Review: Where God Was Born

“In the Middle East, what you believe can still get you killed”

After the post that was supposed to be about the book turned into an analysis of reading habits, it’s time to think about this book. As I mentioned, I read it on the iPad, so it wasn’t physically highlighted or dog eared, but I certainly made extensive use of the Kindle app’s highlight feature. It is an amazing book both in Feiler’s writing style, but also in the information he presented.

I was left thinking throughout the book about what his chosen title meant. It has very little to do with the physical place where Yahweh, Jesus or Allah were born (if indeed there is such a place) and more to do with the idea of where religion and belief in god was born. There were gods in ancient Greece and Egypt, but it wasn’t organized religion the way it came to be in monotheism in the Middle East. In many ways this book has more to do with where monotheism is born and the idea of a relationship with a god. At least that’s my take as someone who loves the history but has no relationship with a god.

Where God was Born is one of Feiler’s three titles that explore the Middle East. I’m now eager to re-read his previous two to see if there’s anything more I glean from them, especially Walking the Bible which I read before I went to Israel. Where God Was Born is dated (mid 2000s), but also contemporary in that it’s set in the current politically climate in that things really haven’t settled back down and you wonder whether they ever really will.

The Cradle of Civilization-the tiny, fertile crescent of land that stretches from Mesopotamia to North Africa – had once more seized control of the world’s destiny, and the future of civilization seemed to be at stake. ….. This land is not that big. It’s not that fertile… If you’re in Egypt, it’s the only way to get to Syria. If you’re in Mesopotamia, it’s the only way to get to Africa. If you’re in the Mediterranean, it’s the only way to get to Asia. It may not be the living room, but it’s a corridor, and a very important corridor at that. Israel, the world’s greatest hallway.

It made me wonder why Feiler chose to go at the time, but that was also a question I tackled when I planned my 2009 trip. Was it “safe”? Would it ever truly be safe? Is part of the charm of the Middle East its instability  and state of flux? I think that’s a key part of it. You’re never going back to the same place. And Israel will always be a key piece of the region’s history no matter which pieces get resolved. And in some ways it’s still a living part of the old historical routes.

As a Jew raised in the American South, I grew up in a world where religion was a regular part of my life but not exactly a central one. Politics mattered more to me than faith; and depending on what I was doing during years as an itinerant journalist, clowning, country music, or Third World travel became my surrogate religion. Who needed to count commandments when you could count countries visited? … For a year I trekked across the Middle East, from Turkey to Jordan, and explored the first five books of the Bible. I visited Mount Ararat, crossed the Red Sea, climbed Mount Sinai. That year in the desert changed me forever. I had gone seeking adventure and came back craving meaningAnd then came the conflagration –planes into buildings, armies into distant countries, security walls around peaceful towns, genocide, jihad, crusade in the news. The world that had been at peace was now at war over God.

 

While I was an American Catholic, I identify a lot with Judaism. It’s partially my reading, partially growing up in NYC where Judaism is as much a part of the city’s culture as being an Upper West Sider or a Brooklynite is. It’s not foreign and in some ways reminds me of what I love about religion in Japan – it’s part of the lifestyle rather than being a distinct element. I’ve never looked to the Middle East for religious inspiration, and I don’t think I ever will — but the history and landmarks fascinate me. Even if things didn’t happen as the Bible says they did, things have happened there for 5,000+ years and it’s awesome to walk where so many have before. This was true for me for Israel (especially Jerusalem) but also Petra. What amazing living history.

There are pieces of Israel, and pieces of Feiler’s book that I didn’t get because I’m not familiar with the Bible – Hebrew or otherwise and to be honest, I don’t have much of an interest in it. It’s a story — in some ways historical fiction is how I see it — and I’m not that much of a fiction reader. The story has to be compelling to get me to read fiction and I don’t find the Bible’s story interesting to me. I’m much more interested in the history in which it was set — some of which led to the stories told in the Bible.

