The Source: A Novel

by James A. Michener

Hardcover, 1965



An archaeological excavation of Tell Makor launches a journey into the history and culture of the Jews that includes the early Hebrews, the impact of Christianity, the Spanish Inquisition, and the modern Middle East conflict.

Library's rating


(636 ratings; 4.1)

User reviews

LibraryThing member cleverusername2
Years ago my mother gave me a copy of The Source by James A. Michener, telling me that it was one of her favorite books and that it changed her perspective on the world. Of course when someone you love tells you something like that you've got to eventually read it, right? This is particularly the case if that person is your mother. Like most Michener Joints it’s a sprawling historical fiction epic weighing in at a respectable 1200 pages or so even in paperback. It starts off telling the tale of an archaeological excavation of a small peninsula in modern Israel. This up cropping of rock has apparently been the site of city-states and citadels since pre-historic times. There are a lot of neat points about archeology, but the real gist of the story is how the Irish-Catholic dig supervisor is introduced to the culture and peoples of modern Israel. There’s a lot of talk on politics and religion, a very ham fisted love story added in for good measure. This takes place in 1967, when the book was written, so the Jewish characters are still full of nationalistic fervor left over from the war for statehood, not yet jaded by events like the Munich Olympics or the Yom Kippur war. I found most of them one-dimensional to a fault. I’m trying to stay open minded, but it’s impossible to have a story about Israel without taking sides in one way, and there’s a lot of propaganda to wade though.

This takes up about the first tenth of the novel. The next chapters examine one of the artifacts that were found and illustrated by the archaeologists and the reader is taken back to the time that artifact was created and still in use and we learn the story of the people who used it. The first "flashback" goes back to about 7,000 B.C. where a tribe of "cave men" are living under the rock formation, prospering on the whims of the nearby well. The patriarch of the tribe takes a kidnapped woman from a more advanced tribe (they live in houses!) as a wife and she teaches the hesitant hunter how to plant wheat. Michener kind of dates himself here because we know from recent finds like the Iceman found in the Alps that prehistoric people were more advanced than he gives credit. James really shows his conservative politics in later chapters dealing with the Canaanites and the early Hebrews. I was like "Okay, okay! I get your point; Astarte, fertility goddesses, and feminine worship Bad, as they NATURALLY lead to sacred prostitutes that put strain and jealousy into marriages. I see now, pantheon BAD, naturally they lead to child sacrifice; monotheism GOOD. You don’t need to constantly rub my nose in it." A few chapters seemed almost unbearably stogy and paternalistic, even though they were still interesting because you don’t find a lot of novels written in that time period. Did I mention G-d is a character in many of the chapters? Or at least there’s at least one character in three of four of the chapters whom think He speaks to him. Yeah, wonderful.

I have found it common with Christian writers who write about Jewish subject that they give a lot of lip service but secretly harbor a lot of anti-Semitic attitudes. Where I am in the middle of this book really brought that across. Michener tries to give his main characters as much of a sympathetic light has he can, but he’s constantly emphasizing their negative qualities. Every time they say something or do something he uses terms like the fat Jew, the stubborn Jew, the bald Jew, the bearded Jew, the clumsy Jew, the foolish Jew; on and on. In the chapter where Hellenistic Greeks rule the city this becomes eminently distracting, as he’s always talking about how strong and beautiful the Greek men are. In an explosion of homoerotic exposition the Greeks are constantly wrestling, running, bathing, rubbing hot oil on themselves and lounging around. They are more often naked than not, and James is always comparing their penises one of the circumcised athletes. Grecian Penises Everywhere! Then he goes to great lengths to portray how the leader of the Jewish community is none of these things, how he’s always dressed in heavy robes, has a beard, is sallow-skinned and unathletic. I just had to put the book down for a few weeks. The next chapter on Herod was interesting, but I needed a break. I know it’ll get really interesting when the Crusader castle is built on the ruins of the city-state, but I’ll bide my time.
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LibraryThing member refice
I opted to read this novel because the premise sounded like one I would enjoy. I had read two previous novels by Michener. Centennial was one of my favorite books of all times. Conversely, I so intensely hated The Drifters that in protest I refused to read the last 20 pages. I figured The Source couldn’t be any worse than The Drifters and was maybe as good as Centennial. In reality, my enjoyment fell somewhere between the two.

For me, parts of the book dragged – a lot! No thousand page novel can afford to drag much. Thankfully I found most parts sufficiently readable to keep pressing forward.
The story was less cohesive than the traditional saga I had anticipated. I’m not criticizing it for this reason; simply stating that the story was not what I expected. I was frequently unable to differentiate fact from fiction. I found myself wondering from time to time whether a passage was historically accurate or drawn from Michener’s rich imagination.

