Interview: Lydia Lee

Headshot, Lydia LeeDr. Lydia Lee is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Research Focus Area: Ancient Texts: Text, Context and Reception, North-West University in South Africa. She earned her B.A. (Hons) in Biblical Studies and Classical Hebrew at the University of Sydney and Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Georg-August-Universität Gottingen. She can also be found at her blog.

How did you become a biblical scholar? Share your autobiographical journey.

Born in a Presbyterian ministerial family in Malaysia, I grew up watching my parents serving in various Christian churches. When my father received an appointment to pastor a Chinese Christian church in Sydney, my whole family followed him and immigrated to Australia. This kind of family background exposed me to the biblical literature and its impacts at a very young age. Fascinating to me was how biblical texts could empower many believers to display an incredulous amount of patience, kindness, and sacrificial love. Meanwhile, I was intrigued by the strife, deceits, and molestation committed by church members in the name of God’s word. Sidling through these moments of light and darkness prompted me to reflect on the meaning of life and to yearn for more knowledge of God.

Upon my graduation from the senior high school, I decided to dedicate myself to the biblical studies at the University of Sydney. At that time, I received the award of Dux of the School and my academic performance was good enough to get me into any course of study at the university. I can still remember the look of sheer puzzlement on the face of my senior high school teacher when I informed him the subjects I was going to study at the university. My learning of the biblical texts was not without difficulties but my teachers at the University of Sydney nurtured my deep interests in the Semitic languages, offered me plenty of encouragements, and laid the academic groundwork for me to pursue further studies in Israel and Germany. Before I accepted the postdoctoral position at the North-West University in South Africa in 2016, I had realized my deep passion for biblical studies and had made up my mind that I would strive to be involved in the academic field for as long as possible. 

Tell us about your work (past and current). What are you most excited about right now? What do you hope your work will contribute?

My first book entitled Mapping Judah’s Fate in Ezekiel’s Oracles against the Nations (2016) is a revised version of my doctoral thesis submitted to Georg-August-Universität Göttingen in April 2014. In our globalized age, nation-states interact more frequently and widely such that international conflicts seem almost inevitable. I was curious if the authors and editors of the Hebrew Scriptures had once envisaged a similar problem. Ezekiel’s prophecies concerning the neighbouring nations of Judah in chapters 25–32 thus drew my attention and formed the focus of my doctoral dissertation. In the published work, I explore and uncover how Ezekiel’s oracles against the nations establish inner-biblical allusions to Judah’s land, temple, and nation. Brace yourself. This book will lead you on a daring exploration of ancient challenges to identity boundaries. As part of the International Cooperation Initiative (ICI), FREE download of my first book is available (click here and scroll down to book title).

You are also very welcomed to check out my articles that have appeared in various international peer-reviewed journals, such as the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (JSOT), HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies (HTS), Old Testament Essays (OTE), Revue de Qumran (RevQ), and Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft (ZAW). Please feel free to read those articles at the journals’ websites. Alternatively, you can download the articles at my academia.edu or my ResearchGate. 

Currently I am excited about my new postdoctoral project at the North-West University in South Africa. This project is about Haman the villain in the Hebrew and Greek versions of Esther. Generations of readers have perceived Haman as the evil par excellence. In medieval and modern periods, Haman has been associated with Christianity, the Catholic Pope, the hostile misogynists, Hitler, modern Iran, and the evil other of the South African apartheid. All these popular responses to Haman entice my curiosity about his past. How did the ancient literary editions of Esther, such as the Masoretic Text, Septuagint, and Alpha-Text, portray Haman? I am curious about the answers I am going to find out. I want to know how much the past bears continuities and discontinuities with the present. I hope this study about the historical responses to evil can help us reach a more nuanced understanding of evil in our time.

Who has influenced you as a scholar? Tell us a bit about it.

