RSC: You earned a Ph.D. in Instructional Technology and another in Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity. Tell us how these go together and help your scholarship.
Dr. Halverson: It has actually had some very interesting consequences for me. It made me be a lot more creative in scholarship that I may not have tried to do otherwise. Each field has clear-cut ways of doing things. As much as academia talks about being interdisciplinary, and everyone agrees that it is important, it is very hard to actually put that into practice. In different academic fields there are certain questions that are acceptable to ask and certain ways that you should go about getting them answered and so to try to bring in different approaches from different fields and merge them is a challenge. There are not a lot of people who do that. I’m not the first to ever do it but at the same time it is sufficiently foreign that you have to convince the different academic groups of the value of what you are doing and why it makes a difference and why it matters. Also, you have to convince the different groups why a variety of approaches can be academically acceptable. Scholarly communities have certain languages with certain methods and if you bring in a method that they are not familiar with then sometimes it doesn’t strike them as being appropriate for the field.
RSC: But at the same time has this helped you find your niche?
Dr. Halverson: Yes. But niches evolve. I would hope that in twenty years I am doing other things than what I did for my dissertation or the projects I’m doing now. Certainly, I want to build on what I have done but I do not want to be looking at the same question over and over again from the same approach because usually, if there is a really enticing question, it needs to be answered by many different approaches. Of course there are some topics out there that really do need thirty years of development but I find myself interested in many different things. I am deeply interested in the time period of Jerusalem and Lehi’s day and the theological controversies that were going on. How does Nephi’s narrative fit that context? This question relates to my interest in literary studies of the Book of Mormon; I’ve been exploring how the question of "who should be king?" affects the narrative of the Book of Mormon. I’m also interested in the Second Temple time period and how Jews reappropriated their traditions in confrontation with other cultures. Of course I am interested in pedagogy and instructional technologies. How can we convey all this information that we are continuing to expand upon? We have a very large library with many books and discoveries. How do we make that accessible to the next generation? How do we motivate them to make use of it in a meaningful way in their lives? Of course, there is no substitute for hard work—you still have to get to the library resources and read and deal with messy issues of understanding culture and history. But how can instructional technologies facilitate our ability to learn and to master the material? Books have great purpose. When a thought or an idea is preserved in a book or a papyri or a tablet suddenly the number of people who have access to that knowledge is expanded rather than it being stuck in a person’s head.
RSC: Have you felt the scholarly community push back against trying to make libraries more accessible?
Dr. Halverson: Not much among the scholars that I affiliate with most often. Now, in some other institutions I have found those who think that learners, to be successful, need to go through the same exact painful process that they went through as learners. But every learner is different and by using technologies we have ways of expanding our knowledge of the ancient world. Here at BYU we have many projects concerning the ancient world that utilize technology. One is the Dead Sea Scrolls Electronic Library. A few years back I wrote a piece for the Society of Biblical Literature called: "Wikipedia or Wackipedia? On the Reasoned Use of New Technology." There were some who were rightly concerned that Wikipedia was being used too frequently by students. So I argued that Wikipedia is not going anywhere. Now, let’s assume that Wikipedia is full of bologna. Many people think that. Now, I accept that you can find bologna if you look for it but actually Wikipedia is as well researched and expressed as any other encyclopedia. In academia we care deeply for the peer review process. But how many eyes get to see a paper before it is published in a typical peer review? Maybe ten people tops. And I agree this is an important process. But with Wikipedia anyone can look at the page and has the potential to make changes to any given article. So suddenly there is an online article and rather than ten biblical scholars having access to it, three-hundred can. Therefore it is all public. Technology has just invented this amazing opportunity to improve the peer review process. So my point was similar to Gamaliel’s in Acts 5:34–40: If Wikipedia is a good thing then it is not going anywhere but if it is not then it will just fizzle out. And we don’t want to be found on the wrong side of things. Instead, we should learn to leverage technologies to our scholarly and learning advantages.
RSC: Did your article change the way SBL feels about Wikipedia?
Dr. Halverson: Hard to tell, and frankly, I doubt that my tiny article was read by many people. But Wikipedia is a great place to start to perhaps get bibliographical references. And even you can update it and put more bibliographical references in there. The Anchor Bible Dictionary is a great place to start to get bibliographical references but it is thirty years old now. So Wikipedia has the potential of being more up-to-date and improved.
RSC: What classes are you currently teaching?
Dr. Halverson: Right now I’m teaching a class called History of Creativity. I have 250 students in the class. Anybody who has taught a class with that many students can recognize the difficulty with teaching that many students at once. How do you remember all of their names? How do you gauge their progress in the class? Also, we are learning content that is new and unfamiliar to most of these students. It has been an exciting class to teach and I can tell the students are engaged in the topic. The class helps students understand ancient civilizations and helps students develop their creativity.
RSC: As you went through graduate school and you asked yourself what you were going to do with it when you were done or where you would work, what were your answers and how did they motivate you to keep going?
