Seeking answers (and adventure) in Bible lands

How the Old Testament might speak to today's conflicts

On his first trek into the deserts of the Middle East, Bruce Feiler says, he went seeking adventure but came back craving meaning. Fortunately for his readers, the bestselling author has a knack in his writings for delivering both.

Where God was Born is his third book exploring the roots of monotheism and their implications for today. It is at once a riveting journey through contemporary conflict zones in Israel, the West Bank, Iraq, and Iran, and a provocative analysis of the Bible considered in the broader context of its times.

Feiler asks if religion can help us to live together in the 21st century, or whether it is more apt to foster violence.

As a Jew, he turns to the Old Testament. But as he travels, he seeks insights from historians, archeologists, religious leaders, and ordinary folk of various faiths.

His last book, "Abraham," explored the possibility that the patriarch might serve as a bridge between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

This time Feiler follows the paths of the prophets who fill the second half of the Hebrew Bible. With Bible always in hand, he travels the ground from Joshua's entry into the Promised Land, through David's kingship in Jerusalem, to the Israelites' exile in Babylon and Persia.

"My goal was to replant the Bible stories into the ground from which they sprang and see if viewing them in the context of their time changed the lessons I gleaned," he says.

Feiler soon finds that some biblical themes are less unique to the Israelites than he had assumed, as sources reveal common ground with other cultures. He encounters adventures along the way, climbing ziggurats, dodging Iraqi bandits, plunging into Jerusalem's underground water tunnels.

After a dramatic airlift into Baghdad amid the Iraq war, he explores the cradle of civilization, from the purported site of the Garden of Eden, to Ur of the Chaldees, and the locale of the Babylonian captivity. There he determines that it was only when forced into exile that the Israelites realized that God was everywhere - and came to elevate the word of the text above rituals.

Feiler converses with a host of engaging characters, from US military chaplains to an Iraqi engineer who has returned from life in America to drain the southern marshlands that Saddam had flooded. ("The most beautiful place on earth apart from Yosemite," the engineer explains.)

At some personal risk, the author and his wife visit Persepolis in Iran (ancient Persia), home to the leaders who conquered Babylon and then freed the Israelites. This empire built a vast system of roads and canals extending to Egypt, invented the first postal system, and valued diversity and personal happiness.

"The grand idea at the heart of Second Isaiah bears striking similarity to the grand idea introduced by the Persian kings of the sixth century BCE. Morality is the highest calling of human conduct and happiness the ultimate reward," Feiler writes.

Such gleanings make "Where God Was Born" consistently pleasurable and thought-provoking. Still, it sometimes seems the author is sprinting through history, reinterpreting on the basis of brief encounters and, on occasion, with people who may not be the most appropriate guides. But this is a personal spiritual memoir, and Feiler bravely goes where most would not tread.

Given the first half of the Hebrew Bible's emphasis on the Promised Land, Feiler is surprised to come, step by step, to the conclusion that the second half teaches that living according to God's law is more important than living on the land.

"Morality is the central quality God seeks in humans," he determines, and "the highest cry of the prophets is that God belongs to everyone."

Since fundamentalists of all stripes use the Bible and other texts to press sectarian aims, Feiler places responsibility in the hands of moderates like himself for reinterpreting traditions and seeking accommodation. It's up to us, he says, to create our own ending to the Bible story.

Jane Lampman is on the Monitor staff.

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