Novel * James Michener * A Brief History of Judaism * 1965
For someone who has written tens of thousands of words about the concept of apocalypse, I don’t talk about religion very much. This might seem odd, but the thing is I have no real background or education in religion of any kind. I mean, I took that one class in community college about a million years ago, but all I remember from that experience was that about half the football team was also enrolled in the class and the first time the instructor mentioned Buddhism one of the jocks sitting right behind me shouted “Booty-ism, dog!” The class – myself included – laughed a lot at this. That’s pretty much all I remember from a class I totally got an A in. Community college, everyone! Later on, in real college, I took another general religion class of which I remember exactly nothing. My brain just refuses to engage. Like, I bopped through both those classes and made the appropriate grades but the entire time I’m sitting there dozing off thinking about panda bears or whatever and none of the actual religion talk actually sticks. The same thing happened the maybe three times I’ve sat through a church service. Maybe I need to try again with a religion that is less vanilla Protestant America-church. Maybe trying to educate myself on the topic is always going to be a slog and I just need to get over it.
Whatever the case, James Michener is here to help me out. If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading him before, here’s his whole deal. Michener writes historical fiction based in a particular location. The first novel of his I read (for my AP US History class, in fact) was Chesapeake, which takes place in and around Chesapeake Bay. He then proceeds to tell a long series of linked short stories/novellas that details a group of characters at a particular time in history at that place. Michener starts at the beginning – of time – and moves up to modern day, which is to say when the novel was written. The effect is a deep understanding of the place being written about seen through the eyes of a disparate group of characters inhabiting the same space and seeing the effects of the previous stories on their own world, even if they don’t necessarily recognize the shared history. It’s a fascinating way to learn about a place without your eyes glazing over because Michener is actually pretty good at telling a story. This is important because James Michener novels almost always top a thousand pages each. They’re intense.
The Source is no exception to Michener’s formula, and is arguably one of his more ambitious works. Instead of a place like Poland, or Texas, or Hawaii – places with rich histories, of course – this book’s location is Israel, and considering civilization pretty much started right in the neighborhood, it’s difficult to find a place with a longer human history. Beyond the simple expanse of time involved, Michener is focusing on the Jewish religion itself, in addition to the complicated and convoluted history of the geographical area. This aspect of the book was appealing to me, because in this case I was hoping that Michener could trick my brain into reading about religion. Turns out my hopes were validated because this book was super fun to read through, and it barely felt like I was reading over a thousand pages of history. Historical fiction may not be for you, but in no way does The Source read like a textbook.
The framing structure of the novel is brilliant, and works as well as the overall characterization and snappiness of the narrative to move the reader through the sheer volume of words here. The Source opens in contemporary time, in this case the mid-60’s, with an archeologist named Dr. Cullinane. He’s on his way to Makor Tell, which is a fictional archeological dig that sets up the structure for the novel. The introduction to the book explains the purpose and methodology of the dig, which I promise you is more interesting than it sounds, and also sketches out the modern-era characters that Michener returns to throughout the overall narrative. Dr. Cullinane is an aging bachelor, you see, and he has the hots for one of the lady archeologists working on the dig, Dr. Vered Bar-El. She’s not into it because he’s not Jewish. There’s also representatives of various other faiths and nationalities around, including an Arab and an American Jew who is fairly gross. All these people and their stories serve to ground the overall historical story and give a modern context to everything that comes before. Now, all these folks are here at Makor Tell to do science, which they do. They dig two exploratory trenches and find all kinds of fun artifacts right at the beginning – there are little drawings and everything. Each object found is a little older than the one before, and the closer to bedrock the archeologists get, the older the object. Once they hit the bottom of the Tell, Michener works in reverse order, and tells a story about the people who would have interacted with each found object. The first of these stories begins in the year 9831 B.C.E., the final story takes place in 1948 C.E., and deals with Israeli independence. A lot happens in between.
So, religion is terrible and I don’t understand it. That’s pretty much my takeaway from The Source, even though I don’t think that was Michener’s intention. To be fair to the author, I believe that his intention was to simply tell the story of the place. He’s not out here trying to get people to renounce their faith or advance the cause of one religion over the other. If anything, there’s a vague message of universal humanism that comes across by the end, even if the ending itself is kind of a downer. Anyway, Michener plays it pretty straight, telling compact little stories about people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago who end up doing extraordinary things that shifts the history of Makor in one way or another. I have come to the conclusion that religion is terrible simply because Michener refuses to flinch away from the less-than-glorious things that humans have done to each other in the name of their various gods, and does it in such a way that somehow doesn’t point the finger at religion itself.
