Thou Shalt Find It Impossible to Live Like the Bible Tells You to


He didn't want to stone adulterers. But that was part of the deal. That's what A.J. Jacobs was being paid for.

"The Hebrew scriptures prescribe a tremendous amount of capital punishment," Jacobs writes in The Year of Living Biblically (Simon & Schuster, 2007), his account of an experiment in which the lifelong agnostic spent 12 months obeying the Old Testament as literally as possible -- while living in an Upper West Side apartment and working for Esquire.

"Think Saudi Arabia, multiply by Texas, then triple that. It wasn't just for murder. You could also be executed for adultery, blasphemy, breaking the Sabbath, perjury, incest, bestiality, and witchcraft, among others. A rebellious son could be sentenced to death. As could a son who is a persistent drunkard and glutton.

"The most commonly mentioned punishment method in the Hebrew Bible is stoning. So I figure, at the very least, I should try to stone. But how?"

At the time, Jacobs was in month two of his venture, still throbbing with a neophyte's enthusiasm: "I want to smash idols," he surprised himself by musing. Gathering a pocketful of tiny white pebbles in Central Park, he strolled until he met an irascible old man who mocked Jacobs' walking stick. When this man -- having been asked -- declared himself an adulterer, Jacobs lobbed a pebble at his chest. It bounced off.

He had grown up in a resolutely secular Jewish home -- sans bar mitzvah, sans Sabbath candles; he was even named after his still-living father, such an Ashkenazic rarity that an El Al security officer, eyeing the "Jr." on his passport six months into the experiment, doubted that Jacobs was even Jewish at all. "I'm Jewish," he writes, "in the same way that Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant."

All through school, even at a university "where you were more likely to study the semiotics of Wicca rituals than the Judeo-Christian tradition" and where the Bible was viewed "as a fusty, ancient book with the same truth quotient as The Faerie Queene," he'd been taught that the Bible inspired "many of humankind's greatest achievements: the civil rights movement, charitable giving, the abolition of slavery." And also, of course, that "it's been used to justify our worst: war, genocide and the subjugation of others."

By his late 30s, he'd long since decided "that religion, for all the good it does, seemed too risky for our modern world. The potential for abuse too high."

Then he became a father. And he couldn't reconcile raising a child without religion without learning more about religion. Firsthand.

As an Esquire reporter, Jacobs was into total-immersion journalism. His previous book, The Know-It-All (Simon & Schuster, 2004), detailed a year spent reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica from A through Z. Now, eyeing his small son, he mused: "If my lack of religion is a flaw, I don't want to pass it on to him."

And lo.

After poring over various versions of the Old and New Testaments and consulting with numerous clergy and academics over myriad interpretations, it began: a year in which he prayed several times daily (although, at first, merely saying the word "God" made him break out in sweats). He blew a ram's horn monthly. He stopped saying the word "Thursday" because its name derives from that of a pagan god, Thor. He refrained from turning doorknobs on Saturdays and from touching his wife for seven days after her periods. He visited Samaritans in Israel and snake handlers in Tennessee. He grew a chest-length beard that had strangers calling him ZZ Top and Gandalf; and he limited his fruit consumption to cherries -- you know, because Leviticus 19:23-25 forbids eating fruit from trees less than five years old. Peach trees start bearing at only two: "Too dangerous," Jacobs notes. "Pear trees in four. Again, too risky. But cherry trees, those are slowpokes. They take at lease five to seven from planting to produce."

From the outset, he felt overwhelmed: not just by the ten familiar commandments about lust and coveting and parents and so on, but also by the 600-plus other rules he discovered in those translucent, densely packed pages: the prohibition against wearing clothes made of mixed fibers, for instance, and "the command to break a cow's neck at the site of an unsolved murder."

That one's in Deuteronomy.

The more rules he discovered, the more alarmed he became that millions of Americans today claim to adhere literally to the Bible's word. Or, as they would say, its Word. Gallup polls put that number at 28 percent last year: almost a third of the country's population. The Pew Research Center put it slightly higher, at 36 percent, disaggregating the data in one report to note that more women than men take the Bible literally, "but race and education are bigger factors. A solid majority of African-Americans (61 percent) take the Bible as the actual word of God, compared to just 34 percent of whites. Half of those who have not completed high school and nearly as many high school graduates (44 percent) adhere to the Bible's literal interpretation, compared to just 18 percent of college graduates," the Pew report reads.