Nevertheless, the story has evoked unexpected reflection in me. While reading the novel I found myself listening more intently to the Old Testament readings in church. Michener did an outstanding job of conveying insight into what being a Jew represents. No matter how religious or secular an individual Jew is, he or she inherits the collective history of a singular people. For some reason, I find that both ennobling and humbling. I gained an awareness of the contention between the political state of Israel and the spiritual responsibilities of Judaism. Is an Israeli a patriot first, or a Jew first?

I was appalled and embarrassed by the Catholic Church’s oppression of the Jews during the Middle Ages. (I wanted that part to be fiction knowing full well it was spot on accurate.) As a Christian I bear a personal sense of shame, just as I do a white person towards slavery, or would-be settler towards Native Americans.

While my feelings towards it are ambivalent, the book was worth the time.
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LibraryThing member opinion8dsngr
A sweeping look at several eons of history at a location a short distance away from Jerusalem with an interesting connective main story/theme, James Michener’s book can certainly be described as impressive. The central theme is that of an archeologist looking for love and the stories behind the artifacts he finds having subtle influences on his modern (1964) life. Though some of the stories seem a bit contrived, or emotionally unrealistic (especially in the more modern tales) they are for the most part interesting. There is a major plot hole in the whole thesis of the book based on the role of ancestry, but it is very possible to let that slide.
If anything, the book is an interesting read to gain a new, often unlooked at, history of how the major religions have interacted in the past and what, in 1964, the author thought could be their futures. Thankfully he was wrong about one branch of speculation (future Nazi-like Holocaust), but it is also tragic that his other vision (an Israel where all ethnic/religious groups are treated equally and human rights in a foundation for a nearly Utopic society) has not come to pass. I wonder what the author would say about the current conditions of the area. I'd love to read a contemporary epilogue.
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LibraryThing member saturnloft
Artifacts found at an archaeological site in Israel provide the foundations for a series of fictional snapshots into the region's history. The time-span covered is ambitious in the usual Michener fashion, from Neolithic times up into the 1960s. The focus is mostly on the Jewish peoples, but some time is given to early pre-Judaic religions, pagan Romans, Christianity, the Crusaders, and Islam.

Michener is a master at making the grand sweep of human history accessible, but sometimes in order to do this he simplifies things somewhat. It seems especially noticeable in this book. Some of the characters lack depth. The female characters are particularly one-note. But then again, he has to cover a lot of territory, so...

The human drama seemed somewhat repetitive from section to section, but the historical details were quite fun. I especially liked the story of building the underground tunnel to secure the town's water source. It was obviously based on Hezekiah's tunnel in Jerusalem, an amazing engineering feat given the primitive technology at the time. Other portions borrow from Josephus's writings to provide further authenticity. The history stuff is good. The actual fiction is just okay.
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LibraryThing member PaulDewberry
My all time favourite book weaving the story of the Holy Land through the millenia. The core story of a modern day archaelogical dig at Tell Makor is expertly supplemented with flashbacks to the time in which they are digging. The continuous theme, set around the family of UR, helps put the story in context and immerses the reader in the story.
Highly recommend
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LibraryThing member jpsnow
Michener once again provides a journey of thousands of years in about a thousand pages. This story revolves around the excavation of Tell Makor, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee. It takes the reader through about 10 civilization and times, tied together by the layers they form in the tell, and a family descended from Ur. The primary theme is man's relationship with God and culture. Michener portrays how cultivation of land led to reliance on gods, how Judaism led to monotheism, and especially how Jewish culture has been formed by their exile, return, and by those who never left. The role of women in family, in religion, and as social fabric is also prevalent. I could also see how Michener drew on his research for this as material for the Israeli character in The Drifters. As always, you leave his story feeling like you've lived part of several other lives and learned a lot in the process. One quote I noted: (p402): "The English and Greeks developed sports. The Romans and the Americans degenerated them into spectacles. And the Arabs and Jews said to hell with the whole silly mess."… (more)
LibraryThing member Jamie638
I disagree with the previous two reviewers. I think The Source is the greatest historical novel ever written. It is nothing less than the story of Judaism and the concept of monotheism told from prehistoric times to the present (1964). This is accomplished in vignettes involving both real and fictional characters that are centered on cataclysmic events which changed the way we believe and think. The book is essential reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member d29e30
A very complete book of Jewish history told in story form. Fascinating and beautiful prose. One of my favorite books.
LibraryThing member TadAD
I think this is the best of his "history of such-and-such from the Year 1 onward" books.
LibraryThing member dandelionroots
Follows an archeological dig in the Holy Land with short, interconnected stories for each level/time period discovered tracing the history of Judaism and the introduction of Christianity and Islam into the area. I suppose I will never understand religion for this work only served to intensify all its negative attributes without balancing it with anything positive (which I'm inclined to believe means there is little to no positive influence to be had). I think I may give Michener another try, but on a different topic.… (more)
LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
Michner tackles the Holy Land--and does it quite well.

