History is written by the winner; words change with time; stories on which we base life lessons may not be as they seem; truth can be an elusive object. This essay is a brief exposition of why it is necessary to consider the source, time, language, culture and original purpose of stories we believe ,and upon which we craft our personal philosophies.
Now, I’m going to tell you a story. You’ve heard it before. It’s from the Old Testament, the first book of Samuel. It’s the story of David and Goliath. A story I bet most of you have firmly rooted ideas about. You have been taught that it’s meaning is that the little guy, with the help of Yahweh, can prevail over the Giant Philistine that has others quivering in awe. The story is a good one wherein, depending on who’s telling it Goliath gets to stand in for evil or a bully or an insurmountable task. There’s just one thing wrong, well actually there’s more than one thing. The truth of the story is completely wrong in its meaning. First, the story supposedly takes place during the reign of Saul, the first King of Israel, which would be about 1300 BC but the description of David’s attire places it more than a thousand years later, along about the time the first Torah is being written, say fourth century BC, somewhere around 350 BC, or so.
Goliath is the largest soldier of the Philistine Heavy Infantry. From the description given people estimate he may have been nine feet tall which in a time when the average man was about 5’3” would have been really big. He wore a bronze helmet and breastplate. His shins were covered by greaves, and he carried a large bronze covered shield. He would have been armed with a javelin and sword. His shield bearer would have carried extra javelins for him. For his day he was a formidable warrior. But his size also made him an unmissable target for a foe with the appropriate weapon.
David was not the unexperienced rube from the fields we’re told he was because part of being a shepherd was to protect the sheep from predators and the weapon used for that purpose was a sling. Thus, David was an experienced slinger. Now, a slinger could deliver death out to more than a thousand feet depending upon which of the three slings they used. Slingers were required to be able to strike the torso of an opponent at one hundred paces. According to a National Geographic Magazine article published in 2017: “Recent experiments conducted in Germany showed that a 50-gram bullet hurled by a trained slinger has only slightly less stopping power than a .44 magnum cartridge fired from a handgun.” Other tests revealed that a trained slinger could hit a target smaller than a human being from 130 yards away.
Thus, the favorite in that battle was not Goliath who had, no doubt, assumed that when he stepped forth as the champion of the Philistines he would be met by an Israelite Heavy Infantryman. No, in this battle anyone who knows ancient warfare would have put the odds in David’s favor. He could launch seven stones a minute at a distance greater than Goliath could throw his javelins. So, quite simply, as told, the story’s meaning isn’t the truth. The truth is a skilled warrior with the right weapon can take down larger, heavier forces at distance. And this is what David did. Want to know what Goliath thought when David stepped out? Probably something along the lines of Oh, Shit!
I can tell you how such a story ended up in the Book of Samuel. It was because in the fourth century BC when the books of the Old Testament were being written down, the use of the sling was not common in certain parts of the ancient world. While slings can be traced to the Paleolithic Era their skillful use in warfare was perfected by the Balearic Island slingers who hired themselves out as mercenaries to Hannibal and the Carthaginians. After Carthage fell, the Romans hired them and began to teach their legionaries the use of the sling. So, with the writer perhaps not skilled in warfare he would have us believe that David’s use of a slingshot was the weapon of a child against the might of the Philistines. Had he known what we know he may not have told the story the way he did. As an aside, and just something to take away, Hannibal’s name was probably pronounced Hanno Ba’al and meant Ba’al has been gracious. Note the Carthaginians continued to worship Ba’al in the second century BC. A god first noted being worshipped by the Philistines and Phoenicians in the second millennia BC. So, obviously a god with some staying power.
So, the story of David was a truth you all believed, and it just isn’t so. The immutable fact of the tale is those who know ancient military tactics would favor David and David won.
You Shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.
Everyone knows this saying of Jesus. It’s from John, Chapter 8 in the New Testament. Jesus is trying to convince some pharisees that he is telling them the truth, when they steadfastly believe something else. He promises that knowing the truth will set them free. He doesn’t say it will make them happy, he doesn’t say it will allow them to win an argument, he doesn’t claim it won’t be unpleasant, he simply promises they will be free. But free from what? Well mostly free from what isn’t true. Have you noticed how when someone believes they’re telling you the truth how hard it is to convince them otherwise?
