Critics and audiences around the world have been raving about God and Homer for centuries. Homer’s popularity isn’t what it was, but God still commands a cult following. This is a shame—Homer is obviously a much better writer. Yes, there are moments in the Old Testament where God can really turn a phrase, but it’s a patchwork. Homer’s Odyssey is much more structurally sophisticated. This backbone makes all the difference, though Homer excels elsewhere too. Even better than The Iliad, its predecessor, Homer’s Odyssey is the ancient world’s Terminator 2. Let’s compare.
God’s arrangement is straightforward, and not very artistic. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”God’s story starts at the beginning of time and moves straight ahead. The coming generations pile on top of each other chronologically in their turn. Time speeds up and slows down as the focus changes to various protagonists, but it always plods straight ahead, like an odometer. One story finishes, the next is sown on beside it, making the work a quilt more than a blanket. The Bible is an anthology of short stories, or perhaps novellas.
Yes, Eve’s indictment for eating that fruit item continues to loom over women (and women everywhere today are still grateful), but outside the Pentateuch God’s stories are largely self-contained units that don’t quite blend with each other. Henry James called War and Peace “a loose baggy monster,” but at least Leo recovered, showing wonderfully improved structural sophistication in his next novel Anna Karenin, even if Levin’s farming digressions are unnecessary. It’s telling that the author whose stories are so plotted and oriented without a map or any common landmark is the same guy who depicts the Jews lost in a desert for forty years.
Some Bible diehards claim there is unity, that the placement of every letter is pre-eminently deliberate: cabbalists allegedly detect patterns so complicated it makes calculus look like finger math, and gleaning this mysticism leads to profound revelations, not to mention accurate prophecies of world history. Maybe, but I must not have Madonna’s eye for literature, as I just don’t see it.
God’s major episodes are breezed through so rapidly, it’s as if each story was an outline God forgot to unpack and enlarge. The entire story of the world’s creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah’s Ark takes fewer than ten pages. Either writing this dense is a miracle of economy or God is not very generous in character development. Psychologically, I’m left wanting.
OK, in Genesis maybe mankind’s mental aspect wasn’t very developed at the start of the universe, but what do God’s characters even look like? What kind of author mentions Adam and Eve’s titillating nudity without providing even one physical descriptor? What a thrifty prude. Look how Homer generously describes Athena cleaning up Odysseus before he finally reunites with Telemakhos: “Lithe and young she made him, ruddy with sun, his jawline clean, the beard no longer grew around his chin.” We don’t need vulgar descriptions of their bods, but were Adam or Eve ruddy with sun? We know so little of their look, depending on who you ask Adam and Eve might either be black or white. As is so often the case, God refuses to peg anything down. Talmudists call him mysterious, I call him vague.
Homer’s writing is not just more sophisticated, it’s easy to see what he’s getting at.
Homer pioneered in median res—in the middle of things, imitated by lesser writers, like Vergil. Homer’s story covers a span of ten years, but on page one we are already in year ten: Odysseus’ oikos (home) is broken during his 10 years away fighting in Troy (covered in The Iliad) and the additional 10 it takes to sail back (covered in The Odyssey). In his absence, Ithaka is without a king. The suitors eat Odysseus’ food and drink his wine, try to bang his wife Penelope, and for good measure plot to kill his son Telemakhos. The Odyssey, at its core, is about family and hospitality in a civilized society. It is framed by home life threatened and resolved: at the start, the uninvited suitors freely plunder from the bountiful household, and at the end they are slaughtered for being such crappy house guests.
Look how Homer’s story manipulates time: we only meet Odysseus in book 5, still in year ten. He meets the Phoenician king who asks him how he got there. In this way, Odysseus becomes his own bard (Homer’s surrogate), regaling the Phoenicians about his 9-year-long sea adventure. This device enables Homer (speaking through Odysseus) to go backwards in time in the story. Only after recapping, bringing the reader to the present moment, does Homer move forward again—Odysseus’ return to Ithaka. It’s not unlike how Forrest Gump sits on a bench and starts telling his life story to anyone who’ll listen—his story encompasses years but he’s only sitting for maybe an hour before learning Jenny is only blocks away and he doesn’t need to wait for a bus, he can just run there. Whereas Gump’s tale shows how any idiot with leg braces and a big heart can make it in America, Odysseus’ shows how Zeus’ new cosmos differs from the Iliadic craving for honour in war. Yes, human condition blah blah blah, but the sexy seafaring adventure is likely something Homer’s publisher cooked up for mass philistine appeal.
The subtle brilliance of Homer’s symmetrical structure actually comes after Odysseus massacres the suitors. Yes, Odysseus, the king, husband and father, has returned to his home in Ithaka. These strands are neatly tied. But the story isn’t done—the suitors’ families seek revenge, and Odysseus is game! This impulse for glory in battle, timé, is the defining characteristic of the Iliadic world Odysseus spends so long learning to leave behind. Odysseus does learn this, graduating with perfect marks from Zeus’ course, but for just one instant he abandons his divine understanding and runs headlong for battle. When we meet Odysseus he possesses divine wisdom already, but just as the poem closes Zeus drops a lightning bolt, reminding him how to behave. Only gods are perfect. Humans, even ones as close to gods as Odysseus, are always human. Homer’s hero starts divine, and ends as a human, like Adam and Eve. But unlike God, Homer uses structure to reinforce his theme.
Speaking of symmetry, the very first words of the poem “Sing in me, Muse” is the mortal Homer calling on the gods to inspire, order the telling of his story. The poem ends with Athena in the guise of mentor, a human, upholding the peace between the suitors’ relatives and Odysseus, literally ordering the world of Homer’s story. The first and final books connect.
Maybe I’m short changing God. There are some, like Maimonides, who have studied the Bible in greater depth than I. Northrop Frye frames his understanding of literature through God, though James Joyce frames his actual literature through Homer, not just some lit crit. I admit, I’ll likely never write anything as widely read or long lasting as the Bible. Hundreds of scholars have written books devoted to studying literally just the first word of the Bible’s, and many more books focus on the words after that. I’ll give God this. As far as peers, in terms of book sales among his fellow cosmologists, God is much better than L. Ron Hubbard, whose oeuvre I admittedly haven’t read so much as watched on South Park.