Dr. Halverson: Everybody has to find a foundation to keep them going. Here at BYU we recognize the role the Spirit plays. So what I share here, I can do so freely and know that people will understand. At the institutions where I did my graduate degrees in Religion, the major irony is that telling people about the Spirit was looked upon as "what are you talking about?" I have rational reasons for staying the course in my academic studies and career, but at the same time I have felt strongly that the Spirit has confirmed my desires and studies. Even when I wanted to do something else I remembered that I have felt that this is the right thing for me to be doing. It is similar to a testimony. It is like I gained a testimony that that is what I should be doing. You may have experiences that make you question. But if you have had a spiritual experience and confirmation—even if you don’t have a rational response to some of the questions—as long as you can hold on to what you have felt by the Spirit, then you can push through the challenges.
RSC: There is a story in the Hebrew Bible that has always caused me some trouble. In Judges 11 we read of Jephthah. The text leads us to believe that he killed his daughter. How do we justify this?
Dr. Halverson: The text does lead us to believe that he killed his daughter. It tells us that she leaves and bewails her virginity in the wilderness and then she returns and the text wants us to believe that he then kills her. But, is it possible that the author of the story was not advocating that morality but rather simply reporting? Have you ever told a story about someone who perhaps did something he shouldn’t have done? Just because you told the story doesn’t mean that you were advocating that the listener enact the story. Perhaps you were telling the story for a pedagogical, moral purpose. Yet, sometimes in the Bible stories are told without a moral overtly attached to it. Wouldn’t it have been great if Mormon got a hold of the Bible and inserted "Thus we see…" throughout the text? I don’t know why the story of Jephthah stayed in the Bible. It seems pretty heinous to me, that a father would kill a child just because he is trying to fulfill a commitment he made. But we also see the story of Abraham and Isaac where a similar thing almost happens. Luckily, God stopped him. From a literary standpoint there are similar elements: a father is going to kill his child. A difference is that with Abraham, God told him to do it whereas with Jephthah he made a vow. I think the main moral is that Jephthah’s vow was a rash vow. He said, "that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering" (Judges 11:31). My take has been that the redactors let the story remain in there to help us realize that we should always be careful not to make rash vows or to take the Lord’s name in vain. The word vain means emptiness or without purpose or meaning or without thought. So it seems like Jephthah made this vow without thinking through the ramifications. In the Decalogue we read, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" (Exodus 20:7). Most of us have understood this to mean not to swear or using the Lord’s name. But I think it is much deeper: anytime we make a covenant with God, his name is invoked. Do we truly intend to fulfill the vows that we have made in his name? So we should be careful to not make rash vows, meaning, to make a vow without thinking through the consequences or take the Lord’s name in vain, meaning, to make a vow in the Lord’s name with no intent to fulfill.
RSC: If you have ten minutes to teach anything from the Hebrew Bible what would you choose?
Dr. Halverson: Abraham. Genesis 12–25. We are descendants from Abraham; we have access to all the same promises God granted to him. Judeo-Christian history is one long narrative about Abraham’s descendents receiving or losing their promised inheritance. Not only are the Abrahamic promises crucial to understanding God’s dealings with his people, but Abraham is a very real person that we can all relate to. Not only does he try as hard as he can to do his best but he is also someone who struggles. He is promised amazing things. But in Genesis 22, why did Abraham trust God? When God tells him to go sacrifice Isaac, why was Abraham willing to do it? What if the only thing we knew about Abraham was Genesis 22? That would make that text hard to understand and to come to grips with—A father is going to kill his child! Of course, recognize this as a type of Jesus Christ is helpful, but because we have chapters 12–21 before Abraham receives the command to sacrifice Isaac, we can see how God has been tutoring Abraham and Sarah through their experiences. Abraham is promised many things. One of them being much property. Well he leaves his homeland. He lives in the Fertile Crescent—the most fertile place in the world—and the Lord leads him to Canaan?! Even today Canaan is not a place of agricultural virility. And then when he gets to Canaan what is happening? A famine! This so-called land of promise is a desert. He has to go to Egypt for food. But when he does, his wife is stolen. He is also promised posterity but how can he do that without a wife?! Wouldn’t a normal person question if these promises would come to pass? But Abraham never complains to God. He never questions God. God ends up rewarding Abraham—he gets a lot of animals and gets his wife back but still Abraham doesn’t know how he is going to have posterity—his wife and he are not able to have kids. So Abraham may think, I should do my part and adopt a child. So he thinks to adopt Eliezer. But God says, "Nice try, but I have a plan for you. And you will have a child." And he does. But still it is not quite the promised blessing because it is Ishmael. Within the Judeo-Christian concept Ishmael wasn’t the one. So Sarah gives him a handmaiden to have children with to fulfill God’s plan. But each of these stories demonstrates that God has a plan and has a way to fulfill his promises. Abraham learns over time that God will protect the innocent. He sees this in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. And so by the time that Abraham is commanded to kill Isaac, he has complete faith in God that somehow this will work out. He doesn’t know how but he does have total faith. God saw him through famine multiple times, losing his wife, thinking he would never have children, to eventually gaining the Promised Land, the priesthood, and posterity. So Abraham knows that he can trust God no matter what. And we can learn from Abraham’s very real, very human experience to trust God as well.