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February 16, 2006

Book Review: Where God Was Born by Bruce Feiler

I actually read this a while ago, and the review has been up at Blogcritics, but I got a search engine hit from someone looking for a critique of the book, and realized I'd never posted the review here. I enjoyed the book, though Feiler is far from evangelical in his conclusions. In fact, by the end of the book I was convinced that he'd embraced Zoroastrianism, but he never actually comes out and says it. Here's my review, as it appeared on the first of November last year:

Bruce Feiler's Where God Was Born takes us on a journey that is both physical and spiritual. Physically, we follow Feiler as he explores Israel in search of Biblical locations, map in one hand, Bible in the other. Spiritually, we accompany Feiler as he tries to rediscover the spiritual peace he found after his first book, Walking the Bible.

From the outset, we encounter an Israel that is very diferent from the one we see in Feiler's other books. His group is beset with obstacles thrown up by the Israeli Army in the name of 'security.' He encounters victims of suicide bombings first hand. He is watched by armed gunmen (Israeli and Palestinian) everywhere he goes.

The journey starts with the seath of Moses and the conquest of Canaan. We see Joshua's battles from the perspective of Yoram Yair -- one of the most decorated generals in Israel's history. He gives us a valuable perspective, especially on the battle of Jericho. We then follow the life of David, from shepherd to hero to renegade, revolutionary, possibly even terrorist, to (finally) king of a unified nation. We wade through the tunnels under Jerusalem, following in the footsteps of Biblical archaeologists like Edward Robinson, Charles Warren, even Montague Parker and Father Hughes Vincent. We encounter the vertical shaft that David allegedly used to invade the city of Jerusalem, and find ourselves wondering exdactly how he did it. We see David's failings and shortcomings, and find ourselves relieved that he was, after all, human.

Feiler then turns from the political center of the nation to it's spritual center -- the Temple Mount.

"What if we try to circumnavigate the Temple Mount?"
"It can't be done. It's too dangerous"
"So where do we start?"
We learn a great irony -- while Jews and Christians are incensed that the Muslims have co-opted their sacred site at the Temple Mount, David did the same thing with an existing Jebusite sacred site when he selected the location for the Temple. Feiler reminds us that "religious rights and wrongs cannot be refereed by claiming first dibs," -- something that should be remembered when considering the conflict in the Middle East. Feiler elsewhere notes that, in the Bible, it isn't living in the land that is important -- it is living in obedience to God in the land. Christians who pledge their unconditional loyalty to the current secular state of Israel would do well to remember that.

We also see that, as magnificent as Solomon's temple seems to us, it wasn't significantly different from other contemporary religious structures. It's as if the point is to teach us that God's greatness isn't proclaimed by the grandeur of the buildings we build for Him. We also see the problems that politics can create for archaeologists, especially around the highly-charged Temple Mount -- even to the point of creating buildings that are structurally unstable in order to keep others off the mount.

As if exploring the Temple Mount area wasn't dangerous enough, Feiler decides to head to Babylon -- modern day Iraq. He looks to the land of Israel's exile, where the leaders weren't judges or kings, but the prophets. Feiler spends a good bit of time in the book exploring the Babylonian connection, and he ties the beliefs and traditions of the Babylonians in to the creation of the faith that we know today as Judaism -- though there is still a lot of discussion among scholars as to how much influence there really was.

The theme that seems to run through each of Feiler's books is a quest for unity in the midst of diversity. Feiler treats the Bible with great respect, often skewering liberal criticisms of the texts, but just as often questioning conservative interpretations. Each time I read one of his books, I gain a greater appreciation for the Biblical texts that I hadn't before. I don't always agree with Feiler's interpretations or decisions regarding the text, but I always find his assertions to be thought provoking. And that is far more important.

Posted by Warren Kelly at February 16, 2006 01:33 PM | TrackBack
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