Creating a Biblical Persona

Posted on by Brooke

[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.]