B. M. Leung Lai, Through the ‘I’-Window: The Inner Life of Characters in the Hebrew Bible

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Leung Lai, Barbara M., Through the ‘I’-Window: The Inner Life of Characters in the Hebrew Bible (HBM, 34; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2011). Pp. 212. Hardcover. US$95.00. ISBN 978-1-90753-420-1.

Ever since Gunkel, there has been a broad acknowledgment that certain biblical portrayals are shaped by conventions of speech, and so do not offer immediate access to the individuals who may lie behind the portrayal. Well aware of this, but still desiring to map a path of access to biblical characters' personalities, Barbara Leung Lai offers what she terms “a psychologically oriented approach to the textual depiction of the internal profile of three Hebrew personalities” (p. 12). The way to understand and appreciate these personalities, says Leung Lai, is by looking through the “‘I’-window,” that is, the first-person texts attributed to the personality under consideration. She is not psychologizing texts, nor doing psychoanalysis of biblical characters at a distance. Rather, she offers “text anchored, reader-oriented” internal profiles of biblical characters (p. 11).

What is an internal profile? Leung Lai describes it in one place as “the inner life as self-represented” by the speaking character (p. 21). But given the complexities of self-representation in the Hebrew Bible, a fuller definition is something like this: a set of apparent personality characteristics and emotions detectable in a first-person text, with which a contemporary reader may personally interact at an emotional or spiritual level. The second part of this definition is important to understanding Leung Lai's book. She is not merely attempting an objective character analysis, but rather pursues a real encounter with the portrayed personality's “interiority.” In her own words, “[w]ith full vigor, my psyche is interfaced with the psyche of the personality self-represented through textual depiction” (p. 157). Internal profiles “emerge” through “reading-hearing-emotive evoking” the text (p. 157, italics mine). Her methodological approach is influenced by the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, in particular his ideas about polyphony and dialogism.

The helpful first chapter summarizes recent work in first-person writing in the Hebrew Bible. She notes well the challenges associated with these kinds of texts, which raise numerous literary and psychological questions. The summaries and references in this chapter give a good overview of the field.

The second chapter introduces the methodology. The section is complex, and is best characterized as a web of salient ideas and concerns, of which one must be mindful when attempting to construct an internal profile. It includes a series of principles and maxims. The five principles are:

  1. Read biblical characters as if they were real (p. 16). Doing so is natural and an effective as well as traditional way to derive spiritual and educational benefit from them.
  2. Autobiography is an important category of religious literature and first-person writing has important connections to the self behind the writing (p. 17).
  3. The personality's own sense of self is central to internal profiling (p. 19). An “‘I’-text” is required to complete an internal profile.
  4. Bakhtin's ideas about polyphony and dialogism are important. In particular, first-person monologues imply a conversation with (at least) the self and so are dialogic. This dialogue is something into which the reader may also enter as a continuing participant (p. 20).
  5. Imaginative-affective-experiential reading is essential to the task of internal profiling. The reader's full self is an active part of the equation and shapes the outcome of the endeavor. This fact must be embraced self-consciously (p. 25).

In addition to these five, she identifies ten “interpretive tools” that sit at the intersection of psychology and biblical studies and calls these tools “maxims” (pp. 26–42). While 15 maxims/principles is a fairly lengthy list, it must be noted that not all of the maxims apply in every worked example.

The remaining three chapters contain worked examples and are expansions upon work Leung Lai has published in other contexts.

Chapter three focuses on the first-person material in Dan 7–12. Leung Lai notes that, for this material, she takes “a three worlds approach” (namely, the world behind the text, the world in the text, and the world in front of the text) because “the interface of the text and reader shapes all three worlds” (p. 45). Daniel's portrayed behavior is examined in light of the visionary practices of Jewish apocalypticists and a comparison is made between the public Daniel of chs. 1–6 and the private Daniel of chs. 7–12. Daniel emerges as a complex figure whose private and public lives are in stark contrast. Daniel is both an “aspirant sage” (his public life) and a “dysfunctional seer” (his private life) (p. 76).

Chapter 4, the largest and most detailed section of the book, examines the 15 “I”-passages in Isaiah. These include 5:1–30, 6:1–30; 8:1–18; 15:1–16:14; 21:1–12; 22:1–15; 24:1–23; 25:1–12; 26:1–21; 40:1–8; 49:1–6; 50:4–9; 51:17–23; 61:1–11 and 63:7–19. Though acknowledging the difficulty of identifying the Isaianic personality, Leung Lai still believes something can be said. Employing a “historically engaged synchronic reading” (p. 81, citing Odil Hannes Steck), she believes one can find both “unity and authenticity for the ‘I’ voice” (p. 80). She finds this unity in the psychology and understanding of the first audience of the completed book, which she takes as a starting point. Based on recent Isaiah scholarship, including that of Christopher Seitz, she accepts the understanding that it is the community's (i.e., first readers of the whole book) view of the prophetic figure that is constitutive for his personality. The Isaianic profile that emerges is “ever expanding” and unfinalized (p. 152). In Isaiah's profile one sees a broad spectrum of expressed emotions (love, joy, doubt, despair), a profound sense of selfhood, inner depth, and “a sophisticated Isaian interiority” (p. 153).

The final worked example is a preliminary sketch of the internal profile of the “Hebrew God” (p. 155). Leung Lai does not claim her effort is complete, only a start. Three first-person texts are used (Isa 5:1–7, Hos 11:1–9 and Jer 8:18–9:2 [ET 8:19–9:3]), all of which are laments placed in God's mouth. While the picture that emerges is “unfinalized,” the first-person texts offer important windows into God's being. In her own words:

Experientially we know of a God who gets frustrated with utter disappointment (Isa.5:1–7), we hear dialogically God's bitter cries and what it means to speak of the pain of God (Hos 11:1–9) and we engage our “selves” emotively with a God who suffers immensely (Jer. 8:18–9:2). All these are important dimensions of an internal profile of God attainable through a fresh trajectory and a cultivated path...We are invited to access the “unfinalized” internal profile of God, the yet undisclosed aspects of the interiority of the Hebrew God (p. 167).

The book concludes with a short, first-person reflection on her work.

The book is thought-provoking and Leung Lai's readings will be of interest to students of Bakhtin and his significance for biblical studies. The first chapter is also a nice introduction to current scholarship on first-person writing in the Hebrew Bible. More critically, with regard to methodology one wonders at times whether there might be a simpler way to get the reader where Leung Lai wants to go. In addition, the autobiographical reflection at the end of each portrayal, while demanded by her method, seems somewhat awkward in a scholarly monograph. Overall, however, one must applaud a book that makes a highly sophisticated, twenty-first century effort to reinvigorate the significance of biblical characters for a contemporary reader. We are a long way from Rudolf Kittel's Great Men and Movements in Israel. Taking nothing away from Kittel, this is a good thing.

D. Nathan Phinney, Malone University