(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Bruce Feiler has taken an amazing journey, and he has written a rather long book describing it. In a project conceived on a visit to Jerusalem, the author wanted somehow to enter into the world of the Bible by traversing the itineraries of its first five books—the books of Moses, or the Pentateuch.

Feiler realized at the beginning of his planning that he was not up to the task. Even with extensive background reading, he knows too little about the history and archaeology of the ancient world of the Bible to find his way on his own. Perhaps more important, he knows too little about the modern world corresponding to that ancient world to make his way on his own. So he did the smart thing: He found a first-class guide. Feiler managed to get Avner Goren, a well-known Israeli archaeologist, to go with him.

What follows is an account of “a perilous, ten-thousand-mile journey, retracing the Five Books of Moses through the desert . . . through three continents, five countries, and four war zones . . .” It is alternately an informative travelogue and a stirring personal journey of faith. At times, it may also be somewhat tedious and repetitive, depending on the reader’s familiarity with and interest in the subject matter.

Feiler has a few interrelated themes that run throughout the book. One of these themes is making a visceral connection with the land of the Bible. Another is the way the Bible is related to that land beyond purely historical events. At the beginning of his trip, visiting Mount Ararat where Noah’s ark is purported to have landed, Feiler states that “the Bible may or may not be true, it may or may not be historical, but it is undoubtedly still alive.” There in Turkey, as well as in various other places throughout the journey, Feiler has an almost mystical experience with the land which in the end leaves him changed, one could even say converted.

Feiler also carries on a running theological discussion with Goren about many things: the historicity of the Bible, the nature of God, and the possibility of inclusion in the context of the diverse interests of the Middle East. Feiler moves slowly from wanting to prove or disprove the Bible on the basis of archaeology to a more sophisticated notion of what the Bible is about and how it was put together. He comes not only to tolerate but to appreciate how oral tradition and an ancient concern for putting history in the service of theology, or the transmission of values, combine to produce texts which are, to modern sensibilities, a strange mix of the historical and the mythical. Feiler obviously struggles with this throughout his journey, and in the end he defends the Bible as having what scholars sometimes call verisimilitude, or a likeness to what might be expected from a given historical period. As Feiler says, “This doesn’t mean the stories are true, but it does mean they are true to their era.”

From Turkey, the travelers make their way first to Israel, then to Egypt, then to the Sinai and Negev deserts, and finally to Jordan, again on the edge of the Promised Land of the Bible. In so doing they follow the path (or part of it) of the wanderings first of the patriarchs, then of the people of Israel as recounted in Genesis. Feiler retells the stories of the Bible, or more precisely, he summarizes them. This both directly connects his travels with the Bible (one of his objectives), but also helps the reader unfamiliar with the Bible to follow the reasoning behind the itinerary. Unfortunately for those already familiar with these stories, the summaries are not as interesting as are the texts themselves, and it is easy to get details wrong. Feiler relates that Jacob worked for a second seven years for his trickster uncle Laban before he could marry Rachel, but the text states (Genesis 29:27-30) that although Jacob did indeed have to work another seven years for his favorite wife, he was able to marry her after only a week of marriage to Leah, the older daughter Laban had substituted in place of Rachel for the first seven years of...

(The entire section is 1647 words.)