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No recent author has more successfully tapped into the popular fascination with ancient Biblical figures and circumstances than Bruce Feiler. His book Walking the Bible is slated for production as a PBS documentary, and his most recent work, ABRAHAM: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine. A New York Times bestseller, Abraham has been hailed by media nationwide as an important and intriguing story of religion, geography and personal growth.

Feiler recently spoke with explorefaith.org writer Elise Sullivan about his personal journey and thoughts on Abraham as the central figure and shared ancestor of Jews, Christians and Muslims. In the following interview he explores parallels between religion, geography, and the political issues of our time, vividly shedding light on a common ancestry that continues to inform us today.

As a direct result of this book, the author has initiated a website that allows people to join in the vital dialog of the interfaith community through gatherings called Abraham Salons. At brucefeiler.com [may not be available yet] you will find comments from others who have participated in these unique Abraham Salons, and find tools and resources for facilitating your own salon on a local level.

ES: Bruce, what is it about Abraham that is important to the seeker?

BF: In the beginning of Genesis, God creates the world and is looking for a human partner. He creates Adam and Eve, but Adam prefers Eve to God, so that doesn't work. God banishes them. Ten generations pass. God taps Noah. Noah builds the ark, saves the animals. Then, the Bible tells us, Noah starts drinking. He prefers liquor to God. God gets upset and withdraws.

Again, ten more generations pass, and I think God in some ways realizes he needs someone who needs him, and he fixes on Abraham. Why does Abraham need God? He’s 75 years old, living in Ur of the Chaldees and is married to Sarah. They can't have a child. With all the begetting and begatting, Abraham cannot create. God calls out to Abraham, offers him a deal, and Abraham has to decide whether he's going to accept, which he does.

I think the key here is that not only does God choose Abraham, but Abraham chooses God. So the call in Genesis 12 is really another story about creation - the creation of a partnership that, once made, has never been undone throughout the course of human history.

Moses is more important for Jews. Jesus is more important for Christians. Mohammed is more important for Muslims, yet Abraham stands behind those three figures as the ancestor that each of those faiths wants to root themselves in. It's almost as if you can't get to God without going through Abraham.

ES: How does Abraham’s journey speak to us today about the basic desire of all people to form a union with God?

BF:I think all of us - those who are, or those who see themselves as descendants of Abraham - face similar moments in our lives when we have to look back at our comfortable past. When we peer ahead at our uncertain future, and wonder, “Do I have the courage to make the leap?”

I think there's only one reason to go on that journey. It's because God calls us on that journey. And the key thing to remember about that journey is . . . we don't know the destination! The only thing we know is that God calls us to make this journey, and therefore, we have to trust or submit or have faith or whatever interpretation you choose to use. We just have to walk . . . even though we don't know where we're going. It’s very striking to me that the only way to find God seems to come down to leaving your native land - leave your father's house, leave what's comfortable, leave everything you know behind, and begin the journey. You have to start walking before you know where you're going. God doesn't even tell Abraham the destination. He only says, “the land that I will show you.”

ES: The non-rational and unpredictable aspects of the wilderness figure predominately in Abraham. I know in the process of writing this, as well as in your book Walking the Bible, you experienced these elements on a very immediate and intimate level. Travel became “journey” for you. How do you internalize the significance of wilderness in Abraham’s journey?

BF: This is a huge thing. I don’t think you can understand the Bible without understanding what wilderness is, the geographic messages. This was certainly my realization when I did Walking the Bible, which describes the year I spent retracing the five books of Moses through the deserts of Turkey, Israel, Palestinian territories, Egypt, the Sinai, and Jordan. That’s 10,000 miles, three continents, five countries, four war zones.

I found that somehow the act of going to extreme places opens one up. It certainly opened me up to extreme emotions. I mean, I'd been to 60-some-odd countries, even before I started these journeys to the Middle East. Looking back, I realize that where I’d traveled before had always been “temperate.” The environments were familiar . . . four seasons, and safe places, in most ways. In the wilderness of the desert all that changes. In the desert, you become very unsure. You don't know where to sit, where to stand, what to eat, what to drink....

In the desert, you're unsure, and you can't survive by yourself. You have to turn to the person you're with, to the group, or then, maybe ultimately, to someone or something higher.

If you think about it, in our culture all we talk about is independence, independence, independence. There ain't no independence in the desert! There's only dependence. Therefore, the first thing you realize when you're in the desert is that you're small and you're needy. And of course, that is rich terrain for finding God.

God seems to call people out into the desert, the wilderness, the unknown, where He seems to be able to communicate most effectively with his central figures. You see this in the Abraham story, with Abraham going forth into the desert; when Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham’s child and Sarah kicks Hagar out into the desert – there again.

ES: How does the dichotomy of the sacred and the profane in Abraham’s story inform us today?

BF: One of the themes of the Abraham story is the importance of combining or merging the sacred and the profane - that God and Abraham need each other in some very fundamental way. They form their partnership, and there’s this sort of natural give and take between the divine world and the very human world.

