Be Strong and Very Courageous
I feel the tension before I know its source. My legs begin to quiver, then shake. Soon my whole body is quaking with vibration, or is it fear? Up above, the whir begins to build into a thudding bass beat. Cold air blows through the cracks and up my spine. I’m shivering. My feet are trembling. “Are you ready?” The sound in my ears is crackling, and a bit wicked. I nod. Within seconds the shaking becomes overwhelming, the thump-ing dense, and the pull so strong it seems ready to suck my head off. I feel as if I’m in a full-body migraine. And then, just as suddenly, quiet. The sound dissolves, my body relaxes. I’m in the air, in a war. I’m at peace.
The helicopter pauses for a second, then accelerates into a gentle glide. Down below, the landing pad disappears, and rows of orange and avocado trees poke up toward the sky. I see the hairs on adonkey’s ears. Our nose is tipped, we’re flying, yet we’re not mov-ing very quickly. Lifting off in a helicopter is like drifting off tosleep: You leave one realm and shift into another; the features seem dreamily unfamiliar; you want to touch what you see, but you can’t.
We bank toward the Mediterranean. Voices in my headphones interrupt: “This is the Air Force. Identify yourself! Do you have permission to be here?” Boaz, the pilot, smiles. He’s anticipated this. He’s flown in every war the State of Israel has fought for the previous thirty years. When I asked him what his most dangerous mission was, he thought for a second, then replied, “I once flew seven and a half hours from Israel into enemy territory on a secret mission.” I raised my eyebrows; that’s halfway to Iran, or Libya.
“Were you part of the mission that destroyed the nuclear plant in Iraq?”
He smiled. “Let’s just say I was in the Middle East.”
Boaz replied to air traffic control with a mixture of authority and evasion. We did have permission, garnered over the preceding six months, from three government agencies. The night before a suicide bomber had killed seven soldiers in Tel Aviv, and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) rescinded its green light. Boaz had to scramble to find a general to overturn the decision. This morning, after we boarded the McDonnell Douglas MD-500, storm clouds descended, limiting visibility above one thousand feet. We were forced to cancel. An hour later, visibility lifted. “There are always risks with flying,” Boaz said. We dashed to the landing pad.
Weather was the least of our risks. War was raging–between the Israelis and the Palestinians, between a fragile coalition and Iraq, between the pluralist West and Islamic extremism. Ripples were reverberating around the globe–in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen,
Kenya, Morocco, Indonesia, and, yes, the United States. 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.
The bloody clash of faith and politics that filled front pages at the beginning of the new millennium seemed surprising, coming at the end of a century that had appeared to mark the end of God as a force in world affairs. Hadn’t Nietzsche declared at the end of the previous century (1882) that God was dead? Hadn’t science, capitalism, and the World Wide Web rendered faith a quaint hangover from the past?
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?
Fifteen years into a life on the road, I realized something was missing from my backpack. There were conflicts in the world, and I had questions that my guidebooks couldn’t address. To my surprise, the book that kept calling out to me had been sitting by my bed all along. The calling wasn’t religious exactly; it was historical, archaeological, cultural. It was a need to explore the world–even the parts of it that seemed scary, like devotion. I had an idea: What if I retraced the Bible through the desert and read the stories along the way?
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 meaning. In particular, I came back struggling to understand the uncertain role of God in my life. The world was prosperous and at peace; pulpits were filled with hoorahs of confidence; yet I felt the gnawing tug of doubt. I didn’t know God completely, and I doubted those who did.
And 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. This change seemed startling. Wasn’t history supposed to be ending? Wasn’t democratic capitalism supposed to lead us all to heaven?
History wasn’t ending, of course; it was finally coming home. The collision of politics, geography, and faith has dominated nearly every story in the Middle East since the birth of writing–from the epic of Gilgamesh to the fatwas of Ayatollah Khomeini. It also dominates the greatest story ever told. Jews and Christians who smugly console themselves that Islam is the only violent religion are willfully ignoring their past. Nowhere is the struggle between faith and violence described more vividly, and with more stomach-turning details of ruthlessness, than in the Hebrew Bible.
Yet nowhere is this conflict conveyed with more humanity and hope.
And so, I thought, what better way to confront my doubts about religion and consider the future of faith than to travel to the land where God was born? And, again, what better guide to read along the way than the text that defines identity for half the world’s believers?
I would journey to the flash points in the new world war over God–Israel, Iraq, and Iran–and bring along my Bible. And I would begin my quest with the second half of the Hebrew Bible, at the moment when the children of Israel, sprung from Adam and Eve, descended from Abraham, and freed by Moses, face their harshest challenge. “Conquer the Promised Land,” God says to Joshua, Moses’ successor, at the start of the books of the Prophets. A former spy, Joshua is one of only two Israelites (the other is Caleb) whom God deems righteous enough to survive the forty years in the desert. “Destroy the pagans who live on the land,” God commands. “Seize the future for yourselves–and for me.”
After twenty minutes we approached an isolated landing strip just north of Ben Gurion International Airport. A silvery mist hung low over the Mediterranean, a few miles to the west. Shallow waves unfolded onto the narrow beaches. Palm trees, like artichokes on sticks, bent in all directions. As we hovered, a man strode out of a small building onto the black tarmac. He directed Boaz to his preferred spot, and as the blades spun, he bent and scampered toward the door.
Yoram Yair is that rare individual known only by his nickname. For months afterward, when I told Israelis (and Palestinians) I had gone on a military tour of the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land with one of the most decorated generals in the history of the country, a man who had been the first Israeli to penetrate the Sinai during the Six-Day War, the last to hold the Golan Heights during the Syrian offensive of the Yom Kippur War, and the one who led an amphibious landing closest to Beirut during the Lebanon War, they all said, “Yaya? What’s he like?”
