The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism
By Regina M. Schwartz
Univ. of Chicago Press
211 pp.; $22.95

If the power of a book is measured by its ability to keep readers captive and stimulate thought, Regina M. Schwartz has written a powerful book. Some of its power lies in the accessible and often intriguing style, characterized by strong metaphors and stark contrasts. But style will captivate and stimulate only if it keeps offering treasures of content.

The treasure of Schwartz's book is that of a provocation. No doubt the book will make some people furious, partly because, for all its fundamental flaws, it exposes a disturbing underside of lived monotheistic faiths. Even after the dust kicked up by a strenuous debate with her has settled, her main thesis will continue to challenge both Christian thought and practice. What about the Canaanites? What about all those peoples slaughtered so that God can offer the infant Israel, just born out of the Egyptian slavery, a land flowing with milk and honey?

With these disturbing questions, Schwartz sets out on a journey to explore "the biblical sources" of national conflicts, racial hatreds, and ethnic divisions. At the center of her interest lies the relation between monotheism and identity. The subtitle states her thesis most tersely: "The Violent Legacy of Monotheism." She explains, "Whether as singleness (this God against the others) or totality (this is all the God there is), monotheism abhors, reviles, rejects, and ejects whatever it defines as outside its compass." Given that the belief in one God "forges identity antithetically," it issues in a mistaken notion of identity ("we are 'us' because we are not 'them'") and contributes to a violent practice ("we can remain ...

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