Since I began exploring the Bible, I had been bedeviled by the tantalizing, tender relationship between the details in the text and the facts in the ground. After two centuries of digging, archaeologists have come to what can be characterized as an awkward accommodation with the Hebrew Bible. For the Torah, there is simply no physical evidence that any of the events described took place. There is, however, plenty of support that the stories fit squarely in the historical reality of the second millennium B.C.E. …. The walls could not have come tumbling down around Jericho because the city didn’t have walls.

That all makes sense. Stories are set in what happened — especially oral histories that were then written down to form the Bible. I wonder when/how the Bible came to be taken literally. I’m always amazed when people take it as a verbatim history. But then again, I’m a questioning person.  Because Feiler took a (mostly) scholarly view, I didn’t find myself questioning him as much. He had me wanting to read more to learn more.

I love the text, but not necessarily what human institutions have done in its name. Manipulation, exclusivism, hatred, and violence are undeniable outgrowths of biblical monotheism. … Is there a place where faith and tolerance can live side by side? In short, is religion just a source of war, or can it help bring about peace?

As I mentioned, I don’t necessarily like the text, but the way he views the text is how I view organized religion. And that’s part of why I think it will always be a source of war because people of all faiths are dead set on being “right” rather than learning to respect and coexist. That’s of course not to say that no one respects other religions, but the ones who are making names for the religions are doing it for all the wrong reasons. I was reading this during the events around the Boston Marathon and the anti-Muslim comments angered me. People seemed to be operating under the assumption that the perps had to be Muslims whether or not they were. It’s sad. Later in the book, Feiler also returned to this theme:

One recurring problem with the religions that grew out of the Hebrew Bible is that each has a tendency to believe its faith is unique, its interpretation of the text absolute, and its relationship with God so exclusive it has the right to harm those who disagree. The idea that the writers of the Bible were influenced by sources that predate their own suggests the Bible should be seen not as sui generis but as being in dialogue with other texts. And if scriptures can be in dialogue, surely the faiths that grow out of those scriptures can be in dialogue as well.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book as it related to my own time in Israel were the following passages as his group approached Jerusalem via helicopter:

Our nose was headed at the heart of the Temple Mount, the Haram al-Sharif, the legendary Mount Moriah, where Ariel Sharon inflamed the second Intifada, Yitzhak Rabin led the capture during the Six-Day War, King Hussein watched as his grandfather was assassinated and he received a bullet to his own chest. Mohammed ascended to heaven from here; Jesus made a Passover pilgrimage here; Solomon built the Temple here.   … Our tail swung left, then right, but our head never wavered, locked onto the glint of infinity that has lured people to this spot since God was born. It was like being pulled backward through a vortex of time, an ineluctable wave of legend on top of custom, hatred on top of hope. … We were close enough to hear the prayers. We were near enough to get shot. We were poised in a nameless breach between heaven and earth.

This was nowhere near his first visit to Jerusalem, but there’s something magical about seeing the city for the first time. As he mentioned in Abraham, it’s impossible to look at one of the holy sites and not see one of the two others. Jerusalem, especially the old city, really feels as if it’s the center of the world. Given how many faiths it gave birth to, it is in many ways. So much happened here, so many people walked here even if they werent those whose tales were later recounted in the Torah, Bible or Koran. That’s what’s so fascinating about contemporary Israel and why it will always be a tourism draw. There’s something about the first site of the old city form Mt. Scopus

 

One of the cities that I regret not having the opportunity to visit when I went to Israel in 2009 is Bethlehem. We had it on our tentative list, but after the time and effort it took to cross the Israeli / Jordanian border, we decided we didn’t have the stamina for a West Bank crossing. As much as I wanted to see it, I don’t know why. Part of culture or history? Feiler’s description of the city painted a beautiful picture of a key city in history

Bethlehem is one of the few cities that appears across the entire two-thousand-year arc of the Hebrew Bible, from the patriarchs to the prophets. The city is first mentioned in Genesis as the place where Jacob’s wife Rachel died after giving birth to Benjamin. A tomb marks the spot, which we passed on our way into town, fenced in, empty. Joshua later assigns the area to the tribe of Judah, and it’s frequently mentioned during the period of the kings, most prominently as the birthplace of King David. The story of the boy warrior who becomes the king of Israel … Bethlehem’s heart, Manger Square … A Latin inscription reads HERE JESUS CHRIST WAS BORN TO THE VIRGIN MARY. “The star has fourteen points,†Arlet explained, because there are fourteen generations between Jesus and David “and fourteen more between David and Abraham” We smiled at this shared bit of knowledge. The holiest spot in Bethlehem shows the deep roots between Judaism and Christianity: both believe the blood of David runs through the messiah.

