Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
We normally think
of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by
outrage--almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human
pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is, often enough, an adequate
description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of
those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone
else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by
circumstance. In this series, The Hinges of History, I mean to retell the story
of the Western world as the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted
to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the
patrimony of the West. This is also the story of the evolution of Western
sensibility, a narration of how we became the people that we are and why we
think and feel the way we do. And it is, finally, a recounting of those
essential moments when everything was at stake, when the mighty stream that
became Western history was in ultimate danger and might have divided into a
hundred useless tributaries or frozen in death or evaporated altogether. But the
great gift-givers, arriving in the moment of crisis, provided for transition,
for transformation, and even for transfiguration, leaving us a world more varied
and complex, more awesome and delightful, more beautiful and strong than the one
they had found.
About This Reading Guide
discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your
group's reading of the second book in Thomas Cahill's The Hinges of History
series, The Gifts of the Jews.
In The Gifts of the Jews
, Thomas Cahill asserts that Western civilization
would not be what it is today were it not for our Jewish ancestors. Christian,
atheist, Jew, believer, each of us can look at Avram and see that had he not
responded to what his God told him (lekh-lekha--"go forth"), we would
not be the people we are today. The Jewish people shaped the very way we think
and live. In The Gifts of the Jews
, we learn that processive time,
individual destiny, and social justice are so particular to the Jews that, for
all practical purposes, they invented them. Jewish men and women also left their
homes and journeyed when God told them to, changing who they were, changing who
we are. We see this change occurring in the biblical narratives: from Avram, who
gave us the possibility of faith in a single God, to Moses, who gave us the
radical morality and strict monotheism of the Ten Commandments, Cahill shows the
rich religious traditions that have also been such a major part of our Jewish
legacy. In short, as Cahill says, "The Jews gave us the Outside and the
Inside--our outlook and our inner life" [p. 240]. In The Gifts of the
, we are shown the value of revering the past while standing in the
present moment and looking forward to the future. The Jews developed an
integrated view of life and its obligations. They saw life as governed by a
single outlook. They saw the connection between the realms of law and wisdom.
They saw God as One, the universe's principle of unity. And, as we see in
Cahill's book, we do well to recognize this and thank them for these priceless
gifts they've given us all.
- The first
books of the Bible were originally preserved as oral tradition. Discuss the ways
in which oral tradition, despite its missing or inaccurate detail, can preserve
- Does the author give the Jews too much credit? Is philo-Semitism just
as dangerous as anti-Semitism?
- In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, a woman is used to tame and
civilize the man/beast Enkidu. Talk about the change that the Jews gave to our
perception of women. Of their role, their nature, their abilities, their
- God told Avram to "go forth" and "Avram went."
The author points to these bold words in literature. Discuss these and other
bold words from stories and novels you've read. For instance, "Reader, I
married him," in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. In what ways does simplicity
of language enhance boldness of thought?
- Discuss the idea of individuality as the "flip side of
monotheism" [p. 72].
- YHWH is a verb form. Discuss the significance and differences between
the three interpretations of this word: I am who am; I am who I am; I will be
there with you [p. 109].
- The Israelites told their stories in real time, fixing them here on
Earth with some attempt at writing history, not myth, unlike the ancient
Sumerians and other civilizations before them who saw reality as the drama of
eternity. Discuss this change.
- Would you drop or add anything from the Ten Commandments, especially
from those that have to do with human beings? Or, do you agree, as the author
states, that in considering these commandments, "Both believer and
unbeliever are brought to heel" [p. 143]?
- Discuss the idea that anti-Semitism has its source in hatred of God
and hatred of the unyielding Ten Commandments--a hatred that the hater must hide
from him or herself [p. 153].
- The Bible shows us that God's fire "will perfect us, will not
destroy" us. How is understanding and accepting this different from having
a fateful, cyclical vision of the world?
- Several times in the book, the author refers to the struggles of
black slaves in the American South as similar in some ways to the struggles of
the Israelites. Discuss the historical and current relationship between
African/Americans and Jews.
- Discuss the change from the early Israelite's "theocratic
democracy" to earthly monarchy, with the anointing of Saul as king.
- David, the poet, the leader, is a very flawed king and man. How is
this part of his strength and appeal? In what ways does God's relationship with
humans change and deepen as a result of David's story?
- Discuss the personal emotion in the Psalms and the great change this
signals from previous writing.
- Creative energy became diluted from generation to generation in the
House of David. Do you see this in modern-day examples also? What can we do to
guard against it?
- Discuss the change from prophet/leader as in Moses, to
priest/prophet as in Samuel, to priests/politicians who don't speak any
disruptive truths, to the outsiders (Elijah and Hosea) as the ones who hear and
speak God's words, and finally to Isaiah, yet another kind of prophet.
- Elijah hears the "still, small voice" on the mountainside.
Discuss the physical manifestations of God in the Torah.
For Discussion: The Hinges of History Series
- Each book gives a piece that helps complete the picture of who we are, of our
history, of our humanity and acts as a piece in a puzzle. How effective is this
type of a reckoning of our past?
- The author did not write the books in his series in strict chronological
order. Instead he traces large cultural movements over many centuries. How does
this choice affect the understanding of each book as a piece in the puzzle? Or
as an individual work?
- In his books, the author gets inside the heads and hearts of his subjects,
using a very close third-person point of view. How does this choice strengthen
his premise? Does it have limitations?
- The author is Roman Catholic. Is he able to present these histories without
being biased by his Catholicism? Does one's religion (or lack of it) necessarily
constrict or color one's view?
- Discuss the nature and history of the Irish and the Jews as read in these
books. What are their ambitions, their differences? How do they differ from the
Romans and the Greeks in all three books?
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.