A moment that really captures this is when the messengers of God are on their way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and they stop by the tent of Abraham. He welcomes them in. And then God says, well, you know, Abraham is a great figure, so I think I'll tell him what I'm going to do. So God tells Abraham, “You should know, I'm going to go over there and destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because they're wicked.” He doesn't say why they're wicked at that time, but he says he’s going to go destroy them. And Abraham, rather than saying, “Okay, you're God; you do what you've got to do,” he objects. And he says, “Wait a minute. What if there are 50 righteous people? Are you going to destroy them, too?” And God says, “Okay, fine. If there are 50 righteous people, I won't destroy them.” And Abraham says, “What if there are 40?” And God says, “Okay, fine. If there are 40, I won't do it.”

Back and forth they go. “What about 30?” And they go down, 50, 40, 30, 20, ten. They get down to ten righteous people. I mean, it's like this reverse E-Bay auction of human life. What I think is powerful, what I take from it is that it's okay to talk back to God at times. It is okay to be frustrated at times. There is this give and take. It's almost, if you want to be so bold to suggest, that God learned something from Abraham.

It's tempting for many of us today to say, “Well, God is . . . . . and I need to be like God.” Well, guess what? God, in the Hebrew Bible at least, is passionate at times and childish at times and violent at times. And there are times when he doesn't want to be like God. Yet somehow the struggle and the yearning that both humans and God have for one another make both of them better.

ES: I think everyone faces stress when it comes to choices-- being able to choose, then having done so, bargaining with themselves, as it were, trying to reconcile their choice with their reality. When God tells Abraham to take his son and lay him out as sacrifice, how does Abraham's response inform our journey?

BF: Let me preface my response by saying, pretty much every time that I get frustrated by something on the news, or in my own personal search, I go back to the text. The text, invariably, will deliver up a different message, or a moment, or an insight that will help me. It's just sort of a rule of thumb of mine. And I think what's interesting is that story will yield an insight into almost whatever question you have.

If you framed the story to address our choices and what we can learn about God telling Abraham to take Isaac, bind him up as sacrifice . . . . . There is an interesting question: “How far are you willing to go?” At what point do you have to do only what God tells you? Or at what point do you have to say, “Well, I'm a human being and I have some free will, and I'm not going to do what God asks me.” To put it more directly, “Would I kill for God?” is a question I think all of us fear having to face at one time or another in our lives.

I see Abraham testing God as much as God is testing Abraham. God has promised Abraham that he will have a son. Ishmael is gone by that point. If God allows Abraham to kill Isaac, then Abraham will no longer have a son.

Abraham is saying, “I'm going to do what you tell me. I'm going to take him up to this rock. I'm going to bind him. I'm going to indicate that I am prepared to kill him, and I am almost going to dare you to stop me.”

There again, it shows the interaction, the relationship. I think Abraham shows himself willing, but stops short. God shows himself as demanding, but also merciful at the same time. So, I think there is in this story a model, not only for fanaticism, but also for the give and take. We don't just have to do what God tells us. Actually, we have a say. And I think that's an important message, especially in an era when a lot of people are citing [religion] as a justification for the most violent acts imaginable.

ES: How do you feel Abraham informs us today as we try to make sense of the three central faiths?

BF: What in Abraham is most helpful? My answer to that lies in the last scene in his life, Genesis 25:9. His sons, Ishmael and Isaac - rivals since before they were born, leaders of opposing nations - come, stand side-by-side, and bury their father.

He tried to kill each of them. If they can forgive him and stand side-by-side, that's very important. To me the power of that moment is what it doesn't say. It doesn't say they hugged and had dinner and lived happily ever after. It says they stood side-by-side.

The goal here is not one religion. The goal is mutual respect. You have your faith, she has her faith, he has his faith. We respect one another, but we don't have to become one another. I think Abraham is the first exemplar of a reluctant pluralism. All of which is to say, we may have rivalries and problems with one another, but there is no alternative other than to stand side-by-side and acknowledge that we have the same ancestor. We face a choice; open conflict among the religions or some reconciliation and mutual respect. We have a choice.

ES: What then is Abraham’s legacy to us, today?

BF: There's the negative legacy; violence in the name of faith. If you want to commit violence in the name of faith, then you have plenty of examples to point to in Abraham. If it's good enough for him, why isn't it good enough for me?

Every generation for 2,500 years has felt a need to go back to Abraham. For 4,000 years there’s been an idea abreast in the world that we come from one father. He is the shared biological ancestor of 12 million Jews, two billion Christians and one billion Muslims - half the humans alive today. What we need now is to go behind the legacy of saying, "He's mine! He's mine! He's mine!" as each of the faiths have, and say, "He’s OURS!”

To me, the number one legacy of this experience is to push us beyond that thing our mamas all told us, which is, “Don't talk about politics and religion in public.” We have to stand up and each do our part.

What I want to leave people with is an invitation to dialogue. What we can all do is call our neighbor, sit down with a friend, sit down with your child and grandmother and say, “Let's talk about this. It may be painful, it may be difficult, but let's find a way to have a conversation.”

In the end, you will find that there is a family view, and one man stands at the center of it: Abraham. And he contains the seeds of hope.


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