Walking the Bible
A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses
By Bruce Feiler
451 pages, hardcover, $39.50
Author Bruce Feiler has forged an enviable career by hanging out in interesting places – small-town Japan, Oxford and Cambridge, a circus, Nashville – and writing about them. His fifth book, Walking the Bible, starts with an ambitious premise – visiting the physical locations of the first five books of the Bible – and moves into the less-tangible territory of the human desire to connect with God. Along the way, he creates a work of magic.
Mr. Feiler, who is in his late 30s, was raised Jewish in Savannah, Ga. and now lives in New York City. In the first chapter of Walking the Bible, he notes that like so many of his contemporaries, he lost touch with both religious observances and the Bible, after leaving home at the end of high school.
Gradually, however, he realizes that “there was a conversation going on in the world around me that I wasn’t participating in.” Again, following a well-trod path, he decides in his early 30s to search for meaning in the Bible. But the task seems daunting – and he gives up.
One year, he travels to the Middle East and a friend casually points out a cliff where Abraham is said to have gone to sacrifice Isaac. “That piece of information hit me like a bolt of Cecil B. DeMille lightning,” Mr. Feiler writes. Suddenly, the idea of physically encountering the ideas and places in the Bible fires his imagination in a way that simply reading the words did not. “I would enter the Bible as if it were any other world ? I would walk in its footsteps, live in its canyons, meet its characters and ask its questions.” He also realizes, in that initial trip, that the Bible is a “living, breathing entity” in those places today, five thousand years after its first lines were written.
Like any classic adventure tale, Mr. Feiler’s story begins with discouragement from all sides. He’s told that there are few confirmed sites, that most of them are in war zones and many are supervised by archaeologists who would be about as glad to see him as a scorpion on a trowel. Then he and his entire book project are very fortunate to engage the services and the lively mind of Avner Goren, a renowned Israeli archaeologist, lecturer and “popularizer of biblical history.”
Together they begin their journey at daybreak on the banks of the Euphrates River in southern Turkey.
They follow the story of Noah to its logical place, Mount Ararat, in eastern Turkey, where Genesis said the ark landed, and explore the various theories about Noah’s ark and the flood. On their last day in Turkey, Mr. Feiler realizes “that this trip had begun to affect me some place deep in my body ? it was someplace so new to me that I couldn’t locate it at first.” He is, he says, feeling the land so deeply within his soul that it seems to have been part of his DNA.
The two men travel through the Negev desert, into Egypt – site of the Israelites’ enslavement – and back toward Israel through the Sinai, tracing the Israelites’ great trek through the desert to the Promised Land.
Mr. Feiler, who had actively avoided the idea that he might be making a spiritual journey, gradually enters the text and allows the text to enter his heart.
Elements of his story will be familiar to anyone who engages religious faith. At one point, he realizes that being interested in the Bible isn’t necessarily a sign of naivete, but “a sign of health – and maturity.”
Setting aside the moments of wet-behind-the-ears discovery, Mr. Feiler’s lively writing style, talent for amusing and evocative description and narrative drive succeed in making the Bible exciting.
He ably transmits that excitement to the reader. His personal journey, in the end, has much to say to the contemporary mind. He does not experience a blinding revelation, a sudden desire to return to Manhattan and fall on his knees, or wander the deserts of the Holy Land.
“Like Jacob, I felt as if I had touched the two arms of the Fertile Crescent and engaged in a struggle that I never set out to have,” he writes. Trying to find God, he realizes, is the goal. For him, the original meaning of Israel, “striven with God” is the true significance of the Promised Land.