by Bruce Feiler. New York: William Morrow, 2005. ISBN 0-06-057487-9. Hb., 416 pp., $26.95.
For many of us the settings of the stories of Scripture never leave the black and white page; or they are confined to the imagination of our minds re-creating biblical scenes, or recalling the interpretation of countless Christmas pageants, Sunday School dramas, and Vacation Bible School reenactments. The sand of the desert never sifts into our shoes, because we’ve never been there. Even for those who have journeyed to the Middle East, the sites of many stories remain unidentified by imprecise texts, undetected due to the shifting sands of time, or inaccessible due to modern conflicts. In Where God Was Born Bruce Feiler chronicles his travels to Israel, Iraq, and Iran to seek out some of those places, and to explore the way faith was shaped there among Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Like his bestselling Walking the Bible: A Journey Through the Five Books of Moses, Feiler stands at the intersection of geography and biography, world history and his own history, archaeology and myth, politics and religion. He writes with a map in one hand, a newspaper in the other, and a Bible open before him. Each informs the others in significant and sometimes surprising ways. As he suggests, “The collision of politics, geography, and faith has dominated nearly every story in the Middle East since the birth of writing.”
The result is a fascinating and insightful tour of the Middle East that bounces back and forth between past stories and present realities. In this sequel to his initial journey through the five books of Moses, he reflects on the legacy of the monarchs and prophets who shaped faith in the lands through which he travels. In so doing, Feiler finds his own Jewish identity challenged and unexpectedly nurtured.
He begins in Israel amid the realities of razor wire and security checks and there explores the roots of the myths and monarchy of King David. Among the hills, archaeological digs, and water tunnels of Jerusalem he wrestles with how David was able to establish a kingdom in this barren place, follows its demise, and considers its significance then and now for the people of Israel. What emerges is less a portrait of David than an assessment of his impact. Feiler quotes a friend, Avner: “The lesson of the second half of the Bible (Hebrew Scriptures) is that physical land, political power, even the Temple, are not the ends for God’s people. Following God’s law is the goal.”
Feiler searches not only for information about the biblical figures and events; he looks for meaning in the biblical accounts in light of the geography and archaeology at hand, and considers possibilities to foster peace among the Jews, Christians and Muslims who inhabit the land together.
From Israel Feiler makes a daring journey into Iraq to explore the roots of civilization in Mesopotamia and the coming of age of the Bible in Babylon during the exile. His connection of the biblical narratives with the modern political realities, including both the rise and fall of Saddam Hussein, reminds us of the rich tradition and cultural contributions of a land and people who are better known to us today through the lens of a 21st century war. His description of the war zone is a grim reminder of the great treasure and peril coexisting in that corner of the world. He recalls the words of the prophets who spoke to the exiles of a new identity, and finds in them new insight into his own identity and hope for peace among the Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. “We don’t need to agree on everything. We need to find our principles — peace, love, justice, and tolerance. We need to realize the future belongs to God, not us,” Imam al- Ubaidy tells Feiler in a discussion in Baghdad.
From Iraq he journeys to Iran to explore the role of Persia and Zoroastrianism on the Hebrew Scriptures. The insights he offers are informative and bring renewed appreciation for the sovereign hand of God at work in all things and in all people across the ages. Feiler writes as a traveler and reporter, sharing his own observations and the keen insights of a host of interesting and notable people along the way. The result is an entertaining and stimulating journey that reminds us that we are more connected with one another and with our ancestors in faith than we may readily acknowledge. In those connections he finds hope — something we all cherish in this time and in this time of year.
JOHN C. PETERSON is pastor of Covenant Church, Staunton, Va.