Book Title: The Gifts of the Jews
Author: Thomas Cahill
Date Published: August 17, 1999
Publisher: Anchor Books/Nan A Talese
Genre: 1. History
2. Judaism
3. Civilization & Culture
ISBN: 978-0385482493
Reviewer: David Brickner

When considering the contribution of the Jewish people to modern society, people are apt to reflect on obvious features: monotheism; our system of jurisprudence; the Ten Commandments; a vaccine for polio or even Barbra Streisand. But Thomas Cahill authored a national bestseller showing the gifts of the Jews even much more subtle and far-reaching. His rather sweeping subhead indicates just how far-reaching!

Cahill, a master storyteller, lucidly traces the history of the Jewish people primarily using the text of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, as his guide. He also tries to explain the societies of the surrounding ancient peoples in order to contrast those cultures with the development of Jewish society. As such, the focus of his writing is the seminal, formative aspects of Jewish history, not the whole sweep of Jewish life and contribution to the present day. The book is not historical per se, but rather, Cahill uses the Bible narrative to identify a few key ideas that he believes have changed the way we moderns” think about life and about ourselves.

Cahill considers the main and overarching Jewish contribution a “processive worldview” as opposed to a “cyclical worldview.” The ancient Mesopotamians perceived life as a wheel. Events were considered part of the cycle of life and death, with no real beginning or end. The lifecycle on earth reflected the same pattern among the gods. There was nothing new or different to encounter; everything was part of the same repetitive pattern. Cahill maintains that Avram and his descendants broke that pattern. They purportedly began to see life as a progression of time and events; a process that enables people to make and shape the future rather than living passively as cogs in the endless wheel of life. In essence, Cahill argues, the Jews gave the world the enduring concept of history.

Emanating from this sense of history is the concept of self-identity; the importance, indeed, the emancipation of the individual. Avram, Moses and David asserted their individuality and participated in shaping their own destinies. They interacted with God. In fact, they were friends with God; they spoke to God and they heard him speak to them. Spirituality???religion???was not an impersonal exercise of humans appeasing the wrath of the gods. Instead, individuals could have a relationship with the one true God rather than being mere pawns of the many gods.

Acknowledging the importance of the individual gives birth to the greatest of human hopes for justice and righteousness as articulated in the Hebrew prophets’ writings. The poor and the oppressed are also important because they are individuals with a destiny and a connection to God. Therefore, we must work for their emancipation, too.

Cahill’s approach is fresh, insightful and worth reading, but his book is ultimately flawed by prejudice. While Cahill is not the first skeptic to write about the biblical narrative, the problem is that he presents his views as initially sympathetic, but in the end he treats the Bible with cynicism. His thin veneer of respect for the Bible accounts’ historicity is shattered by his all-too-apparent anti-supernatural bias.

Cahill attempts to maintain sympathy for a belief in God but cannot bring himself to assert that the God of the Bible can truly speak or truly act. The Bible, as he sees it, is not God’s revelation. God can do no miracles. Cahill does some fancy footwork to explain away miracles in the Bible such as the plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, etc. His explanations sometimes sink to absurd levels as in his assessment of the miracle of manna in the wilderness. Cahill describes the Sinai as the most remote and barren place in the world; a desert region with very little vegetation. He goes on to say that the manna, which fed the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years, was most likely edible insect excrement found on certain vegetation in the Sinai desert.

Cahill’s cynicism is most apparent in the closing chapter of the book: “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.” Such is the arrogance of skeptics. He wants us to choose those parts of the Bible we find acceptable and discard those we find unacceptable. In fact, he would like to do that job for us! As such, Cahill’s biblical rewrite would begin in Genesis 1 to read something like, “In the beginning man created God in his own image???” Indeed, Cahill has found a way to welcome some of the greatest gifts given to humanity without acknowledging the True Giver. It is not the Jews, but rather the God of the Jews who has revealed his truth to Israel and to the world in the Bible. The greatest gift of the Jews is the one we have received along with everyone else. That is the gift of truth; of God speaking and revealing himself to humanity; it is the gift of salvation and forgiveness that he still gives to all who will listen and truly believe.