But when he sails among strangers (King Nestor and his people), he and his crew are welcomed, welcomed even to a ritual feast—though their status at first is like that of strangers and servants (Bk. 3).

This contrast—between domestic hostility and foreign welcome—has contributed to the contrast between the domestic antagonism of Genesis 16 (Sarah and Hagar) and the welcoming covenant of Genesis 17 (embracing foreigners and servants).

Odyssey, Book 2

  • Distressed Telemachus calls, in assembly, for justice (2:1–83).

  • Scheming Penelope, caught by one of her maids (2:84–110).

  • Dismiss your mother; get her another husband (2:111–145, 194–223).

    • [Ominous birds, 2:146–193; cf. carrion birds, Gen. 15:11.]

    • [Risking sword/sea against great odds, 2:224–56; cf. Gen. 14:13–16.]

  • On the shore, Athena appears: Go home; he confronts suitors (257–336).

  • Telemachus's clear plan and awareness of a god (2:337–434, esp. 372).

Genesis 16

  • [Sarai, barren; go to the slave girl, 16:1–2; cf. Od. 1:429–433; also 4:10–14, birth by a slave girl, because gods give no more children to Helen.]

  • Scheming Sarah, outdone by the maid (16:3–4).

  • Distressed Sarai calls on Abram and Yahweh for justice (16:5).

  • Dismissal (effectively) of the mother‐to‐be (Hagar, 16:6).

  • By the spring, angel: Go back; child will confront brothers (16:7–12).

  • The maid, with a sense of God, proceeds to bear the child (16:13–16).

Odyssey, Book 3

  • Athena to Telemachus : Proceed ahead; prayer (3:1–64).

    • [Nestor: Where from? Where to? 3:65–74; cf. Gen. 16:8.]

  • (p.461)
  • Athena: quest for the father will engage the world (3:75–101).

    • [How Zeus scattered the Achaians at Troy, 3:102–183; cf. Gen. 11:1–9.]

  • Impossible for father to return; Athena: No, it is not (3:184–238).

    • [The day Agamemnon is revenged, Menelaus returns, 3:239–328.]

  • For strangers, ship boys: kindness, a sacred feast (3:329–370, 464–472).

  • Prayer for fame/name (kleos, 380) for self, wife, children (3:371–403).

    • [Slaughtering the animal(s), 3:404–463; cf. Gen. 15:7–10.]

    • [Departure in a chariot, 3:473–497? link with Bk. 4 and/or Joseph?]

Genesis 17 (Very Tentative)

  • Yahweh to Abram: Walk before me. . . Abram fell on his face (17:1–3a).

  • God: You will be father of nations (17:3b–6).

  • For foreigners, slaves: inclusion in covenant (17:9–14).

  • New names for Abram, Sarai (17:5, 15).

  • Impossible for a child to be born; God: No, it is not (17:16–19).

Book 4: The Struggle to Reach Home (Od. 4; Gen. 31–33)

Book 4 recounts the visit of Telemachus and his companion to the court of Menelaus and his famous wife Helen (now back from Troy). Telemachus is seeking his father Odysseus, and the conversations lead to accounts both of Odysseus's heroics and of Menelaus's own struggle to return home.

The later part of Book 4 turns to the situation back in Telemachus's homeland: Penelope is greatly distressed about whether Telemachus will come home. Then, through a dream, she becomes more reassured.

Both scenes—at Menelaus's court and back home—are concerned with aspects of the difficulty of reaching home—of reaching father and fatherland.

The two scenes provide components for the two panels concerning Jacob's journey home—first his meeting with Laban, and then, nearer home, his distressing journey toward Esau. Despite the distress, Jacob calms down, and he makes plans, which show him as more reassured.

Odyssey, Book 4

  • The people and splendid possessions of Menelaus. But. . . (4:1–119).

  • Helen on her chair (4:120–154).

  • What Menelaus would have done for Odysseus (4:155–182).

  • (p.462)
  • Strong emotion (tears); recalling the heroics of Odysseus (4:183–305).

  • Getting home: consulting a goddess and the Ancient (4:351–387, 465–485).

    • Wrestling with the Ancient (4:306–350, 388–464, esp. 343, 346).

    • Homecomings (diverse) (4:486–575).

  • Reconciliation (with the gods), and a mound (4:576–587a).

    • Gift, and letting go of Telemachus (4:587b–624).

  • Announcement (accidental) of Telemachus's journey (4:625–656).

  • Announcer goes; plan to intercept with twenty men (4:657–674).

  • Penelope's great distress and prayers (4:675–786).

  • Penelope's reassurance (through a dream) (4:787–847).

Genesis 31–33

  • Getting home: consulting wives and God (31:1–16).

    • [Flight and pursuit, 31:17–25??]

  • What Laban would have done for Jacob (31:26–30).

  • Rachel on her cushion (31:31–35).

  • Strong emotion (anger); Jacob recalls his prosaic heroic record (31:36–42).

  • The people and possessions of Laban. But. . . (31:43–44).

  • Reconciliation (human), and a mound (31:45–32:2).

  • Messengers announce Jacob's journey and return (32:3–5).

  • Messengers return: Esau is coming with four hundred men (32:6).

  • Jacob's great distress and prayers (32:7–12).

  • Jacob becomes more assured (makes plans) (32:13–21).

    • Wrestling with the mysterious one (32:22–32).

    • Homecoming: Jacob meets Esau (33:1–7).

    • Gift, and letting go of Jacob (33:8–17).

Book 5: The Storm/Battle, and the End of the Captivity (Od. 5; Gen. 14–15)

In Book 5 the Odyssey leaves the story of Telemachus, and, finally focusing on Odysseus, tells how he was freed from captivity—from the island of the loving nymph, Calypso. This beautiful goddess tried to allure him with the offer of agelessness, but he wanted to rejoin the human race—even though the wife who waited for him would suffer old age and death.

(p.463) Eventually the gods decree that he may leave this captivity, but his departure is lonely and difficult. The loneliness is seen in the cast of characters: apart from Odysseus they are all gods. And the difficulty is seen in the twenty‐day journey: seventeen on a raft, and then three wrenching days, when, amid a terrible storm, he has to trust one of the gods, abandon everything, and swim.

Finally he comes to a new island—virtually dead; and there, like a fresh coal in a bed of dying embers, his sleep prepares him to emerge with new life, new fire (5:456–458, 488–493).

This theme—escaping captivity/servitude—occurs also in Genesis 14–15 (Od. 5:13–15, 112–115, 153; Gen. 14:4, 16; 15:13–14). The captivating powers are diverse—not feminine beauty but imperial force (four great kings, and, implicitly, Pharaoh)—yet there are several points of affinity. If Book 5 is broken into nine sections, each section finds an echo in Genesis 14–15—in a somewhat different order.

Odyssey, Book 5

  • * Divine complaint and response: regards home, threatened son (5:1–42).

  • Diverse gods (Hermes, Calypso) contend for Odysseus (5:43–200).

  • + Despite long exile: desire for home, death, old age (5:201–227).

  • − Goddess sets Odysseus out to sea, steering by the stars (5:228–281).

  • A swirling storm—north/south/east/west—against freedom (282–332).

  • = Odysseus effectively trusts Ino—and swims (5:333–375a).

  • ** Athena wills Odysseus back. . . despite more trouble (5:375b–387).

  • ++ Deathly struggle (5:397–450).

  • −− Odysseus recovers, like fresh fire amid dying embers (451–493).

Genesis 14–15

  • A swirling battle—four kings—to enforce servitude (14:1–16).

  • Diverse kings (of Salem, Sodom) contend for Abram (14:17–24).

  • * Complaint and divine response: regards house and no heir (15:1–4).

  • − Yahweh takes Abram outside, to see the stars (15:5).

  • = Abram trusts Yahweh (15:6).

    • [15:7–11—the animals, and birds of prey.]

  • + Future exile; then home; death, with old age (15:12–15).

  • ** They will come back (15:16).

  • ++ No sun, thick darkness (15:17a).

  • (p.464)
  • −− The fire amid the [dead] pieces (15:17b).

    • [15:18–21, the covenant.]

Two areas of Genesis 14–15—the animals and the covenant (15:7–11, 18–21) seem to find no precedent in Book 5, and even where there is a precedent, it supplies only one aspect. This is clearest in the relationship between the storm and the battle. In Odysseus's experience, storm and battle are two of a kind (5:224), and hence interchangeable, thus making it easy for the author of Genesis to insert a battle in place of the storm. But though Homer's storm text provides an aspect, most of the content for the battle/war (Gen. 14:1–16) comes from other source material.

The ending of the servitude involves both human and divine initiative. In Homer the emphasis falls first on the divine, later on the human (on Odysseus's own role). Genesis, in this case, reverses the emphasis—first the human (chap. 14), then the divine (chap. 15).

These texts (Od. 5; Gen. 15) are the only full scenes in the larger accounts (Odysseus; Abraham‐Jacob) in which, apart from a divine presence, the protagonist is alone.

Books 6 and 7: Meeting the Bride‐to‐Be (Od. 6–7; Gen. 24)

On the day after coming ashore in Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians, Odysseus meets Nausicaa, a beautiful princess who is intent on marriage. This meeting (Bk. 6) and Odysseus's subsequent visit to her home (Bk. 7)—her father, Alkinoös is king of Scheria—has several elements in common with the meeting between Abraham's servant and Rebekah (the betrothal scene, Gen. 24). The subdivisions listed here do not always correspond one on one; they are more like approximate tables of contents:

Odyssey, Books 6–7

  • Setting the scene: sleeping Nausicaa is ready for marriage (6:1–47).

