An Audiobook Review: A Story Thousands of Years in the Making…

The Source

By James A. Michener

Unabridged edition Published by Random House, Inc.

Read by Larry A. McKeever

The Book:

Here’s another book I read for the first time in high school. This book single-handedly got me interested in archaeology. I thought it was a great book and if you read around the Internet it gets a lot of good reviews. Unfortunately, because it did get me interested in archaeology, especially Israeli archaeology, I can now see all the flaws, inaccuracies and poor interpretations, personal biases and bases which under further exploration has been proven just plain wrong. And that’s kind of a shame because it really is an excellent story, but if you have kept up with any of developments in the last thirty years or so, you are likely to cringe throughout the entire first half of the book, and, sadly, the second half is just so depressing most of the time.

Okay, here’s some of what is wrong with this picture. Michener included some very bad anachronisms in those early chapters. Correction: the Stone Age section, while not exactly the way I learned it was within acceptable parameters, except that later in the book Michener attempts to claim that the family shown in the Stone Age has persisted in the area through to the present and that one is actually digging at the site. It’s a lovely literary device, but impossible since the Stone Age inhabitants of the area are the wrong species and while it is still being debated, the evidence has shifted away from H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens being able to interbreed and while it is uncertain just when Michener’s cavemen existed, it is safe to conjecture from later sections that the people were of a species that pre-dated the Neanderthals. Even later in the book the archaeologist speculates dates going back two hundred thousand years for continuous occupation, but this too turns out not to be the case since the early humans who made it to Israel seem to have died out (or moved away) and were replaced by a wave of more modern humans (according to the “Out-of-Africa” theory).

It is when we get to the early Canaanite period (which I think starts with the Early Bronze Age?) that it goes awry. As you go along he has people in the region who don’t appear for a thousand years or more, such as the Sea Peoples. The Sea Peoples are an iron-using culture who by their artistic motifs may or may not be related to the Mycaenean Greeks (there’s a lot of debate over just who they were and where they came from). In the Early Bronze they were all back in Greece, though and if they traveled by sea it was to get to the siege of Troy… if that ever actually happened. For the record, the Philistines were one of the five groups of Sea Peoples who settled generally in the Gaza area. Other Sea Peoples stretched along the Mediterranean coast from just south of what is now Lebanon to somewhere west of Egypt. They start showing up toward the end of the Late Bronze Age, but definitely not in the EBA… However, that is a minor nit-pick in comparison.

For instance, Michener appears to have been totally unaware that the Phoenecians were just the Canaanites a little later on in history and treats them as two unrelated and warring cultures. He also, once in a while, confuses them with the Philistines, but a lot of non-archaeologists do that probably due to the similarity of their names, maybe?  It just seemed to me that for an author renowned for his research, he could have researched this better. I’m also not sure where he got his notion that the ancient Hebrews/Israelites had blond hair and blue eyes, but throughout the book he keeps mentioning blue eyes as though they are a distinct racial trait, but in truth, Judaism is a religion, not a race and Jews come in all shapes and colors.

I really cannot blame him, however, for getting the origin of the Hebrews (the trend in archaeology is to call them Israelites these days, by the way) wrong, since in the mid-60’s it was a common belief they somehow just appeared on donkeys leading their flocks of sheep and cattle out of the desert. It never made sense to me; how well were those sheep and cows going to do in a desert? What were they going to eat? Oh sure, during the “wet season” there would be grasses, but in the dry season fodder would be sparse. Well, the current answer appears that the early Israelites were a pastoral split-off group from the Canaanites with what these days might be called a fundamentalist form of the Canaanite religion. The main difference we know of for certain is that for the Canaanites, El and his consort/wife Asherah were a sort of sleepy older couple content with a sort of “King Log” type of existence. For the Canaanites, the power couple was the Prince and Princess of Heaven; Baal and Astarte. However, in the Israelite religion it appears that El and Asherah were far more vibrant and active, so they were the ones prayed and sacrificed to.

It was commonly thought at the time Michener wrote this that the Israelite religion was a monotheism, although why did Michener not see the connection between the “El Shaddai” (literally “God Almighty”) of his Habiru and the sleepy El of the Canaanites? Then again, he also seems unaware of how closely related the Canaanite religion was to that found contemporaneously in Mesopotamia, although there were some marked, and sometimes confusing differences.

