The creator of the new CBS sitcom, Living Biblically, says he wants his new television show to provoke dialogue about religion. Toward that end, we are offering an episode-by-episode review, just to set the record straight on what the Bible really says and how it’s lived out according to the traditional interpretation of the people to whom it belongs.
In episode one, we meet Chip, a secular guy in a crisis over the death of his best friend. When he finds out that his wife is pregnant, he decides to clean up his act by “living biblically,” that is, literally obeying the Bible “to the letter.”
His priest laughs out loud and warns him that it can’t be done. For example, the priest says, "You wouldn’t be able to wear clothing containing mixed fibers. It’s simply impossible to live biblically."
Chip gives it a try anyway, and, predictably, less than ten minutes into the show, we have our first menstruation joke. Chip warns his wife that, after the pregnancy, he won’t be able to touch her when she has her period. (Insert laugh track here.) By the end of the episode, Chip is wearing a ridiculous white cotton suit and has thrown a stone at a colleague from work to fulfill the commandment of stoning an adulterer. He’s also formed his own personal “God Squad,” a cliché priest and a liberal rabbi who hang out in a local bar and give him advice.
So long as I must watch the show so I can write a weekly review, I hoped it would, at the very least, be entertaining enough to inspire a few laughs. It’s not. It’s a little bit painful to watch, not because of its condescending, anti-religious implications or thinly-veiled social agenda, but because of poorly-scripted dialogue, lazy sit-com scenario clichés, uninteresting characters, and a formulaic “we all learned a valuable lesson” to wrap up each episode.
The first episode seemed to focus on two commandments: the prohibition on mixed fabrics and the commandment to stone an adulterer.
You shall not wear a material mixed of wool and linen together. You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself. (Deuteronomy 22:11-12)
The prohibition on mixing two types of fabrics (sha’atnez) pertains specifically to mixing wool and linen. The Bible reserves fabric made of wool and linen for the high priestly garments and the fabrics of the Tabernacle. The commandment “not to wear wool and linen woven together” (Negative Commandment 42) applies to Jewish people, but not necessarily to Gentiles. Religious Jews still practice the commandment today, but they do so wearing normal clothes that can be bought at Target or Walmart—you would never know the difference. You just need to read the label.
At a minimum, a person concerned with keeping the prohibition avoids garments containing both wool and linen fiber sewn together. Some take the prohibition further. Wool derives from sheep, linen from flax. Some scrupulously avoid clothing that contains any mixture of animal-based fabrics and plant-based fabrics.
What’s the reason for this strange commandment? The Bible sets apart the mixture of wool and linen threads as a holy type of fabric for use only for the curtains of the Tabernacle and in the high priest’s garments. We find a clue about this in another commandment where the Torah makes one exception to the prohibition on wearing an admixture of wool and linen. Jewish men are commanded to attach tassels (made of linen) with a thread of blue (made of wool) to each corner of their garments.
In the ancient world, linen could not be dyed blue, so the thread of blue was always woolen. The average man’s garment, however, was linen. The fringes on the four corners were white linen threads. By interweaving a single thread of blue, the average Israelite was, in a small way, able to wear a connection to the high priesthood. It was a continual reminder of his connection to the LORD.
Stoning an Adulterer
If there is a man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, one who commits adultery with his friend’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10)
Chip consults his God Squad about the obligation to punish his adulterous friend. The rabbi advises him, according to the wisdom of Jewish tradition, to stay out of other people’s business, but he fails to mention the real criteria that would qualify Chip for the obligation to stone to death his adulterous colleague.
The death penalty assigned to adulterers was not a vigilante-style execution as our situation comedy imagines. Those severe sentences were determined by a Torah court of law (namely, the Sanhedrin) employing the adversarial system of justice. To reach a guilty verdict, eye-witnesses needed to testify before the court under vigorous cross-examination, after which the witnesses themselves would be responsible for carrying out the sentence. If Chip’s colleague were to stand trial, Chip could not stand as a witness for the prosecution because he was not an eyewitness to the crime. The court would throw out the case.
According to Jewish legal precedent, one would also need to establish that the guilty parties were fully aware of the potential punishment for the crime and that they had been warned of the outcome ahead of time, criteria that would not apply to secular people. Moreover, the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin applied only within the land of Israel, and there has not been such a court with civil authority for nearly two thousand years. In other words, we cannot carry out death penalties today.
Our sitcom explains that we cannot carry them out because it’s illegal to kill people, but the real reason has to do with the current state of exile and absence of a Sanhedrin. If such a court existed today and had civil jurisdiction in Israel, and if the accused adulterer was demonstrably under its jurisdiction with two eye-witnesses testifying to the crime, then he would be well-advised to get a good lawyer.
Maybe it still strikes us as barbaric and antiquated to imagine stoning someone to death for adultery. Is it possible that our moral indignation over the notion is the result of holding the sanctity of marriage in much lower esteem than God does?
To be completely clear, in Jewish law today, death penalties are prohibited because no Sanhedrin exists to try such cases or administer such a punishment. Nevertheless, a rabbinic court of law could potentially be convened to try a case of adultery, in which case, they might annul the marriage, acknowledging that a crime worthy of the death penalty has taken place, breaching the sanctity of the marriage. Of course, that scenario wouldn’t make for many chuckles on a television sitcom.