  • At the river: Nausicaa and maids wash marriage linen (6:1–95).

    • [Maidens bathe, eat, remove veils, and play, 6:96–109.]

    • [Odysseus wakes, and wearing an olive branch, approaches, 6:110–138.]

  • Odysseus, reflecting and seeking kindness, meets Nausicaa (6:139–185).

  • Nausicaa offers food, drink, bathing—and admiration (6:185–250).

  • Nausicaa's speedy return to the house (6:251–321).

  • Odysseus pauses, and prays for love and mercy (6:321–331).

  • Second meeting: a young girl, with jug, runs, guiding Odysseus (7:1–49a).

    • [Idyllic woman, palace, beauty, trees, fountains, 7:49b–132.]

  • (p.465)
  • Odysseus seeks mercy, blessing, kindness; he waits (7:133–166).

  • Alkinoös, welcoming Odysseus, arranges for the morning (7:167–229).

  • Repetition of Odysseus's story (7:230–297).

    • [Odysseus may arouse jealousy, 7:298–307; cf. envy, Gen. 26:14b.]

  • Alkinoös offers Odysseus Nausicaa—or help in going home (7:308–328).

  • Odysseus prays happily to Zeus—to return home (7:329–333).

  • To bed (7:334–347).

Genesis 24

  • Setting the scene: Abraham's servant is to seek a bride (24:1–9).

  • At the well: reflection, and prayer about kindness (24:10–14).

  • Rebekah, with water jug, runs, offers drink and kindness (24:15–27).

  • Rebekah runs home (24:28).

  • The servant receives welcome, and water to wash (24:29–32).

  • Servant waits before eating—repeating his story (24:33–49).

  • Laban offers Jacob Rebekah—to take home (24:50–51).

  • Servant bows down before Yahweh (24:52).

  • They eat, drink, and spend the night (24:53–54a).

  • Morning and departure (24:54b–61).

  • Second meeting: Rebekah and a younger man, Isaac (24:62–67).

The first three Homeric texts in square brackets (6:96–109; 6:110–138; 7:49b–132) have an idyllic quality, which has some affinity with Genesis 2–3.

Book 8: Contending and Making Amends (Od. 8; Gen. 25: 19–26:33)

The day after the meeting with Nausicaa, the Phaeacians hold games. Young men contend with one another; and finally, angered Odysseus contends. Later there is a song of marital infidelity; and the one who angered Odysseus makes amends.

This picture of contention with the friendly Phaeacians is echoed in the Jacob‐Esau contention and in Isaac's strained dealings with the Philistines:

Odyssey, Book 8

  • Phaeacians' dawn assembly—to help Odysseus home (8:1–71).

  • Internal/verbal clash; contention was foretold (song, 8:72–82).

    • [Odysseus weeps, 8:83–95.]

  • External/physical contention (games, 8:96–130).

  • Phaeacians provoke Odysseus to contend (8:131–240).

  • Marital infidelity—seen from the doorway (song, 8:241–384).

  • Amends, and a feast proposed (8:385–417a).

  • Riches: Odysseus receives gifts and clothing (8:417b–457a).

    • [Nausicaa: poignant farewell, 8:457b–468.]

    • [Odysseus weeps during the song of battle, 8:469–586.]

Genesis 25:19–26:33

    • [Rebekah conceives, 25:19–21.]

  • Internal clash by twins; contention is foretold (25:22–23).

  • External/physical contention—the heel and the birthright (25:24–34).

  • Marital playfulness—seen from a window (26:1–11).

  • Riches and greatness (26:12–14a).

    • [Envy toward Isaac, 26:14b; cf. jealousy and Odysseus, 7:298–307.]

  • Philistines' hostile contention with Isaac—about wells (26:15–21).

    • [More wells—without quarrelling, 26:22–25.]

  • Amends and a feast (26:26–30).

  • Philistines' dawn departure in peace (26:31–33).

Two aspects are particularly puzzling in their own right—the tears (Bk. 8) and the wells (Gen. 26). It is not clear whether or how these aspects connect with anything in the other book.

Book 9: Outwitting the Powerful One Who Does not See (The Cyclops, Od. 9; Isaac, Empowered With Blessing, Gen. 26:34–29:30)

When Odysseus, at banquet with the Phaeacians, begins to recount his travels (Bks. 9–12), the first major episode concerns his struggle with the Cyclops—the hungry giant, apparently one‐eyed, who trapped him in his cave. To escape from the cave, which was blocked by a huge stone, Odysseus and his companions blinded the Cyclops and then, using the sheep to cover them, made their way to freedom.

This struggle has contributed to the account of how Jacob outwitted Esau and his dim‐eyed father, and how, in an adventure involving the sheep (at the well), he then went away to Laban.

(p.467) Both struggles—Odysseus's against the Cyclops, and Jacob's against Esau and his dim‐eyed father, Isaac—are part of larger dramas. The Cyclops is the son of Poseidon—Earthshaker, lord of the sea, and brother of Zeus—and Poseidon is the enemy of Odysseus. The Cyclops therefore is like an incarnation of enmity.

The figure of Isaac is more complex. On the one hand, he has a negative aspect: the struggle of Jacob and Rebekah against Esau and Isaac, has overtones of the primordial enmity with the serpent (see commentary on Genesis 27). On the other hand, Isaac's primary power lies not in enmity but in blessing. Thus while keeping the idea of needing to outwit someone powerful, Genesis has moved the emphasis to what is positive—to blessing.

Odyssey, Book 9

  • [Introduction: good food; and deathly adventure, 9:1–78??]

  • [The lotus—attractive, but not to be eaten, 9:79–104; cf. Gen. 2?]

    • [The Cyclopes: giant, lawless, isolated, 9:105–141; cf. Gen. 6:1–12?]

  • Odysseus's arrival: poor visibility; a hunt for wild food (9:142–165).

  • * Coming to Cyclops's island; finding confined flocks (9:166–186a).

  • + The sleep of the mountain‐like man, utterly isolated (9:186b–215).

  • Elaborate preparing of food—by Cyclops for himself (9:215–249).

  • Who are you? Odysseus's lies. The meal (9:250–298a).

  • − Cyclops removes the huge stone to let the sheep out (9:298b–317).

    • [The hot pole in the eye, 318–394.]

  • Crying out at being tricked (9:395–414).

  • = Blinded Cyclops gropes; the sheep cover Odysseus's escape (9:415–479).

  • Furious Cyclops tries to sink the departing ship (9:480–499, 522–566).

  • Truthful self–identifications (9:500–521).

Genesis 27–29

  • Isaac: poor vision, and a desire for hunted food (27:1–4).

  • Elaborate preparing of food—by Rebekah for Isaac (27:5–14).

  • = As semi‐blind Isaac gropes, animal skins cover Jacob (27:16, 21–23).

  • Who are you? Jacob's lies. The meal (27:18–20, 24–25).

  • Crying out at being deceived (27:30–40).

  • Furious Esau plans to kill Jacob, so Jacob departs (27:41–45).

    • [Jacob's departure, 27:46–28:9.]

  • (p.468)
  • + The sleep of Jacob, dreaming of heaven, God and home (28:10–22).

  • * Coming to the land of the east; finding crouching flocks (29:1a).

  • − Jacob removes the great stone to let the sheep drink (29:2b–10).

    • [The kiss with tears, 29:11.]

  • Truthful self‐identification (29:12–14).

Among the elements that do not find corresponding elements in the other book, two stand out: the poke in the eye, and the kiss.

Book 10: A Possible Betrothal Scene Turns Violent, and the Subsequent Journey Is Tearful (Od. 10; Gen. 34:1–35:20)

Still speaking at the banquet, Odysseus tells of two islands, which were almost traumatic. First, among the Laistrygonians, an apparently safe harbor and a betrothal‐like scene (10:87–111) turned into a scene of violence. Then, having fled to the island of the goddess Circe, Odysseus scarcely saved his companions; he did so amid divine help, loss, tears, and death.

Jacob's safe return from his years of journeying is likewise followed by two difficult episodes—first (chap. 34), the rape of Dinah, mixing betrothal and violence; and then (35:1–20) the difficult journey—amid divine help, loss, tears, and death.

Odyssey, Book 10

  • [Sleepless labors, 10:1–86, esp.76–86; cf. Jacob's labors, 31:38–42.]

  • Safe harbor; exploration: a violent betrothal‐like scene (10:87–130).

  • Flight: a god's guidance . . . and pity on the way—a deer (10:131–209).

  • Dangerous animals do not attack because of a god's spell (10:210–219).

    • [Men become pigs, 10:220–243; cf. Jacob made stinking, 35:30??]

  • The loss (disappearance) of friends causes tears (10:244–260).

  • On the way, Hermes speaks; an oath is fulfilled (10:261–445).

  • Journeying; tears, libations; death of the youngest (10:446–574).

Genesis 34–35

  • Safe home; Dinah's exploration; violent effort at betrothal (34:1–3).

  • Flight; God is seen; God answers distress on the road (35:1–4).

  • Dangerous cities do not pursue because of God's terror (35:5).

