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A READER'S JOURNAL

The Gifts of the Jews
by
Thomas Cahill
How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels
Published by Doubleday, NY in 1998
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2001

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Cahill begins his fine book with two quotations that express the change from cyclic stasis to linear evolution that was one of the gifts of the Jews or ancient Hebrew people. Both writers are modern personalities, one a native American and the other an American writer. Black Elk says, "Everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round." William Carlos Williams says, "Unless there is a new mind there cannot be a new line..." There we have it: people close to the land perceive endless cycles of sameness, and evolution of consciousness begins with a new mind and pushes in a linear fashion.

[page 19] "Development" and "evolution" words of such importance to us would have meant little in the timeless culture of Sumer, where everything that was their city, their fields, their herds, their plows had always been.

What we can come to understand is that the endless cycle of the Earth around the Sun is converted into a spiral when our new mind shifts to understand that the solar system is moving rapidly as a whole during the constellation of Hercules.

Cahill unwinds the great Sumerian story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu for us and helps us to make sense of the mind-set, the state of the consciousness of the people of the time of Sumer when Abram (or Avram, as he calls him) came to prominence among the tribe of desert nomads that comprise the earliest Hebrew people. What was it like to live in Sumer? To work there? To worship there? Not much unlike the United States in our time in many ways.

[page 24] This was a society full of contentiousness and aggression, in which the "good" man the ideal was imagined as ambitious in the extreme, animated by a drive for worldly prestige, victory, success, with scant regard to what we would think of as ethical norms. This was also a society that despised poverty.

Cahill does an excellent job of portraying the ancient people of Sumer, but he misses a crucial point about the evolution of consciousness that he is describing: the ability of our early ancestors in all corners of the world to view the spiritual world directly. Thus when Cahill gives reasons for the Sumerians building high temples to view the sky, notice the presuppositions that the divine beings they viewed were merely figures, they received insights from those figures instead of sights, and the astral bodies were pictorial projections of humans onto the stars, not actual astral beings. Here's the quotes from Cahill to illustrate with key words noted by italics:

[page 40] When primitive man looked up at the heavens, he saw a vast cavalcade of divine figures regularly passing before his eyes, the cosmic drama, breathtaking in its eternal order and predictability. . . For the earliest human beings the first creatures to look upon the drama of the heavens with comprehension these insights required little reasoning and no discussion; they were immediate and obvious, self-evident truths.

The ancients Sumerians worshiped a Moon god in the Temple of the Moon in the acropolis of Ur. Similarly when the Hebrews later built the temple in Jerusalem, it was built on the top of the ancient Moon Temple, and indications are that their God was also a Moon God. Cahill gives a delightfully graphic description of a orgiastic ritual taking place on the top of Ur's Temple of the Moon. He says that the high priests were of both sexes, but the male priests staffed only the female Goddess Ishtar's temple and the female priests staffed the male God Nanna-Sin's temple. This curious bit of lore from the past maps directly onto a curious phenomenon that exists today. When my wife was working in the health care field she was constantly going to Catholic hospitals with female and male names: Our Lady of the Lake, St. Francis, etc. What I learned from her was that the male-named hospitals that she worked with are run by orders of nuns and the female-named hospitals are run by orders of male priests. Very likely this is globally true and harkens back to the traditions of ancient Sumer.

[page 48] For some prehistoric cultures the moon was female, for others it was male, but always was it closely associated with the bodies of women, which like the moon progressed through monthly cycles; and these were the cycle of fertility, like those of the earth itself, which many cultures believed was made of the same substance as the moon, even the moon's child.

Even today the female menstrual cycle which is the indicator of her fertility cycle is geared to the 29.5 day cycle of the moon, occurring in the same phase of the Moon, but not on the same day of the calendar month. The gestation cycle of the human is exactly ten lunar months, the length of ten fertility cycles of the mother after impregnation. As for the Earth being born of the Moon, this is a finding of Rudolf Steiner that in the course of the evolution of the Earth, the Solar System went through a Saturn phase, a Sun phase, a Moon phase, and an Earth phase (which we are enjoying currently). The transition from the Moon phase to the Earth phase resulted in the separation of the current Moon and Earth, the Earth being born out of the Old Moon condition.