A rock. As he boarded the helicopter and greeted us all crisply yet warmly, he evinced an unimpeachable stableness and sureness of gesture–firm handshake, steady stare, was that a twinkle?–that made us instantly trust him. My friend and longtime travel companion Avner Goren, the archaeologist and explorer, who was nearing sixty and occupied the fourth seat, said Yaya reminded him of his father, with a set of idioms and associations that belonged to the generation of epic founders of Israel. “He’s part of the fundamental soil of the country.”
Yaya was wearing white boaters, navy khakis, and a pink and green Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned to his chest. He had a silver Brylcreemed pompadour that, despite the wind, came to a perfect nest above his forehead, causing me to spend the next few hours wondering how he kept it in place in a foxhole. Altogether, with his leathery skin and matte of gray chest hair, he reminded me of my uncle Bubba walking the strip on Miami Beach.
“I will try to be very modest, but maybe there are another five generals in the world today, alive, who have similar combat experience,” Yaya said. “Unfortunately for normal human beings, but fortunately for a military person, I fought in four wars, and in each of those wars, I was in a commanding position. You can’t see it, but my body is full of shrapnel.”
Boaz reminded Yaya that he had once rescued the general on an aborted mission in Lebanon. A soldier had been shot as they evacuated. But Yaya’s most difficult episode? Commanding the tank that penetrated the Sinai at the start of the Six-Day War. The unit behind his was hit and destroyed, as was the unit behind that one. “I was about a mile inside the Egyptian stronghold, taking fire from everyone. We were hit by an antitank gun. I asked everybody to jump; luckily I fell outside. My deputy fell inside and was killed. And then we were surrounded by Egyptians, and I thought, This is the end.”
“You were held prisoner?”
“No way, are you crazy? I didn’t let them capture me. For about thirty minutes I was all alone until our battalion finally reached my place.”
Yaya told these stories with no sense of bravado, only duty. This was his job: leading men into war. “So during these times,” I said, “did you ever turn to the Bible for inspiration?”
“Ever since I was a child,” he said, “I liked very much the Bible–the story, the heritage, the connection to the land. When I was a young officer, whenever we trained, I always asked one of the soldiers to prepare something about the place. Every Israeli commander will tell you that part of our mission is education. Not just about weapons systems but about values and ethics.
“And I’ll tell you,” he continued. “The best thing about the Bible is what it teaches about community. Take Moses: When he leads the Israelites out of Egypt, he does what all good leaders should do, first he sets a goal. Then he builds tactics. But before they leave, he asks his people to do a difficult thing: to put blood on the doorposts. Is this for God? Nonsense. God doesn’t need signs. Moses does this because he wants the people to develop a strong identity.”
I had sought a warrior to take me on my tour. Had I found something more?
“And what about Joshua?” I said. “What does his story tell you about values?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Let’s go,” he said. “I’ll show you.” Boaz moved the collective control shaft up and to his right, and the helicopter again lifted into the air. He leaned on the pedals and pivoted the control stick between his legs. In a moment, we were catamaraning over the central mountains. For such a narrow
country (eighty-five miles at its widest), Israel has stunning topographical range, from the flat fertility of the coastal plain, through the rocky isolation of the central hills, to the desert gulch in the east. We were heading toward its most distinctive feature, a geological shelf that runs along the eastern border, dropping with ear-popping alacrity into the lowest gullet in the world, the Syrian-African Rift. To conquer the Promised Land, the Israelites, who end their forty-year trek through the desert bivouacked on Mount Nebo in Jordan, must first cross this lifeless trap.
Avner, Yaya, and I pulled out our Bibles. The biblical narrative has a clear geopolitical arc. The story begins in Mesopotamia, on the imperial shores of the Tigris and Euphrates, with the earliest scenes of Genesis–the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, and the advent of Abraham, four thousand years ago. Leaving his father’s house, Abraham travels to the land God promises him, Canaan, the fragile coalition of isolated cities squeezed between superpowers, Mesopotamia to the north and Egypt to the south. But the patriarchs–Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–are a small family of pastoral nomads in no position to claim their destiny. With Jacob’s son Joseph the family decamps to Egypt, where they live for four centuries, quietly growing in stature.
By the thirteenth century b.c.e., the Israelites have multiplied to such numbers that they threaten the pharaoh, who enslaves them and begins killing off newborn males. This precipitates the Exodus, the defining event of the Pentateuch, the Bible’s first five books, in which Moses leads millions of Israelites from the most civilized country on earth and parades them into the desert. In- stead of heading directly to the Promised Land, a journey of no more than two weeks, Moses first inculcates the Israelites with the values of God. They resist, building idols and demanding a return to slavery. Four decades pass before the Israelites accept their destiny and become a unified nation, ready to fight for the land God promised their forefather eight hundred years earlier.
“So how different was the world that Joshua faced,” I asked Avner, “from the one Abraham came to eight centuries earlier?”
He sat forward. Nearly seven years had passed since I first met Avner and the two of us began retracing the Bible, with one eye on archaeology, another on politics, and a third one, unexpectedly, on ourselves. Avner had been bruised by the violence of the intervening years, which ate away at his profession, his pioneering bridge building with Muslims, and his dreams for a greater region in touch with its universal gifts to humanity: frankincense; the alphabet; civilization; an eternal, invisible God. His gray hair still squiggled from his weatherworn face; his turquoise eyes still stopped time (and women). Newly remarried, with a young daughter, he had more energy than I’d seen in years. But he no longer accepted easy optimism, looking instead for the darker currents and hidden themes in the scorched soil of the region.
“When Abraham came, it was the age of empires,” he said. “The world was divided into big powers: Egypt, the biggest, to the south, then the Mesopotamians to the north. It was a bipolar world, and the land in the middle was weak. Canaan wasn’t even a state; it was city-states.