  • (p.469)
  • The loss (death) of Rebekah's nurse causes weeping (35:8).

  • On the way, God speaks; the promise is confirmed (35:9–13).

  • Journeying; libations, death; birth of the youngest (35:14–20).

Book 11: From the Place of Death: A Vision of Coming Home, and a List of Diverse Lives (Od. 11; Gen. 47:29–Chap. 49)

Before he could go home, Odysseus first had to visit the place of the dead, particularly to hear Teiresias, the dead blind prophet (mantis, “prophet/diviner/soothsayer,” 10:493; 11:99). While in the place of the dead, Odysseus also meets the young Elpenor (killed at the end of Bk. 10), his mother, and finally a series of great figures of the past.

Genesis has no visit to the place of the dead, but in the scene of Jacob's death (47:29–chap. 49), Jacob's voice is like that of someone who has already accepted death. The essential characteristics of Teiresias—dead, blind, prophetic—are all echoed in Jacob: dying, unable to see, and foretelling the future, especially about going home.

There are two basic adaptations: the overall sense of death is much more positive in Genesis; and the focus on the past gives way to a focus on an essentially hopeful future (the often‐woeful figures of the past are replaced by the generally‐blessed figures of the future—the twelve sons/tribes of Jacob).

Odyssey, Book 11

  • Coming to the place of the dead (11:1–50).

  • Elpenor asks for burial; Odysseus promises to do it (11:51–58, 71–83).

  • Elpenor recalls his death, and what is promised Odysseus (11:59–70).

  • * Teiresias foretells that Odysseus will come home (11:84–134a).

  • + Teiresias foretells that Odysseus will die peacefully (11:134b–137).

  • Discussion between mother and son (11:138–224).

  • Two lists (past‐oriented): the dead and their exploits (11:225–640).

Genesis 47:29–50:13

  • Coming to die, and bowing down (47:29a, 31b).

  • Jacob asks for burial at home; Joseph swears to do it (47:29b–31a).

  • Jacob recalls the promise and Rachel's death (48:3–4, 7).

  • Discussion between father and son (48:8–20).

  • (p.470)
  • * Jacob foretells that Joseph will return home (48:21–22).

  • A two‐part list (future‐oriented): the sons/tribes of Israel (49:1–27).

  • + Jacob dies peacefully (49:28–33).

The slender relationship between the lists—the mournful list of the Odyssey and the largely‐blessed list of the sons of Jacob—is a good example of the way in which the Odyssey sometimes provides just one component.

Book 12: Danger Foreseen; Destruction (Of Ship/Sodom); and Survival (Od. 12; Gen. 18:1–19:29)

Odysseus recounts how before he left the island of the divine Circe, she warned him of a triple danger: listening to the enchanting voices of the Sirens; pausing between towering Skylla and cavernous Charybdis; and harming the cattle of Helios. During the subsequent voyage, he and his crew mastered their hearing; they did not listen obediently to the Sirens. But in the later dangers they suffered considerably, and finally the ship and crew were lost. Only Odysseus, who did no harm, was saved.

Many of the same dynamics occur, in adapted form, in the account leading up to the destruction of Sodom and its people. Here too, the danger is foreseen. But Genesis contains several basic changes. In particular, the test of not listening is turned into an implicit test of listening positively: at a meal, Sarah listens. In outline:

Odyssey, Book 12

  • [The burial of Elpenor, 12:1–15; cf. the burial of Jacob, 50:1–13.]

  • Meal, by Circe, for Odysseus and his companions (12:16–30).

  • Do not hear/listen to the enchanting voices (Sirens, 12:31–54).

  • * Keep on moving (Skylla/Charybdis, 12:55–126).

  • + Do no harm (Helios's cattle, 12:127–141).

  • Circe departs (12:142–143).

  • On the way: communicating the divinations to companions (12:144–164).

  • Know—by coming to us: an invitation from the Sirens (12:165–200).

  • − Smoke; the sea is like an overflowing cauldron on a fire (12:201–259).

  • Not listening to avoidance of harm; Zeus destroys ship (12:260–419).

  • = Odysseus survives—thanks to the father of gods (12:420–453).

Genesis 18:1–19:29

  • Meals, by Abraham and Lot respectively, for visitors (18:1–8; 19:1–3).

  • Sarah listens and thinks of pleasure (18:9–15).

  • (p.471)
  • On the way: communicating divine plans to Abraham (18:16–18).

  • * Keeping the way (Abraham will keep the way of Yahweh, 18:19–21).

  • + Avoiding harming people (Abraham's plea with Yahweh, 18:32).

  • Yahweh departs (18:33).

  • Know carnally: a demand from the men of Sodom (19:4–11).

  • Not listening well to those who save from destruction (19:12–22).

  • − Fire destroys Sodom and Gomorrah (19:23–28).

  • = God remembered Abraham (19:29).

Book 13: The Joyful Breakthrough: Reaching the Land (Od. 13), and Having a Son (Gen. 19:30–Chap. 21)

In Book 13 Odysseus finally reaches his native land, but he does so in his sleep—borne along by the Phaeacians, who place him, still sleeping, near a cave in Ithaca. When Athena shows him where he is, there is great joy, and he and Athena then begin to lay plans for the future—especially concerning the threatened wife and son.

In Genesis the pivotal breakthrough is the joyful birth of Isaac, an event which within Genesis's diptych structure is connected and contrasted with scenesofsleep (Lot's oblivious sleep, and Abimelech's dream). The picture of a threat to a wife and child, which in the Odyssey applies to Penelope and Telemachus, in Genesis is double: in diverse ways there are threats first to Sarah and her child, and then to Hagar and Ishmael. In both books, these threats are addressed.

Odyssey, Book 13

  • Morning: royal court: gifts, wives, good wishes (13:1–69).

  • Sleep—oblivious (Odysseus), near a cave (13:70–124).

    • [Ship turned to stone, 13:125–164; cf. Lot's wife, 19:26.]

  • * As foretold, so it is accomplished (negatively) (13:165–187a).

    • [Joyful discovery, by a devious wanderer; 13:167b–371; cf. Gen. 20:13.]

  • + Pact between Odysseus and Athena (13:372–396a).

  • Threatened wife and son; his journey (13:396b–428).

    • [The body becomes old (13:429–440; cf. childbirth in old age, Gen. 21:1–7).]

Genesis 19:30–Chap.21

  • Morning: royal court: gifts, wives, prayer, devious wanderer (20:8–18).

  • Sleep—oblivious in a cave (Lot), and wakeful (king) (20:1–7).

  • (p.472)
  • * As promised, the old couple have a child—joyfully (21:1–7).

  • Threatened wives (Sarah/Hagar) and sons; the journey (21:8–21).

  • + Covenant between Abraham and Abimelech (20:22–34).

The three Homeric texts in square brackets have been combined with other passages. In particular, the long account of joyful discovery and devious wandering seems to have contributed both to the joy at Isaac's birth (21:1–7) and to the picture of Abraham as referring deviously to his wanderings (20:11–13).

Book 14: The Faithful Servant and the Story of Years in Egypt (Od. 14; Gen. 39)

When Odysseus lands in Ithaca and, disguised as an old beggar, sets out to his own property—his country estate—the first human he meets is his swineherd. This swineherd still misses his own original home (14:140–143), but despite that, and despite Odysseus's long absence, he cares faithfully for all Odysseus's house properties. Odysseus, still disguised, gives a version of his own story, and he includes a painful episode about working in Egypt.

Genesis shows Joseph, working in Egypt, as the faithful servant, caring for all Potiphar's properties. Some of the minor elements of the Homeric text—attractiveness and spousal fidelity (14:64, 130, 177)—have been expanded in Genesis into a major event involving Potiphar's wife. The texts with an asterisk have been combined.

Odyssey, Book 14

  • The faithful swineherd, caring for Odysseus's household (14:1–39).

  • * Faithful in master's absence; a wife (14:40–184, esp.64, 130, 177).

  • Odysseus's story, involving work in Egypt (14:184–350, esp. 245–297).

  • Again the faithful servant (14:360–456).

  • * The test of the servant (concerning the mantle, 457–533).

Genesis 39

  • Joseph, sold into service in Egypt (39:1).

  • The faithful servant, caring for Potiphar's household (39:2–6).

  • * In masters' absence: the test, involving wife, mantle (39:7–20).

  • Again the faithful servant (39:21–23).

(p.473) Book 15: During a Dangerous Journey (To Ithaca/Egypt): A Generous Meal, and a Test With Sorrow (Od. 15, Gen. 43–44)

The Odyssey now returns to Odysseus's son, Telemachus, and to his need, despite danger, to journey back to Ithaca. The journey is accompanied by gifts and a generous meal, and then by elements of religion—libation from a golden cup, an omen, and a fugitive prophet.

Back in Ithaca, talking to Odysseus, the swineherd is tested and tells of the sorrow of a father and a son (the father is Odysseus's own father, Laertes; the son is himself, the swineherd).

In Genesis, the single journey home has been replaced by a double journey: back to Egypt, and then home again. The members of Jacob's family realize that, despite the danger to Benjamin, they have to go back to Egypt. They bring gifts, and on arrival are treated to a generous meal. But when they attempt the journey home they are caught by religious and ethical elements—the silver cup for divining and the question of doing good and evil.

The scene ends with the climactic testing of Judah and with his emphasis on his father's sorrow. The asterisks indicate combination. (Climactic scenes often involve complex combinations.)

