by: Thomas Cahill
Published by Nan A. Talese Doubleday
291 pp. US $23.50
Reviewed by Linda Dangoor-Khalastchi
Thomas Cahill has planned a series of seven books under the title The Hinges of History. In it, the author undertakes the ambitious task of relating the story of Western civilisation, the evolution of its beliefs and sensibilities, and how the timely arrival of "gift givers" in its history help to transform and transfigure Western thought.
Volume one was a book entitled "How the Irish Saved Civilisation." Volume two is called "The Gift of the Jews" with the subtitle "How a tribe of Desert Nomads changed the way Everyone thinks and feels."
Inviting and catchy titles! Taking us first to Sumer in the 3rd Millennium, Cahill explores the civilisation which preceded Abraham, relating some of its many-told tales including the famous Epic of Gilgamesh and how certain of its mythical elements would find their way in the Bible. Then, he begins the story of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, David and Amos etc.... emphasising how visionary and avant-garde Abraham was in "Going Forth." And how this vision inspired thousands of years later, the Declaration of Independence and progress, in general, in the West.
He talks of the Ten Commandments as a gift allowing us to live in the present, in the here and now: "What I have done in the past is part mending; what I will do in the future is a worry not worth the candle, for there is no way I can know what will happen next. But in the moment... I am in control. This is the moment of choice."
Also, he describes how the standard of the Ten commandments gives the Israelite history a reliability and a consistency for which "we search in vain in other ancient cultures."
But he is not all praise. He finds many laws in the Torah "that can only make us wince: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" for example, has been used repeatedly in Western history to get rid of inconvenient old women, and the commands in Leviticus to execute homosexuals and burn alive both the perpetrator of incest and his victims are "unlikely to commend themselves to modern ears."
Thomas Cahill is a marvellous and an original story - teller. His style is engaging and effortlessly erudite. Thought - provoking sentences and quotations such as these: "We are the undeserving recipients of the history of the Jews" and "In a cyclical world, there are neither beginnings nor ends... But.... in the book of Genesis, time had a beginning...." That which begins must also end. When will that be? Make this book a compelling and delectable spiritual voyage.
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