A.J. Jacobs acquired an alter ego while writing this book. He became “Jacob,” the man for whom living according to Judaeo-Christian scripture was not just a pastime but inspiration and obligation. Jacobs, editor-at-large for Esquire and raised as a secular Jew (“I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant”), had no time for Biblical teaching --- as it turns out, only one year.
Initially, it seemed like it was going to be a long year. The book is written as a diary, and on the first day Jacobs recorded that “I can't do anything without fearing I'm breaking a Biblical law…am I allowed to wear leather?...am I even allowed to use the computer?...I check the Amazon.com sale ranking of my last book. How many sins does that comprise? Pride? Envy? Greed? I can't even count.” In the first of a long series of “cafeteria-Biblical” decisions, the author retained his right to limited computer use, finding it most difficult on the Sabbath when checking his email was hard to resist, but seemed too much like “working.” Eventually it appeared that “Jacob,” his more pious self, was stepping in to make these thorny choices for him.
The Biblical passages that "Jacob" chose to adhere to at any given time were, by the nature of the Bible itself, chaotic and at times contradictory. “When it comes to the Bible, there is always --- but always --- some level of interpretation, even on the most seemingly basic rules.” There are admonitions against lust, along with exhortations to be fruitful and multiply; there are imprecations against coveting your neighbor's stuff but a commandment to love your neighbor. Too much wine is an abomination, but “a little for the stomach” is okay. The dietary rules alone would drive you nuts -- or perhaps, to eat nuts. No rabbit, no shrimp, but all the oranges you like (at least, that is the author’s interpretation as he picks through the fine print). And no matter what you choose, you must always remember that a wrong choice can mean some very uncomfortable divine retribution. The Bible is loaded with dire warnings about what happens to sinners, along with its (considerably fewer) promises of eternal reward for the righteous.
To explore the Bible with a fine-toothed comb, Jacob questioned a Jehovah's Witness and "out-Bible talked" him, sending him home exhausted way past his bedtime. He engaged the services of an Orthodox Jew who does testing to make sure that no synthetic or heretic fibers have penetrated the basic linen and wool cloth prescribed by Biblical teaching. He experimented with tithing. He built a hut in his living room to celebrate an obscure holy day. He traveled to Israel and spent a day with a real shepherd. He visited a snake-handling church in Tennessee, admiring the fact that the “signs following” adherents obey one part of the Bible completely --- the rule, as they interpret it, to take up serpents and drink poisons.
Through the course of his Biblical year, Jacobs was also trying to create a new child, uncovering his wife’s nakedness quite a lot. The pair finally settled on in vitro fertilization, and “Jacob” convinced himself that the Bible would approve. When the couple learned that they would be having not one but two babies, the author decided that he must make an offering of thanks. “So today in Union Square, I put some olives and dates on a platform of stones and left them there as an offering to God. I said a prayer and walked away.”
Often irreverent, always amusing, sometimes surprisingly spiritual, THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY makes its own literary offering of food for thought. “The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion.” Even the staunchest fundamentalists, Jacobs believes, select their preferred menu of tenets. It almost has to be that way, considering how much paradox the Bible contains and considering that it’s the religious doctrine, in part or in total, for three major world faiths. No one, he concludes, can “live Biblically” without disobeying some Biblical instruction.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on October 9, 2007