Odyssey, Book 15

  • Preparing to go back quickly to Ithaca, despite danger (15:1–47).

    • Bringing gifts (15:48–85).

  • The generous meal and discussion of gifts (15:86–142).

  • Departure; golden cup libation; an omen; continuing (15:143–216).

  • The prophet—questioning, and confessing (15:217–300).

    • [A distinguished life abroad, 225–55; cf. Joseph, Genesis 40–41??]

  • * Testing the swineherd (15:301–345).

  • * A father's/mother's sorrow (15:346–379).

  • * A son's sorrow (15:380–495a).

    • [The Phoenician woman, 417–480, cf. Potiphar's wife, Gen. 39:7–20??]

  • * Son unknowingly approaches father (15:495b–557).

Genesis 43–44

  • Preparing to go back to Egypt, despite danger; quickly! (43:1–10).

  • Bringing gifts (43:11–14).

  • In Egypt: discussion of gifted money, and a generous meal (43:15–34).

  • (p.474)
  • Departure; silver cup; divining; the need to turn back (44:1–13).

  • The diviner (Joseph)—questioning, and evoking confession (44:14–17).

  • * Testing Judah; sorrow of father and son (44:18–34).

Book 16: Emotional Self‐Revelation, and Future Plans (Od. 16; Gen. 45)

When Telemachus, back from his journey, returns to the swineherd's hut there are two emotional meetings—first between Telemachus and the swineherd, and later, while the swineherd is absent (announcing the news to the mother), between Telemachus and his long‐lost father, Odysseus. Odysseus's self‐revelation to his son has provided a partial model for Joseph's self‐revelation to his brothers. The asterisks indicate texts that are interwoven.

Odyssey, Book 16

  • * Tearful meeting; question about mother (16:1–39).

  • Clothing and provision for the visitor (16:40–89).

  • The people are not hostile (16:90–129).

  • Go quickly, tell the mother the son is well (16:130–155).

  • * Alone: self‐revelation and emotional response (16:156–219).

  • Future plans—for fighting the suitors (16:220–330).

  • Announcing to the palace: Telemachus has come (16:321–341).

  • Palace response: take possessions and kill him (16:342–451).

    • [The gods and killing the son, 16:403–406, 447; cf. Gen. 22:2??]

  • Back on the farm: old Odysseus; word and ship (16:452–481).

Genesis 45

  • * Alone: self‐revelation, tears, question about father (45:1–8).

  • The people seem favorable (45:2; cf. 45:16).

  • Go quickly, tell your father Joseph is well (45:9).

  • Future plans—about countering the famine (45:10–13).

  • * Emotional response (45:14–15).

  • Announcing to the palace: Joseph's brothers have come (45:16a).

  • Palace response: come, share possessions with us (45:16b–20).

  • Clothing and provision for the travelers (45:21–24).

  • Back with old Jacob; the words and seeing the wagons (45:25–28).

(p.475) The most difficult connection is the last—between the swineherd's return to the old visitor and Telemachus (16:452–481) and the brothers' return to Jacob (45:25–28). The Odyssey supplies just one component. The swineherd tells of the word (epos, 16:467) and of seeing the ship (16:472); to Jacob they spoke the words and he saw the wagons (45:27).

Book 17: The Old Beggar Goes Down to the Manor (Od. 17) and Old Jacob Goes Down to Pharaoh (Gen. 46:1–47:11)

The Odyssey (Bk. 17) now recounts a long‐awaited moment: young Telemachus and Odysseus return to the city, to Odysseus's great house or manor. Telemachus goes first and he tearfully meets his mother. Then Odysseus comes, more slowly, looking like an old beggar, accompanied by the herdsman. Down in the city, the herdsman enters, then so does old‐looking Odysseus.

Genesis tells of old Jacob and his family going down to Egypt, to Pharaoh. First there is a tearful meeting of father and son, and then they enter Pharaoh's presence—shepherds first, and then old Jacob.

Odyssey, Book 17

  • Going down to the city for a tearful son‐mother meeting (17:1–165).

  • Odysseus's journey: sacrifice, guidance, contempt for the old (17:166–243).

  • The herdsman goes ahead and is received (17:244–335).

    • [The old hunting dog, 17:290–327; cf. Esau hunting, Gen. 25:27??]

  • Odysseus enters, blesses, suffers, tells of Egypt (17:336–491).

    • [The beggar stalls Penelope, 17:492–590.]

  • Back to the land: the herdsman returns to herding (17:591–606).

Genesis 46:1–47:11

  • Jacob's journey: sacrifice, guidance, care for the weak (46:1–7).

    • [Jacob's family: a form of genealogy, 46:8–27.]

  • Going down to Egypt for a tearful son‐father meeting (46:28–30).

  • Shepherds/brothers go ahead and are received by Pharaoh (46:31–47:6).

  • Jacob enters before Pharaoh, blesses, tells of suffering (47:7–10).

  • Back to the land: Jacob's family settle down on good land (47:11).

When Odysseus finally enters the great house, his first words are a form of blessing on Telemachus, the young man of the house: “Zeus above, make Telemachus (p.476) happy” (olbios, 17:354, “happy, blest,” Lat. beatus). And when Jacob entered the presence of Pharaoh, “Jacob blessed Pharaoh” (Gen. 47:7).

Book 18: In the Face of Hunger: Fighting for Food and Gifts (Od. 18; Gen. 47:12–28)

Of the various Odyssey‐Genesis connections mentioned thus far, this is the most slender and questionable.

Book 18 tells essentially of three episodes: a fight for food (18:1–157); a body‐display which attracts gifts (18:158–303); and a work‐display which is not for food, yet is food‐related (18:304–428).

The body‐display is by Penelope; inspired by Athena, she no longer conceals herself, but shows herself modestly to the suitors—thus attracting gifts. The fight and the work‐display involve Odysseus; he is forced to fight a hungry beggar for food; and when he offers to work—to tend the braziers all night—he is accused of being food‐centered, and so he yearns for a working contest (a display of working).

Elements of these episodes appear to have added coloring to the account of how Joseph overcame the famine (47:12–28). The fight for food (18:1–157) seems to be echoed dimly in the adversarial character of the exchange when the people first ask for food (47:14–17, “ ‘Come’. . . ‘Come’ ” ). The people's decision not to conceal but to give their bodies to gain bread (47:18) has some affinity with Penelope's decision not to conceal herself but to show herself, however modestly, to gain gifts (18:158–303). And the concluding emphasis on service and food (47:21–25) corresponds in small part to the concluding emphasis on work and food (18:304–428).

The initial picture of Joseph as providing for his family and the world (Gen. 47:12–13) has similarities to the role once given to Penelope—to be in charge of everything and to care for parents (18:266–67).

While Penelope's emergence (18:158–303) apparently contributed in some small way to Genesis 47, its greater role is in the account of the emergence of Tamar (Gen. 38).

Book 19: Amid Plans of Murder: Dreams and Recognitions (Od. 19; Gen. 37:2–Chap. 38)

As Odysseus, disguised in his own house, plans to kill the suitors, Penelope questions him at length—especially about his wanderings, about long‐lost Odysseus's clothing, and about her dreams. As the disguised man describes the clothing, she recognizes it as that of Odysseus. And the nurse, unknown to Penelope, recognizes Odysseus's scar—once inflicted by a forest boar. Then Penelope returns to mourning.

Many of the key elements from Book 19 occur at the beginning of the Joseph story (Gen. 37:2–36)—a plan to kill; an account of clothing, dreams, and wandering; and mournful recognition.

(p.477) The picture of Penelope, left behind by her wandering husband, has contributed to the picture of Tamar, widowed, and abandoned by wandering Judah (Gen. 38). Both these women are faithful and resourceful. Part of the portrayal of Tamar draws on an earlier scene—when Penelope, changed and veiled, appeared before the suitors and, in their hearts, seduced them (18:158–303, esp. 206–210).

Odyssey, Book 19

  • Planning to kill the suitors (19:1–52).

  • Questioning Odysseus about his wanderings (19:53–122).

  • Abandoned Penelope, grieving, weaving, scheming (19:123–161).

  • Straying away from home (Odysseus, 19:162–202, esp. 19:169).

  • Two recognitions (clothing, animal scar, 19:203–243, 249–250, 312–507).

    • [A companion, Eurybates, 19:244–248; cf. Hirah, 38:1, 12, 20.]

  • Making the clothing; a promising word (epos, 309) (19:251–311).

    • [Naming children, 19:399–412; cf. 38:29–30??]

  • Mourning for Odysseus (19:508–534, 600–604).

  • Dreams (Penelope's) and their interpretation (19:535–599).

Genesis 37–38

  • Making a tunic for Joseph; a promising word (37:3, 11).

  • Dreams (Joseph's) and their interpretation (37:5–10).

  • Questioning Joseph and finding him wandering (37:12–17).

  • Planning to kill Joseph (37:18–20).

    • [Thrown into a pit, 37:21–25a.]

    • [Sold into Egypt, 37:25b–30, 36.]

  • Two recognitions (clothing! an animal!, 37:31–33; 38:25).

  • Mourning for Joseph (37:34–35).

  • Straying away from home (Judah, 38:1, 5).

  • Abandoned Tamar, leaving widow's clothes (38:6–26; cf.18:206–210).

