Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically -Reviewed by Matt Sieger
A few years back, A.J. Jacobs, editor at large for Esquire magazine and a secular Jew, decided to live one year attempting to keep every commandment in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Then he wrote about it in the New York Times bestseller, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.
Jacobs has an engaging and funny style, but he also approaches his subject manner seriously and with reverence. He began his project by reading the entire Bible and writing down every command, which filled up 72 pages! Then he set out to practice as many of the commands as possible, often leading to bizarre situations. In accordance with Ecclesiastes 9:8 (“Always be clothed in white”), he wore white clothes every day, sometimes a white robe. This led to some interesting discussions, such as the one with an elderly man in the park who asked Jacobs why he was dressed like a prophet. Jacobs explained that he was trying to keep all the biblical commandments, including things like stoning adulterers. The man replied, “I’m an adulterer. Are you going to stone me?” Jacobs said yes, that would be great, and pulled some pebbles out of his pocket, whereupon the man grabbed the pebbles and threw them in Jacobs’s face. Jacobs figured he was now justified to return “an eye for an eye,” and threw one pebble at the man’s chest, thus “fulfilling” the command to stone adulterers!
On a more serious note, Jacobs obeyed the many commands to thank the Lord and after a while, thankfulness became a habit. He visited with a broad spectrum of people who profess faith in God, traveling to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, Jerry Falwell’s church, and Evangelicals Concerned (an organization for the gay and the gay-friendly). One obvious omission (at least to me) was Jews for Jesus. For an author who was trying to integrate the commands of the Hebrew Scriptures with those of the New Testament, we seemed like an obvious choice! I was pleased that he mentioned that when he ran into situations where the New Testament commands seemed to contradict those of the Hebrew Scriptures (forgiveness rather than “an eye for an eye,” for example), he went with the New Testament teaching. But he didn’t mention Jews who believe in Jesus.
When I asked the author why, I received this reply: “I actually did spend a bit of time with the Jews for Jesus folks, and found them fascinating and engaging. I even started a chapter on it, but the God's honest truth is, I ran out of space and time.” It’s nice to know we weren’t forgotten.
Throughout the book, Jacobs hopes that by keeping the commandments, he will be changed from within. By doing what the Bible says, he hopes to become more holy. But when he ends his experiment after a year, he admits to feeling a good deal of relief that he will no longer be worrying at every moment whether he might be violating a commandment. And other than being a more thankful person than when he began, he gives no evidence of permanent change.
That’s because Jacobs is putting the cart before the horse. Simply trying to obey the commandments doesn’t get us closer to God, because we first need a relationship with him. And we can’t have that relationship until our sins are washed away. Jesus made that possible when he died on the cross, shedding his blood to meet God’s requirement that sin be paid for. Jacobs didn’t give much attention in his book to Scriptures such as Joel 2:13: “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate” or Psalm 51:17: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”
Our first order of business with God is repentance. Then, when we experience his forgiveness and are born again to new life, we discover the truth of these words from the New Testament: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).