The moment I first learned about Grimm's Fairy Tales, I was floored. Having grown up watching boxes of old Disney VHS tapes, I had come to believe that all children's tales followed the whitewashed arcs accessible to even the most coddled children. And while I still think Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a beautifully animated and fun movie, it's just not quite the same knowing that the stepmother's original intention was to harvest Sneewittchen's organs for consumption.
Recently I have been having the same experience going through the Old Testament and realizing how R-rated it is compared to popular references and interpretations. My preconceived notion was of this old stuffy book filled with draconian rules that nobody really follows — and in some ways that is true. But what they don't tell you is that the overwhelming majority covers the spectrum of life that I guess was typical for 1500 BC; including numerous genocides, rapes, kidnappings, and instances of human trafficking.
What they don't tell you is that the story of Samson is as much about his philandering as it is about his strength. That Noah gets wasted and presumably fondled by his son after saving life on Earth. Or that the story of Moses is as much about massacring the native Canaanites for a land grab as it is about freeing the slaves from Egypt.
While these stories are beyond the pale today, they portray a far more believable and ultimately compelling narrative of how a religious identity is formed. The need to unify around a Founding Myth and to execute on it at all costs becomes clear only in relation to the contemporary alternatives. And the suffering and misery that follows from a failure to adhere to the ideals are what reinforce the message.
Colored by those early Disney movies, my expectation was that these stories were filled with white knights overcoming some singular tragic flaw to save the people from the obvious tyrant. But I'm glad that it is turning out to be more Sneewittchen than Snow White — the tales of envy, revenge, and petty ambition are as relatable today as they were then. Despite more than 3000 years of wisdom handed down from cultures across the world and unbelievable material wealth, it seems the human condition has remained unchanged.