Books 20 and 21: The Test and the Festive/Solemn Assembly (Od. 20–21; Gen. 22–23)

On the night before the bloody finale, Odysseus and Penelope lie awake at different times struggling with anxiety about life. Odysseus trusts the goddess (p.478) (20:45–57a), but Penelope wishes for death, and tells of children whose parents the gods killed (20:66–67).

These contrasting images—of trusting the goddess, and of gods killing parents—have contributed something to the account of Abraham trusting the God who told him to kill his son (Gen. 22:1–2). Abraham's climactic act of trust has been described as a test (Gen. 22:1a)—the image that dominates the next book (Bk. 21, the climactic test of stringing the bow).

Next morning there are practical preparations for a sacrificial assembly—for the feast of Apollo (21:122–394). The practical preparations for sacrifice have contributed something to the practical preparations for the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22:3–10), and in some complex way the references to a solemn assembly apparently contributed to the evoking of a solemn assembly in Genesis 23. The details are unusually difficult. And the picture of trying to string the bow (Bk. 21), while it gives the key idea of a test to Genesis 22, appears to have been transformed and/or dispersed.

Odyssey, Books 20–21

  • [Odysseus: inner struggle, 20:1–30a; cf. Abraham: distress, 21:11??]

  • * Athena: Here is your. . . son; trust me. Odysseus trusted (21:30b–57a).

  • * Penelope prays: Take my life; gods killed parents (20:57b–90).

    • [The omen; the portent—thunder, 20:91–121??]

  • Morning: preparations for the festival; conversation (20:122–64, 172).

  • Among the Achaians: esteemed by Philoitios (20:165–239).

  • An eagle signals the end of the plot to kill Telemachus (20:240–246).

  • Sacrifice—including sheep (20:247–256).

    • [The assembly—festive, deathly, 20:257–394; cf. Gen. 23:3–18??]

  • Announcing a test: string the bow (21:1–4, 63–79,101–117).

    • [The bow reminds, 21:5–100, esp.40; cf. the rainbow, Gen. 9:16??]

    • [Stringing the bow, 21:118–187, 245–434??]

    • [Wine causes problems, 21:285–310; cf. Noah, 9:20–22??]

    • [Revealing, promising, going back, 21:188–244; cf. Gen. 22:15–19??]

Genesis 22–23

  • Announcing a test (22:1a).

  • *God: Take your son, and offer him. Abraham trusts (22:1b–2).

  • Morning: preparations for the offering; conversation (22:3–10).

  • An angel calls not to harm Isaac (22:11–12).

  • (p.479)
  • Sacrifice—a ram (22:13–14).

    • [Genealogical conclusion, 22:20–24.]

    • [Sarah's death, 23:1–2.]

  • Among the Hittites: esteemed by Ephron (23:3–18).

    • [Sarah's burial, 23:19–20.]

Book 22: Within the Closed House: The Rendering of Terrible Judgment (Od. 22; Gen. 40)

In Book 22 Odysseus and his three allies impose a terrible judgment: they kill all the suitors and hang twelve maidservants (twelve out of fifty). Three officials—the diviner, the singer, and the herald—plead for mercy. Odysseus beheads the diviner, but spares the others two.

The bloodiness (bloodlust?) of this scene is never matched in Genesis, but elements of it find counterparts in the prison scene (Genesis 42), when Joseph interprets the dreams of Pharaoh's two officials: one will be restored; the other will have his head lifted; he will be hanged. Genesis keeps the basic idea of a discerning judgment, but is very different in two ways: it omits the picture of slaughter; and it surrounds the judgment with a mantle of interpretation—a form of meaning.

  • Some shared elements include:

  • Theme: crime/sin and punishment/judgment.

  • Setting: closed, a round house (22:442, 459, 466; Gen. 39:20–40:5).

  • Characters: singer, diviner, herald (22:310–380); butler, baker (40:1).

  • Result: some condemned, some acquitted.

  • Lifting up a fine cup at the feast (22:8–21; 40:11, 20–21).

  • “Remember [me]” (22:208; 40:14).

  • Hanging (22:170–200, 461–472; 40:22).

  • Removing the head (22:329; 40:19–20).

  • The animals/birds eat the flesh (22:30, 302–309, 402, 475; 40:19).

  • Recognizing/remembering (22:501; 40:23).

Book 23: Change in Attitude: From Looking Suspiciously at One Another to Openheartedness (Od. 23; Gen. 42)

Book 23 tells of two central events—a transformation and a rapprochement. The transformation is of Odysseus: he goes from being dirty to being resplendent—like an immortal god (23:117–165). The rapprochement is between husband and wife—Odysseus and Penelope (23:85–116, 166–372). (At first Penelope, (p.480) looking at Odysseus, had not recognized him; but then she moved slowly from being suspicious of the stranger to openheartedly accepting him as her husband.)

These two events, the transformation and the rapprochement, have been used in Genesis 41 and 42 respectively. The transformation of Odysseus has been used in the portrayal of the transformation of Joseph—his move from prison to power (Gen. 42, esp. 42:14–45). And the rapprochement between husband and wife has been used in portraying the rapprochement between the brothers who go down to Egypt (Gen. 42; initially they just look at each other, but—though Joseph's identity remains hidden—gradually they begin to talk, and eventually they open their hearts to one another).

Transforming Odysseus (Od. 23:117–165)

  • Make plans. Reply: Yours are best, Odysseus (23:117–128).

  • Change clothing and wash (23:119–132).

  • Interpretation/song: murder sounds like a wedding (23:133–151).

  • Transformation in clothing and appearance (23:152–165).

Transforming Joseph (Gen. 41:14–45)

  • Change of clothing and a shave (41:14).

  • Interpretation of a famine dream is good (41:15–32).

  • Make plans, Pharaoh. Reply: Yours are best, Joseph (41:14).

  • Transformation in clothing and power (41:40–45).

The most difficult link here concerns the interpretation—whether the song (making a murder scene sound like a wedding) has had some small role in portraying Joseph's interpretation (making interpretation of a famine dream sound good).

In any case, the account of the transformation of Odysseus has supplied only one component to Genesis 41. Other components may be found, for instance, in aspects of Penelope's dreams (19:535–581), and in aspects of Odysseus's account, told to the faithful servant, about how he gathered power and possessions in Egypt (14:257–287).

The Marital Rapprochement (Od. 23:1–116, 166–372)

  • Sunken in sorrow: mournful Penelope will not listen (23:1–84).

  • Looking at each other: Odysseus and suspicious Penelope (23:85–103).

  • (p.481)
  • From suspicious tests to marital open‐heartedness (23:103–116, 166–299).

  • Telling all that happened; coming to the old father (23:300–372).

The Brotherly Rapprochement (Genesis 42)

  • Looking at each other: the guilty brothers (42:1–5).

  • From suspicious tests to brotherly open‐heartedness (42:6–28).

  • Coming to old Jacob; telling all that happened (42:29–35).

  • Sunken in sorrow: mournful Jacob will not listen (42:36–38).

Book 24: After Death and Great Mourning: Reunion and Reconciliation (Od. 24; Gen. 50)

The final book (24) begins in the place of the dead: Hermes is leading the souls of the suitors to the place of former heroes; and two great former leaders, Achilles and Agamemnon, are in conversation. In particular, Agamemnon describes the mourning for Achilles. This account has contributed partly to the account of the death of Joseph and especially to the account of the mourning for Jacob. Both texts then go on to tell of reunion and reconciliation.

Odyssey, Book 24

  • The dead: former heroes; the death of Agamemnon (24:1–34).

  • The mourning for Achilles (24:35–97).

    • [The story summarized, 98–204??]

  • Another tearful reunion: Odysseus with his old father (24:205–412).

    • [Old father faints, revives, 24:345–350; cf. Jacob, Gen. 45:26–27.]

  • From intending battle to making a sudden truce (24:413–548).

Genesis 50

  • The mourning for Jacob (50:1–13).

  • Another conciliatory reunion: Joseph with his brothers (50:14–17).

  • From fear of intended harm to reconciliation (50:18–21).

    • [Joseph's great/grandson, 22–23; cf. Laertes' grand/son, 24:515??]

  • The death of Joseph; former great figures (50:24–26).

The connections just indicated—both between Odyssey 24 and Genesis 50, and between the Odyssey as a whole and Genesis—are just a beginning. Even if all the connections are valid, each needs testing and development.

(p.482) Toward a More Complete Analysis: The Case of Odyssey 1 and Genesis 11–13

Having surveyed Genesis's overall affinity with the Odyssey, it is appropriate to give a sample of how a more complete analysis might develop. The sample is limited to the opening texts—Odyssey, Book 1, and Genesis 11–13.

Introduction to the Texts

Both sets of texts constitute beginnings: Book 1 provides a brief background and an opening episode for the wanderings of Odysseus. And as far as the history of the patriarchs is concerned, Genesis 11–13 has a similar function: it provides background and an opening act.

In both texts the central theme is that of a divine mission which, despite negative circumstances, sends people forward with energy and wisdom. In Homer there is a variety of deities, particularly Zeus and Athena, and there are two complementary missions—those of Odysseus and Telemachus. In Genesis there is just one deity, Yhwh, and one mission—that of Abram. Yet the overall sense of divine intervention and mission is significantly the same. Years after Troy, the gods send Odysseus and his son (Odyssey, Bk. 1). Years after Babel, Yhwh sends Abram (Gen. 11–13).

