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BOOK REVIEW

Trek Through Holy Land Is a Revelation

WALKING THE BIBLE A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses By Bruce Feiler; William Morrow; $26, 452 pages

April 07, 2001|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Trekking through the Holy Land in search of biblical history is a tradition that goes back at least as far as the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine. Even Mark Twain tried it in "Innocents Abroad." Still, Bruce Feiler's "Walking the Bible" is a worthy addition to the literature: smart and savvy, insightful and illuminating, all at once.

"Our goal was to place the biblical stories in the historical and cultural context of the ancient Near East," Feiler explains of himself and his fellow traveler, Avner Goren, a popular Israeli archeologist who comes across as a kind of updated Jewish version of Carlos Castaneda's Yaqui wise man, Don Juan. "Time and again, rather than focus on every story in the text, or even every interesting story in the text, we decided to concentrate on stories that could be enhanced by being in the places themselves."

A walking tour through the Middle East has always presented its own perils, but the region is an especially unsettled place nowadays. Feiler worries about the secret police in Turkey, for example, and he engages in a stare-down with a frontier guard with "gel in his hair and three stripes on his sleeve" on the border between Israel and the West Bank. He discovers that the Jewish community in Hebron routinely tests its drinking water for poison, and, remarkably, that it is illegal to bring a Bible to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem: "They worried about fanatics," Goren tells Feiler.

Politics, in fact, intrudes at every moment. The Palestinian Arabs, Feiler reports, claim the ancient Canaanites as their ancestors: "That supports our rights on this land," says one Arab official at the site of biblical Shechem. But they are only following the example of several generations of Israeli archeologists for whom "archeology was more than a science; it was a way to justify Israel's existence."

"Walking the Bible" does not confine itself to the Holy Land. Feiler ranges as far afield as Mt. Ararat in Turkey and the pyramids of Egypt. But the Bible is always the touchstone of his travels. While visiting the Suez Canal, for example, and wondering whether Moses and the Israelites might have passed the same spot on their way out of Egypt, he plops down and pulls out his Bible. At the same moment, Goren reminds him of a much more recent event that happened in the very same place.

"I was here under heavy shelling many times," says Goren, "In the 1973 war, one of the worst mortar fights was not far from here. I lost many friends."

Feiler, not unlike Twain, brings a sharp sense of humor to the whole endeavor. "Almost since the Bible first appeared, stories of sightings of Noah's ark have been a staple of Near Eastern lore," he points out, "making it, in effect, the world's first UFO."

Even when he appears to concede the possibility that the biblical text is literally true, Feiler points out the awkward facts that suggest otherwise: The bottom deck of the ark, for example, must have been empty "because, according to zoologists at the San Diego Zoo, during their year aboard the ark, the animals would have generated 800 tons of manure."

Now and then, however, Feiler pauses to reflect on such sober subjects as the nature of God, the use and abuse of true belief, the unhappy marriage of religion and politics, and the intimate spiritual dimension of a desert sojourn. But even the moments of introspection seem somehow appropriate. After all, from Moses to Jesus to Muhammad, a sojourn in the wilderness has always been the occasion for spiritual transformation.

"The Middle East was by far the most severe place I had ever been in; and within that, the Sinai was the harshest stretch," writes Feiler in a moment of intimate self-revelation. "It's as if the act of mapping the land was forcing me to remap my own internal geography, suddenly taking into account a broader range of feelings than I had ever previously explored--deeper canyons of confidence, perhaps, but also wider expanses of uncertainty and higher elevations of need."

"Walking the Bible" can be approached as a survey of Bible scholarship and the enterprise that used to be called "biblical archeology," an eyewitness report on the politics of the modern Middle East and a charming travel memoir by a gifted raconteur.

But the book always reminds us that the sacred writings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not merely works of theology. "In the Middle East, I realized, the Bible is not some abstraction, nor some book gathering dust," explains Feiler. "It's a living, breathing entity unencumbered by the sterilization of time."

Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to the Book Review, is the author of "The Harlot by the Side of the Road," "Moses, A Life," and, most recently, "King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel."

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