Review: The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs

When I first heard of A. J. Jacobs yearlong quest to live the Bible as literally as possible, I admit to being a bit suspicious. A Jewish agnostic (his self description: I’m “Jewish in the way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant”), who makes his living writing for Esquire, didn’t sound to me like a reliable guide to the Bible. But having received it as a Christmas gift, I thought that I’d give it a try.

The book is a day by day account of how Jacobs attempt to obey every command found in the Bible. Overall I found it to be well written, often funny, and when it dealt with the lives of orthodox Jews living in New York, even enlightening. Here are some of the highlights of his journey:

Jacobs enlists the service of a shatnez tester, Mr. Berkowitz, to ensure that his clothing doesn’t have any mixed fibers and therefore violate Leviticus 19:19.

He refuses to utter the words “Wednesday” or “Thursday” out of respect to Exodus 23:13 and its command to not speak the names of false gods. (In case you didn’t know their etymology links them to the gods Woden and Thor.)

In one of the funnier sections, Jacobs shares how obeying Leviticus 15:19 prevented him from touching his wife Julie (or anything she had touched) while she was on her period. Understandably, she found being labeled “unclean” less than amusing. One evening Julie extracts revenge by sitting on every chair in their New York apartment so that her husband will be consigned to the floor. All of this leads Jacobs to purchase a portable “Handy Seat” to use both inside and outside his home.

Over the course of the year Jacobs is confronted with how frequently he tells what he deems to be harmless “white lies.” His determination to tell the truth regardless of the cost puts him in some awkward situations. One such occasion occurred when he and his wife bumped into one of her old college friends. When the friend suggests that the two couples get their kids together for a play date some time in the future, Jacobs feels obligated to tell her that he’ll “take a pass” because he doesn’t “really want new friends right now.” Again, his wife wasn’t amused.

A Few Personal Observations…

1. Jacobs says that one of the reasons he wrote the book was “to take legalism to its logical extreme and show that it leads to righteous idiocy. What better way to demonstrate the absurdity of Jewish and Christian fundamentalism? If you actually follow all the rules, you’ll spend your days acting like a crazy person.”

But what he exposes in this comment and other places throughout the book is that he often misses the point of the Bible. The central theme of the Scriptures is to know God not to follow a list of commands. Of course the two are related because it is through the commands of God that we gain a clearer view of who God is. But to separate the commands from their purpose is to render them useless and a bit silly.

2. It’s also clear that Jacobs focuses on following the commands of the Old Testament more than the New. Perhaps that’s due to his Jewish background or because going a year without a haircut and a shave makes for a more entertaining book. Whatever the motivation, he never wrestles with commands such as:

Acts 17:30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.

John 6:29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

3. Near the end of the book Jacobs speaks of “Cafeteria Christianity” as an accusation that “fundamentalist Christians” level against “moderate Christians.” The criticism insinuated in the label is that people inappropriately pick and choose which commands they will follow and which ones they will ignore. Jacobs thinks that his experience has shown that since no one follows all the Bible’s laws, everyone is a “Cafeteria Christian” and that there is nothing wrong with that. But I think that all he’s done is proven that he has no idea how to read the Bible. He seems to be completely unaware of how genre or the coming of the Messiah affects the interpretation and the purpose of the law. A more educated reading of the Scriptures won’t lead anyone to believe that every law in the Bible has the same weight nor that they are all in the same way binding on all people for all time.

A person at The Crossing who had just finished reading this book recently emailed and asked me if I thought that Christians are supposed to obey the entire Old Testament law. That’s a difficult question to answer briefly, but here is a simple overview.

1. The ceremonial laws found in the Old Testament (think dietary laws or laws concerning ritual purification) were abolished with the coming of Christ (see Mark 7:14-23). Their role was to teach Israel (and us) their need for a Savior.

2. The Old Testament civil laws were designed to govern the nation of Israel. But since God no longer identifies himself exclusively with an earthly country and since we don’t live in a theocracy, the civil laws are no longer binding on Christians.

3. The moral law (think Ten Commandments) expresses the heart and will of God and because of that it is binding on all people.

By the end of the book Jacobs acknowledges that he’s been changed in some way. He’s still an agnostic but more of a “reverent agnostic.” In addition, he’s pretty sure that he’s more tolerant, sensitive and thankful. I doubt this book will change you but I do think that you will find it an enjoyable read.

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