In rereading Hesiod’s classic Works and Days in preparation for my mythology class, I found the similarities with the Bible to be intriguing. One of the most noteworthy features of biblical wisdom literature is its universality. In a way that many believers find difficult to swallow even today, the wisdom authors accept – perhaps extol – the wisdom of sagacious “heathens.” We live in a world where religions are frequently engaged in building walls the envy of Jericho itself, while parts of the Hebrew Bible invite outsiders to join the party without even converting. Hesiod might have been a grumpy guest, but many of his words would have struck a familiar note with old Ecclesiastes.
Be not deceived – life is hard – so Hesiod tells us. The Greek gods made humanity to fend for itself. Men first and then Pandora to cause endless trouble, like the figure of Lady Foolishness in Proverbs. The misogynistic authors wave their flag in surrender to their passions; life is hard indeed. Instead of complaining (excessively anyway), the writers of wisdom interpret this difficulty as the crowning achievement of the human spirit. The gods made us to struggle, and when we’re up against it, we’re at our best.
Both Hesiod and the Hebrew Bible remind us that gods make the rules and we must obey. The human lot in life acquires an attenuated glory through living by divine standards. We will never shine like them, but we may sometimes outshine them. In the meantime, we must live by their apparently arbitrary rules. Reading the Torah, some of the Bible’s rules seem less-than-necessary to live a decent, honest, and moral life. We are not, however, to question the will of the divine. So it is that Hesiod warns, “don’t piss standing up while facing the sun” (Stanley Lombardo’s translation). Common sense might have added “while facing into a head-wind.” Such is the difference between gods and men.