Education in Bible Times
“You must also teach them to your sons.”—DEUTERONOMY 11:19.
1. What shows that Jehovah is interested in the education of his servants?
JEHOVAH is the Great Educator. He has never left his servants in a state of ignorance. He has always been willing to share knowledge with them. He teaches them his will and his ways. Over countless millenniums his only-begotten Son was at his side, constantly learning as God’s “master worker.” (Proverbs 8:30) When on earth Jesus stated: “Just as the Father taught me I speak these things.” (John 8:28) Referring to God as the Incomparable Educator, Elihu asked: “Who is an instructor like him?” (Job 36:22) The prophet Isaiah spoke of Jehovah as being the “Grand Instructor” of His people and prophesied: “All your sons will be persons taught by Jehovah, and the peace of your sons will be abundant.” (Isaiah 30:20; 54:13) Unquestionably, Jehovah desires his intelligent creatures to be enlightened and well educated.
2, 3. (a) How did the faithful patriarchs view the education of their children, and what instruction did Jehovah give Abraham? (b) What grand purpose was behind the instruction to educate Abraham’s offspring?
2 One of the basic prerogatives of the family head in patriarchal times was the teaching of his children and of his household. For God’s servants the education of their children was a religious duty. Jehovah said of his servant Abraham: “I have become acquainted with him in order that he may command his sons and his household after him so that they shall keep Jehovah’s way to do righteousness and judgment; in order that Jehovah may certainly bring upon Abraham what he has spoken about him.”—Genesis 18:19.
3 This divine statement shows that Jehovah considered education to be of great importance. God required Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to educate their households in His ways of righteousness and judgment so that future generations would be in a position to keep Jehovah’s way. Thus, Jehovah would fulfill his promises concerning Abraham’s seed and the blessing of “all the nations of the earth.”—Genesis 18:18; 22:17, 18.
The Educational System in Israel
4, 5. (a) What differentiated Israel’s educational system from that of other nations? (b) What other important difference is outlined in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, and what doubtless contributed to this difference?
4 The Encyclopaedia Judaica states: “The Bible is the primary source for an understanding of the process of education in ancient Israel.” Jehovah used Moses as Israel’s first human teacher. (Deuteronomy 1:3, 5; 4:5) Moses transmitted words given to him by Jehovah. (Exodus 24:3) So, in point of fact, God was Israel’s primary Educator. This in itself differentiated Israel’s educational system from that of other nations.
5 The same reference work declares: “Higher education or book learning in Mesopotamia and Egypt was formal and limited to the scribal class, which does not seem to have been the case in Israel. The difference was no doubt due to the simpler alphabetic system of writing used by the Hebrews. . . . The importance of alphabetic writing for the history of education must not be overlooked. It ushered in a break with the traditional scribal cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and second-millennium Canaan. To be literate was no longer the identifying and exclusive characteristic of a class of professional scribes and priests, versed in the abstruse cuneiform and hieroglyphic scripts.”
6. What Biblical evidence is there that right from the beginning of their history, the Israelites were a literate people?
6 The Bible provides evidence that the Israelites were a literate people. Before they even entered the Promised Land, they were told to write Jehovah’s laws on their doorposts and on their gates. (Deuteronomy 6:1, 9; 11:20; 27:1-3) While this command was no doubt figurative, it would certainly have had no meaning to the average Israelite if he did not know how to read and write. Scriptures such as Joshua 18:9 and Judges 8:14 show that others besides leaders like Moses and Joshua knew how to write long before the monarchy was set up in Israel.—Exodus 34:27; Joshua 24:26.
7. (a) According to the Scriptures, who gave Israelite children their basic education? (b) What information is given by a French Bible scholar?
7 In Israel, children were taught from a very early age by both father and mother. (Deuteronomy 11:18, 19; Proverbs 1:8; 31:26) In the French Dictionnaire de la Bible, Bible scholar E. Mangenot wrote: “As soon as he could speak, the child learned a few passages from the Law. His mother would repeat a verse; when he knew it, she would give him another one. Later, the written text of the verses they could already recite from memory would be put into the children’s hands. Thus, they were introduced to reading, and when they had grown older, they could continue their religious instruction by reading and meditating on the law of the Lord.”
8. (a) What basic teaching method was used in Israel, but with what important characteristic? (b) What memory aids were used?
8 This suggests that a basic teaching method used was the learning of things by heart. The things learned concerning Jehovah’s laws and his dealings with his people were to penetrate into the heart. (Deuteronomy 6:6, 7) They were to be meditated upon. (Psalm 77:11, 12) To help young and old to memorize, various memory aids were used. These included alphabetic acrostics, successive verses in a psalm beginning with a different letter, in alphabetical order (such as Proverbs 31:10-31); alliteration (words beginning with the same letter or sound); and the use of numbers, like those used in the latter half of Proverbs chapter 30. Interestingly, the Gezer Calendar, one of the oldest examples of ancient Hebrew writing, is thought by some scholars to be a schoolboy’s memory exercise.