My family and friends in Church constantly remind me that biblical scholarship should not be locked up in the ivory tower. I am grateful to my mother for reading us bedtime bible stories when my brother, sister, and I were kids. She has shown me how accessible biblical stories are to everyone. I thank my father for welcoming the teenage me to rummage his bookshelves in order to devour the Christian literature written by Arnold Yeung (杨牧谷), C. S. Lewis, John Bunyan, Miura Ayako (三浦 綾子), Xing Linzi (杏林子), and many others. The literature has made me realize the transformative power and wide repercussions of biblical texts. My pastors at Göttingen Chinese Christian Congregation constantly sought different ways to encourage young biblical scholars. They kindly invited me to deliver lectures to the congregation members. My brother, sister, and friends always ask me too many questions about my research that prompt me to think of better ways to bridge the gap between academia and a wider public.

On the academic side, my teachers at the University of Sydney, especially Prof. Ian Young and the late Prof. Alan Crown, cultivated my deep interests in the ancient languages related to the Hebrew Bible and encouraged me to think critically about the biblical texts. With their academic support, I was able to spend an exchange semester at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2008. This meaningful exchange broadened my perspectives of biblical scholarship and showed me the importance of interreligious dialogues. My doctoral study at the Ancient Near East Studies (Altorientalistik) Department of the Philosophische Fakultät of Georg-August-Universität Göttingen prompted me to become more sensitive to the textual criticism and historical contexts of the Hebrew Bible, for which I am thankful. My sincere gratitude also goes to Prof. Herrie Van Rooy, who is now acting as my postdoctoral supervisor at the North-West University in South Africa. Through his actions, I have learned how a biblical scholar can combine both academic ingenuity and humane kindness gracefully. He founded the research focus area “Ancient Texts: Text, Context and Reception,” which is now under the leadership of Prof. Hans Van Deventer. It has gathered researchers from the disciplines of Semitic languages, Greek, and Latin. The seminars organized by the focus area have led my interests wander into the rich afterlives of the biblical texts.

As St. Augustine once said, “maior liber noster orbis terrarium est, in eo lego completum, quod in libro dei lego promissum.” There is this wonderful link between God’s word and world. All these people I have interacted with in the modern world have shaped my investigation of the biblical texts, whether consciously or unconsciously. At the same time, I also strive to look beyond my perspectives shaped by the present generation, so that biblical texts can be viewed properly as historical products that have undergone long periods of production, transmission, and interpretations.

What are the most pressing issues or concerns you have related to the broader field of biblical studies?

Challenges I experienced while doing doctoral work emphasized for me how important it is for the academe to competently navigate identity boundaries. Despite the fact that my doctoral study belonged to the Department of Ancient Near East Studies, I conducted most of my doctoral work at the Sofja-Kovalevekaja research team based at the Faculty of Theology. Comments I received there on gender and ethnicity/nationality (intentional or not) made me uneasy. From time to time, I thought the sole purpose of my employment there was to present an “international outlook” for the faculty and to highlight their intellectual superiority over mine. Still, every cloud has a silver lining. The depressing workplace also exposed areas of growth for me in dealing with dissensions, which have prompted me to reflect on and improve my professional interactions. The experience also influenced the writing of my first book, which addresses ancient identity boundaries. I write more about my honest reflections on how, directly or indirectly, my doctoral experience at Göttingen influenced my work in the blog article entitled “AD ASTRA PER ASPERA.”

Meanwhile, my past study at different universities has led me to observe that critical studies of the Hebrew Bible seem to be concentrated in Europe, Israel, and the United States of America. Meanwhile, Christianity is growing and flourishing in many parts of Asia and Africa. This makes a critical understanding of the biblical texts an urgent need in these regions. Some of the Asian biblical scholars told me that they wished to obtain more intensive training in reading the biblical texts in their original languages and understanding the texts in their historical contexts. I think the Jewish and Western biblical scholars have much to offer in this regard. On the other hand, African and Asian biblical scholars have done much in delineating the history of translation and reception of biblical texts in their regions. Their knowledge and sensitivity to the history and culture of their own countries can contribute to the growing Western interests in the reception history of the biblical texts. In my view, biblical scholars have begun taking steps to facilitate academic communication from all sides.

