Monday, December 3, 2007

"The Year of Living Biblically"

A.J. Jacobs is the editor at large at Esquire magazine. He has written for the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, New York magazine and Dental Economics magazine, one of the top five magazines about the financial side of toothcare.

His books include
The Know-It-All, the bestselling memoir of the year he spent reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in a quest to become the smartest person in the world, and The Year of Living Biblically, to which he applied the Page 69 Test and reported the following:
Page 69 of my book The Year of Living Biblically is a decent page. Not the best, but not the worst. If my pages were presidents, I’d put page 69 somewhere in the James K. Polk range. It’s no Jefferson or Lincoln, but it’s not Warren G. Harding or Ulysses S. Grant either.

My book is about the year I spent trying to follow the Bible. Everything in the Bible, without picking and choosing. I wanted to follow the Ten Commandments, tithe my income, love my neighbor. But also wanted to try the less famous rules as well – to refuse to wear clothes of mixed fibers, avoid uttering the names of pagan gods, and stone adulterers.

The year was partly a spiritual journey (I grew up with no religion, so this was an attempt to get a crash course in spirituality – and the project did end up permanently changing my life in surprising ways). It was also partly an attempt to figure out what it really means to take the Bible literally, as so many people say they do.

Page 69 is a brief meditation in how traditional Judaism reads the Bible. I talk about the difference between the literal words of the Bible, and the interpretations that the rabbis have come up in the hundreds of years since the Bible was written. The two can be radically different. A quick excerpt from the book:

consider this passage:

“You are not to boil a young goat in the milk of its mother.” Exodus 23:19 (NASB)

If you take this literally, as I’m trying to do, this is relatively easy. I think – with a little willpower and a safe distance from farms – I can make it for a year without boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk. My friend John suggested that, worse comes to worst, I could boil the baby goat in its aunt’s milk. Thanks, John.

But the rabbis have a far more elaborate interpretation: Exodus 23:19 actually means to separate milk and meat. Which is where you get the kosher rules banning cheeseburgers. Along with the myriad rules about how long you must wait between a meat course and a dairy course (from one to six hours, depending on local tradition) and whether you should separate dairy utensils and meat utensils in a dishwasher (yes).

So there you have it. Page 69. I hope – or pray, I suppose – that it's good enough to inspire you to read more.
Read an excerpt from The Year of Living Biblically and learn more about the book and author at A.J. Jacobs' website and MySpace page.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue