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The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (Hinges of History) Paperback – 1 Sep 1999
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Thomas Cahill, author of the best-selling How the Irish Saved Civilization, continues his Hinges of History series with The Gifts of the Jews, a light-handed, popular account of ancient Jewish culture, the culture of the Bible. The book is written from a decidedly modern point of view. Cahill notes, for instance, that Abraham moved the Jews from Ur to the land of Canaan "to improve their prospects", and that the leering inhabitants of Sodom surrounded Lot's lodging "like the ghouls in Night of the Living Dead". The Gifts of the Jews nonetheless encourages us to see the Old Testament through ancient eyes--to see its characters not as our contemporaries but as those of Gilgamesh and Amenhotep. Cahill also lingers on often overlooked books of the Bible, such as Ruth, to discuss changes in ancient sensibility. The result is a fine, speculative, eminently readable work of history. --Ali Perry-Gallagher --This text refers to the Audio Cassette edition.
"Persuasive as well as entertaining...Mr. Cahill's book [is] a gift."--Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times
"An outstanding and very readable book...highly recommended."--Library Journal
"A very good read, a dramatically effective, often compelling retelling of the Hebrew Bible."--Charles Gold, Chicago Sun Times
"This is a valuable book, of interest to everyone, religious or not."
"A highly readable, entrancing journey."
--San Francisco Chronicle
Top customer reviews
Unlike his previous subject about the Irish, this book covers a subject on which almost everyone has an opinion, so Cahill's interpretations on the Hebrew Scriptures and history (Old Testament times) will undoubtedly not satisfy everyone. He does a very good job, though, of steering clear of interpretive controversies.
He presents this history as a history of what is important in its legacy for us -- no sense in asking questions such as 'Were these really the first monotheists?' &c., because it is a fact that our cultural tendency toward monotheism in the West derives from this band of people. This is the people from whom much of our Western sensibility is derived.
'This gift of the Commandments allows us to live in the present, in the here and now. What I have done in the past is past mending; what I will do in the future is a worry not worth a candle, for there is no way I can know what will happen next. But in this moment--and only in htis moment--I am in control.'
The very idea of regulations, justice, and communal living (beyond the whims of the powerful), and of self-discipline exerted from within, rather than from without, derives largely in our society from these writings. Again, it is not worth haggling over who had the earliest codification of regulations and civil laws--those did not get handed down to us as a living, working text. These texts were, in many respects, the informing texts behind much of Western civilisation.
He covers the history well, neither discounting the Biblical authority nor assuming that seeming contradictions in archaeological evidence is either right or wrong.
Cahill begins with the pre-history of the Jews, talking about the societal, political and geographic realities that would have influenced the ancient Sumerian named Avram, who set out for the land of Canaan. Cahill examines the period in Egypt as being pivotal for societal development, the era of the judges and kings as experimentations with polity, and the diasporic period as one of deepening identity in the face of massive external pressure and, in the end, threat of extermination.
This book is a good sequel, and an important work for the non-historian and non-theologian into some aspects of the history of the Jews that are otherwise often overlooked.
'The Jews gave us the Outlook and the Inside--our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact--new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice--are the gifts of the Jews.'
What is the impact of this novel way of thinking about ourselves? ... For one thing, the linear view of time is the basis for all Western scientific thought. Without such a concept we could never recognize how evolution controls the flow of life. Seeking the mechanics of the Big Bang wouldn't be among our enquiries. We would never have sought an answer to our origins either cosmic or biological. Cahill contends that adopting the new view of time imparted the concept of free will, which allowed us the freedom to pursue such inquiries.
Monotheism is the most significant element in Cahill's account. Countless aspects of our society derive from this innovation. History is replete with accounts of gods who dealt directly with humanity, more often amicably than otherwise. Zeus descends from Olympus, frolicking with the peasant girls. Among the Australian Aborigines, Biame joins the hunters, sometimes guiding them to game. Other gods play practical jokes, usually as object lessons. Their company was often sought, and while the gods sometimes acted on whim, fear was not the basis of peoples' relationship with their deities. The gods were as often joyful as terrible.
The Jews' god, however, put it point blank: 'I am a jealous god!' In other words, 'I am a petty-minded god concerned with small things!' How much has followed from that dictum? Not only were the Jews forbidden to worship other deities, ultimately it came to mean that no others were permitted to exist. If they manifested themselves, they were to be eliminated. Since the only way a deity can reveal itself is through its followers, those believers must convert or be destroyed. The impact of the global sweep of Judeo-Christian culture over our planet resulting from that one decree remains to be assessed. Cahill describes this imperialism as having 'taken hold in' and being 'subscribed to' by all non-Western societies[p. 250]. He fails to mention the subscriptions were achieved at gunpoint and the bill for the subscriptions paid for in human blood. Those who grizzle about this book not being 'scholarly' clearly have failed to discern its worth. Wrapping up such vast concepts in 290 pages is no mean feat. It is, after all, the foundation of today's Western society he's coping with here. Would this book actually benefit from more citations and a longer bibliography? I doubt it. Perhaps a few of you maligning his efforts should go back and take another look. Cahill's organization and prose style combine to present the reader a worthy addition to any bookshelf. The only real downside is that it's clear we're going to have to buy the entire series to have the whole story. Not a bad investment for those with children.
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