It was a great pleasure participating in the first International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament (IOSOT) conference held in Africa in 2016. The conference was hosted by the Stellenbosch University and the Old Testament Society of Southern Africa. This was the second time that the IOSOT conference was held outside Europe. I am excited about the 2018 Society of Asian Biblical Studies (SABS) meeting to be held in East Java, Indonesia. The establishment of the International Cooperation Initiative (ICI) by Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) has also shown great initiatives to “facilitate broad and open discussion from a variety of perspectives.” My ultimate career goal is to teach and research the biblical texts in Asia. I wish to find many more partners in academia so that we can all contribute in enriching the conversations among biblical scholars from different parts of the world

Why study the scriptures/biblical texts?

From a socio-historical point of view, the biblical texts have borne tremendous influences on the Jewish and Western civilizations. The Hebrew Bible is a cornerstone of the Jewish people, such that many biblical festivals, including the Passover, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Purim, continued to be celebrated in modern Israel. Magnificent art galleries, churches, and museums in Europe possess a host of artistic depictions of biblical stories. The Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich, for instance, deploys almost the whole of the first floor to house the extensive collection of the Nativity scene dated from the 15th to the early 19th centuries. Biblical prophecies such as the Gog (and Magog) oracles in the books of Ezekiel and Revelation have featured in the political discourse of the USA from time to time. All these examples demonstrate that a critical understanding of the biblical texts can help us glimpse into the past and better understand the present mind-set of different peoples.

From a personal perspective, studying the biblical texts deepens my reflections on my religious and cultural identities. I am both a Christian and a Chinese. On the one hand, a critical examination of the biblical texts can challenge some values that I have uncritically accepted from my faith background. On the other hand, I can identify myself as a Chinese, since my late grandparents and lovely Christian husband all come from mainland China. Many people I have bumped into seem to perceive a Chinese identity as the complete antithesis of anything related to Christianity or other religions, but biblical studies broaden my perspectives on the search for common ground between my religious and cultural identities. To negotiate among multiple identities as a biblical researcher, a churchgoer, and a Malaysian-born Chinese holding an Australian citizenship is still a challenge for me in many ways, but I will keep facing up to the challenge and praying for more wisdom along the way.

What do you like to do for fun?

Believe it or not, I enjoy going to academic conferences and summer school! These events are often held at beautiful tourist attractions. They allow me to kill two birds with one stone, combining both work and leisure at the same time. For instance, the SBL international meeting in London gave me the opportunity to enjoy the fantastic musical Les Misérables in the evening after a fruitful day of learning about the history of the King James Bible. The SBL international meeting in Seoul introduced me to various postcolonial theories in biblical scholarship while pampering me with delicious Korean traditional cuisines.

I also like reading. I enjoy all kinds of narratives. In recent years, I have become more attracted to autobiography and history. Clayborne Carson’s The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, Jung Chang’s Wild Swan, Yoram Hazony’s The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul, Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, and Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness have all touched my heart in various ways. Working in Africa, I still know very little about this continent’s past. Therefore, I am now reading Martin Meredith’s The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent since Independence. Due to recent events, I am also trying to seek some answers in Yu Jie (余杰)’s biography of Liu Xiaobo.

Do you have a website or blog?

Yes, my personal blog is entitled “Around the World in More Than 80 Days: The Pursuit of Faith, Hope, and Love.” Here I record thoughts that have occurred to me during my travel, study, and life in different parts of the world. Most of the time, the blog contains updates of my academic research. You will also find my engagement with social issues (e.g., refugees, racist T-shirts, etc.) and popular culture (e.g., Darren Aronofsky’s Noah) on this blog. Feel free to visit my blog and I hope it will bring you both stimulation and enjoyment!

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