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.

The Gifts of the Jews

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

This volume is the second in what Thomas Cahill intends to be a seven-volume series that will consider what he calls the “hinges of history”—critical moments at which civilization has received special gifts from whatever culture is under consideration. In the introduction, Cahill is careful to distinguish this sort of history from the series of military, political, or economic events that constitute history in the minds of many readers. The first volume in the series, How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995), considered the role of Irish monasticism of the early Middle Ages in preserving crucial texts (and the ideas they contained) in the face of the disintegration of civilization after the fall of Rome. The Gifts of the Jews considers the Jews’ special contributions of monotheism and their increasingly sophisticated perceptions of God that are recorded in the Hebrew scriptures.

Cahill’s background fits him for his task in several ways. His undergraduate degree from Fordham University was in classics and philosophy; his M.F.A. from Columbia University was in film and dramatic literature; and he has done additional study at Fordham, Union Theological Seminary, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. For six years, he directed religious publishing at Doubleday (he was responsible for publishing the six-volume Anchor Bible Dictionary, a basic tool of Bible scholarship). Moreover (suggesting his sense of marketing as one source of his popular success), he and his wife spent a decade as Cahill & Company producing the Reader’s Catalogue, a book catalog characterized by the literate but unstuffy tastes of its creators. Perhaps the range of his studies and interests suggests why he might wish to produce a history in which scholarship is clothed in a breezy, conversational style intended to engage readers who are thoughtful and interested but not necessarily academic.

Most of Cahill’s history consists of retelling some of the central narratives of the Hebrew scriptures in order to focus on the Jews’ growing understanding of their God; yet because, he says, most people find the Bible “a confusing hodgepodge” and few people ever read all of it, he begins his history before the Bible’s writers ever were called to their tasks, in ancient Sumer, where writing first developed. Cahill describes the glamour of Sumerian cities as they must have appeared to the wandering Semitic nomads, and he follows that description with a list of the barbaric qualities that the Sumerians saw in their nomadic neighbors—people who ate raw meat, had no houses, knew no religion, and died unburied. Cahill notes that the tone of this list reflects “the prejudice of imperialists throughout history,” but he goes on to look at the Sumerians’ worldview as it is reflected in their mythology, giving particular attention to the implications of the epic of Gilgamesh, the best-known literary relic of this ancient world. In Gilgamesh Cahill sees a world where human beings exist purely to serve the gods, the source of all real power and innovation. Cahill notes that some elements of Gilgamesh, particularly the flood theme, will surface again in the Hebrew Bible (Cahill is no biblical literalist), but he is especially interested in the differences that he finds between the world of this epic, a world in which human individuality counts for little, in which fertility is the cardinal virtue, in which “human life, seen as a pale reenactment of the life of the eternal heavens, [is] ruled by a fate beyond the pitifully limited powers of human beings.”

This is the world in which Semitic Avraham (Abraham, in the usual translation) and his family lived as longtime residents, the land from which old Avram was called to go forth by a god whose interests in human welfare seemed quite different from the attitudes of the Sumerian gods. Cahill sees Avraham’s departure with his wife and household (but without children; his wife Sara was barren) as a bold step into a future that will be governed by an understanding of God that has nothing to do with the tyrannical fatalism represented by the Sumerian deities. Cahill’s retelling of Avram’s calling and Sara’s geriatric pregnancy focuses on this boldness and, as in the story of the sacrifice of Yitzhak (Isaac, as the name is usually anglicized), it also dramatizes their willingness to put their trust in this god who seems so different from the Sumerians’ Ishtar.

Throughout the book, Cahill’s user-friendly...

(The entire section is 1855 words.)