As it turns out, the monotheism of Judaism did not develop until very late in the period called the Divided Monarchy and might not actually have coalesced until the early Jews had been force into the Babylonian Exile. For decades, archaeologists finding idols in Israelite home sites concluded that these must have been the backsliders some of the Prophets railed against and which are mention in some of the books of Holy Scripture. However, according to current research, that turns out not to be the case. I could go on and on with examples, but this is a book review, not an archaeology or religion class.

However, while I have to forgive Michener for following conventional wisdom as it was held some fifty years ago, I still found it spoiled all those chapters dealing with the early levels of Tell Makor for me. We have learned a lot since this book was written and it turns out that archaeology has sometimes confirmed what we thought we knew from Scripture and sometimes confused us by presenting a picture entirely at odds. However, here is another example in which the possibility of one family living in the area for sixty to two hundred thousand years becomes remote to impossible. It is a fact that the Assyrians, NeoBabylonians and various other invaders had a habit of moving people around once they were conquered and would move other people into the area in their places. Michener shows this happening to the Jews of the late Divided Monarchy, but he seems unaware that this was not a special punishment to the Jews. The reason it was done was that it removed the people from their gods since at the time it was believed that gods were attached to their lands. Move the people to another land and they had to worship the gods of their new land instead and lose their cultural connection to their old home. The amazing thing is that the early Jews came up with the notion that their God was everywhere, even in Babylonia where they were exiled. In contrast, the People of the Kindgom of Israel (the famous Ten Lost Tribes of Israel) did not have this belief and so when they were exiled, a generation earlier, they were assimilated by the Assyrians, so it is probable the belief in an omnipresent God was a very late development.

As the story progressed into the period in which Talmud was formulated, I had fewer nits to pick. I did not entirely agree with the details of Michener’s interpretations, but they were not anything I had not heard before. Historians and archaeologists are always arguing over what really happened and what it meant both then and now and if Michener chose not to choose the sides I agreed with, that was his prerogative. I did take serious issue with his pronouncement that any religion in which fertility was lauded would eventually result in public lewdness. I mean, seriously?

Okay, there may have been some in the Canaanite religion. The priestesses of the goddess Astarte for example, were supposedly fairly brazen and men could have sex with them for a donation to the temple. I would point out that in their proper cultural context such encounters were religious observances. And we need to keep in mind that many of our descriptions of their practices were by their enemies. Think of this as a precursor to modern politics. One side lies about the practices and beliefs of the other and the other side lies back in return. Somewhere in there must have been a grain of truth, but even then the practices may well have varied in frequency and form from one city to the next. In Mesopotamia it was common in at least some of the societies for all women to be required to present themselves to the temples of Ishtar/Inanna and to remain there until some man came along to donate to the temple for the right to take their maidenhead and that no woman was allowed to marry until this had happened.

Michener seems to have forgotten God’s commandment “Be fruitful and multiply!” which sure sounds like an invitation to pretty much the same thing. Later on it was interpreted differently, but I would suggest that it had a similar origin to the fertility rituals of Astarte. It is sort of hard to tell since we do not have written records about religion in the early Israelite period, but I think it is safe to assume that similar gods worshiped by similar people would see similar practices that would gradually differ as time went on.

Okay, let’s move on from the early levels, already. Jewish history is not a collection of happy stories during many times through the ages and Michener spent as much or more time discussing the destruction of the levels of Makor and how and why it happened as he does with what life was like. In fact several chapters are only about the events leading up to the ends of the levels, so we seem to be mired in the great tragedies (which I do not think should EVER be forgotten), but never see enough of how life could be sweet in spite of all that. At that point, however, the book is dealing with known historical periods and while the whys and wherefores might be debated, the facts are less uncertain.

At some times he spends a lot of time away from the tell in order to tell the full story. This is necessary because as times goes on, Jews are spread further and further into the wide world. The first such happens at the beginnings of the Crusades, which eventually led to one of the Crusaders claiming a fief at Makor which was eventually destroy some generations later by the Mamluks. After that, we spend quite a lot of time elsewhere in order to bring three rabbis to the town of Safed a real place near the fictional Makor and the only reason Makor plays a part in the story at all is to explain why the archaeologists find a golden menorah buried there at the start of the book. I have some nits to pick there too; shouldn’t a 15th Century (more or less) Spanish-made menorah have seemed out of place when the last occupation level was dated to the end of the Crusades? Similarly the next chapter seemed to have been tossed in just to explain an anachronistic gold coin as well.

