(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Of all Michener’s novels, The Source is certainly the most ambitious and complex. Conceived while Michener was on a visit to Israel, the novel traces the history of the Jews from their primitive origins thousands of years ago to the establishment of Israel in 1948. The chapters in each stage of the history illustrated are, for the most part, independent narratives; however, like Hawaii, partial continuity is achieved through the repetition of familiar family names.

In The Source, Michener employs a variation on the narrative technique that he used in Hawaii. The historical events in The Source are put into contemporary perspective by a frame story that is set in 1964. In the frame story, a team of three archaeologists is excavating a Tell, or mound, at the site of the fictional crossroads of the ancient world called Makor, or the Source, because of its spring. The narratives correspond with the unearthing of each successive level of human habitation, beginning with the earliest level—Level XV. At the end of each chapter, the archaeologists evaluate the finds that correspond to the events that have previously been related.

The chapter titled “The Bee Eater” begins in 9831 b.c.e. and introduces Ur, the progenitor of the Family of Ur that appears in the following four chapters. Ur is primarily a hunter, but his son’s experiments with planting presage a new way of life for Ur’s descendants. When his son-in-law is killed by a wild boar, Ur begins probing the mysteries of life and death by asking himself questions such as “Why do I live?” By the year 2202 b.c.e., the people of Makor have attempted to answer those questions by creating gods, in “Of Death and Life.” When the time comes for Urbaal to sacrifice his first-born son to the Canaanite god of Death, he does so willingly in spite of the protests of his wife.

“An Old Man and His God” introduces the Haibiru, who are the forerunners of the Hebrews. After arriving in Makor, the Haibiru diplomatically respect the local gods but cling to the belief that El Shaddai is the most powerful god. This theological conflict is dramatized in the dilemma faced by the leader of the Haibiru, Zadok, whose granddaughter is impregnated by Zibeon, the son of the Canaanite leader.

The third historical chapter, “Psalm of the Hoopoe Bird,” takes place during the reign of David. By this time, El Shaddai has been replaced by Yaweh, who controls the heavens and the hearts of humanity. A descendant of Zibeon named Jabaal is an engineer who builds a massive tunnel that King David places below the more abstract accomplishment of a psalmist named Gershon. In 1964, though, the rediscovered tunnel is itself hailed as a...

(The entire section is 1149 words.)