Thus, if we know the truth, we will be free from the not true. Why is this important? How about because perspective is predicate to perception and perception determines action. Simply put, how we “See” and “Understand” something determines how we do things. If we believe something that isn’t true, then our actions may well be wrong. In fact, they will almost always be wrong.
So, being free from untruths is what seeking the truth is about. Often the truth is hidden because, although we knew the truth many centuries ago the conveying of that truth, person to person, culture to culture, language to language has been obscured through the communication process where stories are added to, or deleted from, in such a manner as to change the actual truths involved.
This is how myths are made: over the centuries or millennia the telling of the story of the truth becomes embellished such that truth seekers have to strip away the added layers to find the truth at the middle of the myth. I don’t like to use the metaphor of peeling an onion for when you peel an onion and you reach the middle what do you find? Yep, more onion and that onion isn’t any weaker at making you cry than was the first layer you stripped away.
But sometimes those who seek the truth don’t peel enough layers.
For example, there are religious sects that are opposed to fighting in wars because the sixth of the Ten Commandments prohibits killing. In fact, most English translations of the commandments does specify that “Thou shalt not kill.” But if you go back far enough through the various translations the first recorded written religious text of the commandments said, “Thy shalt do no murder.” Remember how I said words are important. In this case they are very important for in 4th BC Hebrew kill and murder had two very different meanings. Murder is when you kill another a member of the community and thus the prohibition in the commandments is not to kill a member of your tribe or nation. If the commandment meant do not kill then Yahweh would look pretty inconsistent when he later instructs the Israelites to enter Canaan and kill every man, woman and child. Thus, killing in warfare for protection and/or growth of the nation is, according to Biblical text, permissible. So, not peeling enough layers from around the history of a truth can result in achieving an incomplete truth thus changing your perspective which changes your perception which causes your actions to be in error. This error may be small, or it may be large, but it is an error none the less.
So, how did murder become kill? Well, this is what happens when you change languages and cultures. There is much in Jerome’s Vulgate that is different from the Torah and the early books of the Bible because Fourth Century Latin words did not carry the same contextual or cultural meanings as the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic source documents. I’ll give you a common example: Decimate is an English word from the Latin verb Decimare which means to take every tenth. In Rome Decimation was a punishment for Roman legions that broke ranks in battle. They would line up the legionnaires and every tenth man would be executed as a punishment for the entire legion. However, in today’s standard English usage it has become a word to mean that a majority of an entity was destroyed. So, you go from ten percent to eighty percent or so. The truth is that Decimate means to lose one tenth not eighty percent, but cultural usage now permits and, in fact, favors the latter.
Thus, you find that as word meanings change over time you must seek to understand the usage of the word or words at the time they were originally set down. This means that those sects who are pacifists because of the sixth commandment have missed the truth of the commandment. They are allowed to defend their country and people from aggressors even if it means killing them.
Another word is myriad. Originally it was only an adjective, but common misusage of the word has now made it a noun and it is recognized as such. When you translate words and phrases that convey concepts and actions you must have a complete understanding of the original text, culture and understanding of those who wrote the text. If you do not, you may well set in motion a sequence of events that change how history is perceived based on something as small as a single word or phrase.
A truth is an immutable fact, but since we must describe that fact or the logic leading to the statement of the fact, we must be precise in our descriptions. That is why being skilled in communicating between cultures is so important. That is why words are important and why the receiver must have a common working vocabulary with the sender. When I tell you about a Roman legion being decimated will you understand the concept or will you think the legion was destroyed in battle. That is why a speaker must parse his audience before preparing his speech. That’s another word, “Parse” it means to analyze based on parts of speech, but it also means to break into similar groups, i.e., verbs, nouns, adjectives and so on. Knowing the Lingua Franca of your audience allows you to select words, metaphors and stories that will resonate with the members making it easier to communicate clearly.
Just as intelligence officers must attempt to corroborate information from a source, so too, should we look for corroborating information of the stories upon which we rely. The reliability of sources becomes of paramount importance. What is true fact and what is source opinion or interpretation. Just because a newsreader tells you it is true doesn’t make it so. All depends upon you. To know yourself, you must think for yourself. You must peel away the opinions, distortions and ulterior motives to discover the actual fact. Then, you must act upon what you find, for knowing the truth enjoins you to take action.