However, I do not want anyone to think I was cringing throughout the stories Michener told in The Source. Michener was not really giving us an accurate description of archaeological methods or even, when you get down to it, the story of a particular archaeological site. He was describing the pre-history and history of the Jewish people and of Israel as he knew it about fifty years ago, and if the parts of the deepest past had to be cut from whole cloth at the time, that’s because there were gaps in our knowledge (and likely still are) so he was forces to go by current beliefs and speculations. I’m not sure if the speculations of Catholic archaeologist about Judaism are intentionally wide of the mark so often, but then none of the modern characters at the dig are truly representative of their ethnicities. They are individuals, so it is understandable that they might vary from others and these certainly do, but they are valid characters and, I think, well within the range one might find for who and what they are.

The story itself is a deeply moving one divided into various vignettes, each corresponding to one level of the tell and framed by the activity at the modern archaeological dig (in the early 1960’s). One might chance to wonder how distinct levels are still forming at Tell Makor after the destruction of the last occupation level. Michener speculates that dust continues to fall, but whiles I suppose some might, there should have also been several centuries of weathering and erosion so while dust might have drifted in, I don’t think enough would have fallen to really demark historic periods in the same way that the collapse and leveling of a collection of mud brick and stone buildings would have. To have three distinct levels build up on the tell since the 13th Century seems unlikely to me, but Michener had a story to tell and there were three historical periods he had to cover after the Crusades, so…

In the final chapter Michener has an Israeli native (a Sabra) arguing with a rich American Jew and I have say I found the views of the American not being fairly represented. The American keeps going on about how the bigotry Jews have suffered over the centuries and even the Holocaust of just 20 years earlier could never happen again. I grew up in that period and, essentially these two characters are of my parents’ generation. I never heard either of them saying it could not happen again. In fact, just the opposite was true. They remembered the Holocaust and a time before Israel was a nation and told me frequently that this could happen again. And of course it could and likely one day will. If not to Jews (although I see nothing that makes that impossible) then to African Americans, to Muslims, to Buddhists or to anyone not in the majority. They will be set on for the differences in their religions, for the colors of their skin, for the clothing they wear, for being socially inept and anything else that makes them different. And the only thing that can prevent this from happening are people who step forward and say, “This will not be,” being willing to fight for the rights of the oppressed whether in words or violence. And in each generation this battle must be fought again. I wish that were not so – I honestly believe the world is full of good people – but the record, unfortunately shows a different story and it only takes one bully to start it all again. And perhaps that is what Michener was trying to say there.

In any case, as I said, this is a very good story, but if you are reading it for the first time, do take Chapters 2-6 with more than just a grain of salt as they are based on just-so stories that have since been proven inaccurate on many, although not all details. Once you get into the Hellenistic period, the story becomes more accurate, although we have learned many new details about that period since the 60’s too. In fact, we are constantly learning more about the past and gaining new insights are research continues, but for now at least, those later chapters still stand as snapshots of the times and places they depict. When you get right down to it, this is not a story about an archaeological site, but about the formation of Israel and the Jewish people in general. Do I agree with everything Michener says? Well, no, but it’s an old joke (that Michener alludes to at one point) that any time you get two Jews together you’ll get three opinions. An unfair stereotype? Yes, it is, but Judaism is a complex subject and one that has been interpreted in many ways over the centuries, so while I may not always agree, I do have to admit he is not wrong either.


The Audiobook:

Larry A. McKeever does a fine job of reading the book. There are no funny voices; we don’t hear Shylock in the voice of every  Jew (or any really). We don’t hear a heavy Irish accent in the voice of the Irish Catholic archaeologist or even an Israeli or Eastern European accent in any of the characters. In short, he reads the story clearly without actually trying to act it out, which is unusual in professionally produced audiobooks these days.

I found some of his pronunciations of obscure words sometimes a bit jarring, but they were cases in which there was more than one acceptable pronunciation and he just did not use the ones I was taught. Well, you have to accept that in an audiobook, really. So long as it is a valid way to say a word and the reader is consistent, then that’s as much as I feel I can ask from a reader.

So, all told, in spite of my gripes about having gotten the archaeology wrong early on (which is not Michener’s fault most of the time), this is a deeply moving story and a well written book and it is narrated to us in a clear and enjoyable manner. I still recommend it. Wow, I sure did have a lot of criticism for a story I liked, didn’t I?

This entry was posted in Audio Books, Books, Historical Fiction, HIstory. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to An Audiobook Review: A Story Thousands of Years in the Making…

  1. Don’t know why I missed this one. I was cleaning out my inbox and found it. Very interesting and informative, as usual

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