“At the start of the thirteenth century b.c.e.,” he continued, “the world began to change. Twelve hundred b.c.e. was a landmark in history.” First, Egypt and the reigning Mesopotamians, the Hittites, clashed in Syria, coming to a virtual draw. Soon after, the empires began to decline, leaving a vacuum in Canaan. This social breakdown opened the door to new powers from the West, namely the Myceneans, the Greek-speaking empire that built Thebes and Troy and provided the backdrop for the Iliad and the Odyssey. Also, a mysterious population called the Sea Peoples began a full assault on the coastal plain. Scholars disagree about whether these Viking-like bands were from the Aegean, Anatolia, or some combination, but the result is the same: a new western front in the struggle for Canaan.
“So if the world before was bipolar,” I asked Avner, “would you say this world was nonpolar?”
“I would say it was chaos.”
“But why bother? 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.” Learning about this chaos reminded me anew how brilliantly attuned the Bible is to the geopolitical realities of its time. It may not be history as we have come to expect it–an objective retelling of events–but it is steeped in rich, historical detail. This richness also
highlights an intriguing possibility: If the Sea Peoples are invading a suddenly weakened Canaan from the west, why can’t another previously unknown power invade the same land from the east?
The Book of Joshua begins the second major section of biblical books, the Prophets, which follow the five books of the Torah, Genesis through Deuteronomy. The story opens with God addressing Joshua, Moses’ aide who has risen to leader of the tribes. “My servant Moses is dead. Prepare to cross the Jordan, together with all this people, into the land that I am giving to the Israelites.” Be “strong and very courageous,” God says. Joshua sends two spies to reconnoiter Jericho. A harlot hides them in her home, and they promise to protect her during the invasion if she ties a crimson cord to her window, a vivid echo of the bloody doorposts in Exodus.
The ties between Joshua and Moses are etched even deeper as three days later the former lieutenant leads the Israelites to the shores of the Jordan, the river that extends from Lake Huleh in the north through the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. When the priests bearing the Ark reach the river, the waters divide in the same manner as the Red Sea and “all Israel crosse[s] over on dry land.” Once again, the Israelites begin a new phase in their history with God showing his manifest control over nature and his intimate involvement in everyday events.
After about fifteen minutes in the air, we reached the Rift Valley. From the helicopter, the cleft seemed particularly barren, a frightening gash of charred, chalky sediments, the color of a wasp’s nest. The Jordan, depleted from overirrigation, was barely visible, a narrow wrinkle as thin as a pencil line. Not a mile to the west, the Judaean hills begin, gentle slopes covered in gray grooves as if a million earthworms had edged through the sand. From above, the hills look like sleeping armadillos.
“Do you see that?” Yaya shouted. “That’s the ancient city.” He pointed to the tell, a ten-acre site nestled within the modern city. Human beings have lived here for ten thousand years. The Israelites also stop here first, whereupon God asks Joshua to circumcise all the men, since none has received this holy mark.
“Now why is this the first thing he does?” Yaya asked. “Because he needs to turn his men into fighters. The key to war is making everyone cohesive. In this ceremony, everyone has to commit himself. Remember, they have no antibiotic. And this touches a very sensitive area for every man. Even the Bible says they have to wait a few days for everyone to recover. Yet every man does it. This is the fundamental moment of building community.”
Afterward, they turn their attention to war. Jericho is blockaded. For six days, forty thousand Israelites march around the walls, led by seven priests, each blowing a trumpet, followed by the Ark. On the seventh day they circle the city seven times. On the final leg, as the priests blow their horns, Joshua cries, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city.” The city and everything in it, especially the silver and gold, are to be reserved for the Lord, Joshua says. With trumpets blaring, the people raise a mighty shout and the walls come tumbling down. The Israelites rush in, killing everything in sight, “man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and ass.” The only people spared are the harlot, her parents, and her brothers.
“So what do you think?” I asked Yaya.
“The first thing you have to see about Joshua is that his background is typical of our way of bringing up leaders. In the Israeli Army, unlike the American or European ones, you cannot go straight to the academy and become an officer. You have to go through the ranks. First you join as a private, and only if you are a
successful foot soldier will you be sent to the squad leader course, and only if you are a successful squad leader will you be sent to officer school. Joshua did the same thing, so when he became a leader, he knew exactly what to do.”
“And what about his tactics?”
“Brilliant. In war, you always try to make use of different kinds of tricks. I know everybody talks about miracles–and I don’t want to take anything away from God–but capturing Jericho, in my opinion, is the first example in history of psychological warfare.”
“Because what they do is surround the city for seven days. Now try to imagine you are defending the city. Everyone in Jericho is nervous; they are expecting attack. They wake up every morning and see the Israelites walking around with their trumpets. And they think any minute they will attack: `Now they will! Now they
will!’ But nothing happens. The next morning, the same feeling. People are going crazy!
“Imagine if every day they take you to the hospital. `Now we are going to operate.’ You see the doctors, the nurses, you are scared to death. And suddenly they take you back to your room. No explanation. They don’t even say, `Not today.’ The next morning, the same thing. You are going crazy. `Cut me! Kill me! Do whatever you want, but I can’t take this back-and-forth.’ That’s what happens. Seven days. The Israelites defeat a totally protected city.”
We turned north up the valley toward Shechem, a hotbed of contention then as now. To the west, we could see the next target for the Israelites’ attack, Ai. After Jericho, Joshua moves northward in an attempt to defeat the weaker towns along the central spine of mountains. Feeling cocky, his spies declare they need
only a small garrison to conquer Ai. But the men are quickly routed, which God attributes to the Israelites having kept forbidden booty during the attack on Jericho. Yaya was equally unforgiving: “Don’t underestimate your enemy: That’s the first rule of war.”
