Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Living the Bible Literally

Jacobs, A.J. (2007) The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. New York: Simon & Schuster

A.J. Jacobs is the editor at large of Esquire and an author. Though Jewish by birth, he confesses to be an agnostic Jew though he is related to Jews who are ultra-orthodox, practicing and unorthodox Jews. He wondered whether one could live a life following the teachings of the Bible literally without becoming involved spiritually. His thesis is to prove that legalists who follow the biblical teachings literally are misguided. To prove that thesis, he experimented using himself, as the test subject to try to live following the Bible as literally as possible in New York.

He studied the Bible and biblical sources as much as he can, gather a group of counsellors from Judaism and Christianity to guide him, and contact groups that take the Bible literally such as the Hasidic, Amish, Creation Museum, Jehovah Witness, fringe followers of Judaism in Israel, Samaritans, Christian Majority and evangelical Christians. He came up with a seventy two page list of biblical tasks he had to do literally. He did however wisely exclude the commands involving animal sacrifices.

His journal contains amusing accounts as he tried to relate to people without lying, letting his beard and hair grow, wearing a white gown, following food laws and his relationship with his wife when she was menstruating (considered unclean). This book makes for interesting reading because Jacobs revealed some rules or commandments that do not make sense, like the Bible forbids man to wear women’s clothing (Deu.22:5), break the neck of a cow at the site of an unsolved murder (Deu. 21:4), not allowed to wear clothes with mixed fibers (wool and linen) (Deu.22:11), not boiling a young goat in the milk of its mother (Exo.23:1) purify ourselves by finding a red cow (Num.19), and for urinating against a wall -King Zimri killing “all the house of Baasha: he left him not one that pisseth against a wall..” (1 Kings 16:11 KJV).

Jacobs highlights, in a graphic way, the ways Jews and Christians interprets and follows the Biblical teaching. The interesting point he makes is that they all select and choose the passages they want to follow literally in what he calls “Cafeteria Christianity”. Nobody follows every rules and commands in the Bible literally. Everyone chooses and selects these rules and commands they want to follow. The problem is, everyone disagrees on which rules and commands should be obeyed literally and which with interpretation. That is the cause of so much antagonism and animosities. Also in communities that choose to follow certain rules and commands literally, they will find ways to circumvent the rule and commands without breaking them.

Jacobs’ conclusion, after one year of trying to live a life following the Bible literally, is that the Bible should be interpreted and lived by each subsequent generation themselves. I believe that is the central message of this book and one we all do well to heel.

read Jana Riesis'(Religion Review Editor for Publisher Weekly) review here


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