[page 53] In the revolving drama of the heavens, primitive peoples saw an immortal, wheel-like pattern that was predictive of mortal life. At the center of this Wheel of Life they found the Hub of Death. The correspondences they discerned between earthly and heavenly realities are pictured in their earliest art the spirals, zigzags, and lozenges, abounding almost everywhere in the most ancient monuments left to us.

Once again we find here that Cahill is projecting our current abilities onto the ancient people. Rightly understood, the ancient people did not see correspondences, they saw spiritual realities. Our children today have their so-called imaginary playmates, which are actual spiritual beings that we, as adults are no longer able to see, so we discount them and call them imaginary, equating them with non-existence, up until now. Similarity the same adults interpreting the ancient people's reports of spiritual beings equating those beings to non-existence and relegate those ancient people to a process of "discerning correspondences." If one has any conception at all of the evolution of consciousness over time, one must be clear on the fact that "discerning correspondences" accompanies a higher stage of consciousness than merely reporting what one sees directly.

The process of long-lived patriarchs in the Bible is another curious phenomenon, unless one understands the evolution of consciousness, particularly the consciousness of one's "I." Abraham was the first human we know of in history who had a strong and active "I". Before and after him for many centuries the "I" of the average human being was still developing. The word for "I" didn't exist in many languages of the time, being subsumed in the structure of the verbs and nouns, as in the Latin phrase, cogito ergo sum, which is normally translated as "I think, therefore I am." But all we see is "think, therefore am," with the endings of the other words specifying that the words apply to the speaker of the words. If one meditates on this phrase, one can imagine that its structure began in ancient times when Latin and other earlier languages were being formed, and groups of people said together phrases like that in community prayer, so that the original meaning of that ending was that it referred to a plurality of people saying the phrase, but it still came to apply if only one person were saying it. In English when one says the word "I", it is treated as if it were a plural noun, such as in "I have" we never say "I has." We, as it were, conjure up this original "group of people talking" whenever we make a sentence with "I". What this has to do with the long-lived patriarchs is this: the names of the fathers were passed onto the sons and these sons inherited not only the physical property but also the name and individuality of their fathers. Only when a son died without a successor son was it considered that the named person had died. These patriarchs spoke for their tribe and the "I" of those times was the "I" of the patriarch of the tribe. When he died, when his name died, it was recorded as the death of the name, such as with Terah, the father of Avram (Abram) in Genesis, the first book of the Bible:

[page 57] But when they had come as far as Harran, they settled there. And the days of Terah were five years and two hundred years, then Terah died, in Harran.

Here we arrive at another "gift of the Jews" the above quote is the end of a passage that describes the names of the sons of Terah and their wives. It takes the form of a genealogical record of a family, something Cahill rightly points out is a first for tales of that time. No more cyclic mythic stories of gods and spirits for humankind from then on, humans began to record the events of the common people and the people who led them.

[page 60] Something new is happening here; but it is happening as all things new must happen in the midst of the old, usual, ordinary reality of what was then daily life. "Nova ex veteris," runs the old Latin paradox. "The new must be born out of the old."

The next "gift" is when Avram undertakes a covenant with his God, just as Cahill showed us earlier that the ancient chieftains used to do with each. Here for the first time was a monotheistic God that developed a personal relationship with one person, Avram, who spoke out of his strong sense of individuality, out of his "I", and bargained for a covenant for his people. This was to be an unforgettable covenant, a covenant that involved a marking of the flesh. Any Western male is more likely than not to have this marking of the flesh which we call circumcision. A powerful covenant this was, one that has lasted until this very day.

More was to come. Avram was to take his son Yitzhak (Isaac) up to the mountain top to be offered as a burnt sacrifice. When Avram's hand is stayed and a lamb appears to replace his son, we have the replacement of human sacrifice by animal sacrifice. Another gift. And yet, another gift appears, the word "love" appears in the Bible for the first time. Cahill astutely points to the place where this happens, in the narrative of the story that God began by saying, "Pray take your son, your only-one, whom you love, Yitzhak."