Joshua then dispatches thirty thousand men to hide behind Ai. He leads the rest to the city walls, before fleeing in apparent re-treat. The men from Ai follow hotly, leaving the city unprotected and easy prey for the waiting troops, who quickly conquer it. Yaya described this as a textbook ambush. It’s what follows, though, that is momentous. Joshua marches all the Israelites–men, women, and children–north to Shechem, a place of emotional significance because Abraham first stopped here when he came to the Promised Land.
“You see that valley,” Yaya called out. We were over the central mountains, where down below a clear boulevard was visible between two ridges. “You can see why Joshua took this path. The people walked in the middle, and he put troops on either ridge to protect them.”
Once Shechem is captured, Joshua gathers the Israelites around the Ark, with half facing a mountain of blessing and half a mountain of cursing. Joshua then reads everyone the Laws of Moses. This moment represents the first time in Israelite history when the written Torah plays a central role. “There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua failed to read in the presence of the entire assembly of Israel, including the women and children and strangers.”
Yaya was awestruck. “Try to imagine how advanced that was,” he said. “Women and children were not counted back then. Women got the right to vote only a hundred years ago. This is three thousand years ago!”
As he spoke, a burst of shouting interrupted our conversation. The Air Force was furious we were approaching Shechem, modern-day Nablus, one of the bloodiest cities in the region. “You don’t have permission to be here,” the voice insisted. “Turn back. Now!” A small band of ultra-Orthodox Jews had recently blockaded themselves in Joseph’s Tomb and been firebombed by Palestinians. “We’re not going over the city,” Boaz replied, turning to me and winking. The voice did not let up. Directly under us, Yaya pointed out the Balata Refugee Camp, from which dozens of suicide bombers had been dispatched. It looked like an intractable gray maw.
Ignoring the Air Force, Boaz maneuvered the helicopter over the city, which was bracketed by two beautiful peaks: Gerizim, the mount of blessing, and Ebal, the mount of cursing. They were clearly the highest summits in the area. My mind considered how high a rocket-propelled grenade could fly. Boaz seemed unmoved. Earlier, I had asked him if he ever got nervous. “During a situation, you don’t have time to feel uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s like being in a car accident. Afterward, your legs are shaking, but during, you have to guide the steering wheel.” And do you feel more peaceful? “From the air, everything looks different. I don’t know
how to describe it, but when you’re up here, you feel better.”
He steered us to the center of town, directly between the mountains, and over the monastery of Jacob’s Well. And then he stopped. The staccato warnings from the controller continued. The rotor kept spinning, and the sun tried to sieve through the clouds. But we weren’t moving. We paused, suspended in midgulp, just beyond the reach of conflict, far from the fullness of calm, motionless, yet hoping for a hint of blessing from the rival hills.
Yaya broke the silence. For the first time all morning, his voice was low, unanimated. It was personal. “Whenever I try to read the Bible,” he said, “I try to grab the most significant part. In my opinion, the most significant part of this story is that Joshua didn’t read the Laws of Moses only to the heads of the tribes. He read it to everybody. Remember, they had no radios, or loudspeakers. Try to imagine what it means to pass a lesson along the chain so it reaches every man, every woman, every child.”
“So why does he do it?”
“Because that’s what distinguishes the Israelites from the rest of the world. Moses’ rules touch every little corner of your life, from the moment you wake up to the moment you sleep. Even hygiene: how to take care of animals, keep your camp clean, what happens when you pee. Even today, how many countries have legislation on how to treat animals? But three thousand years ago, the Israelites built their nation around living a meaningful life. That’s why they survived.”
The journey south from Shechem became more treacherous. We were covering the most hostile part of the terrain, the central mountains, where for millennia the weaker peoples have been driven to live. What confines the Palestinians to this territory today is exactly what drove the Israelites here in antiquity: because the land is less desirable, the lesser power must accept it. Surviving in the Middle East is elementally a matter of water, not land. The most fertile areas are secured the earliest. In Canaan that means the Galilee, the coastal plain, and what the Bible calls the shefela, the foothills. In today’s world of long-distance surveillance and projectile weaponry, the tops of mountains might be coveted, but in antiquity they were shunned. None of the strongest cities in Canaan, like Beth-shan and Hazor, or even the secondtier cities, like Jericho or Jerusalem, were built at the summits in their neighborhoods. They were built closest to water.
Joshua’s warpath through the Promised Land is brilliantly designed to capitalize on this. First he threads his population in between Canaanite strongholds and stations them alongside a takable city, Shechem. Then he prepares to attack surrounding cities. But his enemy adjusts. A huge coalition of regional kings, including ones from Jerusalem and Hebron, form an alliance to attack the Israelites. Joshua marches all night to surprise them. The seminal battle takes place a few miles west of Jerusalem, where Boaz steered our craft. The hills below were covered in terraces, desperate attempts to keep rainwater from draining away too quickly.
In the battle, Joshua has the advantage of attacking first. But he has an even greater ally. In the war’s most arresting scene, God actually joins the fighting, hailing huge stones from the sky to destroy the fleeing enemy. Desperate for total victory, Joshua pleads for God to stop time. God obliges.
And the sun stood still
And the moon halted
While a nation wreaked judgement on its foes.
Never before, the Bible says, “has there ever been such a day, when the Lord acted on words spoken by a man.” Joshua soon sweeps from north to south and completes his vanquishing of Canaan. “Thus Joshua conquered the whole country,” the text says, “with all their kings; he let none escape, but proscribed everything that breathed.” In less than ten verses, the dream of the Israelites for over ten centuries has come true.
Or has it? 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 aggressive 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 into the historical reality of the second millennium b.c.e. When Abraham wanders from Mesopotamia to Canaan, for example, he follows a familiar migration pattern. When Moses commits murder and flees to the desert, he travels a well-known trading route. Later, with the rise of the prophets in the middle of the first millennium b.c.e., history arrives in full panoply and the Bible is a much more reliable narrator. Joshua, along with David and Solomon, inhabits a ticklish middle ground.
