In human history great leaders attract great legends. The details of their lives, often irretrievable, remain with us as the creation of an imaginative mind, either to destroy these leaders or to elevate them to new heights. For the Romans, Attila, the Hun (5th cent. CE), was a “scourge of god,” a symbol of cruelty. On the other hand, Moses, in the Western world, stands for law and wisdom.
Recently I was reading about the famous-- or maybe infamous--Russian queen, the great Catherine II (1729-1796), who was the subject of unbelievable legends that circulated for years in literary circles. Born a minor German princess, Catherine, at the age of 15, was married to the grand Duke, Peter of Russia. When she turned 33, she overthrew her insane husband in a bloodless coup, and established herself as the Empress of Russia. During her reign, the country expanded, prospered, schools were opened, laws enacted, and many wars won, including the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by Russian forces in 1768. After her death however, a number of incredible legends began to circulate: that she had an excessive appetite for sex, that she had a sexual intercourse with a stallion, that she was the illegitimate mother of Eva, the daughter of a false Jewish-Messiah Jacob Frank, that she died on the toilet when her seat broke, etc.
In human history she is not the only one. The Bible tells us that, though king David began his life as a country thug (I Sam 22), he quickly became a national hero, by defeating the valiant Goliath, the Philistine (I Sam. 17) (but in another passage, the Bible says, it was not David, but Elhanan who killed Goliath; cf. II Sam. 21: 19) and by unifying both Judah and Israel. Eventually, he was viewed as the messianic figure that will come at the end of time to save humanity (Isa. 11; Jer. 23). In Jewish life, all messianic contenders, from Jesus to Rabbi Sabbatai Zevi of Turkey (17th cent.), have claimed to be of Davidic line.
And what do we know of Moses? The Bible tells us that he was the great liberator of the Jews in Egypt, the legislator to whom God revealed the entire Torah on Mt. Sinai, and, according to the sages later on, even all the teachings of the rabbis who lived centuries after him (Shemot Rabba, 28: 6). In reality, the story of Moses’ birth seems to have developed very much like the birth of the Assyrian king, Sargon the great (3rd millennium BCE), including the detail of how he was placed in a basket and found in a river by a young woman (See text, ANET, 119).
The observation that great leaders attract great legends does not, in my opinion, deny the reality that these important leaders of the past (like, Moses, David, Solomon, Jesus and others) lived but it highlights the fact that the details of their lives cannot be verified. The kernel of truth we have about them cannot be taken as historically reliable. Their descendants saw greatness in them and attributed to them fundamental teachings that still govern our lives.
Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.