In these days of cancel culture radically attacking the idea of biological differences between men and women, it is instructive to examine differences in the way men and women were viewed in ancient Greece and biblical Israel.
The Greek story of Pandora and Prometheus
An early woman in the Greek account is Pandora, meaning all-gifted. In the Greek account related in The Works and Days by Hesiod, Prometheus steals fire from Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, and, hiding it in a hollow fennel stalk, brings it to man, enabling him to survive.
Zeus soon learned what had been done, and enraged, creates Pandora, a beautiful but deceitful creature, as a punishment, and sends her along with a jar as a “gift to Epimethius, the naive half-brother of the wise Prometheus. She is amoral if not immoral and described as “a race apart,” not just seen as “other” but “alien,” a world view that is expressed in the modern popular book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.
One day, Pandora decides to open the urn that Zeus had sent along with her. The jar contains all the evils in the world, which fly out as soon as Pandora opens it. She closes the lid as quickly as she can, but too late; only hope remained locked in the jar, and unavailable to man. In this Greek account, fire gives man some autonomy, but the beautiful Pandora ruins everything. We should not forget that despite her charm, she is described as having the morals of a bitch who has been sent as a punishment and an enduring curse to man.
In this ancient Greek view, woman does not simply domesticate man but is a punishment for Prometheus having stolen fire for him. Woman is seen as the castrator of man and a sexual relationship as a not-so-tender trap and man’s undoing. Consider hystera, the Greek term for womb from which English words like ‘hysteria’ and ‘hysterectomy’ emerge in our psychiatric and medical vocabulary. The hystera is a source of labile and even mercurial affect. No wonder Greek man fears female sexuality!
“No one day goes by from end to end enjoyable, when you have to spend it with your wife.”Semonides of Amorgos
Semonides of Amorgos compares women to sows, vixen, bitches, donkeys, weasels and monkeys by saying: “No one day goes by from end to end enjoyable, when you have to spend it with your wife.” In ancient Greek literature, men and women consistently work against one another, frustrating each other’s purpose. Yet avoiding marriage leaves man alone in his own age.
The ancient Greek view of woman may be summarized as follows.
- Zeus sends Pandora as a punishment to man because Prometheus has stolen fire for him. Thus woman is portrayed as a punishment for man’s attempts to become autonomous.
- Pandora is seductive but amoral and described as a “race apart.”
- Pandora opens up the urn Zeus has sent with her, unleashing all the evils of the world, making man more dependent again. Woman’s womb (hystera) is seen as the source of labile, untrustworthy emotion (hysteria).
- After the Great Flood, the world is repopulated through separate cloning of men and women, Deucalion throws stones over his shoulder which become men, and Pyrrha throws stones over her shoulder which become women.
The story of the Bible, Genesis and Adam and Eve
Eve: the creation of people in Genesis is different. It is the beautiful culmination of six days of creation by a benevolent and all-wise God. With all Adam’s achievements, he is very alone. God sees that it was not good for a man to be alone, so according to the second creation story in Genesis, He puts Adam into a deep sleep and separates part of his body, thus dividing the original human into two beings, a man and a woman. Eve is created as a “helpmate opposite” (in Hebrew, ezer kenegdo) to man, a part of a complete human relationship, rather than as a curse. Her Hebrew name Chava denotes “giver of life.”
Biblical narratives basically portray men and women as different, but in basic harmony. Eve is sent as a blessing and partner not as a punishment. Eve is misled by the serpent into seeing God’s prohibition to eat of the Tree of Knowledge as an attempt to enslave them rather than to ensure that they use their abilities to carry out their roles in God’s creation. Adam and Eve did not suddenly gain in wisdom, for wisdom was not contained in a magic fruit. What they did learn was that they were naked, and perhaps they gained sexual knowledge.
Adam and Eve disobeyed God and are sent out from Eden. They will no longer live indefinitely, but they will become parents. They will have to struggle and to work hard but can still have wonderful lives. Though it is dark outside of Eden, Midrash Genesis Rabbah 11:2 tells us that God continues to help by teaching Adam to make fire by rubbing two flint stones together. Adam in turn will obtain food through the sweat of his brow. Adam and Eve are now aware of their nakedness, but God signals His recognition and empathy in their new situation by giving them warm and pleasant garments to cover themselves.
Certainly, the biblical message in all this is far different from the message of the Greek world. Attachment is not seen as inconsistent with freedom, nor woman as a block to man’s autonomy. Nor are sexual relations with a woman to be feared by man. In the biblical view, there is no stigma attached to women, and sexual love is a blessing. When Genesis refers to Adam “knowing” Eve, it refers to both a physical and a spiritual knowing.
The biblical term for womb is rehem, which is connected to the Hebrew word rahamim, meaning mercy or compassion, and a term used to describe God Himself. Anything but unstable in this view, woman provides a secure base for human development.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, women are typically portrayed as figures with great moral strength who express their humanity in areas of human relations and in service before God. Women like Sarah and Rebecca play major roles in carrying out the divine mission of building a new faith and nation based on monotheism, wisdom, and love.
To carry out this mission, a woman may need to do many things, beginning with the support she gives as wife and mother and going on to the wide range of emotional, economic, and social activities attributed to the “woman of valor” (eishat hayil) in Proverbs 31. In Mark Twain’s story Adam’s Diary, Adam says that he treasured Eve more and more as time went on, for he learned that, though they had been sent out of the garden, wherever she was, was Eden for him.
The conclusion of the biblical flood story emphasizes the essential harmony between man and woman. On instructions from the biblical God, Noah has gathered male and female of all species onto the ark. After the flood has ceased, all the living creatures, male and female, exit the ark and repopulate the earth through their sexual union, not through separate cloning as in the Greek flood account.
The biblical view of woman may be summarized as follows.
- The biblical God sends woman as a “helpmate opposite” to Adam so he should not be alone.
- Woman is made of the same substance as Adam, in one account is made at the same time as man, and in a second account, made out of his rib.
- Although Eve eats of the fruit of the forbidden tree and convinces Adam to do likewise, God does not kill them, and they become joint parents together after their expulsion from Eden. Although they will no longer live eternally themselves, they will now become links in the inter-generational chain. A woman’s womb (rehem) is seen as the source of solid emotion and compassion (rahamim).
- After the flood, males and females repopulate the world through their sexual union.
Greek vs biblical accounts of men-women relations
In summary, the difference between the Greek and biblical accounts of the relationship between men and women is vividly portrayed in contrast between the story of Prometheus and Pandora with that of Adam and Eve. Pandora is described as a curse and punishment sent by Zeus in retaliation for Prometheus stealing fire for man. This estrangement continues in the Greek story of the flood and the relationship between Deucalion (the son of Prometheus) and Pyrrha (the daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora). After the flood, new men and women are cloned separately, men from rocks thrown by Deucalion over his shoulder and women from rocks thrown by Pyrrha over her shoulder.
This, of course, is the prototype of cloning. Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden together, are clothed by the biblical God and become parents together. This union continues in the biblical account of the flood. After it ceases, new men and women emerge from the sexual union of the sons of Noah and their wives. This comparison seems especially relevant in today’s confusing times. ■
Kalman J. Kaplan, Ph.D. is professor of clinical psychology and director of the Program in Religion, Spirituality and Mental Health in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, has been adjunct professor of psychology and Judaism at Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership, and was associate editor and then editor of the Journal of Psychology and Judaism. He is also a licensed clinical psychologist in Illinois and Michigan.