9. (a) What was an important part of the study program for Israelite children? (b) What does a Bible encyclopedia state concerning teaching done in connection with the annual festivals?
9 Education in Israel was not limited to learning to read and write. One important subject taught was history. The learning of Jehovah’s wondrous doings in favor of his people was a fundamental part of the curriculum. These historical facts had to be taught from generation to generation. (Deuteronomy 4:9, 10; Psalm 78:1-7) The celebration of the annual festivals provided a fine opportunity for the family head to teach his children. (Exodus 13:14; Leviticus 23:37-43) In this connection The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states: “Through the father’s instruction in the home and his explanations of the significance of the festivals, the Hebrew children were taught how God had manifested Himself to them in the past, how they were to live in the present, and what God’s promises were regarding the future of His people.”
10. What practical training was given to girls? to boys?
10 Parental education included practical training. Girls were taught household skills. The closing chapter of Proverbs shows that these were many and varied; they included spinning, weaving, cooking, trading, and general household management. Boys were usually taught their father’s secular occupation, whether in agriculture or some trade or craft. In later times Jewish rabbis were wont to say: “He who does not teach his son a useful trade is bringing him up to be a thief.”
11. What shows the underlying purpose of education in Israel, and what lesson does this contain for young ones today?
11 The spiritual depth of the teaching methods used in Israel is apparent throughout the book of Proverbs. It shows that the purpose was to teach “inexperienced ones” such elevated things as wisdom, discipline, understanding, insight, judgment, shrewdness, knowledge, and thinking ability—all of this in “the fear of Jehovah.” (Proverbs 1:1-7; 2:1-14) It underscores the motives that should move one of God’s servants today to improve his or her education.
Priests, Levites, and Prophets
12. Who besides parents took part in educating the people of Israel, and what is the basic meaning of the Hebrew word translated “law”?
12 While basic education was provided by parents, Jehovah further educated his people by means of the priests, the nonpriestly Levites, and the prophets. In his final blessing upon the tribe of Levi, Moses stated: “Let them instruct Jacob in your judicial decisions and Israel in your law.” (Deuteronomy 33:8, 10) Significantly, the word “law” in Hebrew (toh·rahʹ) is derived from a root that in its verbal form means “to show,” “to teach,” “to instruct.” The Encyclopaedia Judaica states: “The meaning of the word [torah] is therefore ‘teaching,’ ‘doctrine,’ or ‘instruction.’”
13. Why was Israel’s Law different from the legal systems of other nations?
13 This too set Israel apart from the other nations and even from modern-day nations. Political nations today have a body of laws of which the general population knows only a fragment. When people run afoul of the law, they have to pay lawyers high fees to defend them. Law schools are for the specialists. Yet, in Israel the Law was God’s means of telling his people how he wanted them to worship him and live in accordance with his will. Unlike other legal codes, it included love for God and neighbor. (Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 6:5) The Law was far from being a cold statute-book. It provided doctrine, teaching, and instruction in a way of life that had to be learned.
14. What was one reason why Jehovah rejected the Levitical priesthood? (Malachi 2:7, 8)
14 While faithful, the priests and the Levites discharged their responsibility to teach the people. But more often than not, the priests neglected their duty to educate the nation. This lack of education in God’s Law was to have dire consequences for both priests and people. In the eighth century B.C.E., Jehovah prophesied: “My people will certainly be silenced, because there is no knowledge. Because the knowledge is what you yourself have rejected, I shall also reject you from serving as a priest to me; and because you keep forgetting the law of your God, I shall forget your sons, even I.”—Hosea 4:6.
15. (a) In addition to priests, whom did Jehovah raise up as teachers in Israel, and what did a Bible scholar write about their role as educators? (b) What finally happened to Israel and Judah because they rejected knowledge of Jehovah and his ways?
15 As well as the priests, Jehovah raised up prophets as educators. We read: “Jehovah kept warning Israel and Judah by means of all his prophets and every visionary, saying: ‘Turn back from your bad ways and keep my commandments, my statutes, according to all the law that I commanded your forefathers and that I have sent to you by means of my servants the prophets.’” (2 Kings 17:13) As to the role of the prophets as educators, French Bible scholar Roland de Vaux wrote: “The prophets, too, had a mission to instruct the people; this was at least as much a part of their task as foretelling the future. And prophetic inspiration lent to their preaching the authority of a word of God. It is certain that under the monarchy the prophets were the religious and moral teachers of the people; and, we may add, the best of all their teachers, if not always the most heeded.” Through lack of proper education by the priests and the Levites together with failure to heed Jehovah’s prophets, the Israelites forsook Jehovah’s ways. Samaria fell to the Assyrians in 740 B.C.E., and Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed by the Babylonians in 607 B.C.E.