Cahill uses the tetragrammaton YHWH over the vowel filled variations like Jahweh or Yahweh, and tells us how he experiences the saying of the word YHWH without vowels, just consonants.

[page 110] But for me, when I attempt to say the consonants without resort to vowels, I find myself just breathing in, then out, with emphasis, in which case God becomes the breath of life.

He also uses various translations or interpolations of the meanings of YHWH, perhaps by inserting various vowels as the ancient Hebrews did with their words without vowels. He comes up with, "I am he who causes things", "I am the Creator", "I am who I am" "I will be-there with you." "He-Whom-There-Is-No-Escaping" and several others.

With these ingenious people, the world moved from the eternal unchanging cyclic time of Gilgamesh and other ancient myths and peoples to linear time, from eternal time to real time, with a direction, an end, and progress for the first time becomes possible. Cahill says, "That accomplishment is intergenerational may be the greatest of all Hebrew insights." This insight gave humans the gift of understanding that the world changed in real time and humans could be agents of that change. We take it for granted today that new products will appear on the market; newer and better are word that are so closely related that one seems to invoke the other without need for comment. That's an indication of a deep process in our psyches and one placed there by a gift of the Jews. It was not always there, certainly not for the Sumerians.

[page 128] If the brewer had announced his product as new as singular and never-before-known he would have been committing entrepreneurial suicide, for no one would have drunk it. The Israelites, by becoming the first people to live - psychologically in real time, also became the first people to value the New and to welcome Surprise. In doing this, they radically subverted all other ancient worldviews.

The next gift of the Jews was "recess" the concept of a rest period, a "ceasing" of work (which is what "sabbath" means), a "septimanal punctuation" in which one day of the week was to be devoted to restoring ourselves with "prayer, study, and recreation." Thus the gift of education in its earliest form came to us from the ancient Hebrew traditions.

Are you maybe feeling a little guilty at all the gifts that we have received over the millennia from these desert nomads? Good, that's another gift, "guilt" the consequence of a pervasive sense of "ought-ness" which they first articulated for humanity, especially Western humankind. (page 145)

Do you sometimes get upset at all the labels on food and the child-proof caps on your medicines? These activities of the Food and Drug Administration were made possible by the people who first promulgated rules of cleanliness for the preparation of their food.

Do you vote? In many ways the democracy that we live in where the leader is chosen by a popular vote is another gift of the ancient Hebrews, who for a time had only God for their king and ran a theocratic democracy. With the anointing of Saul by the prophet Samuel to become King, things began to change. As Cahill so tersely puts it, "because power adheres to the powerful, confirmation by the people has fallen into disuse." Democracy as a gift was taken back and fell into disuse until modern times when through efforts of men like Thomas Paine and others, it was wrested from the hands of monarchs for good.

In the songs of David, who is to follow Saul as King, we receive another gift from the ancient Hebrews, the singing out of the individuality, of the "I". In the 23rd Psalm, notice the occurrences of the "I": "I shall not want", "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil", and "I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever." (page 200)

The next gift came to us from King Solomon and it is one that many would prefer to give back to the ancient Hebrews, namely, taxes.

We have opened up our presents, those gifts from the Jews and found most of them worthy, but worthy or not, they have become a heritage of the Western world that pervades our thoughts, our actions, our values, our daily lives we are what we are because of those gifts we can look back as Cahill hints that we can and understand who we are as the ancient Hebrews would:

[page 228] They could now look back over the whole of their history from the call of Avraham [Abraham] to journey into the wilderness, to the call of Moshe [Moses] to lead the people from slavery to freedom, to the anointing of David, the king who sang "I," to the prophets who warned them that nothing they had yet done was enough for God they could look back and see that God had been leading them all along, from one insight to another, and telling them a story, "something new on earth," the story of themselves.


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Other Books by Thomas Cahill Reviewed:      

How the Irish Saved Civilization


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Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne

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