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A Book Review: Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses

Walking theBible:  A Journey by Land Through theFive Books of Moses by Bruce Feiler is a book that I downloaded for free on my Kindle.  Whatever the advertising blurb was, it sounded interesting.  After all, it was about the Bible and it was free!

I know this post will be a bit long, but I need to process some of the things this book got me to thinking about, so here goes!

Mr. Feiler has a very engaging writing style. He has the rare ability of helping you imagine in your mind exactly what a place must look like, to make you feel like you’re there, experiencing it with him. For example, upon landing in Cairo, he writes, “The plane taxied to a stop on the tarmac and the door opened onto a slab of thick black air. Stepping on to the stairs, I felt the familiar slap of desert, like staring into a hair dryer.” Describing the traffic in Cairo he writes, “Streets have no particular distinction between where cars should be driven and where they should be parked. …[O]ne is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cars. Cars in the left lane going in one direction, cars in the right lane going in the same direction. Cars on the sidewalk going in the opposite direction. Cars in the middle parked.”

Because of his engaging and descriptive writing style, the book is easy to read and moves along at a good pace in spite of its length (451 pages, including appendixes at the end).  However, I think the book probably has a limited appeal.  If you are interested in archaeology, the Bible, history (especially ancient history…which explains modern history), the three major religions of the world (Judaism, Islam, Christianity), or travel you would enjoy the book.  If none of those interest you, this book probably isn’t for you.

In brief, Mr. Feiler undertakes a journey to visit the sites where the main stories of the Five Books of Moses take place.  His travel companion was Avner Goren, described as “a romantic, a child of the desert”.  He had been the chief archaeologist of the Sinai region and adds a lot to the story.  Along the fringes of the story is their driver.  The story actually takes place over a period of years and is numerous trips pieced together to make a coherent story.

Most fascinating to me is that Mr. Feiler sets out on this trip to gather facts.  He was born and raised Jewish, but did not consider himself religious.  His faith really meant little to him in his day to day life.
So he was surprised as he traveled and explored how his Jewish faith became meaningful to him.  He says, in explaining different theories people have put forth to explain the plagues:
     “It’s certainly easier to look for naturalistic explanations for seemingly inexplicable phenomena, especially considering the alternative, which would be to attribute them to divine intervention.  When I first started reading the Bible {and by Bible he is referring to the Jewish Old Testament, not including the New Testament} closely I, too, wanted – maybe even needed – to hide behind the screen of history, topography, science.  I was interested in the characters, by which I meant the patriarchs, their wives, Moses, the Israelites.  But in doing so, I was strenuously –at times acrobatically—avoiding showing interest in the central character of the entire book.  I did this, I was coming to see, because I deeply wanted to avoid thinking about that character, about what that character meant to the story, and about what that character might mean to me.  But in doing so, I was shielding myself from a principal storyline of the Bible:  the relationship between humans and the divine.
     “Not until I reached Exodus did I finally begin to recognize the futility of this exercise in self-delusion.  As it happens, the text itself reveals precisely what caused the ten plagues.  God caused them.  To miss that point is to miss the essence of the tale, the battle between the god of the Israelites and the gods of the Egyptians….”

It is sad to me, though, that while he recognizes the Bible to be the story of the central character, of God, and of His relationship to humans, he never seems to quite grasp the eternity of God and is never able to see the full picture of the story of God’s relationship to humans, the redemption offered by the death of His Son on the cross.  Still, I like the way he states that we don’t need a human explanation for much of what happens in the Bible.  The only plausible explanation is that God caused them, God did it, God was at work.

About the Bible itself, Mr. Feiler comes so close to understanding that it is divinely inspired, but never quite hits the nail on the head.  He says:
     “The Bible is not an abstraction in the Middle East, nor even just a book; it’s a living, breathing entity, undiminished by the passage of time.  If anything, the Bible has been elevated to that rare stature of being indefinitely immediate…. [T]he text is forever applicable.  It’s always now.
     “The ability of the Bible to continually reinvent itself is matched only by its ability to make itself relevant to anyone who encounters it.
     “…Put tautologically:  The Bible lives because it never dies.”
He then says, this doesn’t mean the stories are true or that the details are exact and then concludes, “The Bible lives today not because it’s untouchable but precisely because it has been touched – it has been challenged – and it remains undefeated.”

