Trekking the Holy Land: Bruce Feiler’s New Book, "Walking the Bible"
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RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses.” The author is Bruce Feiler. He recounts his odyssey through the three continents, five countries and four war zones of the modern Middle East in search of the roots of the biblical stories of the Hebrew scriptures.
RAY SUAREZ: What made you embark on this trip in the first place?
BRUCE FEILER, Author, “Walking the Bible:” About six years ago, I decided that as a writer I should be more conversant with the Bible. I hadn’t read it since I was a kid, which meant, as a practical matter, I hadn’t really read it, so I took the Bible off my shelf, put it by my bed, and sat there untouched for two years, making me feel guilty. Then in the summer of 1997, I went to visit an old friend in Jerusalem. And on my opening day, he gave a tour — he took me to this promenade overlooking the city, and he said over there is Har Hama, the controversial neighborhood, and over there is the rock where Abraham sacrificed Isaac. And, real or not, it hit me like a bolt of Cecil B. Demille lightning – it never occurred to me that this story so timeless and abstract actually was in a real place that could you visit and touch. And so I thought, well, here’s an idea. What if I travel along the route and read the Bible along the way? And that’s what I did.
RAY SUAREZ: Had you been a person who was religious, connected to these stories beforehand by conviction?
BRUCE FEILER: I grew up as a fifth-generation reform Jew in Savannah, Georgia. I was connected to the South as a place and connected to my religion, but it wasn’t particularly a spiritual connection. And in fact before I went on this trip, I spent a year in my home, my apartment, reading about 150 books on the Bible. And I remember when I met the archaeologist, Abner Davner, whom I traveled with on the start of my trip on our way to Turkey, I was there in my brand- new Banana Republic pants and my new boots and enough sun block for five years. And he was spilling out of his Bedouin trousers his sandals, and I thought, “all of my learning is in my head and all of his learning is in his feet.” And, if I had to put it into a sentence, that’s what I would say happened to me. I got out of the rational side of my brain and out of all that book learning, and my learning went to my feet by walking in the places themselves. I became very attached to the ground, and through that had a different way of reading the stories.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, that very rational reading that you talk about would say, you know, it doesn’t really matter whether it was this river or that mountain or this stream. What matters is the people, what they did, what they thought about what they did, and their relationship with God. It could have been anywhere. But you found something different, it seems.
BRUCE FEILER: `Well, actually I actually think that’s the non-rational position in a lot of ways, that particularly Americans and Europeans are obsessed with this question of proof– which mountain, which body of water? I found that the longer I traveled by being in the places, the stories did come alive. I’m thinking of an archeologist I met in Jerusalem who said to me, “you know, Americans seem to think if you can prove that two screws existed, you prove the entire machine existed.” I actually think that seems to be an American phenomenon. In the Middle East, no one ever told me that matters of proof matter to them. We are not going to prove it. We are not going to disprove it, it turns out. But I do think that the stories are alive, and for me that was an unrational sort of opening up that I had to do.
RAY SUAREZ: Yet some people who have written about places in the world where visions are common, where people have had religious experiences are common. Talk about sort of the membrane between the real world and being able to just pass through it into the transcendent, and that memory just seems thinner in some places in the world. When you were doing this traveling, did you sort of stop and think, you know, “if I was going to see God, this would be a pretty good place to see Him”?
BRUCE FEILER: I think that’s exactly what I feel about the desert. If you spend time in the desert, it is just remarkable. The light is so profound and the sense of unease, like, “how much water do I need to drink and how much food do I need to eat?” What happens is you first turn to someone else. Then you turn to the group around you. And ultimately you do turn to something or maybe someone else. And I do think that, as the archaeologist I was with, Davner, likes to say, “you can’t spend three days in the desert and not believe in God because you realize how at the expense of nature you are and how small and humble you are.” And that’s essentially what I’m trying to do here. Come spend a year in the desert with me and you will feel that membrane that you talk about disappear. And that’s what is so amazing. It is so different from reading the book at home or in a church or synagogue, to read it in the place where you suddenly feel the stories living in the ground.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, both the Jewish and Christian scripture are full of stories of people who go away from everybody else and then come back changed. Did you come back changed?
BRUCE FEILER: I think that I did come back changed. I think that on one level I think that what happened to me is that the beginning I said, “this is not about me and my religion. This is not about me and my God.” I was sort of, “don’t worry. It is not going to happen to me.” It didn’t take me long to realize that was self-protective folly. You couldn’t do what we did. I remember driving toward Ha’ran in Southern Turkey where God first speaks to Abraham, the dust coming off the ground. I thought I really wanted to jump out of the car and take off my clothes and roll around in the dirt. And what I feel is that there is a spirit in these places and the spirit in me and the two somehow met in the course of my travels. If that spirit is God, then I found God in the course of what I did. If that spirit is humanity, then I found humanity. If it is awe, then I found awe. Part of me suspects that it is all three and none can exist without the other.
RAY SUAREZ: You found respect for those stories even among people who wouldn’t necessarily be bound to the story of Moses and the people of Israel.
BRUCE FEILER: I think that’s right. I think of an example of being in the Sinai, meeting at Bedouin. In Sinai, there are a number of oases, and there are a couple of oases in the Southern Sinai that grow tamarisk trees. A tamarisk tree is a conifer. And in the springtime, the lice goes into these tamarisk trees, eats the salty bark and excretes a white sweet substance that falls to the ground and melts by midday, and the local Bedouin who are Muslim of course calls this “manna.” And you get the sense that the people in the area still feel the connection to that story, and I met a number of Muslims who definitely feel close to these stories. Even though they began in the Bible, many of them, of course, are repeated in the Koran. Everywhere we went, Ray, I asked the people the same question: What does the Bible mean to you? Bedouin, scholars, monks, Christians, pilgrims, Jews they all had an answer. To everybody we met, the Bible is not a living, breathing… It is not an abstract book gathering dust like on my shelf. It’s not that thing between those hard covers; it is a living, breathing entity. And that’s essentially what I tried to do here, which is uproot the Bible from those covers and replant it into the ground, into the second and third millennium from which it came.
RAY SUAREZ: But isn’t there also a risk making the Bible still a powerful book in placing the stories of the biblical era on to the reality of those countries, the geography of today in that part of the world?
BRUCE FEILER: I definitely think that so much of the fighting has to do with these stories. But I don’t think that there is necessarily… there is a risk in getting into the issue of who came first and trying to sort of make the connection because the bible says this, I politically today should have that. But I see no harm. In fact, I see great advantage to look at these places less in terms of the wars of the 20th century and more in terms of the second and third millennium. And just as an example, there was an empire in Mesopotamia, in the fertile crescent, and there was an empire down in Egypt. And God promised Abraham the mill because it was not occupied at the time. It is one of the crueler ironies of the Bible that this land, which has been notoriously difficult to control for the last 4,000 years became that way in part because it had been difficult to control for the preceding 4,000 years. The stories predate the Bible, and maybe that will lessen our desire to use the Bible or Koran to solve what is essentially a political problem and a geopolitical power issue today.
RAY SUAREZ: “Walking the Bible.” Bruce Feiler, thanks for being with us.
BRUCE FEILER: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.