The Old Testament World: A Conversation with Dana M. Pike
Dana M. Pike and Alan Taylor Farnes
Dana M. Pike (email@example.com) is a professor of ancient scripture at BYU and coordinator of the inter-departmental Ancient Near Eastern Studies major. Alan Taylor Farnes (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior in Ancient Near Eastern Studies at BYU.
RSC: Tell me about your recently released book, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, that you wrote with Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and David Rolph Seely.
Pike: I’m really happy with the way this book turned out. Richard, David, and I spent twelve months actively working on this book, and spent many hours—including a lot of late night hours—trying to make this book really engaging—visually, mentally, and spiritually.
RSC: Was there a deadline to get the book out?
Pike: Deseret Book and we determined to publish the book in Fall 2009, so it would be available to members of the LDS Church as we again study the Old Testament in Sunday School during 2010.
RSC: How did this book first come about?
Pike: Richard Holzapfel originated the idea for the book. He had previously co-authored Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament with two of our colleagues in BYU’s Ancient Scripture department. That book did so well that he thought that a "prequel" on the Old Testament would be a good idea. Deseret Book was willing to go forward with it because of the success of the New Testament volume. Richard approached me, and after discussing the situation we wanted to also include David Seely, with whom we have been colleagues and friends for many years. But he was in Jerusalem from January to August of 2008, which is one reason we didn’t really get underway earlier. We were waiting for him to return and participate in formulating how we would outline the book and deciding who would be responsible for writing which parts.
Deseret Book wanted this new volume to look similar to Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament. They are "sister" volumes, with similar formatting and a similar "world of" emphasis. So, this book is not just a commentary—it doesn’t go through and explain every aspect of the text of the Old Testament. There is definitely commentary in the volume, but it also focuses on the world of the Old Testament. We are convinced that when a person knows more about the world in which the ancient Israelites lived—the world in which the Old Testament events took place—they will have a richer, more productive, and enjoyable experience studying the Old Testament. The more someone knows about Israelite cultural practices or the types of literature in the Old Testament, for example, the more this will enhance their study, because so much of this is in the Old Testament text anyway—there are references to places and peoples and cultural activities—and sometimes readers just skim over these things because they don’t know what they are or don’t think they are very important. Therefore, a main purpose of the book is to emphasize that there is this wonderful dimension that can be accessed and enjoyed as we study the Old Testament, if we know at least a little something about it. One of the things that Deseret Book specifically requested was our book not have lots of personal application type of content. They really did want more of the world of the Old Testament: the history, the culture, the literature, the language, and how these things impacted the Bible way back then, and how knowing these things impacts our understanding of the Bible today. It’s about putting the Old Testament in its ancient context. For this reason, the book has a lot of pictures. We want readers to see as much of the world of the Old Testament as possible. There are also a dozen paintings that we commissioned that represent life in ancient Israel.
RSC: These paintings depicting scenes from the Old Testament and life in ancient Israel, are these original to this book?
Pike: Yes, they are. This is the first time they have been published. And they are quite striking.
RSC: Are they all by the same artist?
Pike: Yes. Balage Balogh is his name. He did several paintings for the Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament volume, and Richard liked his work. We contacted him and he agreed to do twelve more for this volume.
RSC: Did he do the cover art as well?
Pike: Actually, no. The cover contains a painting by a local Provo artist named Michael Coleman. He also painted the cover for the New Testament volume. Richard liked his work, as did the designers at Deseret Book, so he was commissioned to do the cover of our volume. Personally, I like the cover for our book. I like the drama it conveys, with the priest standing on the large temple altar in Jerusalem.
RSC: It is very emotional, with the blood smeared on the altar of sacrifice.
Pike: Yes. Again, we are trying to convey what life was like for Israelites in the ancient Near Eastern world. The blood wasn’t added to artificially sensationalize the painting. That’s what Israelites in the Temple courtyard would have seen. A major purpose of this volume is to help bridge the gap between our time and theirs, our culture and theirs, and to bring some of the aspects of their daily life to Old Testament readers so that they can have a greater appreciation for those people, what they went through, what they taught, how they lived, and how all this impacts our own study of the Old Testament.
RSC: Because the book is so visually pleasing with so many graphics, there could be a fear that it would turn into a coffee table book. Is it simply a good-looking book for a Latter-day Saint audience, or is there real scholarship to be found within it?
