“Wise men make proverbs, but fools repeat them.” – Samuel Palmer
How do we know God wants us to refrain from stealing from others? How can we be so sure the Almighty is against adultery? After all, it’s kind of difficult to pinpoint any individual meeting with him (her? them?) recently. Yet, millions of people seem to know exactly what this mysterious super-power requires from them, to the very last detail.
Not to worry. Where the distance between God and man appears to be too big, there comes the messenger. He is typically a male figure. He carries with him some impressive personality and often also certain extreme physical characteristics. Painters and sculptors love him. He seems to have had breakfast with God every other day. What’s much more important – he has been dead for quite a while now, so there’s no way to really ask him about God’s favorite kind of coffee. Some say he’ll come back one day, as part of the overall deal, so there’s another good reason to follow his messages.
We call them “prophets”, “saviors”, “sages” and “Messiahs”. We name them “Moses”, “Jesus”, “Eliyahu”, “Muhammad”, and other ancient names. It’s easier for us to relate to their human appearance and to the tangible texts they allegedly left behind, than to some abstract God. They of-course penetrate our mind at a young age, together in the same package with heaven, angels and respect to the unknown.
So, not all men are created equal. If you ask the Christians, not all men are even created men – some are genetically related to God (hmmm). Actually, the Hebrew Bible also mentions “sons of gods” in various places (Genesis, Psalms), which seems to be inherited from older Canaanite texts. The Jews have it organized a bit differently: The sages are said to be closer to God and succeeding generations are said to lessen in spiritual power – thus simply reversing the facts of human and cultural development.
Our tendency to look for cosmic conspiracies makes it easy for us to glorify ancient events as well as old heroes. The stories about them are found here and now, but their human weaknesses are not visible to us. Can you imagine your favorite hero in some embarrassing situations? Perhaps cheating someone, having a sexual fantasy, or even suffering from diarrhea? Instead we typically imagine them with shiny eyes, standing powerfully in a high spot, speaking words of guidance.
Alas, even the words they speak in our books are not necessarily their own words. We almost take for granted the way modern media and politics alter what leaders and politicians have to say. Yet we totally ignore the fact that this trend has not been recently invented. Putting words in someone else’s mouth is a very old art. Modern studies demonstrate many such cases in the Jewish Talmud, for example. It requires a great measure of naivety to assume the absolute integrity of any ancient text, especially one that deals with people.
If you came across the legendary British TV series “Yes, Minister” (and later named, “Yes, Prime Minister”) – lucky you! Manipulating someone else’s words can be done directly, but the more elegant and stealth way to do it is to reinterpret the meaning. You can say almost anything you want about someone’s words as long as he or she is not there to defend their original meaning. The Talmud is literally full with “X said Y but he actually meant Z”. The sentence gets extra strength when the interpreter himself (never herself!) is also considered sacred enough.