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Review of The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill

The Gifts of the Jews: A Book About a Peculiar People

When people lend me books, I always have the best of intentions. I intend to read them and get them back as soon as possible. Unfortunately, things don’t always work out that way. I’ve had 4 or 5 books for nearly a year and finally decided that I need to get them read and returned before I get too deep into 2017. Along with Mountains of Spices, The Gifts of the Jews is one of those books.

Thomas Cahill’s first – and most famous – book was How the Irish Saved Civilization. I’ve never read that one though I have heard good things about it. What I didn’t realize was that Cahill went on to write a whole series of books that examines key turning points in history. The Gift of the Jews is the second book in this series.

Going into this book, I had a lot of hope. Cahill’s introduction showed promise. He briefly notes how ancient peoples thought in cycles. In other words, time isn’t linear but cyclical. What has been, will be again. He then goes on to declare that “the Jews were the first people to…find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world, so much so that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had” (p.5).

The Uniqueness of Israel

The first chapter sees Cahill expand on this idea by recounting how ancient peoples thought. He uses The Epic of Gilgamesh and other ancient near eastern writings to describe the worldview and religion of humanity’s ancestors. And in so doing, he sets the background for Israel’s contrasting worldview.

According to Cahill, Israel was the first culture to view time in more linear fashion. Israel saw existence as including a beginning, middle, and end. This becomes especially apparent when we compare Israel’s sacred writings with the myths and writings of other cultures. Genesis begins with the word ‘in the beginning.’ On the other hand, the stories of other ancient cultures often “begin in the middle and end in the middle.”

Though it might not seem like much, this was a huge accomplishment. This idea that time moves in a direction rather than cyclically helped people develop an adventurous, entrepreneurial spirit. Without this fundamental idea, the history of Western society would have been utterly altered. But this isn’t the only gift of the Jews.

Cahill also notes how the descendants of Abraham developed a sense of individuality. Whereas the writings of most other cultures lacked references to ‘I’, the Bible – especially the Psalms – is filled with personal reflection. Scripture also differed from the writings of other people by focusing on normal people. Think of Ruth or Job or even Abraham. These men and women weren’t anything special. They weren’t heroes or kings. They were just people.

So, according to Cahill, the Jews helped humanity see itself as a collection of individuals rather than just a mass. All of these insights are worth considering – especially as a Christian.

But It Could Have Been So Much More

Unfortunately, the longer the book goes on, the weaker it gets. Cahill spends a lot of time in the early chapters describing these ideas and principles which Judaism bequeathed to Western society. But about halfway through, he exhausts the ‘gifts’ and ends up simply recounting the history of Israel from scripture. If you’ve ever read the Bible through, or you know the story of Israel fairly well, the latter half of the book will leave you wanting more.

This isn’t to say that Cahill does a poor job. He doesn’t. I think he tells Israel’s story well – hitting all of the high points. I just wish he would have been able to continue presenting different ‘gifts of the Jews’ in the latter chapters.

For those wondering, I should also note that Cahill isn’t exactly conservative (though he isn’t exactly liberal either). He believes Abraham and Moses were real individuals. He even thinks that scripture communicates the general outline of their stories. Though he argues that scripture is also filled with errors and absurdities.

Over all, I moderately enjoyed the book. Though I felt like it could have either been shorter or more fleshed out. My biggest takeaway was the reminder that the Bible and its people are unique in history. If not for Abraham and his descendants, the world – especially the Western world – would be a very different place.

If you’d like to read it for yourself, you can order a copy here:

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