The primary problem with Joshua’s conquest story in the text is that few of the cities described–including Jericho and Ai–show any signs of having been occupied at the time the Israelites appeared in the country. As Avner put it, “The walls could not have come tumbling down around Jericho because the city didn’t have
walls. Plus, it wasn’t inhabited in 1200 b.c.e., when the Israelites arrived. For sure we have a story that was added later.” Nevertheless, there is extensive evidence that the social and political landscape of the country changed around this time and irrefutable proof that the Israelites eventually took over. So what happened?
There are four theories. The oldest is the monolithic war theory: the Israelites came en masse, largely as described in the text, with the story receiving some tinkering when it was written down a few centuries later. Avner, like many, was taught this as a child. A more radical idea, introduced in the 1920s, was peaceful infiltration: the Israelites were pastoralists who wandered in with their flocks in seasonal migrations, settled in the sparsely populated highlands, and eventually clashed with the Canaanites.
Later archaeology showed that the Israelite communities were more advanced, unified, and apparently established within a few generations, which gave rise to a third theory, the wave. The Israelites moved in aggressively from outside, but not all at once, and they never really conquered the entire land, only parts of it.
This is what Avner learned in graduate school. A revisionist theory, introduced more recently, suggests the Conquest was an internal rebellion. The Israelites, instead of being outsiders, were Canaanite peasants who broke away from their lords and fled to the highlands, where they adopted the religious ideals of equality
gleaned from renegade Egyptians.
“So what do you believe now?” I asked Avner.
“I still believe there is a lot of truth in the biblical story,” he said. “Granted, it’s much more complicated, but I have difficulties saying they are indigenous people. Archaeologically, I would expect to see much more continuity. The new inhabitants dressed the same, but they had much poorer materials. Even the pottery shows differences. We have a clear break with Canaan. I think we can be confident that the Israelites came from outside and somehow took over the country.”
Soon we arrived over the southern hills, our last stop before Jerusalem. Yaya had grown more emotional, pointing out landmarks where he trained as a private. Hearing him tap into that raw passion of youth drew me closer to him, and I said, “The Bible never says men going into war are scared. In your experience, do people get scared?”
“No doubt. One of the things you do as a leader is say, `All those who are afraid, go back.’ Almost everyone will go forward. If you identify with the unit, and your commander, you will overcome your concern. People will do unbelievable things if they believe in the values of the group.”
I had been thinking a lot about fear. I wasn’t a direct combatant in this conflict. I didn’t wear a uniform, live in an occupied town, or face mandatory service, like all young Israelis. Instead I was something odder: a volunteer. The simple fact was that I didn’t have to be in this helicopter. I didn’t have to leave my mother crying on the telephone. I didn’t have to leave my new apartment and the mementos I’d just bought on my honeymoon. I didn’t have to leave my new wife.
Yet I did.
And I was afraid. Afraid that I was doing the wrong thing, that I was taking my life into my hands, that I was bringing pain to the people I loved. And I was concerned that the idea that motivated me–thinking about the past as a way to understand the present–was wrong.
Still, my motivation seemed clear. After decades of traveling around the world, thinking about religion and God had brought me more stability than I had ever experienced. Exploring the world through the prism of the Bible had allowed me to understand my surroundings in a way I never thought possible. Interfaith problems are rooted in Abraham; the first war in Iraq was between Cain and Abel. For years I ran decisions through the part of me rooted in my hometown in Georgia and the part grounded in my Ivy League education. Now I also ran them through the Bible and the lens of meaning provided by the ancient stories.
But nagging questions remained. The hardest one I was asked about my earlier journeys through the Bible was how they had affected my faith. I was raised as a fifth-generation Jew in the South in one of the oldest synagogues in the United States. Religion was a matter of rote and pride, not a matter of conviction. But my journey grounded me, I often said. I discovered in myself a molecular attachment to the land. My bond with the Bible moved from my head to my feet.
I felt safe.
But there was something I felt that I rarely said: Traveling in the desert drew me closer to God but further away from organized religion. 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. Perhaps I had no need for religion and could cultivate a personal, nonsectarian relationship with the Bible, with other seekers, and with God.
September 11 at first deepened that conviction. My animosity toward religion seemed bolstered by the new reality, as violence in the name of faith now imperiled the world. Turn on a news broadcast anywhere. Fundamentalists had seized control of faith and slammed the door on tolerance. There was only one route to salvation, and Osama bin Laden, or Mullah Omar, or Jerry Falwell, or any number of radical Jewish settlers I had met over the years held the key. To me this extremism held an alarmingly real prospect for religious war.
But the alternative–radical secularism–seemed equally dangerous and unappealing. The bloodiest wars of the twentieth century were fought for secular ideologies, including socialism, fascism, and communism. When I was growing up, the world had seemed to be disengaging from religion; it turned on the axis of the Cold War and worshiped the twin gods of science and pleasure.
In the West, the biggest alternative to faith was capitalism and the promise that the global marketplace held for heaven on earth. People were just too busy getting ahead and enjoying the moment to worry about profiting from the past or preparing for the afterlife. The result left what Jean-Paul Sartre called a God-shaped hole in human consciousness, where the divine once was but had disappeared.
So is there a middle ground? I wondered. 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 tried to answer those questions, the Bible took on new meaning–and new urgency–for me. In particular, I became fascinated by the underappreciated second half of the Hebrew Bible, in which the birth of religion is described in dramatic, contentious detail. For the first thousand years of Israelite history, the patriarchs have a personal relationship with God and their descendants receive the 613 Laws of Moses. But their ways of worship–building altars, making burnt sacrifices–bear little resemblance to what organized
religion would become. Nowhere in the Torah, for instance, does it say how to conduct a wedding or a funeral. Not until the first millennium b.c.e. do the Israelites begin to refine the basic tenets of biblical monotheism–worshiping in the Temple, reading the Bible, celebrating Shabbat. The Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from the late first millennium b.c.e., contain extensive details on how to plan nuptials.
