Did you know there are upwards of 700 commands in the Bible? I know that because I just finished reading The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs, a kind of memoir about Jacobs’ efforts to spend a year following every command in the Bible as literally as possible. Strange subject? Well, yes–but the book was funny, intriguing and at times quite insightful too.
Jacobs is ethnically Jewish but, at the beginning of the year, is an agnostic with a completely secular relationship to Judaism. He lives in New York City with his wife and young son, and is a writer for Esquire. His previous book was about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and he needs a new subject. He latches onto the Bible, curious to know more about the book that’s such a foundation for Western culture.
The book is told in semi-journal form, relating anecdotes, adventures and reflections day by day throughout the year. Each section is tied (more or less loosely) to one commandment, everything from “Love thy neighbor” to “Thou shalt not cut the corners of your beard.” (The beard becomes a big thing–literally and figuratively.)
I’ve done a lot of Bible reading myself, so I found the exploration of the Bible really fascinating. It also helps that Jacobs comes across as immensely personable. I don’t know what he’s like in life, but his book persona is a basically well-meaning, slightly neurotic, somewhat obsessive personality, who’s both likable and relatable but quirky enough to add a lot of humor too.
I also really appreciated the open-mindedness Jacobs brought to the book. An agnostic digging into all the weird bits of the Bible and the more extreme religious groups frankly sounds tailor-made to turn anti-religious–but it really doesn’t here. Jacobs always treats the subject with an underlying respect. Which is not to say that he doesn’t get into the weirder bits, or talk to people with very…unusual religious practices. But he always approaches both the commands and the people with an attitude of curiosity, not mockery, and makes genuine effort to understand the perspective and glean whatever wisdom he can.
Throughout the year, Jacobs meets with a lot of religious groups who have some kind of practice of taking the Bible literally, or at least to extremes. Among others, he meets with Hasidic Jews, visits a Creationist museum, meets with the Amish, and attends a prayer meeting of snake handlers. He even out-Bible-talks a Jehovah’s Witness, and visits modern-day Samaritans (there are about 800 left). Jacobs doesn’t pretend not to find some (often most) of their ideas strange, but it didn’t feel to me like he made anyone the butt of a joke, and he usually found an insight or something admirable in everyone.
The visits to different religious groups provide a nice contrast to Jacobs’ mostly independent journey. He has a group of spiritual advisors for the year, but he’s not trying to follow any specific religious practice. He’s probably the closest to the Hasidic Jews, but he’s not following the centuries of tradition and cultural practice that have built up. He’s trying to go back to the Bible to make his own interpretations (informed by cultural tradition, at times) and behave accordingly. So he doesn’t follow the strict rules of Kosher, but he does avoid eating shellfish, as the Bible commands.
There’s also a nice balance between exploring the weird and funny bits, and exploring the wise and insightful parts (and even the weird ones usually generate some meaningful insight!) There’s a lot about the power of gratitude, the benefit of a Sabbath day, and what it mean to love your neighbor. Jacobs talks about what he learns and gains over the course of the year–and I feel like I learned a lot from this book too!
If you’re finding all this intriguing, I highly recommend his TED talk based around his Biblical project. It’s what inspired me to pick the book up–and is worth watching just for the picture of Jacobs with his full beard, white robe and rented sheep!
Author’s Site: http://ajjacobs.com/
Buy it here: The Year of Living Biblically