In that passage I learned more about Bethlehem than I ever did in years of CCD or church. I had no idea it was as important to Judaism as it is to Christianity. And until I read the below (bolding mine),  I didn’t realize what the connection was between the manger, christmas and jesus’ birth

“So when you bring people here,” I asked, “Do they think it’s the actual place where Jesus was born, or do they think it’s just a story?” “It’s a difficult question,” she said. “Most of the time I explain that, as a Christian, I believe this is the place. None of us knows the actual place, but for generations we have believed it was here. There are many scholars who say that the reason Jesus was born in Bethlehem is because the Hebrew Bible says the messiah must come from the House of David. Otherwise, why would a pregnant woman have left Nazareth and walked three days to get here? You have to understand, for us believers, we don’t care about these questions. If you find an answer for this question, you’ll just find another question, so in the end, it’s better not to question.

And perhaps, to those who live there, this is how they remain free of the politics that permeate the area

“So do you belong to a country?” “No, I belong to a city. Bethlehem.

Politics have been key to Israel’s development even before there was an Israel. Feiler draws an interesting parallel between the development of Washington D.C. and Jerusalem with each country’s decision to move the capital. If David hadn’t taken the city, it’s likely the word Jerusalem wouldn’t have become the symbol it is today.

After he takes the city, everything changes. Jerusalem evolves into something much more than a geographical entity. It becomes a theological emblem. It becomes the chosen place of the Almighty. It becomes the holiest city on earth

That emblem was reinforced in a later passage in which Feiler wrote

The dome, often photographed in pink dawn light, has become so associated with Jerusalem, even in Jewish iconography, that it seems emblematic of the larger holiness of the place.

Jerusalem is a religious icon in and of itself, perhaps eclipsing the leaders of the faiths it’s home to because unlike gods and / or the prophets, people have actually seen Jerusalem.

“Because we are probably the only people in the world who can read with the greatest of ease a text written thousands of years ago. Modern Greeks can’t easily read Homer. Today’s Chinese can’t read Confucius. In India, a Hindi scholar must study Sanskrit. Europeans can’t simply read Latin. The one achievement of Zionism that didn’t come at anyone’s expense was the revival of the Hebrew language.

I love history, I love that some people in Israel today can read the Scrolls. That hit me even before I went to Israel. In the fall of 2008, the Jewish Museum hosted an exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Museum exhibit openings have a lot of talking heads but like a few lines from Feiler’s Abraham, I remember a few words from the Israeli Antiquities Chief who opened the exhibit — he, a citizen of modern Israel, could read these thousands of year old texts recovered in 1947.

Perhaps one of the most interesting passages in the book was that in which he walked around the walls of the Temple Mount in his struggle with whether the symbol of Judaism should be a wall or whether the wall detracted from the actual lessons that could be taught. I was amazed by the site of the old city — the walls and what they represented. The Western Wall is iconic to Judaism, but the Temple Mount is so much more… to all three Abrahamic faiths and at the same time is at the core of how/why there will likely never be peace in the region – competing traditions and a need to be “right”:

The first lesson of the Temple Mount is that religious rights and wrongs cannot be refereed by claiming first dibs. If they could, Jerusalemites today would be worshiping the god of bread. … [ and on the original Temple] … The entire structure was nearly identical to the Egyptian temple at Karnak, which was 45 feet high and 65 feet long, with a forest of internal pillars, and a windowless inner sanctum. … This is the Golden Gate, perhaps the most famous portal in Jerusalem. The Gospels suggest Jesus fulfilled this prophecy and entered the city on Palm Sunday through this gate. Muslims believe that on judgment day, a knife’s edge will stretch over a valley from a mountain to heaven’s gate. If that mountain is the Mount of Olives, as legend suggests, then the Golden Gate would be the entrance to eternity, and anyone buried here would have a presumed advantage. Jewish legend, however, holds that the messiah is forbidden from traversing a cemetery, which means those buried here would be hindering everyone’s salvation. Jews and Muslims can’t even agree on whether it’s good or bad to be buried near heaven’s door. The Kidron is the Valley of Death. … What has always appealed to me about the Temple Mount is how many of the holiest spots in the Abrahamic faiths are all gathered on the same piece of earth. Geography, so central to the roots of monotheism, seems to bond practitioners into some forced accommodation.

At this time in his journey (and the book), he left Israel for Iraq. Whether or not it’s truly the site of Genesis’ Garden of Eden, Iraq has all the temptation of a forbidden fruit. In part, it’s because I can’t go, in part it’s Tony Wheeler’s Badlands, which focused on tourism along the so-called “axis of evil”. While I loved the time in the book when he was in Israel, I was in awe of the Iraqi section because I did not realize how much biblical history is tied up in a country that has been a war zone for the vast majority of my life.

Feiler had the proper concern before going – including leaving a note to his new wife that read, in part, ” If you are reading this, then I have not come home to you” and taking out death and dismemberment insurance. But as was the case with other parts of his trip, he wasn’t going to let that fear stop him.

In all the war-based coverage that has aired of Iraq since 1991, I don’t recall ever hearing that the ancient city of Ur was known now as Tell Muqayyar, or that it is just outside the present day Nasiriyah. Or that the ziggurat’s (decapitated or not), still stand. It sounds like a new location is on my travel bucket list and I hope that one day it will be peaceful enough to visit. The fact that you can actually be “by the waters of Babylon”, a city that was more influential than Ur, Damascus or Jerusalem and still has a presence today. That the Ishtar Gate still exists. I never knew how crucial the exile in Babylon was to the development of Judaism, that it was what taught the Israelites that

“the god of the Israelites did not reside just on a mountaintop in Jerusalem… they set about redefining what it meant to worship God. They invented JudaismWith the loss of holy space, holy time becomes important.With no access to sacred sites, sacred text became Israel’s lifeline to its past. The Bible may not have been born in Babylon, but it certainly came of age here.”

As much as Iraq fascinated me, Iran didn’t interest me and if not for a recent reading on the Cyrus Cylinder and an upcoming stop in NY, I probably would have skipped this section. In fact, I didn’t recognize the country from its description. We have arrived at the dead end of freedom, the largest religious dictatorship in the world, the shining city on a hill for many Islamic extremists around the globe. Part of it is due to the age of the book, but if I read that description out of context, I would have said he was writing about Saudi Arabia.

Speaking of the Cylinder…

1879 a cylinder was unearthed in Babylon that articulated Cyrus’s worldview, the most sweeping declaration of human rights ever found in the Ancient Near East. Cyrus couched his vision in the name of Ahuramazda, the god of Zoroastrianism. Now that I put the crown of the kingdom of Iran, Babylon, and the nations of the four directions on the head with the help of Ahuramazda, I announce that I will respect the traditions, customs, and religions of the nations of my empire and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them as long as I am alive. From now on, till Ahuramazda grants me the kingdom favor, I will impose my monarchy on no nation. Each is free to accept it, and if any one of them rejects it, I never resolve on war to reign. “O mortal, I am Cyrus the son of Cambyses, who founded the empire of Persia, and was king of Asia. Grudge me not therefore this monument.â€

When I read the Met’s press release about the upcoming exhibit, I was fascinated by some tangible piece of history that dated back so far and touched history, so when I read the above, I reached a new level of wow. I cannot wait for this exhibit to open. There is so much good at the Met this summer, but I especially can’t wait for this. Love when books intersect with life.
In short, OK, in really long, this was an amazing book that really made me think. Somehow I think this may be my only write up, but it certainly won’t be the end of my thinking about it. Especially since these intriguing titles are listed in his further reading. When can I get back to the Middle East?

More Mt. TBR.

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