The Year of Living Biblically : One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
From the bestselling author of The Know-It-All comes a fascinating and timely exploration of religion and the Bible.
Raised in a secular family but increasingly interested in the relevance of faith in our modern world, A.J. Jacobs decides to dive in headfirst and attempt to obey the Bible as literally as possible for one full year. He vows to follow the Ten Commandments. To be fruitful and multiply. To love his neighbor. But also to obey the hundreds of less publicized rules: to avoid wearing clothes made of mixed fibers; to play a ten-string harp; to stone adulterers.
The resulting spiritual journey is at once funny and profound, reverent and irreverent, personal and universal and will make you see history's most influential book with new eyes.
Jacobs's quest transforms his life even more radically than the year spent reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica for The Know-It-All. His beard grows so unruly that he is regularly mistaken for a member of ZZ Top. He immerses himself in prayer, tends sheep in the Israeli desert, battles idolatry, and tells the absolute truth in all situations - much to his wife's chagrin.
Throughout the book, Jacobs also embeds himself in a cross-section of communities that take the Bible literally. He tours a Kentucky-based creationist museum and sings hymns with Pennsylvania Amish. He dances with Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn and does Scripture study with Jehovah's Witnesses. He discovers ancient biblical wisdom of startling relevance. And he wrestles with seemingly archaic rules that baffle the twenty-first-century brain.
Jacobs's extraordinary undertaking yields unexpected epiphanies and challenges. A book that will charm readers both secular and religious, The Year of Living Biblically is part Cliff Notes to the Bible, part memoir, and part look into worlds unimaginable. Thou shalt not be able to put it down.
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1 . Jacobs' Book is the Alpha and the Omega of Comedy
Posted January 01, 2009 by RDM , Kansas City, MOIf you enjoyed A.J. Jacobs' first book, The Know It All, you will love this book, too. The Year of Living Biblically is a wry, insightful, and often hilarious book as Jacobs tries to live the Bible literally from Genesis to Revelations.
Simon & Schuster
October 07, 2007
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Excerpt from The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs
It's the first day, and I already feel like the water is three feet over my head.
I have chosen September 1 to start my project, and from the moment I wake up, the Bible consumes my life. I can't do anything without fearing I'm breaking a biblical law. Before I so much as inhale or exhale, I have to run through a long mental checklist of the rules.
It begins when I open my closet to get dressed. The Bible forbids men to wear women's clothing (Deuteronomy 22:5), so that comfortable Dickinson College sweatshirt is off-limits. It was originally my wife's.
The Bible says to avoid wearing clothes made of mixed fibers (Leviticus 19:19), so I have to mothball my poly-cotton Esquire magazine T-shirt.
And loafers? Am I allowed to wear leather? I go to the living room, click on my PowerBook and open my Biblical Rules file. I scroll down to the ones about animals. Pigskin and snakeskin are questionable, but it looks like regular old cow leather is permissible.
But wait -- am I even allowed to use the computer? The Bible, as you might have guessed, doesn'taddress the issue specifically, so I give it a tentative yes. Maybe sometime down the road, I could try stone tablets.
And then I stumble. Within a half hour of waking, I check the Amazon.com sales ranking of my last book. How many sins does that comprise? Pride? Envy? Greed? I can't even count.
I don't do much better on my errand to Mail Boxes Etc. I want to xerox a half dozen copies of the Ten Commandments so I can Scotch tape them up all over the apartment, figuring it'd be a good memory aid.
The Bible says, those with good sense are "slow to anger" (Proverbs 19:11). So when I get there at the same time as this wiry fortyish woman, and she practically sprints to the counter to beat me in line, I try not to be annoyed.
And when she tells the Mail Boxes Etc. employee to copy something on the one and only functioning Xerox machine, I try to shrug it off. And when she pulls out a stack of pages that looks like the collected works of J. K. Rowling and plunks it on the counter, I say to myself: "Slow to anger, slow to anger."
After which she asks some complicated question involving paper stock...
I remind myself: Remember what happened when the Israelites were waiting for Moses while he was up on the mountaintop for forty days? They got impatient, lost faith, and were struck with a plague.
Oh, and she pays by check. And asks for a receipt. And asks to get the receipt initialed. The Proverbs -- a collection of wisdom in the Old Testament -- say that smiling makes you happy. Which is actually backed up by psychological studies. So I stand there with a flight attendant-like grin frozen on my face. But inside, I am full of wrath.
I don't have time for this. I have a seventy-two-page-list of other biblical tasks to do.
I finally make it to the counter and give the cashier a dollar. She scoops my thirty-eight cents of change from the register and holds it out for me to take.
"Could you, uh, put the change on the counter?" I ask.
She glares at me. I'm not supposed to touch women -- more on that later -- so I am simply trying to avoid unnecessary finger-to-finger contact.
"I have a cold," I say. "I don't want to give it to you."
A complete lie. In trying to avoid one sin, I committed another.
I walk home. I pass by a billboard that features two well-toned naked people clutching hungrily at each other's bodies. It's an ad for a gym. The Bible's teachings on sexuality are complicated, and I haven'tfigured them out yet. But to be safe, I figure I should avoid lust for now. I keep my eyes on the ground for the rest of the walk home.
When I get back to my apartment, I decide to cross Numbers 15:38 off my list: Attach tassels to the corners of my garment. Inspired by my ex-uncle Gil, I had purchased some tassels from a website called "Tassels without Hassles." They look like the kind of tassels on the corners of my grandmother's needlepoint pillows. I spend ten minutes safety pinning them to my shirtsleeves and hem.