James Michner is like the Michelin Guide to historical events and places. He gives you enough information, in novel form, to set you off looking for the "real story." He does that little slice of land we currently call Israel justice, in terms of covering the vast number of people and religions who have settled there. I first read it as a newly minted fundamentalist Christian, and have come back, with greater appreciation many times.

Michner is a great story teller. His characters tend to be cardboard characters whose main purpose is to keep the plot going, but there are enough plots to keep your interest over 800 pages. And the characters are a bit better in this book than in some others. (Not as good as in The Drifters, but better than Hawaii or Alaska.)

I recommend this for people who want an 800+ page thumbnail sketch of the Holy Land, its peoples and its history.
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LibraryThing member santhony
Disappointing considering the rich possibilities provided by the subject.
LibraryThing member ElTomaso
An excellent epic historical novel, one of James Michener's very best, about the evolution of religion in the area once known as Palestine.
LibraryThing member Lucylocket
I read this book years ago -and must raed it again before I write more. It is centred around a group of archeologists on a dig in Israel - but has flash backs to all the other periods in history which have links with the site. I remember the best part being the historical flash backs - the modern characters are rather thin.
LibraryThing member herbcat
Good job by the author in trying to collect rabbinic thought and philosophy and tie and contrast that to other religions and gods. Lots of new understanding for me. The first half of the book is very, very slow, and the book is long.
LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
This is not really a "Novel" it is an anthology linked by the location. Various characters, and several historical eras are bound together. the book contains a bit about archaeology, and a good deal about the Zionism of the 1800 and 1900's. It is entertaining enough for most Michener fans.
LibraryThing member piersanti
The beginning was interesting, but the "historical" part was not nearly as exciting as it should have been.
LibraryThing member turtlesleap
Not my favorite of the Michener novels but one of the best in terms of the sheer amount of information conveyed. If you've ever read Michener, you don't need this review. If you haven't, you should. His novels are daunting but satisfying in that you can truly immerse yourself in another world. Because his research is so painstakingly thorough, and because he manages to pack much of it into the novel without boring the reader, hi work also allows you the privilege of learning while reading fiction.… (more)
LibraryThing member gypsysmom
I wrote this review in 1969 for a school assignment.

The Source is the type of book one reads until three in the morning. It is lengthy, exciting, and written by one of America's best authors.

It's a story of ancient and modern-day Israel. It takes place at an archeological dig at a 'tell' where people have lived since creation. The Source takes us into every level of civilization explaining how people lived in a story. The main character, if there is one, is the foreman of the dig, an Irish Catholic named Cullinane. His experiences on the dig give him a greater insight into the Jewish way of life, not only from his assisstants but also from the ruins which slowly evolve into Judaism. He does things a good Catholic never woud; sings in the synagogues, falls in love with a Jewish girl, visists Jewish sacred places.

This book can be deeply moving. It is something like the Bible only more related to our times. It tells of miracles and crucifixions, prophets and war, laws and punishment.

I have, through this book, grown to understand the jews more. I know now why they will not eat pork or travel on the Sabbath. It is a fabulous, although archaic religion and I think it is good to understand such things. I cannot say I laughed or cried when I read it but I thought about it for days on end and I think that is the measure of a good book.
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LibraryThing member breic
Not my favorite Michener, neither the history nor the characters. The he way he ties it all together is impressive, still.
LibraryThing member parp
I happened to read this book right after my attempt to read Murakami's 1Q84. What a difference! While in 60 pages of 1Q84 I did not learn anything interesting, in Michener's book I've learned something new practically on every page.
LibraryThing member Tess_W
This is my 5th Michener read and I would say it's right about in the middle of reading enjoyment. This book is an excellent "history" lesson (as are all Michener books" for those who don't like the oft dry history reads. I was mesmerized for about the first 600 pages, then the crusades began to drag out and read like a history book. All in all though, this was a fantastic read and clarified in novel form what I knew from my history studies.… (more)
LibraryThing member dickcraig
One of my favorite Michener books.



Random House (1965) 909 pages

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