(A) Odyssey, Book 1: Invocation, Prison, and Journeys

Apart from two opening snapshots, the text consists of a long account of how the gods gave missions to Odysseus and especially to his son, Telemachus.

The first snapshot is the invocation—the call on the divine Muse to speak (1:1–10). The story to be told is that of a wandering warrior who plundered Troy and then struggled with a great heart on land and sea to bring his companions home.

The second snapshot is that of Odysseus imprisoned on an island (1:11–21). He had not been able to save his companions, and when all those who fought at Troy had either gone home or died, he was left alone, longing for his native Ithaca, longing for home and wife. He had come to a form of prison: the beautiful goddess Calypso was holding him for herself on her island.

The remainder of Book 1 tells of the divine intervention and its effects (1:22–444). Here the key gods are Zeus, the supreme god (father of all gods and humans), and Athena, his daughter. Zeus, reflecting on humankind, is first to speak, beginning with an expletive (ō popoi, “Oh shame/bother/blazes,” 1:32). And later, when reflecting on the situation of Telemachus, Athena repeats ō popoi (1:253). These expletives seem to coincide with a division of the text in two:

  • Initial decision and assessment: Zeus speaks and Athena intervenes (1: 22–251).

  • (p.483)
  • Strengthening the decision: Athena announces the plan and it sinks in (1: 252–444).

The details of this simple twofold division are quite colorful.

The Initial Decision (1:22–251). The decisive intervention came from Mount Olympus. Here, at a meeting of the gods, Zeus wished to show how many humans' troubles came from themselves rather then from the gods, and so he was recounting a famous case, that of a man who stole a wife and killed her royal husband, thus incurring revenge (Bk. 1:22–43).

But then Athena intervened. She recalled, heartbroken, the damage being done by a goddess to Odysseus—someone who had often offered sacrifices. Did Zeus not care? (Bk. 1:44–62).

When Zeus protested that he had not forgotten Odysseus—though he was concerned that another god, Poseidon, had a grudge against the wanderer—Athena pressed her case: Send the divine messenger, Hermes, to the island, to announce the decision that Odysseus must set out for home in Ithaca. Meanwhile, she herself would go straight to Ithaca, and urge Odysseus's son to set out elsewhere, toward Sparta, to hear (akouō) of his apparently‐dead father, and to establish his own reputation—his fame (kleos) (1:76–95, esp. 1:80–87, 93–95).

Then, spear in hand, the goddess Athena sped to Ithaca. Arriving there, she took the appearance of a family friend, a soldier, and so she blended with the household (1:96–105). But Telemachus noticed the visiting soldier, and Athena, while keeping her disguise, spoke to him at length. She recalled the past, Odysseus's captivity, and particularly Odysseus's father, Laertes, who had become too old and infirm to come to the city (1:187–199).

As she spoke to Telemachus the scene was one of lust and greed. In the absence of the noble Odysseus—presumed dead—enemy suitors had moved into the princely house, seeking to marry his wife, Penelope, and, while waiting to take her, they were devouring Odysseus's wealth—drinking, and feasting on his herds. As for Odysseus's son, Telemachus, they despised him, and were disposed to kill him (cf. 1:106–251).

Strengthening the Decision: Athena Announces the Plan and It Sinks In (1:252– 444). The gravity of the situation gives Athena anger and energy. She looks to the future, and gives him hope and a mission: she visualizes the apparently‐dead Odysseus returning and scattering his rivals; and, at the same time, she tells Telemachus to leave the land—to sail away, especially to Sparta, that he might hear what had become of his father, and that he might develop the courage to confront the enemy suitors (1:252–318). As Athena left, there was a sense of something divine—in her and then in himself—and his spirit was renewed (1:252–324, esp. 306–324).

Soon, at the feast, Penelope appeared, beautiful but bereft, unable to bear the songs about unreturned heroes. Telemachus, however, spoke calmly to her, (p.484) and she was amazed at his wisdom (1:325–364). Then, Telemachus also spoke to the rapacious revelers, confronting them—telling them to leave, so that he might rule his own house and possessions and slaves. He kept the secret of his divine visitor (1:365–424).

At night, when they had gone—at least for the moment—Telemachus went up to his bedroom, pondering. The place was unusual: it was a lofty room, which looked out all around—like a periscope (1:425–427; the room is periskeptos, 1:426, an adjective derived from peri‐skopeō, “to look around on all sides” or “to consider well”). And the tone of the place was set by the presence of Eurycleia, the faithful old nurse. She had been bought by Odysseus's father, Laertes, as an expensive young slave‐girl (the price of twenty oxen), but—for the sake of harmony with his wife—Laertes had never slept with her. She had nursed Telemachus as a baby, loving him, and now she still attended to him—providing light and folding his clothes. Then she went away (1:428–442). And there, all through the night, his heart pondered the journey (hodos) Athena had laid before him (1:443–444).

(B) Genesis 11–13: Babel, the Shadow of Death, and the Journey of Abraham

The Genesis text, before recounting the journey of Abraham (originally “Abram”), gives two brief sketches of human limitation (Gen. 11).

The first sketch recounts the failure to build the towering city, Babel (11:1–9).

The second sketch implies the fading of the genealogy of Abram's father, Terah (11:10–32). It begins with a genealogy that shrinks: in the list from Shem to Terah the life spans decrease, 11:10–26). And the subsequent picture of Terah's family contains several reminders of various forms of death (11:27–32): Terah's youngest son, Haran, dies prematurely; Terah's daughter‐in‐law, Abram's wife Sarah (originally “Sarai”) is barren; and Terah himself, when he attempted to travel with his family to Canaan, failed to reach it. Instead he settled in Haran, a name almost identical to that of the son who died prematurely. Thus Terah's family lives in the shadow of death.

These two sketches—of failure and deathly fading—provide a starkly negative background for the longer, positive text concerning Abraham.

These chapters (Genesis 12–13) contain two major parts:

  • The initial mission, with its test concerning beauty (the beauty of Sarai; 12:1–13:1).

  • The fresh start, with its test concerning wealth (the wealth of Lot, 13:2–18).

Abraham does not do well in the initial test. When the Egyptians focus on Sarah, he is undone by the threat to his own life—and by the attraction of (p.485) wealth. But in the second part, when he seems as it were to begin again, and when he is tested more directly on wealth, he shows fresh vision and courage.

The Texts: A Comparative Outline

For practical purposes of comparison each of the texts may be said to have four basic parts: two brief introductory parts, and then, concerning the mission, two longer narratives.

Genesis has its own agenda, style, structure, and special sources, especially the prophets. But it has also distilled Homer's narrative. In describing the mission of Genesis 12–13 (less than forty verses) it has sifted the long flowery account of the mission of Odysseus and his son (over four hundred lines). Yet Homer supplies just one component. In the outline, Table A.3, brackets [ ] indicate variation of order (texts have been moved to facilitate comparison); double brackets [[ ]] indicate that the material is essentially without parallel.

A Slightly More Detailed Comparison

The Fall of the Great City (Troy, Babel) and the Scattering (Od. 1:1–10; Gen. 11:1–9)

Homer's invocation not only calls on the divine to tell the story. It also summarizes that story—the fall of the great city of Troy, and the attendant process of wandering and homelessness. These elements—the divine power to grant speech; the fall of a great city; and the attendant process of wandering—are all found, in varied form, in the biblical story of Babel. In outline:

Invocation (Od. 1:1–10)

Babel (Gen. 11:1–9)

Whole earth: one tongue, one speech.

1. Asking the divine Muse to speak.

[The divinity: Let us babble their speech.]

2. There was a man who wandered far. . .

They wandered to the east . . . and settled.

3. . . . after sacking the citadel of Troy.

[So they stopped building the city. . . Babel.

4. Many people's cities. . . many pains. . .

Let us build city. . . tower [One people, one tongue. . . ]

5. . . . for his own life.

?? Let us make our name

6. . . . and comrades' return (folly led to loss);

lest we be scattered.

7. the Sun god prevented their return.

The divinity scattered them

8. Again asking the divine Muse to speak.

The divinity babbled their speech.

. . . and scattered them over the whole earth.


Table A.3. Odyssey 1 and Genesis 11–13

Odyssey, Bk 1

Genesis 11–13

1. Invocation: The fall of Troy and the wandering (1–10)

The failure of Babel and the scattering (11:1–9)

2. Odysseus' years‐long captivity (11–21). [The captivity, and father Laertes' non‐coming to the city (187–99)]

[[Genealogy]]. Abram in death's shadow, and. . . father Terah's non‐coming to Canaan (11:10–32)

3. Taking a wife, killing the man. Punishment (22–43)


Plea for Odysseus, who offered sacrifices (44–75)


The blessed gods' plan (82,86; prophecy, 200–205):

Yhwh pronounces a clear purpose with blessings:

Let Odysseus go home; let his son set out

Go forth from land . . . birthplace . . . father's house

to another place to which I'll guide him,

to a land that I will make you see. . .

to hear . . . and to win his own reputation/fame

I will make your name great. . .

among humankind (76–95, esp. 80–87, 93–95; cf. 1:32)

all . . . the earth will bless themselves by you


Abram offers worship at altars (12:1–9)


They will kill me, let your live. [Plagues]

Ithaca: rapacious men covet attractive Penelope (96–251)

Egypt: coveting beautiful Sarai (12:10–13:1)

4. Anger. Restating the mission: Go. . . fight/kill (252–305)

Restarting the mission. Quarrel (13:1–7)

New strength/courage/wisdom/confrontation (306–424)

Abram: new wisdom: no quarrelling (8–9)

To the high room that looks all round, pondering (425–27)

Lot looks all round, considering (10–13)

The old servant—a former slave‐girl (428–42)

[See Genesis 16].