By the evening, I'm bushed. I barely have the energy to listen to Julie talk about the U.S. Open -- and even that conversation is fraught. I have to be sure to avoid mentioning Venus Williams, since she's named for the Roman goddess of love, and it would violate Exodus 23:13 (make no mention of other gods).
As I go to bed, I wonder whether or not I took a step toward enlightenment today. Probably not. I was so busy obsessing over the rules -- a lot of which still seem thoroughly insane -- that I didn't have time to think. Maybe I'm like a student driver who spends every moment checking the blinkers and speedometer, too nervous to contemplate the scenery. But it's just the first day.
"Be fruitful and multiply..."
-- Genesis 1:28
Day 2. My beard grows fast. I'm already starting to look a little seedy, somewhere between a Brooklyn hipster and a guy who loiters at the OTB all day. Which is fine by me. I'm enjoying the hiatus from shaving. I may be spending all sorts of time on biblical duties, but at least I'm not wasting three minutes each morning in front of the mirror.
For breakfast, I grab an orange from the refrigerator. Food is going to be tricky this year. The Bible bans many things: pork, shrimp, rabbit, eagle, and osprey, among others. But citrus is fine. Plus, oranges have been around since biblical times -- one of my books even says that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was an orange. It certainly wasn'tan apple, since there were no apples in the Middle East of Adam's day.
I sit down at the kitchen table. Julie is flipping through the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times trying to decide on a movie for Saturday night.
"Should we see The Aristocrats?" Julie asks.
Huh. The Aristocrats is the documentary about the dirtiest joke ever. It contains at least a half dozen sex acts specifically banned by the Book of Leviticus. Julie could not come up with a worse suggestion for an evening activity. Is she testing me? She's got to be.
"I don't think I can. It doesn't sound very biblical."
"Fine. We'll see something else."
"I don't know if I should be seeing movies at all. I have to think about that."
Julie lowers her gaze and looks at me over the top of her glasses.
"No movies? For a year?"
I'm going to have to choose my battles these next twelve months. I decide I'll bend on this one for now -- I'll phase out movies slowly, giving Julie a little grace period.
Things, after all, are kind of tense in our house right now. Julie had a hard time getting pregnant with our first child, as I mentioned in my last book. We did eventually succeed (we have a son named Jasper), but apparently, practice did not make perfect, because the second time around is just as much of an ordeal.
In the last year, I've been -- as the Bible says -- uncovering Julie's nakedness. A lot. Too much. Not that I dislike it, but enough is enough, you know? It gets tiring. Plus, Julie's getting increasingly frustrated with me because she thinks I'm micromanaging -- always quizzing her about ovulation times and basal temperatures and her five-day forecast.
"You're stressing me out, and it's really counterproductive," she told me the other day.
"I'm just trying to stay involved."
"You know what? The more stressed out I am, the less chance there is that I'll get pregnant."
I tell her I want our son, Jasper, to have a little sibling.
"Then please stop talking about it."
So we're in this weird elephant-in-the-room phase where we're both thinking about having a second child, but studiously avoiding the topic.
This is especially hard for someone who spends as much time as I do reading and pondering the Bible. Fertility is one of the most dominant themes in the Bible -- probably the dominant theme of Genesis. If you believe some of the more modern biblical scholars, Genesis reflects a nature/fertility stage of monotheism, an influence of the pagan sects. In fact, the very first command that God gives to Adam is "Be fruitful and multiply." It's the Alpha Rule of the Bible.
Now, if I were taking the Bible absolutely literally, I could be "fruitful" by loading up on peaches at Whole Foods Market and "multiply" by helping my niece with her algebra homework. I could scratch this commandment off my list in twenty minutes flat.
This hammers home a simple but profound lesson: When it comes to the Bible, there is always -- but always -- some level of interpretation, even on the most seemingly basic rules. In this case, I'm pretty sure that the Bible was talking about fertility, not math, so that's what I'll continue to pursue.
Conception was a huge preoccupation of the ancients. If you think about it, many of the Bible's most famous stories center on the quest to get pregnant. Abraham and Sarah probably had the hardest time conceiving of anyone in the Bible, if not history. At one point, the seemingly barren Sarah became so distraught, she lent her Egyptian handmaiden to Abraham as a concubine. That union produced Ishmael, the forefather of Islam. A few verses later, God and two angels visited Abraham and Sarah's tent and announced that Sarah would soon be pregnant. Sarah's reaction? She laughed, presumably with skepticism. In her defense, she was ninety years old. But God fulfilled his promise, and the nonagenarian matriarch gave birth to Isaac -- Hebrew for "he will laugh."
And then there's Rachel. Rachel and her older sister Leah were both married to the clever shepherd (and my namesake) Jacob. Leah was a procreation machine -- giving birth to no fewer than six sons and a daughter. But Rachel remained childless and heartbroken. At one point she said to Jacob, "Give me children or I shall die!" Another time, Rachel bought some mandrakes from her sister -- mandrakes are a Mediterranean herb once thought to be an infertility cure. But it was to no avail. Finally God "opened Rachel's womb," and she gave birth to Joseph, he of the multicolored coat.
There is an upside to the Bible's infertility motif: The harder it was for a woman to get pregnant, the greater was the resulting child. Joseph. Isaac. Samuel (whose mother pledged her son to God as thanks for the conception). These are some of the giants of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Yesterday I broke Julie's gag rule to inform her that if we do have another kid, he or she could be one for the ages. Which made her smile.
"I think that's true," she said. "Good things come to those who wait." Which sounds like a biblical proverb but is actually from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.