Pike: Good question. There are lots of pictures in the book, pictures of ancient artifacts, animals, crops, weapons, inscriptions, and sites, including a number of aerial images of important cities and their archaeological remains. This book is designed to appeal to the eye, not just for the "wow" factor but for the educational aspect. Without the graphics, the book wouldn’t convey nearly as much information. You need to see what these things looked like to really appreciate them. But we didn’t want this to be simply a pretty book. While it is relatively introductory in nature, it has real substance to it. We tried to find the right balance, to make it accessible but also substantive. I have told some of my family members that if they only looked at the pictures and read the captions—if that is all they did—then they would learn a lot. If they only looked at the pictures and read the sidebars—the various boxes that focus on particular topics—then they would really learn a lot. And then there is also the main text of the book! So, people can access it at different levels.
We have written the text for a Latter-day Saint audience. We are Latter-day Saint professors at BYU, so not surprisingly we approach certain questions about the Bible from a Restoration perspective. However, we didn’t want to just regurgitate what other Latter-day Saint authors have written about the Old Testament. We attempted to represent current issues, concerns, and questions about the text of the Old Testament. We also attempted to be up-to-date on archaeological issues and questions regarding the dating of sites and of various events recorded in the Bible. We indicate several times in the book that we don’t always have the final answer—because we don’t. Sometimes the best we can do is say we have only so much information, and it looks like this is the best way to explain something. Certainty is not always possible. I’m not speaking of doctrine, of course. It’s just that some episodes in the Old Testament are a little ambiguous. Often when we read the scriptures, we want everything answered tidily, saying this is just the way it was. Our book offers the best explanations and answers that we can propose. We have tried to make the book accessible and readable and enjoyable for people who do not have a great deal of background in Old Testament studies, but we also wanted to go beyond what has been done before. And I think we have succeeded.
RSC: What specifically were your contributions to the book?
Pike: Early on, the three of us got together and produced an outline of the book—the major topics, the chapter divisions, the flow of the text, things like that, and we divided the work up according to our interests and strengths. For example, I wrote the sidebars, or boxes, that focus on the various inscriptions we mention in the book because I have done quite a bit with Israelite and non-Israelite inscriptions that relate to the Bible. David has spent a great deal of time working on the texts and time periods of Isaiah and Jeremiah, so he wrote those portions. Richard loves the book of Ruth, the content and the background of that account, so he wrote that portion. So, this gives you an idea of how we proceeded in dealing with the whole book. I don’t think any of us are concerned about indicating all that we wrote, because in the end it was very much a group effort.
RSC: So each of you read over the others’ material?
Pike: Yes. We always read and made suggestions on how to improve each other’s work. Additionally, I took the lead in working with Balage with his paintings. David and Richard took the lead in acquiring the photographs and in creating the maps—we designed new maps for this book. But we all OK-ed everything.
RSC: Did the book turn out seamless? Can you tell who wrote what?
Pike: Relatively seamless, yes. If someone is very familiar with our individual writing styles, then they might be able to identify who wrote what, but I think we did a good job at making the styles flow together. The editors at Deseret Book helped with that as well.
RSC: Tell us about the Discoveries in the Judean Desert, XXXIII, Qumran Cave 4, XXIII: Unidentified Fragments. You worked on that with Dr. Andrew Skinner?
Pike: Yes, Dr. Skinner and myself. That volume was published back in 2001—by Oxford University Press as part of the official scroll publication series, Discoveries in the Judean Desert—so this is old news!
RSC: And it contained an appendix by Dr. Terry Szink?
Pike: Yes, he created an appendix that listed all the unidentified fragments from all of the caves that had been previously published in DJD [Discoveries in the Judean Desert] volumes.
RSC: How is it that you came to be involved in this project?
Pike: When Professor Emmanuel Tov of Hebrew University was made the editor in chief of the official publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, he expanded the international team of editors publishing the scroll fragments by enlisting a number of additional scholars who had not previously been involved. Dr. Donald Parry was the first scholar from BYU to be invited to participate. I received my PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. One year when I was there Professor Tov came there as a visiting professor, and I had a class from him. Years later, when he came to BYU to lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls we renewed our relationship. He subsequently offered me the opportunity to join the international team of editors to assist in the official publication efforts. I was given the chance to publish the unidentified fragments from Qumran cave 4, what I call the "scraps" that were left on the floor after all the big pieces were picked up.
