The Gifts of the Jews

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE GIFTS OF THE JEWS: HOW A TRIBE OF DESERT NOMADS CHANGED THE WAY EVERYONE THINKS AND FEELS considers the Jews’ special contributions of monotheism and increasingly sophisticated perceptions of God as recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. This volume is the second in a projected seven volume series which will consider “hinges of history”mdash;critical moments in which civilization has received special gifts from various cultures. Author Thomas Cahill’s wide-ranging studies and interests may explain his desire to produce a history in which scholarship is clothed in a breezy conversational style to engage a thoughtful but not particularly academic reader.

Cahill’s history retells some of the central narratives of the Hebrew scriptures in order to focus on the Jews’ growing understanding of their God. He begins in ancient Sumer where the Hebrew Abraham and his family were longtime residents until they were called to go forth by a God completely unlike the tyrannical Sumerian deities. This is the first of the Old Testament’s narratives which Cahill uses to dramatize the Jews’ willingness to put their trust in God.

Cahill includes the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, Joseph in Egypt, the calling of Moses and the exodus out of Egypt, the development of the monarchy under Saul, the stories of Saul and David and Jonathan, and a rather compressed retelling of the prophets leading to the Babylonian exile. Cahill’s obvious delight in his subject and his highly readable style make these narratives extremely accessible.

Cahill sees each of these stories in Israel’s history as important to Western thought. Particularly significant is the new understanding of God which emerges from the Jews’ captivity in Babylon. The old ideas of a god who receives sacrifices and who lives in Jerusalem have crumbled under the scornful attacks of prophets like Jeremiah who say that God is interested not in tribute and ritual but in justice for the marginalized and oppressed and in claiming the hearts of his people.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXXIX, September 26, 1998, p. 22.

Booklist. XCIV, March 15, 1998, p. 1197.

Commentary. CVI, November, 1998, p. 63.

Commonweal. CXXIII, May 8, 1998, p. 22.

Crisis. XVI, September, 1998, p. 46.

Los Angeles Times. June 23, 1998, p. E2.

Maclean’s. CXI, June 1, 1998, p. A6.

National Catholic Reporter. XXXIV, May 8, 1998, p. 16.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, May 24, 1998, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, March 16, 1998, p. 39.