Treading the Pentateuch from Turkey to Egypt

A scholar confronts the desert in discovering the Bible

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Considering the bigness of the subject - studying and traveling the entire Fertile Crescent in relation to the first five books of the Bible - you have to hand it to American author Bruce Feiler for getting his arms around it at all. Not to mention his feet.

Feiler credits Israeli archeologist Avner Goren, who went with him on the journey, for helping to open doors all along the route. Avner "knew everyone within a thousand mile radius of Jerusalem," Feiler writes. "I never produced a name of someone I wanted to meet ... whom Avner couldn't deliver within 24 hours."

The resulting book, "Walking the Bible," blends the elements of a personal journal, an undergraduate lecture series, a conversation, and a long letter home. It's a multilayered epic played out in the lives, not only of our Biblical ancestors, but also, as Feiler's many contacts and interviews reveal, in the minds and hearts of a wide assortment of residents, pilgrims, academics, and desert dwellers of the modern Middle East.

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Feiler's manuscript, like the Torah, is in five books. He and Goren started in modern Turkey for the first chapters of Genesis, proceeded to locations in Israel associated with the patriarchs, then flew to Egypt for Moses' story. They located ancient sites in the Nile delta where the Israelites are thought to have labored as slaves. They traveled the shoreline of Lake Timsah, speculating about where Moses and the children of Israel may have crossed to the Sinai to begin their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness.

Then, after months in the Sinai and Negev Deserts, the two traveled north through Jordan, ending their journey by viewing the Promised Land, as Moses did, from the summit of Mount Nebo. At every place, they pulled out their Bibles to read the ancient stories together and to find new meaning in them. For Feiler, especially, the 10,000 mile trip became an unexpectedly emotional and transforming experience - a life-changing inner journey. "Like Jacob," he writes, "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.... I had reached the Promised Land - Israel - the place where one strives with God."

Feiler's prose style is consistently evocative, descriptive, emotionally honest, and often funny (despite the fact that his relentless Americanisms make you want to say, "Enough already!").

His most compelling writing by far is about the desert. For anyone wanting to know something of its terrifying strangeness, haunting beauty, and stark spirituality, as well as its possibilities for the future of Israel and the region, the second half of "Walking the Bible" offers a vicarious experience of disturbing power.

His description of his encounter with St. Catherine's monastery eerily evokes the other-worldly ambience of this vestige of medieval life in the Sinai.

Feiler elected to downplay the politics and harsher aspects of the Middle East conflict. Not that he fails to report the expressed views of some Arabs and Palestinians, as well as of Jewish settlers living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But the book as a whole conveys a certain obliviousness to the region's raw wounds and unhealed antagonisms.

It's also disappointing that Feiler didn't examine the validity of the idea that the disputed territories still belong, by divine bequest and covenant, to the Jewish people.

"Walking the Bible" offers fascinating insights on the ancient Near East as "the foundry out of which the Bible was forged." It also brings vividly to life the sights, smells, sounds, and colors of today's Fertile Crescent. Indeed, a well-chosen word can be worth a thousand pictures!

Freelance writer Linda Giedl divides her time between Boston and Denver.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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