Jacobs reminds us: "A literal interpretation of the Bible -- both Jewish and Christian -- shapes American policies on the Middle East, homosexuality, stem cell research, education, abortion -- right down to rules about buying beer on Sunday." Like a sinister refrain in a movie soundtrack, that brooding truth lurks behind everything that happens in this book. It ping-ping-pings as we read of Jacobs' visit to a Kentucky creationist museum with robotic dinosaurs and to the vast Virginia megachurch where he watched Jerry Falwell preach. (Although he spent his year adhering to the Old Testament, to deepen his understanding Jacobs spent the last few months interacting with New Testament believers.) Strangers at the megachurch were "disorientingly friendly," clasping Jacobs' hands and maintaining intense eye contact. But Falwell's sermon itself was "kind of ... bland. There was no fire, no brimstone," Jacobs marvels. "That's the big secret: The radical wing of the Christian right is a lot more boring" than the rest of us would ever guess.

He confronted evangelicals about the biblical take on homosexuality, was unsatisfied with their explanations -- and then, back in New York, he discovered Evangelicals Concerned, a prayer group whose zealous, fundamentalist members are all openly, proudly gay:

"At first blush, it makes about as much sense as an Association of Vegan Burger King Owners. It's at once inspiring and depressing, because they are part of a movement in which the majority thinks of their sexuality as sinful."
The group's leader, Ralph Blair, told Jacobs that what appear to be anti-gay scriptural passages are merely misinterpretations based on ancient cultural customs. The Apostle Paul isn't railing against same-sex relations, Blair posits, but against "pagan cultic practices" and "loveless sex."

"I hope Ralph's right," Jacobs muses. "I hope the Bible doesn't endorse gay bashing." But he has his doubts. Jacobs is foremost a comic. He goes to great pains to paint himself as a bumbling schmo whose toddler clouts him with Wiffle bats: an everyman, albeit more urbane and cerebral than most everymen, and running with a glossier crowd. During month three, angling to "tempt the Bible guy," his Esquire bosses flew him to Los Angeles to interview the actress Rosario Dawson. She tested his anti-coveting limits with salty details about "the handcuffs you can buy at the Hustler store." According to its back cover, this book is classified as "humor," to be stocked in stores and libraries as such.

So Jacobs clearly undertook this project aiming to make the smart, secular masses guffaw. And no matter how terrified both he and we are of real-world fundamentalists, we do laugh -- such as when, heeding the proclamation in Leviticus that men are "impure" for a day after "emitting seed," he refuses to shake hands with male friends until they tell him how long it has been since they last had sex. We titter, too, when he parses the Bible's more than "four warnings against winkers," calling this prohibition remarkably "wise and ahead of its time, the wink being perhaps the world's creepiest gesture, with the winker coercing the winkee into being a part of his little cabal." And an unblinking frankness -- "Man, do I lie a lot" -- makes Jacobs an endearing guide on what is, with its chicken-sacrifice rituals and oven-roasted cricket snacks (again, Leviticus) a long, strange trip.

We even snort when, working out how literally to interpret the Scriptural prohibition on creating graven images, "I figure I should take a rigorous approach, somewhere between the Amish and the Taliban."

Not that laughing at the Bible or its believers is all that extraordinary. It's just that what separates Jacobs from, say, Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris is his earnest openmindedness, his willingness to go the distance. He dreaded that hands-off-the-wife bit. With a baby to raise, donating a tenth of his income to charity -- tithing -- seemed oppressive at first. But for the sake of that baby, he was willing to give it a go. His quest required becoming "the ultimate fundamentalist" -- by any means necessary -- in order to "discover what's great and timeless in the Bible and what is outdated."

And he discovered both. Threaded through all the cricket-munching and smiting he found behavioral blueprints whose deep effects surprised him. As agnostic as ever -- shunning "a God who rolls up His sleeves and fiddles with our lives like a novelist does his characters" -- he nonetheless felt better for treating his parents better, better for giving more and for lying less and gossiping less.

Well, shouldn't we just act that way spontaneously, anyway? "It's a lot easier to do good if you put your faith in a book that requires you to do good," muses Jacobs, intriguingly linking that faith to the book rather than to its alleged author.

"How can these ethically advanced rules and these bizarre decrees be found in the same book?" he wonders. "And not just the same book. Sometimes the same page. The prohibition against mixing wool and linen comes right after the command to love your neighbor. It's not like the Bible has a section called 'And Now for Some Crazy Laws.' They're all jumbled up like a chopped salad."

"I'm now a reverent agnostic," he asserts at last. "Which isn't an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there's a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. ... There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It's possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn't take away from its power or importance."

He's not sure whom he's praying to, if anyone or anything at all. He's shaved his beard, and he eats bananas. But still: "I'll keep on saying prayers of thanksgiving."

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