The Source, by James A. Michener, is over 1,000 pages long and set in many different time periods, from 30,00 years ago to near-present day. I will attempt to be brief!
This book was recommended to me by my husband Dan as one that shaped his view of the world. He's read several of Michener's novels, but this one got him thinking about history, religion, and human development. After reading it, I completely understand why.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the book is its extensive scope. The story is framed by the tale of an archeological dig at a tell in Israel in the 1960s (when the book was published), and the other stories told range from the first gatherings of human beings into social groups, through history that we know very little about (Canaanite tribes, the early days of other groups in the region) up through periods of occupation by cultures we know something about (Babylon, Egypt) and those we know a lot about (Greece, Rome, Byzantium).
While politics rears its head at times, Michener seems far more interested in social development, religious development, and how people experienced both. It makes for compelling stories, and the author's readable style allows easy access to them, even if the tales set in the earliest eras can't help but feel anachronistic.
The most intriguing thing, to me, is the way Michener gets into his characters' heads. He spins fiction in sensible strands out of historical fact, according to science and logic. Yet he doesn't discard human experience of the divine, of religion and faith. The story of the first human conception that there might be a mind or a love beyond pure sensory experience swells with a sense of the numinous; the tale of a Hebrew prophetess hearing the voice of YHWH on her way home from the well steals the reader's breath.
I watched carefully to see if Michener would give away his own personal take on religion, where he thinks it comes from or why we create or experience it. He doesn't. Or rather, perhaps, he gives many possibilities, each tied to the experience of the characters in his stories. Humankind longs to connect with something beyond ourselves; we want to control our chaotic universe; we desire to live rightly, and so we seek to codify what is “right” and “wrong” and order our societies accordingly. Perhaps none of these are exclusive; the law and our desire to control and our mystical longings mix together until it's tough to tell which is leading us at any given moment.
One last note: I find it interesting that I chose The Source to read in the same year when my book group read Jerusalem: A Biography, and when my husband and I moved in with a Jewish couple for several months after a building fire. These sources all reinforced each other, and I feel I've learned a lot that I didn't know this time last year.