November 7, 2002
The Feiler Phenomenon
Coming down on a new generation of pop Bible books.
Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths" by Bruce Feiler (William Morrow & Co, $23.95).
Like the stock market, belief in the Bible as a record of past events goes up and down. Such belief is now skidding toward a low point. While the sobriety and detachment of professional scholarship may numb us into forgetting that anything crucial is at stake in Scripture's historical accuracy, let's not forget.
A current publishing sensation, Bruce Feiler's book "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths" was promoted on the cover of Time magazine and has since been hovering among the top 10 national bestsellers. Feiler presents the first Hebrew patriarch as a product mainly of imagination. In this, he's far from alone.
In a ceremony held Oct. 30 in New York, the National Jewish Book Council bestowed its annual National Jewish Book Awards, an indicator of what American Jews value. In the nonfiction category, the winner was a commentary on the Pentateuch that seeks to cast doubt on the Jewish people's long-cherished understanding of their origins. Issued by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, representing 1.5 million Jews, "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life") (Jewish Publication Society, 2001) states flatly that there is an "almost total absence of archaeological evidence" that key biblical personalities like Abraham and Moses ever lived.
In "The Bible Unearthed" (Free Press, 2001), celebrated among other places on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman argue that one finds "no evidence whatsoever" that personalities from Abraham to Joshua ever existed. Their work formed the basis of a cover story in Harper's, savagely attacking the idea of the Bible as history.
This idea is heard even from liberal-minded clergy. A prominent Los Angeles rabbi, David Wolpe chose Passover as the moment to inform his 2,200 congregants there is no evidence that the Exodus from Egypt happened as the Bible reports.
But Feiler is the celebrity Bible-explicator of the moment.
Admittedly I'm not disinterested. My own biography of Abraham, arguing that the patriarch was a historical person as depicted in Jewish tradition, will be published by Doubleday in April. Feiler beat me to the punch, though he started in on his Abraham book just over a year ago, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, when I had already been researching for two years.
His book is short, light on concrete details drawn from tradition or modern scholarship. He's a journalist, after all, a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine, and a promoter. His Web site includes a downloadable "Materials Packet" for organizing your own Abraham Salon, a book discussion group. The packet includes recipes for baklava and Triple Chocolate Fudge Brownies ("one [chocolate] for each Abrahamic faith?").
In presenting Jewish tradition on Abraham, he draws on no primary sources. There are no footnotes, no bibliography, just a three-page chapter at the end, "Readings," indicating that what he knows about the Talmud and Midrash he got from predigested stuff like Louis Ginzberg's "Legends of the Jews" (Johns Hopkins University, 1998).
His Abraham is a legend, a useful fiction. Feiler argues that the patriarch can be a vehicle for reconciling Jews, Muslims and Christians, if only we will all embrace a new ecumenical Abraham -- the patriarch as a "perpetual stream of Abrahamic ideals [that] has existed just under the surface of the world for as long as humans have told themselves stories. And every generation -- at moments of joy and crisis -- tapped into the same source. Each generation chose an Abraham for itself."
As Feiler puts it, Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions give us no fewer than 240 different Abrahams. So we can and should make up our own, the 241st.
Feiler doesn't positively deny that Abraham was a historical person -- the patriarch may have been "an actual figure or a composite" who "emerged from the world of Semitic tribes on the upper arm of the Fertile Crescent." But he doesn't let the question detain him. For Feiler, it's just not that important.
I would like to suggest that no question is more important.
Feiler's approach to the issue of biblical historicity resonates with book-readers, with modern culture. That's why his last book, "Walking the Bible" (William Morrow & Co., 2001), retracing the purported steps of the Israelites from Genesis to Deuteronomy, was likewise a huge seller, purchased by a quarter million people. There too he was comfortable assigning Abraham to the status of a mere "composite."
Such skepticism has a long pedigree. Setting the tone for biblical criticism from the 1870s onward, the German scholar Julius Wellhausen asserted that nothing can be said of a historical nature about the patriarchs.
In the 20th century, a mostly American movement of academics, led by William Foxwell Albright, argued back that there is indeed archaeological evidence for regarding the Bible as historically truthful. However in the 1970s a skeptical assault on the Albright school had already begun to gather strength, with works by Thomas L. Thompson and John Van Seters, leading to the rise of today's dominant attitude.
The biblical events under debate include the destruction of Jericho by Joshua's armies and the flourishing of David and Solomon's kingdom. Little attention is paid to the work of independent scholar David Rohl, who provocatively addresses just these questions of historical confirmation, looking afresh at the dating of the reigns of the pharaohs as they correspond to what was going on simultaneously in the land of Canaan. With Rohl's revised chronology, the collapsed walls of Jericho and the ruins of Solomon's kingdom are found just where and when they are supposed to be.
But there are more fundamental grounds for entertaining the possibility that Abraham & Co. were real people.
The Bible is a very assertive book. As the literary critic Erich Auerbach argued, "One can perfectly well entertain historical doubts on the subject of the Trojan War or Odysseus' wandering, and still, when reading Homer, feel precisely the effects he sought to produce; but without believing Abraham's sacrifice [of his son Isaac], it is impossible to put the narrative of it to the use for which it was written. Indeed, we must go even further. The Bible's claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer's, it is tyrannical -- it excludes all other claims."
The Bible offers an either-or choice: accept the truth of the narrative and the doctrine expressed in it, however understood, or reject both. We don't have to accept the "tyranny" of the biblical choice. But if we reject it, then we reject the Bible as a source of authoritative teaching. To put it differently, if we reject Abraham, we are rejecting the Bible -- and then a question asked poignantly by the philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel comes tugging at our sleeve: "It may seem easy to play with the idea that the Bible is a book like many other books," a "fairy tale." But "consider what such denial implies. If Moses and Isaiah have failed to find out what the will of God is, who will? If God is not found in the Bible, where should we seek Him?
"The question about the Bible is the question about the world. It is an ultimate question. If God had nothing to do with the prophets, then He has nothing to do with mankind."
If God had nothing to do with a historical Abraham, then He is not to be found in the Bible. In that case, we are on our own. While we are free to posit some non-biblical deity, there is little to say about such a being. He left no record of having communicated anything about himself.
A world in which the man called Abraham never walked, in which the first patriarch was not a person of flesh and blood but an airily defined "composite," is a world without God. If this seems too simplistic a formulation, I invite you to offer your own scenario in which God is preserved but the Abraham of tradition is not.
In the Mishneh Torah, his great summation of Jewish belief completed in Egypt in 1178, Maimonides offers a narrative of the patriarch's youthful career, presenting data found not in the Bible but in the Jewish sources that Bruce Feiler regards as legendary. Three thousand years before the sage wrote, the Near East and all of the world had been utterly lost in paganism and ignorance. Then "...there was born the pillar of the world, namely our father Abraham."
Maimonides intends this not as pious exaggeration, but as a statement of fact. Abraham , who was born and died, is the pillar of the world because without him the roof that protects us from the vacuum of the universe, a void of absurdity and meaninglessness, must collapse. In that case, everything we want to believe about God would be rendered nonsensical, sentimental, deeply foolish. Before allowing the pillar to be kicked out, we should think longer and harder than Bruce Feiler has done.