RSC: What did you originally think when he asked you to do that? There’s the Isaiah Scroll and then there are unidentified fragments.
Pike: Well, this was toward the end of Professor Tov’s process of dividing up all the fragments. Dr. Parry was assigned to work with Dr. Frank Moore Cross to finish texts previously assigned to Dr. Cross. Dr. David Rolph Seely was invited with work with Dr. Moshe Weinfeld to publish texts that Dr. Weinfeld needed help getting published. So part of Dr. Tov’s vision was to assign younger scholars with older ones to get the work done. When he offered me the unidentified fragments, he offered them to me alone, and therefore I wouldn’t have to share credit with anyone, but the overall value of this material was less than what the larger identifiable fragments provided. After working on the fragments for a few months, I contacted Professor Tov and indicated I would like someone to work with me on the project because it involved more than what I had originally imagined. He had previously offered Dr. Skinner something, but it hadn’t work out, so we partnered together on the unidentified fragments. Our process of dealing with the unidentified fragments was a little different from the norm. Identifiable scrolls and fragments have a number assigned to them and are published with this identifying number, such as 4Q434. But the unidentified fragments from cave 4 weren’t like that—they had just been all sorted together onto forty one museum plates. So we published them according to the photographic renditions of these museum plates. The fragments on these museum plates had been re-assembled and photographed in 1960. Some fragments had subsequently been identified and published, so we didn’t republish them. We went through and numbered all the fragments on each official photograph of those museum plates. There were about 2900 fragments total. We decided that we would provide a translation and analysis of only the fragments that preserved at least one complete word. Some of them really did not have one word on them! But some had two or three words, and some had twenty or twenty-five words. All the unidentified fragments were thus published in our volume in the photographs, but we only commented on about 30 percent of the nearly three thousand fragments we were assigned.
RSC: What is the value of publishing even those small fragments?
Pike: Professor Tov’s philosophy was that everything discovered should be available to everybody through the DJD series. Some people thought that commenting on any the unidentified fragments was useless and that we should only publish them in the photographs without any kind of commentary. But using our approach we were able to contribute in various ways to the overall pool of knowledge about the scrolls, including scribal practices, Hebrew vocabulary, unique phrases, and so on. We also identified a few biblical fragments that had previously been overlooked, and we demonstrated that a few of our fragments preserved the remains of previously unknown ancient texts. So, we were able to make a contribution. It was a great opportunity for Andy and me to work with Professor Tov and other Dead Sea Scroll scholars. Plus, it was both a professionally and personally rewarding experience to go to the basement of the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem and work on the original fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
RSC: Describe the process of working with the fragments a little more.
Pike: Scholars on the international team of editors were given high quality photographs of the fragments they were assigned to publish, and would work with these wherever they lived. In our case, we were in Provo. But then in the summer we would go to Israel for a couple of weeks to work with the actual fragments at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. The staff would bring out the fragments, and then we would examine them. Many times we could tell things from the photographs that we couldn’t from the actual fragment itself—due to decay and or the darkening of the leather—but sometimes we could learn things from the actual fragments that weren’t clear from the photographs. So everyone who worked on the scroll fragments had to study both the photographs and the actual fragments.
The early scroll scholars spent literally thousands of hours sorting through the many thousands of fragments that were discovered in the caves around Qumran. They became amazingly familiar with the different scribal hands [handwriting styles], and they sorted and matched up fragments, and so the museum plates and the photographs of those plates from which we worked were the result of an enormous amount of study and work.
RSC: So you are standing on the shoulders of others?
Pike: Oh, yes, definitely. The early scroll scholars matched up what fragments should be grouped together and then tried to identify the text preserved on the fragments. At the end of that decades-long process, Andy and I got everything that was left from cave 4, what couldn’t be identified. Two of the fragments that Dr. Skinner and I published ended up being assigned a real 4Q number [4Q466, 4Q467]. As I mentioned above, several of our fragments had enough text on them to be identified as new documents. Two of these were given a 4Q number. And several others were large enough to determine that these are solitary fragments of texts that existed differently from everything else we have, although we can’t really say much about them because they preserve so little text. These are texts that had three or four words on a line with four to five lines of text, so there was enough to dtermine if it was biblical, if it matched any Qumran sectarian texts, or any of the general pseudepigraphic texts of the era. In a few cases we could determine that they didn’t match anything. Their phrases, their word order would be completely different from anything else we knew of, so we could say they preserved previously unknown text.
