Creating a Biblical Persona

[Reminder: nominate posts to me for the upcoming Biblical Studies Carnival.]

In my online course, “Literature of Ancient Israel,” I have a discussion forum reserved for student questions addressed to one “Hananiah Ben-Ishbaal,” a 1000 year old Israelite whose life spans the history of the people Israel. Students may ask Ben-Ishbaal about his daily life, his memories of the history of his people, and about his responses to particular biblical texts.

As I recall, credit Credit for the idea goes to Daniel Ulrich at Bethany Theological Seminary. Since Professor Ulrich teaches New Testament, the persona of his creation is of course a man of normal life span, living in the First Century C.E. Professor Ulrich discussed his practice while presenting to the section, “Academic Teaching and Biblical Studies” at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. For my purposes, if a single “persona” is to span our Hebrew Bible curriculum, then I need to take some poetic license and allow “Ben-Ishbaal” the not-uncommon narrative fiction of unnaturally long life.

I have only begun answering student questions, but the decision-making process is already intriguing. For example:

  • Is Ben-Ishbaal’s family priestly or lay?
  • In what periods is his life agricultural, or urbanized?
  • Is he literate (in literary sense) or no? To what degree is he exposed to biblical texts and traditions, and by what means?
  • Is he close to power, or far from it?
  • How “orthodox” is Ben-Ishbaal, from the perspective of the final form of the Hebrew Bible? For example, how late into Israel’s history does he assume the existence of gods other than Yahweh? How does he view divine activity in history (e.g., the fall of Jerusalem) and in his own life (e.g., in personal tragedy or blessings)?
  • By what epithets does he call the god of Israel, and at what periods in history?
  • What is his family life: when was he married, and to how many women (concurrently or serially), and what has become of his descendents?
  • Other questions?

What other questions would you add to this list, in sketching out a character like “Hananiah Ben-Ishbaal”? How would you, personally and as an instructor, choose to answer some of these questions in your creation of this character? Why?

[Creating a Biblical Persona was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2010/02/05. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

7 Responses

  1. Interesting assignment! Here are a few of questions that come to mind.

    If he added (canonical) psalms to his psalter as they were composed and edited, how would the order be different from the book of Psalms?

    If he drew a map of his known world, what would it look like? How would it change over time?

    What sorts of people pass through his lands? How does he view “foreigners” and what we think of as ethnicity?

    And a question that a pre-schooler might ask: What does he like to eat and drink?

  2. If you want him to shed life on the dominate voices that produced the Hebrew Bible, I would think he would need to be priestly, urbanized, literate, and close to power. If you want him to represent those voices marginalized by the powerful elite, those people for whom the prophets chastised Israel’s oppression and/or neglect, he would need to be lay, agricultural, illiterate, and powerless. How do you intend Ben-Isshbaal to function?

    • Hi Joseph,
      A fantastic observation. In my post, I intentionally held back on the decisions I’d already made about Ben-Ishbaal, but you have put your finger on what I too had found: that this distinction is the first “cut” to be made.

      My strong inclination is to put Ben-Ishbaal among the relatively marginalized, away from the centers of power. If he were priestly/scribal and literate, his voice would tend to simply reproduce the dominant strains of the Bible we receive. Being instead among the relatively marginalized, Ben-Ishbaal is in a position to offer a counter-strain, and to bring into sharper light the quieter voices of the Hebrew Bible.

      Joseph, that you went right to this question makes me more confident that I’m following a productive line of inquiry in shaping this persona: thanks.

  3. Eh… where did you say he was from? I can’t help but notice that suspicious theophoric element in his sir name. What’s the deal with this guy’s grandparents?

    • I was wondering if anyone would bring that up! Yes, I like to point out to students (once they’ve read Hosea 2) that “Ba’al” is not uncommon in theophoric names until the 9th-8th century conflicts over the deity. Whether those names reflect the use of “Ba’al” as an epithet of YHWH (as Hos 2:16-17 seems to suggest, while nonetheless depicting such usage as functionally worshiping another god) or the worship of Ba’al as a distinct god next to YHWH I leave to introductory students as an open question. (Though I tell them about Tigay’s results in his study of pre-exilic theophoric names, which seems to comfort them!)

  4. Also, I wouldn’t be so hasty to count out the literacy of the lower classes in the first temple period. The use of an alphabet made basic literacy much more within the grasp of the people, and there is evidence all over Jerusalem that average people could read. There are signs in tombs that say “there is no silver or gold here,” indicating that thieves could read. Women had seals for closing letters. And, as you know, there are all sorts of poems in scripture that use the alphabet as a mnemonic device. That only works if you know they alphabet to begin with.

    Anyway, if Jerusalem thieves could read in the time of Hezekiah, don’t count this Ben IshBa’al out of the ranks of the literate yet.

    (I stole all of these arguments from Dr. Grabriel Barkay, being privileged to have a class with him here on the archeology of pre-exilic Jerusalem.)

    • Hi Aaron,
      I agree that a simple dichotomy of “literacy v. non-literacy” doesn’t hold up, though I’ll use it as a shorthand for “scribal competence v. limited literacy and non-literacy.” I think that we have to see literacy as a continuum (consider modern people who can read enough to sign their names and puzzle out some common words and local geographic names).

      Too, there is the matter of *access* to biblical texts even among those who could, in principle, read them with varying degrees of success. Van der Toorn’s Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible asks a lot of relevant questions in this regard. Especially regarding the pre-exilic period in Judah (before synagogues and such), I’d give a lot to know who would and wouldn’t be in a position even to hear readings from the words of Hosea or Amos, say, still less get a look at the texts.

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