I made that leap, though. The first story is about a literal caveman who is a very good hunter and is happy with his life as cave-dwelling alpha male, even though he’s an old, old man at like 31 years old. Our caveman friend has a wife whom he is very happy with, despite the fact that she not only thinks for herself, but also has a lot of crazy ideas. Among these are living in a shelter above ground, planting wild seeds in particular area and helping them grow better, and eventually imagining the basis for religion. Now, Michener is quite obviously streamlining the historical process for the invention of agriculture and animal domestication (one of the characters almost-but-not-quite makes a little wolf-buddy), something he admits himself during the narrative. However, the point is at some point, someone somewhere came up with these ideas. Most likely this happened repeatedly. Like, one person has the idea to grow wild wheat, it doesn’t take, and it’s forgotten for a while, and then someone else does it until finally the practice takes hold. The key thing about this first story is that religion goes through the same process. The agriculture experiment is going well enough until the weather comes along and fucks up the whole operation. Our very smart cavelady puts it all together and realizes that weather is a natural force with supernatural elements that must be appeased in order for civilization to work. Religion evolves from this realization.
The next story begins some 7,000 years later. There is a basic civilization in place at Makor, and the original monolith erected to the vague supernatural being called El now has a tidy little temple. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go story by story here, that would take many many more words than I want to write. Suffice to say Michener is giving us a basic roadmap not only to The Source but pretty much every other novel he’s ever written. By now religion isn’t just a novel thought occurring after witnessing a coincidence, it’s a codified, permanent aspect of human life. The actual basis of this aspect, which is to say that supernatural forces have a hand in day-to-day human existence, is still utterly irrational, but since everyone accepts the concept of gods and rituals as a basic reality, they pretty much just take it for granted. Of course there are gods. Of course humping sacred prostitutes is a fun thing to do. Of course ritually murdering infants and toddlers in a creepy idol death machine is necessary to everyone’s well-being. Of course. To subvert that common knowledge, to insult the gods by not fucking sacred whores or not chucking babies in a fire pit, would bring disaster and horror upon the entire society.
As time moves along and the concepts of gods and religion evolves – often in violent conflicts – that core basis of faith remains. Of course you do these things, otherwise we are all lost. Eventually, as the story becomes more about Judaism in particular, we see this exact same understanding of religion. The only difference between the Talmud and the primitive sex and death rituals are complexity. It’s also important to note that, as Michener moves through Jewish history, no side comes out looking particularly good. The Talmud in particular, that fence around the Torah ensuring that the Jewish people maintain their covenant with their god, is horribly rigid, which leads to untold amounts of unjust suffering. The justification of that suffering ends up being the same argument made by those early on justifying why sacrificing babies is necessary: to do otherwise would bring untold disaster and horror upon our society.
Now, over the course of many centuries, it becomes apparent that Judaism is a resilient religion, and that its people are no less hardy. Yes, there are many instances of the Jewish characters in this novel being awful. It turns out that Jews are human too, and sometimes they suck a lot. However, it’s hard to think of a group of people treated more brutally over the centuries than the Jews. That’s all in here too, although the focus is more on the ancient expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem and the medieval pogroms than, say, the Holocaust. In fact, The Source doesn’t really talk about it all that much. I suspect the tragedy was too recent (only twenty years old by the time the novel was written), and the advent of Israel too new to really focus on it. That said, the reasoning for the resilience of Judaism is pretty clearly stated: The Jewish people follow their own harsh set of rules and have therefore been able to exist as an ancient people since time out of mind without changing their core beliefs.
My response to that accomplishment is also harsh: so what? It’s a commendable achievement, I guess, the stubborn tenacity shown by a people expelled from their homeland hundreds if not thousands of years ago in order to exist in hostile lands before finally returning, unchanged. Yet the final chapter asks an important question of its reader. Why is it important to follow rules written in an all but alien culture thousands of years old? The ethics and morals of humanity evolve – much more slowly than our technology, granted – over time, why is it a good thing to freeze those ethics and morals in time? The concept of god and religion have clearly evolved over time, why cling to that which has changed the least in all those years? Michener gives no answer to this, and he doesn’t need to. He’s simply presenting things as they (likely) happened. Sometimes posing the question is enough. As for myself, I don’t have a very good answer. Even with a slightly better understanding of the history and evolution of religion in general and Judaism in particular, I still don’t get it.