There (the room) all night: pondering the journey (443–44)

Abram looks around: fresh revelation (14–18)

Here, as earlier, brackets [ ] indicate variation of order; the texts have been moved to facilitate comparison.

In both texts: (p.487)

The divine has power over speech—power to make it speak well (Od. 1:1, 10); power to make it babble (Gen. 11:7, 9). The two divine powers—to grant either eloquence or babbling—are like two sides of the same coin.

A great city succumbs: Troy is sacked (Od. 1:2); and Babel is abandoned (Gen. 11:8). Within Troy the focus was on its citadel (ptoliethron); and within Babel on its tower (migdāl, Gen. 11:4, 9).

The mention of the fall of the great city is preceded by an image of wandering, and followed by images of being left homeless or scattered.

Other details are not as clear (especially 4 and 5 in the outline), and it is better, in this brief investigation, not to press them. Furthermore, there is much in the Babel account—such as the emphasis on diversity of language—that is either absent or different from the invocation.

Nonetheless, what is certain is that three key components of Homer's invocation correspond to three key components of the Babel story. And these components include details: power over speech occurs twice; the cities' fall focuses on their highest buildings; and the images of wandering and being homeless/scattered constitute a frame over the accounts of the cities' fall.

Overall, then the main elements of the Greek prologue reappear in the Hebrew account, but there are two major kinds of adaptation.

On the one hand, Homer's drama has been restaged, distilled, and synthesized. The stage has been moved largely from sea to land—a move that befits the change from sea‐loving Greeks to land‐oriented Hebrews. Many colorful details, particularly about heroic fighting and feasting, have been distilled or omitted—a change that befits the move away from heroic epic poetry to the calmer medium of prose historiography. And some aspects have been synthesized. In particular, the power of two diverse gods—that of the Muse over language, and that of the sun god to prevent return—have been combined as aspects of the power of Yhwh—the God of languages and scattering. Furthermore, just as the drama as a whole is restaged from sea to land, so individual elements are moved from character to character—or synthesized into a single character—depending on the requirements of the new account. Thus the various elements, including the characters, are subject to the larger plot.

On the other hand, this particular Greek text (the invocation, Od. 1:1–10) supplies just one part of the dense account of the tower of Babel. The Hebrew writer is drawing on other background material—including, for instance, the existence of ancient towers or ziggurats. Homer, therefore, provides just one component.

(p.488) The Hero Stranded, in a Mythological Cave (Od. 1:11–21), and in Deathly History (Gen. 11:10–32)

The link here, if there is one, is minimal—more of function than content.

After the invocation, the Odyssey focuses in on the hero's dilemma: he is imprisoned by the beautiful Calypso in a cave (later described as on an island, 1:197–199). He longs for home and wife, but, despite the passing of the years, he cannot reach his own land.

And after Babel, Genesis gradually focuses in on the dilemma of Abram. He is a member of a family line that is going nowhere. His whole genealogy is fading (the life spans are diminishing, 11:10–26), and his father's immediate family, surrounded by reminders of death, is stranded (11:27–32).

In comparison to Odysseus's prison, the next text in Genesis is vastly different. Far from being mythological, its forms—a genealogy and brief travel account (11:10–32)—are thoroughly historiographical. The genealogical form comes not from Homer but from certain strains of historiography (see, for instance, Hellanicus, and Hesiod's Catalogue of Women).

Nonetheless, there is a question here for research. Has the mythological picture of Odysseus as imprisoned for years, wife‐less and far away, contributed to the history‐like picture of Abram as stranded with a barren wife amid a fading family? Clearly, the actual materials in Genesis are not from the Odyssey, but the way these materials are presented, the way they show Abram—as stranded in a deathly situation—corresponds broadly to the situation of Odysseus.

One detail is more specific. A later reference to Odysseus's captivity describes Odysseus's father, Laertes, as too old and infirm to come to the city (Od. 1: 188–199). And Abram's father, Terah, sets out for Canaan but does not reach it, settling instead in a city with a death‐related name (Haran, Gen. 11:31–32). In other words, the two fathers, Laertes and Terah, are pictured as essentially unable to travel. The picture of Odysseus's father corresponds to one component of Abram's father. Apparently the picture of Abram as stranded—apart from using history‐like materials—is drawing not just on one picture of Odysseus's imprisonment but on a combination of such pictures (1:10–21 and 1:188–199).

The Foundational Divine Intervention: Sending the Hero(es) to a New Land (Od. 1:22–251; Gen. 12:1–13:1)

Suddenly both texts introduce dramatic changes of scene. The Odyssey switches from Odysseus's prison cave to the halls of Mount Olympus and to the solemn pronouncements of Zeus about the fate of humankind (1:26–34). And Genesis switches from a God‐less picture of Abram's deathly family (11:10–32) to an account of Yhwh as suddenly making a solemn pronouncement that has implications (p.489) for all humankind: “Go forth. . . . In you all the clans of the earth. . . ” (12:1).

The essence of what follows is that those who lived in various forms of deathly constriction are sent forth to a new land: Odysseus from his prison to his longed‐for home; Telemachus from his father's house to a land indicated by Athena; and Abram from his father's house to a land that Yhwh shows him.

There are further significant similarities:

Two leading elements—Zeus's initial statement about wife‐stealing (1:22–43), and the central picture of Odysseus's wife, attractive Penelope, as surrounded by rapacious suitors (see 1:96–251)—correspond closely with the most developed episode in Genesis 12, namely the taking away of Sarah by the Egyptians and Pharaoh (Gen. 12:10–13:1).

Athena's first argument for letting Odysseus go—for sending him to his home—is a reminder that, on the plains of Troy, he used to offer sacrifices (1:60–62). And when Abram reaches Canaan, he build altars (Gen. 12: 7, 8; cf. 13:18).

Athena's first proposal for sending Telemachus (1:76–95, esp. 80–87, 93–95) has several elements of affinity with the sending of Abraham (Gen. 12: 1–3): departure from one father's house; the journey is to a land indicated by the divinity; the journey will establish a reputation (kleos, 1:95) (Odyssey) or name (Genesis). In Genesis (12:2) the name is not self‐made (as in 1:95, and at Babel, Gen. 11:4); it is given (Gen. 12:2).

In particular, Athena's description of the gods as blessed (machar, 1:82) and as having a definite plan (boulē, 1:86) corresponds significantly to Genesis's picture of Yhwh, who obviously has a clear purpose, which spreads blessing (Gen. 12:1–3).

Amid Fresh Energy: A Restating/Restarting of the Mission (Od. 1:252–444; Gen. 13:2–18)

When Telemachus finishes recounting the danger to Penelope and himself (esp. 1:241–251) there is a shift of tone. Athena gives a burst of emotion—she becomes troubled (ep‐alasteō, 1:252) (alasteō, “to be angry/hateful”)—and her purpose reaches a new stage. In effect she now draws Telemachus more closely into the divine purpose. That purpose is extremely robust: she speaks of how Odysseus would fight to kill, and of how Telemachus, having journeyed and learned, can come back and kill (1:252–305). Thus she imparts a form of anger and energy, which give Telemachus new heart—fresh wisdom and courage, and a touch of divinity (1:306–424). And so at night, in the “periscope” bedroom he ponders the future journey (1:425–444).

In Genesis also there is an outburst—a quarrel/dispute (rîb) with Lot's party—concerning property; and unlike his behaviour in dealing with Sarai in (p.490) Egypt, Abram now shows a new courage and wisdom. But it is not the courage of fighting. Instead, Abram asks that there be no dispute, and he allows Lot to have his choice of property (Gen. 12:5–9).

Without attempting a full analysis, these basic similarities may be summarized:

There is a fresh beginning and anger. Athena expresses her expletive (ō popoi) (1:253), as did Zeus at first (1:32), and then she encourages a plan to fight and kill (1:253–305). In Genesis Abram makes a fresh start—he goes back to where he had begun (Gen. 13:2–4)—and then there is a quarrel (Gen. 13:5–7).

Next there is a new sense of the hero. In various ways, both in the presence of Athena and in his subsequent words to Penelope and the rapacious suitors, Telemachus shows new strength, courage, wisdom, directness, and even a touch of the divine (1:306–424). And Abram also now shows himself as able to handle a crisis: he avoids quarrelling and graciously gives Lot a clear choice (13:8–9).

At the end of Book 1 there are two references to Telemachus as pondering in a particular room—a high room that was first described as looking out on all sides (Od. 1:425–427, and 1:443–444). And at the end of Genesis 13 there are two references—to Lot, and Abram—as looking all around and considering (Gen. 13:10–13, and 13:14–18). (Here, Lot and Abram correspond partly to the rapacious suitors and renewed Telemachus, but it is useful to concentrate on the looking around.)

Conclusion to the Analysis of Odyssey 1 and Genesis 11–13

The position of the two texts, at the beginning of two foundational accounts, lends an initial credibility to the possibility of a link between them.