RSC: If you could lecture on any part of the Old Testament and had ten minutes to do so, what would you lecture on?
Pike: You know, that’s a hard question. I love the Old Testament, and there is so much in it. I might think of great episodes such as Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac [Genesis 22] or Ruth’s demonstration of loyalty to Jehovah and Naomi [the book of Ruth]. But recently I have been drawn to the book of Judges. It was written in the form that we have it at a fairly late date, towards the end of the Monarchic period. But it includes much older material. It is interesting to see how a later redactor took earlier material and put it together to make a point. There is the obvious cycle that runs through much of Judges: apostasy, suffering, repentance, then deliverance, and then apostasy again. But I really like the lessons to be had from the old stories found within this framework. I like the story of Gideon. And I like the story of Jephthah, who ended up killing his daughter as a sacrifice because he had sworn to make an offering to the Lord [Judges 11:29-40].
RSC: I remember reading that. He promised the Lord that if the Lord preserved him in battle then he would sacrifice the first thing that came out to greet him upon arriving home.
Pike: Exactly. And knowing a little about the background helps us understand the story better. People had houses with courtyards. Animals roamed in and out of the courtyard of the house. So we can presume that he thought perhaps a lamb or goat or some other animal would come out when he walked up. But instead, it was his daughter.
RSC: How do we justify this seeming human sacrifice? What lesson is there to be learned?
Pike: Jephthah had vowed a vow. He said he would offer up what met him as a burnt offering. The Hebrew is very clear—it is the same word for burnt offering that you find everywhere else. He says, "I will offer . . . a burnt offering" (Judges 11:31). He came home victorious in battle, the Lord had blessed him, and his daughter came out to meet him. He said, "Alas, my daughter! . . . I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back [on my vow]" (Judges 11:35). This is not a happy, warm, fuzzy-feeling story, because he ended up killing his daughter. Now, some people explain it away and say that his daughter just ended up becoming a virgin and never got married, but the text says that he "did with her according to his vow which he had vowed" (Judges 11:39). I think the plain sense of the text is that he offered her as a sacrifice. He had this religious and moral dilemma, and interestingly the Bible itself does not explicitly indicate if he did the right thing or not. The redactor assumed we would be able to judge. Jephthah put the significance of his misconstrued vow over the significance of his daughter’s life. I think he seriously erred in judging what should have happened.
So this is an example of these stories in Judges that show real challenges. I like it because, while most of us won’t have that particular challenge, it helps me appreciate the struggles of living in the real world and consider how my religious perspective impacts my life—my values, my convictions—how do I and they interface with the world around me. How do I let them guide me or not guide me? How do I let them impact the choices I make? Jephthah was apparently thinking that he was doing the right thing. I happen to believe he did the wrong thing. I think his situation has contemporary application for us all. Again, I like that story because of the real-life dimension it has.
You can find similar religious and moral applications in other accounts, such as when Saul offered his own sacrifice contrary to the word of the prophet Samuel [see 1 Samuel 13]. He was thinking something like, "What do I do now? Everyone is leaving me, and the prophet is late in coming, so I will start doing things I was told not to do because I am afraid that if everybody leaves then I will have a bigger problem." Then Samuel arrived and basically said to King Saul, "What are you doing? I told you to wait until I got here." Saul actually compounded his problems by not following the prophet’s instructions.
So the Bible is rich with stories of people who struggled with life. I think too often when we read the scriptures—especially the Old Testament because it is so far away in time and space—that the people become flat and two-dimensional to us. But the more we think of them as real people, the more we can learn from them. They were real humans, children of God in the same fallen world in which we exist. They were struggling with the same types of things that we do. Our technology is different. Our culture is different. But they had all the same emotions we do, the same desires. They wanted to be happy. They fell in love and got married. They loved their kids. They got sick. They got angry. Sometimes they were proud and selfish. Sometimes they were kind and Christ-like.
So the more we can think of and appreciate these individuals in scripture as real humans with many similarities to our own lives and the struggles that we have, the emotions we have, then the richer our scripture study can be. Then we can relate to them in a way that goes beyond just a simple application or moral. We can benefit from struggling along with them, so to speak.
RSC: Thank you so much for your time and your insights.