Dr. Ricks: I have a t-shirt that quotes Erasmus, “When I get a little money, I buy books., and, if any is left, I buy food and clothes.” This is so true for me! When I was in Iceland I took Erasmus’s dictum seriously. There was a fairly large book containing thousands of etymologies of Icelandic words that I really wanted. The book cost about 10,000 Icelandic kronur, which is about $135. I decided that I wanted it enough that I was going to save the money that I would otherwise spend on food in order to buy the book. I am a fairly slender person but lost about 10 pounds while saving my money for the book. I was near starvation! But I bought the book, treasured it, and have subsequently donated it to the BYU Library. I don’t know how many people use it because you have to be able to read Icelandic to make use of it.
We are planning a trip to India during which we will be visiting Hindu temples. India only has a few churches but a vast number of temples. Unlike many temples of the ancient world, prohibitions against non-Hindus entering Hindu temples are relatively uncommon. In some places there is a prohibition against entering Hindu temples, but they are very polite about it. The interiors of Hindu temples have been photographed sufficiently that there is not much left to the imagination.
RSC: What is your interest in India and how does that relate to your other research interests?
Dr. Ricks: I am deeply interested in temples of the ancient world. I am also interested in the phenomenological aspects of temples, for example, temples as mountains and the association of temples with water. When I go to India I will be looking at structures on top of Hindu temples that symbolize mountains—the panchayatana temple type (panchayatana is from the Sanskrit, meaning “five sanctuaries”), which contains groupings of four smaller shrines around a larger central shrine on a single platform on the roofs of temples. I will look at those and draw comparisons between them and the structure of Buddhist stupas that themselves symbolize mountains.
I am also deeply interested in the languages of South Asia and am now learning Sanskrit. Sanskrit is, in fact, still a written and spoken language. Most ancient languages have died out or have been replaced by modern forms of the languages—we see this in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and myriads of other languages. Sanskrit, on the other hand, has retained its vitality as both a written and an academically spoken language. In certain universities in India, lectures are still given in Sanskrit and scholarly articles continue to be written in that language.
RSC: Of the approximately 20 languages that you know, how many are still living?
Dr. Ricks: About half of the languages that I have studied and can read are still spoken.
RSC: You received your undergraduate degree in Greek and your master’s degree in the Classics. Now you are a professor of Hebrew and Cognate Learning and teach courses in Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible. Was that always a part of your plan? How did you make the transition from Greek to Hebrew?
Dr. Ricks: I was deeply interested in the Classics and thought that I would spend the rest of my life teaching the subject. However, along the way I learned Hebrew, a subject that I also found profoundly interesting and decided to learn more languages related to it. After I earned my master’s degree in the Classics I applied to the University of California at Berkeley and Graduate Theological Union, where I could study ancient Semitic languages such as Ugaritic and Syriac as well as Hebrew, while allowing me to maintain my interest in Latin and Greek. I also began my study of Arabic and decided to study that language at the American University in Cairo. I was just about to fill out an application to study there when I spoke with my advisor, who strongly encouraged me to go to Jerusalem instead, where the learning environment would be more stimulating and the environs were cleaner and healthier. He described to me his experience in Cairo: one of his children would become ill and would pass the illness on to his wife. Then she passed it on to him, and so it went the rounds through the family again. That convinced me to go to Jerusalem, which was one of the most important decisions in my life. So I went to Jerusalem and spent a couple of years studying at the Hebrew University in there under some of the finest Semitists in the world. I studied a great deal of Hebrew but ended up not studying much Arabic. However, in the past few years my interest in Arabic has returned. Still, I am very grateful that I went to Jerusalem and became fast friends with some truly outstanding Semitists and Hebraists and have been profoundly affected by their influence. When I am teaching and share a certain observation about Hebrew or some other Semitic language, I am reminded of when they taught me that idea.
RSC: If you could lecture on a particular part of the Hebrew Bible for ten minutes, what would you choose?
Dr. Ricks: I would choose two different topics and lecture on both of them for about ten minutes. First, I would lecture on the Garden of Eden as a temple. Second, I would talk about the first chapters in 1 Kings dealing with the construction of Solomon’s temple—these are the two subjects that I would like to spend ten minutes each on.
RSC: What advice do you have for people studying the Hebrew Bible who are not yet versed in Hebrew.
Dr. Ricks: Start learning Hebrew. Get to love the language. Find something about the text itself that will help you understand it better. Learn to love it enough that you will want to take the time studying it. Learn to love it enough that you want to curl up with a grammar book and lovingly caress its pages!