He also has an insightful section on the tension between Islam, which shares many of the same stories, and Jewish and Christian beliefs.  John and I have discussed this much and have come to the same conclusion.  Mr. Feiler is sitting one evening in a Bedouin tent discussing the Bible and the Koran with a group of Muslims and Jewish people.    They’re finding that the stories of the patriarchs often very widely.  For example, the Bible teaches that Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac while the Muslims say it is Ishmael.  The Bible teaches that Moses died on Mount Nebo and that his corpse was never found while the Koran teaches that his place of death is unknown.  During this discussion, Mr. Feiler is getting frustrated.
     “’Between the Koran and the Bible there is a difference over where Moses died,’ Mahmoud repeated.  ‘The Koran doesn’t say.’
     “’But the difference is bigger than that,’ I said.
     “’The main reference to Moses in the Koran –‘ Mahmoud started to say, but I cut him off.
     “’I know the story,’ I said a bit rudely.  ‘The point I want to make is this:  It’s not the same Moses. The Moses in the Bible and the Moses in the Koran are different people.’  Avner, who had been listening nearby, winced.
     “’You mean not physically, but their meaning?’ Mahmoud asked.
     “’Both,’ I said.  ‘We think it’s the same person, but it’s not.’
     “’You’ll never make it as a diplomat,’ Avner remarked dryly.
     “I know under the circumstances, that I should be more gracious, but I couldn’t help myself.  ‘I’m basing my opinion on the fact that for Moses in the Bible, the whole objective, the whole point of his life, is to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.  To get them to Israel.  Moses in the Koran does not have that.  The Promised Land is not even a factor; it’s not mentioned.  Of course, the Koran doesn’t want to glorify the land of Israel.  It wants to glorify Mecca and Medina.  Therefore, the whole reason Moses lived –according to the Bible – is not mentioned in the Koran.  They’re the same person, but they have different meanings.’
     “…We were dealing with stories, passed around campfires not unlike this one, and written down many years later.  And yet, in each version of the story, the details were different, therefore the meaning was different, therefore the lessons were different.
     “’But we’re talking about different books, different characters, different everything,’ I said.  ‘We may be people of the Book, but since they’re different books, we’re different people.’”
That’s exactly it!  We may have some basic things in common and that gives a good starting point for discussion, but their Abraham is not exactly our Abraham, their Moses is not exactly our Moses, and most importantly, their Allah is not exactly our God. 

Mr. Feiler’s final chapter was very helpful to me.  During the story of Moses, he struggles with something I’ve often wondered about.  In my human mind, it seems so cruel of God to not let Moses enter the Promised Land.  Moses was so faithful, so diligent, he put up with some much junk from the Israelites, and all he did wrong was strike that rock instead of speak to it.  It just seems a bit unfair, like the punishment is way bigger than the offense.  Well, first of all, who am I to say how God should or shouldn’t punish.  But this by Mr. Feiler is helpful to me.  He describes how God took him up on the mountain and showed him all of the Promised Land.  Now, physically speaking, even on the clearest of clear days, it would be impossible to see all of the Promised Land from on top of the mountain.  But, says Mr. Feiler:
“He is given the ability to see what no one else sees.  Denied entry, Moses actually gets more:  He gets prophetic vision, personally granted to him by God.  The Israelites will get the land, but they will continue to struggle with God.  Their leader, however, has fulfillment.  And he reaches this pinnacle not by looking out from the mountain.  For looking out will not show him what he sees….  The land alone is not the destination; the destination is the place where human beings live in consort with the divine.  Ultimately it doesn’t matter that what the Bible describes is impossible to see.  It doesn’t matter because Moses wasn’t seeing as we do.  At the end, he wasn’t even looking at the land.  He was looking where we should look.  He was looking at God.”

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