The latter parts of the Bible portray this evolution as messy at best. Here, in a glorious sweep that heralds God’s kingdom on earth, Joshua parades the Ark into Israel, David unites the tribes in Jerusalem, and Solomon builds the House of the Lord. But here also, in a vivid portrait of the moral decay that shadows that kingdom, Jeremiah decries the ethical rot of the people, Isaiah weeps over their exile to Babylon, and Ezekiel dreams of their return to Zion. In this graphic interplay, the Bible seems to be saying that godliness and godlessness are in perpetual tension.
For years I deflected questions about religion by pointing out that organized faith didn’t exist during the time of the patriarchs. The second half of the Hebrew Bible puts that vacancy to an end, as Israel develops Judaism, the foundation faith for Christianity, Islam, and half the world’s believers today. And Israel was not alone. Around the globe, from Japan to India to Iran to Greece, organized religion was invented in the first millennium b.c.e. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers termed these years (800 to 200 b.c.e.) the Axial Age, because they gave rise to Shintoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Platonism. The central challenges of our time–the relationship between individuals and God, faith and reason, theocracy and democracy, church and state–were born in the centuries between Moses and Jesus. For that reason, some scholars believe we are in a new Axial Age. Regardless, the need to understand the birth pangs of religion is more pressing than ever.
At the close of my first journey, as I climbed down from Mount Nebo, I had turned to Avner and said, “We’re not done yet.” Finally I understood why. I had to return to the scene of my desert transformation. I would travel through the tinderbox of Israel, exploring the prickly relationship between God and the first kings of Israel. I would try to penetrate Iraq, the birthplace of the Bible and the scene of the most traumatic–and least understood–revolution in the history of religion, the Babylonian Exile. And I would attempt to pierce the religious iron curtain surrounding Iran, home to the unexpected savior of the Israelites, Cyrus the Great, the first interfaith leader in history.
“Great, the Axis of Upheaval,” my wife cracked.
Still one more reason drew me back to the Bible. The comfort I took from my earlier travels had been undermined by a series of crises. My mother got cancer; my father, too, had been touched by illness. I had arrived in a new phase of life. On a personal level, one relationship ended, and another began. That, too, failed, which sent me back to the woman whose strength, wisdom, and fire mirrored the feelings I had in the desert. One thing love and faith have in common is that they grow from the same human amalgam of unease, desire, passion, and need.
We were married on a June evening under the stained-glass light of Noah and by the words of Moses in my childhood synagogue. Two rabbis, each invoking Abraham and Sarah, wove the present to the past with an ineffable flax. It was the part of religion that seemed most appealing: the comfort and import of repetition, something totally familiar that became, through its sheer ordinariness, something fresh and uplifting.
Two months later, I kissed my wife good-bye and set out to undermine everything we had built. The world was filled with terror, fear, and death. War, so long prosecuted in the name of states, was now being rendered most commonly in the name of God. The Bible, which for so long had seemed the refuge of the past, sud-
denly seemed the most vital route for making sense of the tumult of the hour.
I had wanted to go on my first journeys back to the Bible.
I needed to go on this one.
I arrived in Jerusalem on the most gorgeous day I could remember, drinking in the clean air. Wind tussled the palm fronds, a kippah blew down the street, a huff of clouds chugged by as if from a storybook train. On a passing bus, a pudgy elderly couple, Eastern Europeans who no doubt had survived World War II, gripped each other in a tight embrace, as if granting and taking life. There is no uncomplicated emotion here. No day is purely beautiful; no tragedy is merely tragic.
Avner and I drove to the fashionable German Colony to have dinner. It seemed safe. No bombing had ever occurred on this block. “Are you armed?” the guard said at the gate of an open-air restaurant. Earlier, a soldier across the street had foiled an attack, holding up the arms of a heavily perspiring man to prevent him from detonating the explosives around his neck. After dinner we walked back to the car. Most of the shops were closed, except one. It was crowded, bright, with a square red sign that said coffee. “That’s new,” I said. “I hear it’s wonderful,” Avner said. “We should go there sometime.” He paused as if to say, “Should we?” Nah, it was late, our helicopter tour was scheduled for the morning. I was asleep by 11:00 p.m.
Twenty minutes later the telephone woke me from a dead sleep. “There’s been a bombing in Jerusalem,” Avner said. “I think you should call home.” I had done so earlier, after a bombing in Tel Aviv. I telephoned my wife, who was more shaken this time. “Please, no more outdoor restaurants,” she said. My mother started pleading. My father was grim.
I got off the phone and turned on the television. The familiar chaos was on the screen–people crying, running, splattered blood on a young girl’s face, a darkened arm in the street. And then they showed where it had happened. A bright red sign. Square. coffee.
Never before in my years of traversing the Middle East and confronting the reality of religious violence had I felt such a trembling of raw emotion. “Oh, my God,” I cried out, alone. I grabbed at my face. I felt the imminence of death, as if I had touched a place in my body I didn’t know was there. I watched the endless
loop on television, the faces of people I almost knew. I muted the sound and for a few minutes, groggy from half sleep, watched over and over and over again. I turned the sound up and heard how the bomber had been stopped, someone had shouted “Terror!” and still no one was safe.
My wife called back, and I started babbling, trying to be soothing, yet a little out of control. By the end I was just hugging the phone in silence. Finally I turned off the television and tried to sleep, half waiting for another call. The room was cold. It was late.
Tomorrow was the anniversary of September 11. We were climbing again, approaching Jerusalem from the south, gliding over the bank of pines that rings the city. “Get ready!” Yaya said. We drifted above the ridge, and suddenly the city burst before us, like a platter of treats being served up by a waiter. My heart leapt as my eye scurried to orient itself, looking first for the bell tower on the Mount of Olives, then the Tower of David, and finally the large plaza with the golden dome at its heart. “Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem,” wrote the Psalmist.
