From pillars of salt to burning bush, author walks the Bible

Posted: Friday, May 18, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- Ever wonder how manna from heaven tasted, where Noah's ark landed, or whether a pillar of salt still stands to mark the fate of Lot's wife?

Bruce Feiler, author of ''Walking the Bible'' (William Morrow, $26), could tell you. He spent a year tracking down places and phenomena associated with the first five books of the Bible, and in the process, traversed three continents, five countries and four war zones.

Along the way, he encountered a rare shrub that bears flaming red berries, said to be the burning bush from Moses' first encounter with God; outcroppings of minerals by the Dead Sea, two stories high, which are literally pillars of salt; and a credible explanation for manna from heaven -- sweet, edible white globs that appear on certain oasis trees in the late spring.

But by the time Feiler was done with his journey, his mission had changed.

''When I first started I was consumed with issues of proof,'' Feiler said in an interview. ''Which rock? Which mountain? Which body of water? In many ways, that's what drew me in.''

But, he added, ''the longer I did it, the less I became interested in proof, and the more I became interested in meaning. And my view on this is that we're not going to prove the Bible. But we're not going to disprove it, either.''

Feiler said the original writers of Biblical stories ''were not writing a textbook,'' they were crafting the story of how their culture and faith came into being.

Feiler added that nobody in the Middle East ever ''brings up this issue of proof. It's only the people who live far away who seem consumed by this problem. Because the closer you live to the land, the more you become persuaded that these stories live in these places.''

Feiler's quest began a few years ago after he visited a friend in Jerusalem.

''My friend took me to this promenade overlooking the city and said, 'Over there is this controversial neighborhood -- and over there is the rock where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac,''' Feiler recalled. ''It just hit me like a bolt of Cecil B. De Mille lightning. It never occurred to me that these stories -- so timeless and abstract -- might have happened in places you could visit. And I thought, here's an idea. What if I travel along the route and read the Bible along the way?''

Feiler hired Avner Goren, former chief archaeologist of the Sinai during the years that Israel controlled the region, to accompany him. The journey began in the summer of 1998 in Turkey, at Mount Ararat, described in Genesis as the final resting place of Noah's ark, and continued in the ancient city of Harran, where God first spoke to Abraham.

They then traveled down the spine of Israel and the Palestinian territories to sites associated with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Next was Egypt, where Joseph was enslaved and Moses was born. Following the path of the Israelites fleeing Egypt, Feiler and Goren crossed the Red Sea and then the desert, traveling by foot, jeep, rowboat, and camel through Israel to Jordan. They ended the journey in the summer of '99 on Mount Nebo, where Moses died gazing at the promised land.

But what made the biggest impact on Feiler was their sojourns in the desert -- dependent on canned food and bottled water, roasting in the sun and freezing at night, sleeping in tents, awed by the stars and sunrises.

''As Avner likes to say, you can't spend three days in the desert and not believe in God,'' he said. ''You realize how dependent you are on the elements, and ultimately, how small you are.''

Feiler prepared for his trip by reading 150 books -- everything from Lawrence of Arabia to Thomas Mann, from rabbinic commentary to politics and history. But during the trip, ''my learning went from my head to my feet,'' he said. ''By walking in these places, by being on the ground, I developed a very tangible connection to these places.''

Feiler describes licking the pillar of salt, noticing a fire extinguisher sitting next to the burning bush, and suffering exquisite pain in certain body parts after riding a camel for eight hours. He introduces us to the people he meets -- Muslim, Christian, Jew, scholar, politician, bedouin and soldier, from the guard who takes a bribe to open up a closed museum in Egypt, to the shepherd girls in Jordan whose chatter wakes him up at 4 a.m.

And as a journalist, not a scientist, he offers various theories without judgment, noting, for example, that there are 22 candidates for the ''real'' Mount Sinai.

''Walking the Bible'' made bestseller lists shortly after its release, joining other popular books about religion and spirituality, from Anita Diamant's ''The Red Tent,'' a novel told from the perspective of Joseph's sister Dinah, to ''The Prayer of Jabez,'' by Bruce Wilkinson, founder of a Christian ministry, to Karen Armstrong's ''Buddha,'' a biography.

Feiler, 36, who describes himself as a secular Jew, grew up in Savannah, Ga., and lives now in Manhattan. A stint as a circus clown resulted in his writing the book ''Under the Big Top''; work as an English teacher in Japan led to the book ''Learning to Bow.''

For his next trip, he may just head back to the Middle East and walk the rest of the Bible.

''I'd like to pick up the rest of the story,'' he said.


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