- The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels © 1998
- Nan A. Talese: Doubleday
- 291 pages
For the first 50 pages I was intrigued. The next 190 pages retold a story I know very well. The last 8 pages made me want to throw the book across the room in frustration. Let me explain.
In the Beginning.
In The Gift of the Jews, Thomas Cahill explains how the Jewish people changed the way Western culture thinks and operates. It’s an overlooked theme that deserves attention. During the first 50 pages, Cahill reconstructs the culture and thought life of the ancient Sumerians (the culture Abram was called out of).
Life in Sumeria was cyclical. Crops grew, died, and came to life again. The sun rose and set only to rise again. The rainy season came and went and returned. The ancient Israelites were the first culture to break out of this mindset. For Abraham and his lineage, life and history was more than cyclical—it had a purpose.
The bulk of the book is a summary of the Hebrew Bible. If you’re fuzzy on your Old Testament, this would be an interesting fast-forward through a lot of history. For me, it seemed like a somewhat patchwork retelling of Israelite history, picking and choosing what to focus on. At a few junctions, I wondered how well Cahill knew the Hebrew Bible.
When Cahill discussed the time before Jerusalem’s fall and the Babylonian captivity, he spoke at length about Isaiah while ignoring Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Another time he commented about how some of the books in the Hebrew Bible seem existentialist—only to describe Song of Solomon while completely ignoring Ecclesiastes! If you’re going to give any writer in the Bible a proto-existentialist award, it has to be the Qohelet!
Besides all the picking-and-choosing (which, I admit, had to be done in such a condensed retelling), I had a few other frustrations. Cahill’s use of unfamiliar spellings (Avraham for Abraham and Moshe for Moses, for example) felt a bit pretentious. His viewpoint on miracles was also inconsistent. Cahill has no problem with a person hearing the voice of God, but he tried to offer rational foundations for other miraculous events such as the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (low tide). I would respect a consistent anti-supernatural position, but you can’t have it both ways.
You’re probably wondering why I wanted to throw this book across the room. Here’s why:
It is no longer possible to believe that every word of the Bible was inspired by God. Fundamentalists still do, but they can keep up such self-delusion only by scrupulously avoiding all forms of scientific inquiry. … But even without resorting to modern scientific methodology or noticing what an inconsistent palimpsest the Hebrew Bible can be, we must reject certain parts of the Bible as unworthy of a God we would be willing to believe in. … If God is to be God the Creator of all, he must be utterly beyond our comprehension—and, therefore, awfully scary. More than this, I, for one, am willing to give God the benefit of the doubt in certain dubious cases—even in an episode as grotesque as the near-sacrifice of Yitzhak [Isaac—see my earlier critique]. He had to jump-start this new religion, and he didn’t always have the best material to work with. (245-6)
Where should I start? I could critique Cahill’s ignorance about what “inspired” means—anyone can beat up a fundamentalist straw-man. I could point out the obvious: yes, God “must be utterly beyond our comprehension” … unless he chose to reveal himself to us in history which is precisely what your entire book is about!
No, the thing that drove me crazy was the modernist arrogance. Cahill and the rest of us moderns are somehow qualified to determine what God can and cannot do because our societal norms dictate what’s right and wrong.
Clearly a God that doesn’t meet our enlightened ethical understanding isn’t “worth believing in” (246).