Posted by: ritagone | May 12, 2010

Thomas Cahill’s “The Gifts of the Jews”

My new favorite book is Thomas Cahill’s “The Gifts of the Jews,” a wonderful and different look into the “history” of the Israelites as given to us in both Scripture and historical references.  As I am reading, I am feeling stretched and challenged and excited by the insights to the patriarchs and the Jews of Scripture that this book presents.  And the insights into man’s relationship to God, the one true God, as a complete sea change from the pagan gods worshiped before Abraham encountered his Creator.  If the Old Testament mystifies you in any way, I recommend this book, as it illuminates what happened in a way that I’ve never encountered before.  Cahill is known for his series of books that discuss how various cultures changed civilization (including a fascinating book about how the Irish saved civilization), and they are scholarly, well written and profoundly exciting and challenging.

In the chapter about the Israelites as captives and slaves during the reigns of several pharaohs in Egypt, he talks a bit about the dictate of the paranoid ruler who decided that since the Jews outnumbered his people (which Cahill says was itself a false perception), the way to handle them was to enslave them and then to kill off all the male newborns.  (Cahill wonders why Pharaoh didn’t decide to kill off the childbearing-aged Hebrew women instead, which would according to him have made much more sense.)  He remarks – a point which I found very interesting – that this Pharaoh was not even named in the text, while the two women called in to destroy these male newborns because of their role as midwives were named (Pua and Shifra), a fact I don’t think I ever would have thought of but which cast a great light on the intricacies and delicacies of Scripture.  “You think you’re so great, but your name isn’t even mentioned, while these two menial women are honored by naming them.”  He takes us through the entire episode of Jochebed, Moses’ mother, depositing her cherished infant son in a waterproof basket in the Nile, hoping and praying that he would survive, while Miriam, his sister, looked on to see if she could find out the fate of her infant brother.  And how – with God’s smile and blessing and a bit of humorous irony – Miriam was able to introduce herself to pharaoh’s daughter, now holding the baby she had found in the water, and offer up a “woman who could nurse the child,” bringing on the scene none other than Moses’ own biological mother.

All of this Cahill tells us with humor and awe, and our own awe is therefore greatly increased, that God so easily could navigate this situation and bring about such a brilliant resolution.

But what really struck me was Cahill’s description of these women assigned the horrendous task of murdering newborns if they were male: “…they may have been pagans who bore the true God in their hearts, they may have been, like Hagar, Egyptians who could See.”  I particularly like the capital “S,” as if “Seeing” has a lot more clout and import than “seeing.”  And it does.  What Cahill means by Seeing is the ability to grasp spiritual realities behind what is apparent, to be able to move into a monotheistic relationship with a God in the midst of a polytheistic society that worships at many shrines.  Egypt was a country that was filled with a god for everything and everyone; take your pick.  Find a god who suits you, who caters to your needs, and just ask him or her for whatever strikes your fancy.  And yet, in the midst of this pagan culture, there were Egyptian women who “Saw” something  — Someone – else.

We are told in Scripture: “the midwives held God in awe, and they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, they let the children live.”  (Exodus 1) And Cahill goes on to say: “Such beautiful, simple words.  Because they bowed down before real power, they were not tempted to bow down before empty show, and so they did the right thing.”  Amazing.  People who can See in the midst of people who can’t see, the same then as it is now.

And every once in a while, we get a glimpse – a tiny glimpse – of what it’s like to really See, to truly understand how God is moving and working in this world of ours.  Cahill does that for his readers, and sometimes God does it for us as we move through our days and our lives.

Here’s what I believe: one day, this kind of historical revelation will no longer be shrouded in mystery and conjecture for us as believers.  Perhaps part of the glory of Heaven will be the disclosure of those things which we see now “through a glass, darkly,” as the veils are torn away from reality and we know exactly what happened in the minds and hearts of those midwives in Egypt because in Heaven all things will be laid bare and disclosed.  We’ll know what Abraham felt when he left his homeland at the calling of a new and unknown God to follow, head down, plodding on, when everything within him told him to turn around and go back to safety.  We’ll see why Sarah laughed when told she would bear a child.  Not just guesswork; we will really, truly know and understand and “get it.”  We will See.

There’s so much I want to See and don’t see.  How about you?  What mysteries abound as you look around at the world in which you move and live?  What do you wish you could snap your fingers and finally, clearly, irrevocably understand?  My list is long.  It keeps getting longer and longer the older I get.  And that’s why, I think, Heaven is eternal: it will take us a pretty long time – eons and eons – to fully See what we perceive right now only through shadows and smoke.

So I keep reading in order to See a bit more.

I keep asking God to show me more than I See today.  If I can See more of His world, I know I will See more of Him also.

I pray for you, dear reader, that you will See more today than you did yesterday, and that, Seeing, you will be blest and draw closer to the God you are learning more about.


Warm regards,  Rita

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