Odyssey and Exodus

In both Exodus and the Odyssey, books written around the same time as each other depicting events from the late Bronze age, their authors claim to show the reader a true depiction of historical events. While the veracity of the events and the time when they are set, continues to be debated by scholars, both books give their readers a glimpse of what the culture of these two Middle Eastern groups were like and the expectations these groups were meant to live up to at the time of writing.
In Exodus the writer, or writers, set out the story of the Israelites and their exodus from Egypt to the promised land. While the eighteen chapters of Exodus deal primarily with laying the foundation of the story of Moses and the reasons for the Israelites leaving Egypt, the next twenty-two chapters, or a little over half of Exodus deals with the laws the Israelites and the consequences of breaking those laws. While the historical accuracy of this book, in terms of chronology, is not wholly reliable, Exodus does give the reader a better understanding of what was expected out of practicing Jews when the book was written as well as an example of what happens when those laws and expectations weren’t followed. Many of the laws described within these twenty-two chapters lay out the do’s and don’ts of every aspect of the Jewish life as well as extensive instructions for the building of the Ark of the Covenant and the tabernacle which would hold the ark (25.10 – 28. 43).
What is left of these last twenty-two chapters of Exodus can be divided into the social expectations of the time in which the book was written and an “historical” example of what can happen if those conventions are broken. While it can be expected that these laws were not followed to the word in the way that writers of Exodus would have wanted, it can be assumed that these parts of Exodus were written to reinforce the cultural expectations of the time. This can be seen in the amount of detail that is given over to each specific aspect of the laws, as well as the specificity found throughout Exodus. An example of this specificity can be found in one of the Ten Commandments wherein God states, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house.” (20.14) From there the commandment becomes even more specific stating exactly what the Jewish people cannot covet. Such specificity can be seen as a way of reinforcing what is expected of followers of Judaism and indicates that at the time of writing these expectations were not being met by many people within the community. This kind of specificity can found through out the next few chapters from who can be bought as a slave and how one should treat a slave (21.1-10) to what should be done if man is gored by an ox (21.28-37). However it is clear from what comes after the laws and the blueprint for the Ark of the Covenant and its tabernacle, that these rules were not being followed in the way that the communities would have liked. This can be assumed by the “historical” example within Exodus of what happens when any of these commandments are broken (32.25-28). While this example of what happens when the laws are broken is not as graphically detailed as the example found within the Odyssey is, the message is just as clear; breaking the cultural values of ones community never ends well.
A similar message can be found within the text of the Odyssey. While a large part of the last nine books of the Odyssey deal with revealing to various characters that Odysseus has returned to Ithaca another major theme found within those books are the cultural expectations of Greek society and more specifically the severe consequences of not meeting those expectations. In the twentieth book of the Odyssey Homer shows the importance of xenia, or hospitality, through Penelope’s questioning of her nurse. The importance of xenia is seen throughout books fourteen through twenty of the Odyssey, but of more importance is the consequences of over staying one’s welcome and manipulating the concept of xenia to an extreme. While the writers of Exodus focused on combating moral decline through specificity, it would seem Homer wishes to do the same thing by describing an extreme version of the consequences of such behavior. In books twenty-one and twenty-two of the Odyssey, Homer sets the reader up for the deaths of Penelope’s suitors by explaining how poor their behavior has been, thus explaining why they deserve to die in the manner they later do (21:256-269; 21:330-343). The consequences of such hubris is vividly depicted in book twenty-two of the Odyssey, but not before Odysseus explains why the suitors must perish (22:31-42). The violent deaths of the suitors can be as an extreme example of the consequences of breaking or manipulating the bonds of xenia. As with Exodus this example of what can happen when social expectations are broken can be interpreted as more of story to reinforce social expectations than as an historical event. Unlike with Exodus though, there is no specificity in what is expected of a person living within Greek society. Instead those expectations are meant to be generally known and therefore the purpose of the text is to show the consequence of not following those expectations.
In both the Odyssey and Exodus the importance of social expectations and the rules that dictate those expectations is paramount to the writers. While the authors claim to be writing true historical works, what remains is a glimpse of what was expected of the citizens who lived within each culture, whether it be to show respect to any and all that one meets in life or to follow to a letter the rules and regulations of ones religion. Despite decades of voyages and debates, the historical accuracy of both of these works is still questioned, but what is evident in reading these works are social expectations of Greek and Jewish society during the end of the time they were written.

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