Education During and After the Captivity
16, 17. (a) What educational program was forced upon Daniel and his three companions? (b) What enabled them to undergo this Babylonian education and yet remain faithful to Jehovah?
16 Some ten years before the destruction of Jerusalem, King Jehoiachin and a group of princes and nobles were carried off to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. (2 Kings 24:15) Among them were Daniel and three other young nobles. (Daniel 1:3, 6) Nebuchadnezzar ordered the four of them to undergo a special three-year training course in “the writing and the tongue of the Chaldeans.” Moreover, they were provided with “a daily allowance from the delicacies of the king and from his drinking wine.” (Daniel 1:4, 5) This was potentially dangerous for several reasons. Likely, the curriculum was not simply a three-year language course. The term “Chaldeans” in this passage is thought by some to designate, “not the Babylonians as a people, but the learned class.” (The Soncino Books of the Bible) In his commentary on Daniel, C. F. Keil states: “Daniel and his companions were to be educated in the wisdom of the Chaldean priests and learned men, which was taught in the schools of Babylon.” The royal food allowance also exposed them to violating the dietary restrictions imposed by the Law of Moses. How did they fare?
17 As spokesman for the four young Jewish nobles, Daniel made it clear right from the start that they would not eat or drink in violation of their conscience. (Daniel 1:8, 11-13) Jehovah blessed this firm stand and softened the heart of the Babylonian official in charge. (Daniel 1:9, 14-16) As to their studies, subsequent events in the lives of all four young Hebrews prove beyond doubt that their compulsory three-year curriculum in Babylonian culture did not cause them to deviate from their profound attachment to Jehovah and his pure worship. (Daniel, chapters 3 and 6) Jehovah enabled them to emerge unscathed from this forced three-year immersion in Babylonian higher learning. “As for these children, the four of them, to them the true God gave knowledge and insight in all writing and wisdom; and Daniel himself had understanding in all sorts of visions and dreams. And as regards every matter of wisdom and understanding that the king inquired about from them, he even got to find them ten times better than all the magic-practicing priests and the conjurers that were in all his royal realm.”—Daniel 1:17, 20.
18. What educational program was carried out in Judah after the Babylonian captivity?
18 After the Babylonian captivity, a great work of education was carried out by Ezra, a priest who “prepared his heart to consult the law of Jehovah and to do it and to teach in Israel regulation and justice.” (Ezra 7:10) In this he was helped by faithful Levites, who “were explaining the law to the people.” (Nehemiah 8:7) Ezra was a Bible scholar and “a skilled copyist,” or scribe. (Ezra 7:6) It was in his day that scribes came into prominence as a class.
19. What class of educators had appeared in Israel by the time Jesus came to earth, and for what important reasons did he and his disciples not undergo Jewish higher education?
19 By the time Jesus appeared on earth, the scribes had become an elite class of teachers, more attached to traditions than to the true teachings of God’s Word. They liked to be called “Rabbi,” which had become an honorific title meaning “My Great (Excellent) One.” (Matthew 23:6, 7, footnote) In the Christian Greek Scriptures, the scribes are often associated with the Pharisees, some of whom were themselves teachers of the Law. (Acts 5:34) Jesus accused both groups of making the word of God invalid because of their tradition and teaching “commands of men as doctrines.” (Matthew 15:1, 6, 9) Small wonder that neither Jesus nor most of his disciples were educated in the rabbinical schools.—John 7:14, 15; Acts 4:13; 22:3.
20. What has this review of education in Bible times shown us, and what indicates that Jehovah’s servants need education?
20 This overview of education in Bible times has shown that Jehovah is the Grand Instructor of his people. Through Moses, God organized an efficient system of education in Israel. But after a long time, a system of Jewish higher education developed that taught things contrary to the Word of God. While Jesus did not attend such Jewish schools, he was, nevertheless, an incomparable Teacher. (Matthew 7:28, 29; 23:8; John 13:13) He also commissioned his disciples to teach, even until the conclusion of the system of things. (Matthew 28:19, 20) To do this, they would have to be good teachers and consequently would require education. So how should true Christians view education today? This question will be examined in the following article.
A Memory Test
□ Why can we be sure that Jehovah is interested in the education of his servants?
□ In what respects was Israel’s educational system different from that of the other nations?
□ What education did Israelite children receive?
□ What teaching methods were used in Israel?
□ Why did Jesus and his disciples not go to Jewish schools of higher learning?
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Compulsory education in Babylon did not turn Daniel and his companions away from Jehovah