My Journey to a PhD in Hebrew Bible

by Tamara J. Knudson

Each month Blogos features an article created in partnership with the Logos Institute’s Logia initiative. This month’s Logia post is by Tamara J. Knudson. More information about Logia and additional articles are available here.

Ever since the early days of my undergraduate career, I have had a passion for studying the Hebrew Bible. My husband and I share this passion, and we met as two eager sophomores in an entry level Hebrew class and built a firm friendship in the hours spent pouring over charts and translations in the years that followed. Nerdy—it’s true. But as our love for the rich and complex Hebrew language grew, so did our fascination with the intricate and beautiful literature of the Hebrew Bible, and, coincidentally, our love for one another. By the time we were married, we had both become concerned with what seemed to be a prevailing lack of robust teaching on the Old Testament, particularly in ecclesial settings, where these texts were frequently ignored or handled out of their literary context. We were inspired by teachers such as Karl Kutz, Rebekah Josberger, Ray Lubeck and Tim Mackie, who brought the texts of the Hebrew Bible to life for audiences in both academic and church settings, and we hoped to do the same together someday.

A PhD had long been one of Ethan’s goals, but I had never imagined pursuing an academic career this far. Even when we moved to St Andrews for our master’s degrees, it didn’t cross my mind to research PhD programs; I had always looked forward to being a mother and assumed that bearing and raising children and completing a doctoral degree were two mutually exclusive aims. It wasn’t until I encountered mothers here in St Andrews who are also outstanding doctoral students or faculty members that this imaginary boundary was lifted; as the Logia motto states: “You can be what you can see.” Certainly, in my own experience, interacting with women who excel in both their academic and maternal roles changed the parameters by which I envisioned my future and its possibilities. Once my perspective was no longer hampered by these limitations, I realized how excited I was by the prospect of pursuing a PhD in Hebrew Bible, and I haven’t looked back since.

Inspired by the work of biblical scholars such as Meir Sternberg, Robert Alter, Adele Berlin and Shimon Bar-Efrat, my research focuses on the poetics of biblical narrative as an avenue by which to discern meaning in the text. With this approach, the literary structure and nuance of a narrative (such as plot development, repeated words, characterization, and setting) are all taken into consideration in elucidating the overall import of a textual work. Beginning with this methodology, I have chosen to focus primarily on narratives in the Hebrew Bible involving prominent female characters. The troubled role of women in the Hebrew Bible has long been the subject of critical debate amongst scholars and continues to be an important issue for the Church today. Indeed, the agency and dignity (or lack thereof) afforded to female characters throughout the text of the Hebrew Bible bears much significance for its readers, both male and female, and particularly for those whose belief system is founded on these texts.

Four biblical narratives serve as the focal points for my research: the book of Ruth, 1 Samuel 25 (David and Abigail), Judges 11 (Jephthah and his daughter), and 2 Samuel 1 and 2 (Hannah). Each of these stories allows for a close examination of female characters within a rich literary context, rife with poetic significance. For example, each narrative bears a common feature: a binding statement, or—more specifically—an oath or vow. On closer examination, it becomes apparent that these emphatic statements fulfill multiple literary ends, such as increasing plot tension and enhancing characterization, thereby shedding helpful light in my analysis of female characters and their roles. With poetic analyses such as these, I hope to provide a cogent literary reading of each of these narratives and the female characters they employ. Overall, I am immensely thankful for the opportunity to study here in St Andrews and for relationships with colleagues and faculty alike, which have spurred me on to greater heights in my own academic career.

Tamara J. Knudson is a PhD candidate in Biblical Studies at the University of St Andrews.