The Source (novel)

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The Source
First edition
AuthorJames A. Michener
IllustratorJean-Paul Tremblay
Cover artistGuy Fleming[1]
CountryUnited States
GenreHistorical novel
PublisherRandom House
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)

The Source is a historical novel by James A. Michener, first published in 1965. It is a survey of the history of the Jewish people and the land of Israel from pre-monotheistic days to the birth of the modern State of Israel. The Source uses, for its central device, a fictional tell in northern Israel called "Makor" (Hebrew: "source"‎). Prosaically, the name comes from a freshwater well just north of Makor, but symbolically it stands for much more, historically and spiritually.

Unlike most Michener novels, this book is not in strict chronological order. A parallel frame story set in Israel in the 1960s supports the historical timeline. Archaeologists digging at the tell at Makor uncover artifacts from each layer, which then serve as the basis for a chapter exploring the lives of the people involved with that artifact. The book follows the story of the Family of Ur from a Stone Age family whose wife begins to believe that there is a supernatural force, which slowly leads us to the beginnings of monotheism. The descendants are not aware of the ancient antecedents revealed to the reader by the all-knowing writer as the story progresses through the Davidic kingdom, Hellenistic times, Roman times, etc. The site is continually inhabited until the end of the Crusades when it is destroyed by the victorious Mameluks (as happened to many actual cities after 1291) and is not rebuilt by the Ottomans.

Chapter list[edit]

  1. The Tell – 1963, three archeologists, a Jew, a Catholic, and a Muslim, are at a modern archeological dig. The story moves back and forth between the historical chapters and the modern dig at the tell at Makor.
  2. The Bee-Eater (Level XV, 9831 BCE) – Introduction to the Ur family in Stone Age times and their first move into an agricultural society.
  3. Of Death and Life (Level XIV, 2202 BCE) – Starting prior to 2000 BCE, the concept of an ultimate supreme being takes root with the introduction of the Cult of El, as are some barbaric and mystic practices, like child sacrifice and temple prostitution.
  4. An Old Man and His God – Bronze Age, an early view of Hebrews as they moved from the desert life into Canaan and brought along the early teachings of El Shaddai. Makor is sacked by the Hebrews in 1491 BCE.
  5. Psalm of the Hoopoe Bird – Takes place 1040–970 BCE, during the last years of King David.
  6. The Voice of Gomer – Takes place 605 BCE – 562 BCE. Following the Egyptian defeat at the Battle of Carchemish, Nebuchadnezzar II marches into the Levant and deports the Jews to Babylon.
  7. In the Gymnasium – 222–187 BCE, Jewish life under the Seleucid Empire.
  8. King of the Jews – 74 BCE – 4 CE: this chapter is told in epistolary form and describes the rise of the ambitious Herod the Great to his eventual downfall into madness.
  9. Yigal and His Three Generals – 12-70 CE: this chapter begins with rule of the mad Caligula and his attempt to force idolatry on the Jews. After his death, he was replaced by the madder Nero, who ordered Vespasian to repress Josephus and the Jewish rebellion.
  10. The Law – This chapter takes place after the Empress Helena's pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Christianity is being forced in Galilee as churches are mass-produced. This chapter is about two Jews who convert to Christianity due to the strictness of the Talmud (during this time the Gemara is being written), but are soon disenfranchised by the Christian Schism. This chapter is also the fictional origin of St. Mark.
  11. A Day in the Life of a Desert Rider – This chapter begins with the introduction of Islam to the Holy Land by Muslim conquests.
  12. Volkmar – This chapter opens with Peter the Hermit as he travels the European countryside in search of participants for the ill-fated People's Crusade. It concludes with the First Crusade and the Siege of Jerusalem.
  13. The Fires of Ma Coeur – In 1291, the last crusader strongholds begin to fall to the Mamaluks. The final stronghold is Acre.
  14. The Saintly Men of Safed – This chapter focuses on the three Rabbis who meet in Safed while escaping the Spanish Inquisition and European pogroms, and their culture clashes between Sephardim, Ashkenazim and Kabbalistic traditions.
  15. Twilight of an Empire – In the 1880s the Ottoman Empire is falling apart and this chapter delves into the deep corruption in the public administration and Sultan Abdul Hamid II's backlash at reform.
  16. Rebbe Itzik and the Sabra – 1948 – The new state of Israel starts to emerge. This chapter deals with the origins of two characters in the present day narrative – Ilan Eliav and Vered Bar El.
  17. The Tell – culmination of the novel and rediscovery of the well built and described in the previous chapter Psalm of the Hoopoe Bird.

Recurring symbols and themes[edit]

Fertility/The phallic[edit]

In the early civilizations, the concept of fertility sprouts from agriculture and the desire for a fruitful harvest. During the earliest layer of history, the giant stone idol named El is created to please the earth and bring good crops.

As society moves away from a rural and agricultural existence, fertility is given less and less importance. The phallic is present from the Stone Age ("The Bee Eater"), until 606 BCE ("The Voice of Gomer").


Later, as modern Judaism begins to take form, the theme of dedication and tenacity is brought forward again and again. The final words of many of the book's characters are of prayer; they are defending their religion with their life. As anti-semitism becomes more prevalent, this theme grows stronger, as if to show the strength of the faith that the Jewish people hold.