We'll start off with the big question. Where was God born?
God was born in Babylon. By that I mean that the idea of religion emerged in the thousand years between Moses and Jesus, in the ancient Near East. There was just this moment in time when societies were becoming mature enough and wealthy enough, and people were looking for more meaning. The idea of God as a universal, portable, invisible, everywhere being really entered the broadest portions of society at that time.
Babylon is a place that kind of crystallizes that moment. [Babylon, located in what is now Iraq, was the capital of the Babylonian Empire and reached its height under King Nebuchadnezzer II.] Up to the time of Babylon, there was a God who was attached to a certain place. But when the Israelites were kicked out of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and sent into exile, God became universal and portable. It's a very simple idea in our lives--when we go to church or synagogue, we pray to a universal God--that began in Babylon.
But there was a Temple before Babylon.
Exactly. God lived in that place. Priests would go in and worship to God. What happened in Babylon was that the Temple was gone, so the Israelites had to ask, if the House of God is gone, where is God living? They came to understand that God is everywhere, and you don't only have to go into the Temple to see God, you can find him everywhere. So you can't understand religion today without understanding what happened in Babylon in the 600s BCE.
This change is really not talked about that much. We learn that the time of the kings, Solomon and David, was great, and Babylon was bad. "By the rivers of Babylon, they sat and wept." In fact, the kings were bad and Babylon was wonderful, because it invented religion as we know it today.
What happened in Babylon is the development of the idea that individuals can have a relationship with God, wherever they are, and that God can hold those individuals [accountable] to make their own lives better and to make society better.
In this new book, you write that your first book about these topics, "Walking the Bible," was a paean to the land. How is this different? In this book you still trace the land of the Bible and going from place to place.
This book is a paean to humans' capacity to use their relationship with God to improve the world around them. I think of my journey of "Walking the Bible," and of the first five books of the Bible, as very linear. There was this small family, they started with Abraham, and he went down to the Promised Land, and it grew and grew into this nation by the end of the five books.
What happens in the second half of the Hebrew Bible is that nation begins to interact with the world. It loses some of its identity for a while, and then goes off into exile and rediscovers its identity. Once it rediscovers its identity in the exile, it disperses to teach that message to the rest of the world. God more or less turns his attention away from the powerful and toward the people. He says, "I'm not going to put all my attention on the kings," and he turns to the prophets. The prophets are lay people who are leaders or priests or poets. They are individuals who say to the people, "God is not going to help you all the time. You have to redeem yourself, you have to make the world better."
There's this great idea--you can see it in Jeremiah, you can see it in some of the earlier prophets. They say, "Look around you. People are cheating on their spouses, they're drinking too much, the town has gone to trouble." Rather than saying, "Don't worry, God is going to fix it," the prophets say, "You fix it. You are responsible for making the world a better place." That is a very powerful message.
I've spent almost ten years of my life now reading and thinking and traveling and living with the Bible. I think the best line in the Bible is the line in Genesis 1: "God said, Let us make humans in our image, after our likeness." What that says is that there is a little bit of divinity in every person. It is our responsibility to find God in someone who is different from us. I think that God basically says, "I created diversity on purpose, and it is your responsibility to figure out how to make it work."