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Volume 7, Issue 6: Historia

Prometheus, Saul, and Us Bound

Chris Schlect

Hesiod's poems profoundly influenced the Greeks. They were assigned to schoolchildren, and illiterates knew them from oral recitations. His poetry was read, recited, and remembered throughout the Greek world. A tale from his poetry was employed by the playwright Aeschylus, whose plays became as renowned as Hesiod's poetry. Aeschylus' re-telling of Hesiod's tale of Prometheus would provide a setting for the most remarkable conversion recorded in Scripture.

Odd as it may seem, the setting begins with Zeus. Zeus was the sixth child born to Rhea the Titaness. According to Hesiod, his five elder siblings had been swallowed by their father Kronos, king of heaven. (Kronos was attempting to evade a prophecy that a son would supplant him.) To protect Zeus from his father, Rhea bore him in secret. She swaddled a stone and presented it to Kronos in place of the child. He swallowed it. Later, when Zeus had grown to manhood, he disguised himself as a cupbearer and presented an emetic potion to his aging father. The potion caused Kronos to vomit out all of Zeus' siblings (none had been harmed), as well as the stone. They all joined Zeus in overthrowing Kronos. The throne was given over to victorious Zeus,
. . . who is King in the heaven,
who holds in his own hands the thunder and the
flamy lightning,
who overpowered and put down his father Kronos, and ordained
to the immortals all rights that are theirs, and
defined their stations. 1
The Titans challenged Zeus' rule, only to be condemned to Tartarus (compare 2 Peter 2:4). A Titan named Prometheus had remained neutral in this particular conflict. But later, after the wrathful Zeus had deprived man of fire, Prometheus took pity on man and gave fire back to him. The infuriated Zeus reserved a special punishment for Prometheus. As he was chained to a rock, Zeus would daily send an eagle to tear out his liver. The immortal Prometheus' liver would grow back every night, only to be pecked out again the following day. So his agony would be drawn out for ages.
Aeschylus set one of his greatest plays, Prometheus Bound , around Hesiod's story of the ill-fated Titan. 2 The play opens with the sentence being carried out. Prometheus is chained to a rock by two characters, Power and Hephaestus, who discuss the matter between themselves. Hephaestus, a skillful smith, is reluctant to carry out the sentence because of his affection for Prometheus as a fellow Titan. "See now the profit of thy human charity," he says to Prometheus,
thou, a god not fearing the wrath of the gods, hast given mortal men honors beyond their due; and therefore on this joyless rock thou must keep vigil, sleepless and weary-clinging, with unbended knees, pouring out thy ceaseless lamentations and unheeded cries; for the mind of Zeus knows no turning, and ever harsh the hand that newly grasps the sway. 3
But Power urges Hephaestus to carry out the assignment no matter where his affections lie.
All toil alike in sorrow, unless one were lord of heaven; none is truly free, save only Zeus. . . . Make haste then to bind him to the fetters, lest the father detect thee loitering. 4
And so the reign of Zeus is depicted as ruthless, but more importantly, absolute and beyond challenge. Resistance is futile, for his decree becomes the inevitable.
For the remainder of the play, Prometheus stands helpless, bound to the rock, yet his will remains unbroken. The tragedy of the story is that Prometheus continues to protest. He does not face up to the reality that his will is not free. His pathetic situation is noted by the character Oceanus, who captures the main point when he charges Prometheus with these famous words,
Thou hast not learned humility, nor to yield to evils . . . . Take me for thy teacher, and kick not against the goads, for there rules in heaven an austere monarch who is responsible to none. 5
Now the setting is fixed. Saul of Tarsus, the zealous persecutor of Christians, is on the road to Damascus. He is educated; a true man of letters. Tutored by Gamaliel, he is conversant in many languages, Greek philosophy, Jewish and Roman law, and Greek literature. The Lord confronts this zealous scholar on the road to Damascus; Saul is surrounded by a great light and knocked to the ground. To show him the futility of his evil plans, the Lord employs an expression from Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound ; it is unthinkable that the allusion would be lost on so educated a man: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? . . . I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads." 6 The words had such an impact on Saul that many years later he would still remember them (Acts 26:14).
Christ could not have found a more fitting expression to get through to Saul that persecuting the Lord of Glory, who sits enthroned at the Father's right hand, is both vain and foolish. Now of course Christ is not affirming everything that Hesiod and Aeschylus wrote concerning Zeus. But the central idea remains; rebellion against the absolute rule of heaven will come to nothing. A moment's reflection moves us to be awestruck at the absolute reign of Jesus Christ, who freely rules over the affairs of men. Those who are not so moved fail to appreciate our humble station. As it was for Prometheus and Saul, it is hard for us to kick against the goads.

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