That possibility is greatly strengthened by a series of similarities, from sharing a general theme to sharing such details as opening pictures of doomed city heights and closing pictures of places from which to look all round.

The vast differences between the two texts are generally intelligible. Writers other than the author of Genesis quickly rewrote the Odyssey into another form so it is understandable Genesis should do likewise. In addition, a biblical writer would have reason for adapting the epic poetry yet further.

There is significant evidence then that Genesis has used the elements from Homer but has adapted them to suit a new narrative.

(p.491) Genesis's Affinities With the Odyssey: Assessing the Initial Evidence

There are huge differences between the Odyssey and Genesis. But, as already explained, differences, no matter how great, do not decide the issue. Rather, there are three basic kinds of criteria.

1. External plausibility. It is plausible that Homer was available to almost every writer in the known world, particularly to those who, like the inhabitants of Homer's homeland, lived within the Persian empire. And it is plausible that such outstanding epic poetry, as well as being available, was actually used in composing Genesis. Whoever used epic poetry to compose Genesis 1–9 was likely to do something comparable in composing Genesis 11–50.

2. Similarities. Not only are there broad similarities—some sharing of themes (such as wandering, home/land, and family) and a sharing of aspects of overall plot (such as the move from years of wandering to a climax of emotional reunions and recognitions)—but, more importantly, there are also similarities involving completeness, order, and details.

Completeness refers to the way in which the general relationship of the texts involves their entirety: every book of the Odyssey is used in some way; and, apart from genealogy‐related material, every chapter of Genesis 11–50 uses the Odyssey. The easiest explanation of this relationship is that the author of Genesis had a copy of the Odyssey.

There is also some similarity of order. The opening and closing of the Odyssey (Bks. 1 and 24) are used respectively for the opening and closing of Genesis 11–50 (chaps. 11–13 and 50); and there is a general tendency, both within Genesis 11–50 as a whole, and within each block or chapter, to follow the order of the original.

Details often correspond. There are several details, for instance, in the dreams and recognitions surrounding the appearance of Odysseus (Bk. 19) that correspond to aspects of the dreams and recognitions at the beginning of the Joseph story (Gen. 37–38). And the more developed analysis of Book 1 and Genesis 11–13 likewise shows significant correspondence of detail.

3. The intelligibility of the differences. The differences are great. In fact, there is perhaps more contrast than continuity; while the Odyssey is heroic poetry, Genesis is neither poetry nor heroic. But these differences are understandable. Genesis's literary form—historiography—demanded an abandonment of poetry (part of the larger movement from poetry to prose [Lesky, 1966, 218–221]). And several factors—sociological and theological—demanded an abandonment of the heroic model. Genesis's starting point—there is one God and that God is with ordinary people—left little room for the Homeric sense of divine capriciousness and human heroics.

The change from the heroic is associated with other changes, other shifts of emphasis: from the extraordinary and the external (the physical body), to the ordinary and the internal; from women's role as pervasive to women's role as (p.492) less conspicuous (this de‐emphasizing of the presence of women may, perhaps, be connected with de‐emphasizing the external, the body).

The relationship between the texts emerges as one of complex coherence—a blend of similarities and differences which shows a consistent pattern, and which, in its complexity, cannot be accounted for by coincidence.

General Conclusion

The investigation of Genesis's relationship to the Odyssey will require years of research—detailed analysis and thorough application of the criteria for dependence—and, until such research is developed, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions.

But, as with the case of Genesis and the prophets, there is already sufficient evidence to propose that Genesis's use of Homer is a reasonable working hypothesis. The author of Genesis used the Odyssey, especially in composing chapters 11–50, but also, partly, in chapters 1–10. There is no other explanation that can account for the data. Within chapters 11–50 the use of the Odyssey is essentially complete.

The copy of the Odyssey that was used was reasonably close—if not almost identical—to the present standard version.

The unified way in which Genesis uses the Odyssey indicates that Genesis as a whole reflects a single process of composition. That process of composition, however, was not simple. Two great bodies of poetry—the prophetic and epic—were distilled, synthesized, and then translated into another idiom, that of historiography. Genesis is thoroughly composite.

Corollary: Using Sources; Some Procedures of Composition

A first rule in Genesis's use of the Odyssey may be named “one on one”: one book of the Odyssey provides material for one chapter or section of Genesis. Essentially the same one‐on‐one pattern occurs within each block. For instance, in the relationship between the initial sending of Telemachus (Od. 1) and the initial sending of Abram (Gen. 12–13), each major part of Odyssey 1 is used once, and, apart from genealogical material, each major part of Genesis 12–13 reflects some use of the Odyssey. The overall picture is of completeness and coherence.

A further starting rule in Genesis's use of the Odyssey was to follow the original order. As noted earlier, Genesis tends to echo the order of the Odyssey.

However, these two rules—one on one, and keeping the order—are not absolute. They are general guidelines, a broad framework, which, while giving a sense of groundedness and orientation, allows considerable freedom in adapting (p.493) the source. Such adaptations are of three main kinds—concerning order, form, and content.

Adaptations of order refer especially to various practices of moving, combining, and dividing. The moving means a departure from the order of the original—and can involve anything from a whole Homeric book to a small detail. The combining and dividing mean a departure from the one‐on‐one rule: two or more events may be combined into one; and one may be divided into two or more. The portrayal of Tamar, for instance, as emerging from her abandonment to seduce the irresponsible Judah (Gen. 38), involves a combining of aspects from two pictures of Penelope—Penelope as effectively left abandoned (19:123–161), and Penelope as emerging to seduce the hearts of the suitors (18: 158–303).

Adaptation also involves compression or synthesis—a change from the voluminous metered poetry to compact prose. The Odyssey, though several times longer than Genesis 11–50, is distilled not only to the dimensions of the smaller book, but to just one component within that book. And the metered poetry, so resonant of oral communication, gives way to a prose, which, despite its qualities of poetry and orality, reflects the studied composition of a precise writer.

This is likewise the case with Genesis's use of the prophets. The outline of the relationship between the texts (see Appendix 2) indicates the same two basic rules as in the use of the Odyssey—one‐on‐one, and in the same order. Reflecting this respect for order, Genesis 1 highlights a component from Ezekiel 1; and Genesis 50 combines elements from the last chapters of both Isaiah and Jeremiah.

Again, however, these two rules are not strict; they are simply general guidelines, orientation points from which to branch out in other directions—particularly in the direction of combining, dividing, and synthesizing. Genesis 1, for instance, quite apart from its use of ancient epics, combines aspects of Ezekiel 1 (especially the idea of the likeness) with aspects of Isaiah 42–45 (concerning God as creator).

One of the procedures in composing Genesis‐Kings may be described as prophetizing—rewriting great literature in light of the commanding vision of Israelite prophecy. The word “prophetize” is awkward, but perhaps it is the best word available. Alternatively, rather than speak of prophetized history, one could refer to historicized prophecy. Prophetic texts, originally composed as poetry for one occasion, have been transformed into another idiom—into prose with a universal message. In another context van Seters (1992, 25–27), speaks of both the historicization of myth and the mythologizing of history.

This process, of prophetizing foreign culture, has multiple analogues. The Greeks, for instance, “hellenized” Roman culture; Aquinas in turn “baptized” some of the Greeks. Such processes are diverse: they can be blinding and enslaving; or they can be enlightening and liberating.

In the case of Genesis the prophetizing of foreign culture was primarily positive. Human dignity, for instance, which seems neglected in some of the (p.494) Mesopotamian stories, received new emphasis in light of the prophets. It is not clear whether the specific dignity of women was also enhanced (if there was an engagement with Hesiod, then it certainly was).

The overall impression concerning the composition of Genesis is that the process was unified but complex. There was one central author—perhaps aided by others—who distilled and reshaped several sources into a new writing. The core of the traditions concerning Abraham and Jacob may have come from texts such as Isa. 51:2 and Hosea 12 respectively (cf. de Pury, 1989, 259–270), but the larger account, as now found in Genesis, came from the reshaping of much broader sources, especially the major prophets and the Odyssey.


(1.) For a critical edition, see Allen, 1917–1919; for a close English translation, with line numeration, see Lattimore, 1965; Rieu, 1991.

My awareness of the Genesis‐Homer link came about as follows. While searching for a single adjective to describe Jacob (February 2, 1996), the word that came was “wily,” but this seemed unusable because the same word is often applied to Odysseus, and to use it of Jacob would be confusing and misleading. Still, the coincidence was perplexing, and I mentioned it soon afterward to a philosopher colleague, Philip McShane. He immediately referred to the Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, whom he had known while studying in Fribourg, Switzerland. Levinas had explicitly contrasted Jacob and Odysseus. A search through several of Levinas's works yielded nothing except an obscure Abraham‐related reference to an unavailable work in Dutch (de Broux, 1972). McShane then said that perhaps the contrast had been made in conversation. Emmanuel Levinas had died on December 25, 1995.

Resuming the study of Jacob, the account of moving the great stone (29:1–10) recalled the Odyssey's story of the Cyclops moving a massive stone (Od. 9:24). On checking the Homeric passage, other connections began to emerge.

The connection with the massive stone would not have been made perhaps but for Oona Ajzenstat of Ontario. In conversation and in a paper to the SBL (Philadelphia, November 18, 1995) she had emphasized the influence of the story of the Cyclops.