“May those who love you be at peace. May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels. For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being; for the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I seek your good.”
Yaya was bursting with pride, a little boy with a train set he had built himself. “Look! That’s the hill we captured in ’48.” “That’s where David eyed Bathsheba.” “Wait! Do you see that . . .” The windows nearly fogged with the intensity. After a while I stopped looking at the landmarks and stared at him.
“You’re part of one of the most efficient, lethal fighting forces in the world,” I said. “And yet you’re passionate about the Bible? What would your soldiers say?”
“Can I tell you a secret?” he said. “For years I chaired the committee that wrote the code of ethics for the IDF. It was one of the most enjoyable assignments I had. In the introduction we wrote that all our ethics are based on the values that come from our Bible. I once taught at the War College outside Washington, and
they said no other military in the world has such a code.”
“But the Bible is so brutal,” I said. “Joshua kills women and children.”
“That was the custom of the time,” he said. “Today, the battlefield is the place where real human character is displayed. I have seen people ready to make the ultimate sacrifice. I have seen people turn into animals. The difference is their values. Do you know that during the whole Yom Kippur War and the Lebanese War there was not even one case that an Israeli soldier raped a woman? You won’t find any army in the world with such a record.”
We arrived over the Old City. For the first time all day, the clouds dissolved and a clear, white sun washed over the honey-colored stones. A rainbow appeared over the gilded onion domes of the Russian Orthodox church in Gethsemane. “Wanna go for a ride?” Boaz said.
I held on. He pushed down on the control shaft, and suddenly we began to dive. We were forbidden from flying below five thousand feet. Soon we were at four thousand, then three. 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.
Two thousand feet. Fifteen hundred.
None of us was speaking. My eye was drawn to the crescent on the top of the golden dome. The guard towers on the four corners. The black-capped worshipers at the Western Wall. We were blasting through the cornea of what the Talmud calls the Eye of the World. 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.
The dial said 1,000 feet. 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.
When I first came to Israel, I was drawn by the country’s physicality, the dripping sense that past and future lived closer to the surface of every life. In Jerusalem I was more alive. Here I could engage the smorgasbord of history and politics, war and peace, that had absorbed me since I was a teenager arguing current events around the breakfast table. I had walked down the steps to the Western Wall, placed my hands on the stones, and wept. I had reached the bedrock of my identity. I had come home.
But now, suspended above that plaza, I wondered. The stones seemed so unmoving, and the history in them so inflexible. The dimensions of that holy mountain had become the battle lines of holy war. Maybe the only way to reach peace was to peer beyond the tangible structures and reclaim the original sacred space. The Temple
was never supposed to be merely a place; it was supposed to be the embodiment of an idea: Humans can live in consort with God.
This tension, I realized, forms the undercurrent of the Bible: trying to balance a life on earth with a life that meets the standards of God. When Moses gathers the tribes at the end of his life, he warns them that conquering the land will not end their challenges; it will begin them. And he cautions them that God will punish failure to obey his laws by ripping them from the land. “The Lord will scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the earth to the other.”
When Joshua gathers the tribes at the end of his life, he delivers a similar message. Do not mingle with the foreigners that surround you and worship their pagan gods. “You will not be able to serve the Lord,” Joshua says. “He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions and your sins.” This is the painful message at the heart of the Conquest: For centuries the Israelites had dreamed of setting foot in the Promised Land, but once they arrive there is little celebration. There is doom. Instead of being a land of milk and honey, it is a land of blood and tears.
This reality sets up the question that defines the rest of the Hebrew Bible: Which is more important, living on the land or living a life of God? For me, this question was acute. So much of my rediscovery of the Bible was about reconnecting to the land. But for the Israelites, occupying the land involves a vicious slaughter of men, women, and children. One overlooked legacy of Israel’s God is the beastly violence he continually demands. If you love the lessons of the Bible–particularly its legacy of ethics and morality–it’s sometimes hard to love the stories of the Bible. The life of God is not always a life of peace and light.
And neither is life on the land. Jews often claim that, according to the Bible, God promised this land to Abraham; we were here first, and our claims should have precedence. The land is vital to Judaism. But the Bible delivers a very different message. It says living on the land is not the most important thing; living on the land while obeying God is the most important thing. The land is secondary to living a virtuous life. Faced with a choice, the people of Israel should chose the values of heaven over the virtues of earth.
“So you fought for this land,” I said to Yaya, gesturing to Jerusalem and beyond. “Would you give it back?”
“It depends on what you want to achieve,” he said. “War is just a tool to achieve your national goals. Land is important to a nation, but so is language, and ideology. The Jewish people have always wanted to come back to Jerusalem. But more important than this city, or any city, are the rules, the beliefs, the way to treat yourself, your wife, your neighbors. The key to Judaism is the principle that everyone is responsible for the well-being of the people.”
“At the end of the story, Joshua gathers all the Israelites at Shechem,” I said. “He tells them they must choose the God of Abraham or the gods of Canaan. If you were talking to the Jewish people today, what would you say?”
“As I told you, the most important thing for any leader is to define the goal. For me, the goal is to live in this place, in peaceful conditions with our neighbors, according to our values and beliefs–and not to sacrifice our values and beliefs because of a piece of land, or a question of pride. You have to compromise. All our history we have compromised. But there is one thing we cannot compromise: our values.”
The helicopter started to rise. I felt the now familiar vibration from above, the swell of air from below, the gentle lift.
“Can that goal be achieved?”
“No doubt,” he said. “No doubt.”
Back in Jerusalem a few hours later, the air was still electrified, sad. I went to visit Bikur Holim Hospital, the cramped Dickensian building in the heart of the city that serves as ground zero for many of the victims of suicide bombings. A pall of emptiness still hung over the seventy-five-year-old building, as a guard slowly inspected my bag. Inside a long, dimly lit hallway, a few family members huddled along the stone walls; patients with wounds on their faces sat in wheelchairs.
Seven people were killed in the blast at the coffee shop; fifty-seven were wounded. Craig Nelson, a reporter eating at a pizza parlor across the street from the café, described seeing a man turn away from his restaurant, run into the shop, utter “Allah Akbar,” “God is great,” then blow himself up. His severed head landed in the middle of the street. The neck is the weakest part of the body, the police explained. Nelson found a twenty-year-old woman curled on her side, gasping for breath, her arm twisted grotesquely. Her hair was singed gray. Nava Applebaum died in his arms. Eight feet away lay the corpse of her father.
Dr. David Applebaum, a native of Cleveland, was one of Israel’s most famous emergency room physicians. He had flown back that evening from a conference in Manhattan, where he was asked to speak about his pioneering efforts to treat victims of suicide bombings. He had taken Nava to the café for a father-daughter chat to impart some last-minute advice. Today was to be her wedding day. She was buried instead. As Nava’s body was lowered into her grave, her fiancé placed a farewell gift on her shrouded body. It was her wedding ring.
“In the last three years, we’ve had more than twenty-four suicide bombings,” explained Alex Farkas, a friend of Avner’s who worked as the hospital’s spokesman. Alex was a forty-something Hasidic Jew, with a beard and white shirt; he was disheveled from a night of no sleep. “We got information yesterday morning from the police that a bomber was on his way to Jerusalem. We even knew the color of his shoes. And they caught him a few meters from here; the hospital was his target. But we didn’t have warning about the man at the café.”
With so much experience, the hospital had become adept at crises. “People come from all over the world to learn how we do it. You hear the doors banging, then–it’s a miracle–in two minutes you wouldn’t recognize the place. It’s like a new dimension of smell, light.”
First come light victims, often strapped to chairs. Next are more serious victims, brought by professionals. Ambulances use a special code to get through the barriers, after the IDF warned that bombers might usurp medical vehicles. Then come people in shock, screaming. “Last night we had a serious case, a man who saw his friend lose two legs. He was hyperventilating so severely it took four hours before he came out of it.”
I asked Alex how he would explain to someone, like my mother, why there was so much violence in a place of such faith. Was religion to blame?
“I will tell her that one thing is for sure: There is one God, and God controls the world. God controls the bomb, and the bomber. God chooses the doctor who takes my wife’s three eggs and, through IVF, turns one of them into my son. And God decides that Dr. Applebaum and his daughter, on the day of her marriage, will go into heaven.
“And I will tell her,” he continued, “that as a religious person, I believe the world is going to get better. There will be a messiah. It is written in the Bible that the sheep will live together with the wolf.” “But when you read Joshua,” I said, “the story suggests you can’t have God’s kingdom without violence.”
“Why does a baby, when it’s born, have to go through such drastic bloodshed? I don’t know. I didn’t create the world, but I know that good things come from stress. Through that war, the land of Israel was created. Through this war, we created many methods of saving lives.”
He told me a story. A woman had come into the hospital the night before. She had shrapnel in her back and was covered in blood. She was hysterical. They got her during the Golden Hour, the first sixty minutes after a crisis. They saved her life. “Do you want to meet her?”
Before I could think I was ushered down the hall, through the emergency ward, into a dimly lit room. Tzippy Cohen was sitting against the pillows in a loose-fitting hospital gown, her bangs hanging limply around her expressionless face. The twenty-five-year-old Australian was more alert than I would have expected, but her eyes were still vacant. She was vacationing from New York, where she works at the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools, just blocks from Ground Zero.
“We decided kind of late, Let’s go out for coffee,” she said.
“We chose the German Colony, because it’s not the center of town. We took a cab, because you’re not supposed to take buses. I had wanted to go to Café Hillel. I had heard it was good.”
“It looked very inviting last night,” I said.
“It was full, we noticed that. We decided not to sit outside, safety-wise. We also made a decision to sit in the back, safety-wise. I had a salad, nothing major. We were just picking at our food.
“And then, in the middle of nowhere . . .” Her eyes blinked.
“And you knew what it was. There was no question it was a bomb. The place just jumped, like an electric shock went through us. I can’t separate anything, except to say: Bang. A shock. Black. Smoke. Shattered. And then a split second of darkness and silence. Followed by screaming. And running. And pandemonium.”
Her voice trailed off.
“I knew immediately I had to get out of there,” she continued.
“I felt I was cut. I was bleeding. Instinct told us to go out the back. We climbed through the glass walls, which were blown out, and went running through the alley, just screaming. `Call an ambulance! Someone call an ambulance!’ A lady said, `Come with me,’ and drove me to the hospital. When I got here I realized there was blood on my body that was not my blood. My hair had pieces in it. . . . It was other people.”
Again there was a pause.
“So why were you saved?” I asked.
“I believe in higher powers,” Tzippy said. “If you ask me, it’s a miracle. I was in New York on September 11 and watched the second tower fall. I was covered in dust. My faith does not let me believe that if I’m going to a land–my holy land–that something will happen to me. If I would have died here, I would have died in New York.”
“But in the face of what you’ve seen, some people might say that religion is the problem. You have come face-to-face with one of the worst things a human being can do.”
“I have to say, on the contrary, it makes me do a turnaround. I need to turn closer to religion. I am lying here for a reason. You can’t attribute something like this to coincidence every time it happens. Luck doesn’t come your way so much. If I have learned anything from this experience it is that, despite the evil in this world, there is still goodness in each human being. When I walk out of here, I owe it to God to do something good for his allowing me to survive such hell.” She attempted a wan smile.
“And I will.”
Excerpted from WHERE GOD WAS BORN. Copyright © 2005 by Bruce Feiler. Harpercollins Publishers. All rights reserved.