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Education in ancient Israel : from earliest times to 70 A.D. online

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As among the nomadic Arabs to-day they were recounted
during the long evenings beside the campfires, or as the
shepherds watched their slow moving flocks, or in the secret
of the harem, or at the wells as the maidens went out to
draw water, or at marriage feasts and religious festivals.

23 Later times came to look with disapproval upon dancing as a
form of worship and relegated its use more and more to secular
festive occasions.

24 An eight-stringed lyre.


Possibly, as throughout all the towns of modern Palestine,
there were found professional story-tellers who, whenever
men gathered together for recreation, recited with gesture
and action their bundle of tales. The stones appealed
strongly to the imagination of the people, for they told of
courtship, of marriage, of intrigue, and of the achievements
of: their ancestors, or else answered the questions which
were uppermost in their minds [i. e., questions regarding
the origin of man and the world in which he lives, differ-
ences in races and languages]. Other traditions, embodying
the experiences of the tribe, were transmitted as sacred
from father to son. Another large group was treasured at
the many local sanctuaries scattered throughout the land.
Each time that the worshipers made a pilgrimage to the
shrine, its especial cycle of traditions relating to its history
and ceremonies would be recounted or recalled and thus
kept fresh in the popular memory." 25 "In the picturesque,
concrete form of popular traditions were transmitted the
thoughts, the beliefs, the fancies and the experiences of
preceding generations. The variety of the motives and in-
fluences which gave rise to these is astonishing. Some were
at first intended simply to entertain, others to enlighten, to
kindle patriotism, to instruct in ritual, and to inspire true
faith and action. They touch almost every side of human
experience, and meet in a remarkable manner man's varied
needs." 26

Gradually through the offices of priest, prophet and scribe

a body of written literature began to appear. Each period

produced its own group of written works or

Written Litera- - ~ ,. , , . f * . .

ture Character scrolls. Out of this mass of writings there
the canon' 011 "* rac * ua Ny emerged a group accepted as canon-
ical, i. e., as bearing the stamp of divine author-
ity. Every work so produced gave one more text to be
studied by the rising generation. As finally established the

25 C. F. Kent, Beginnings of Hebrew History, p. 13.
29 Ibid. p. 12.


canQn included three chief divisions, (1) the-JLaw ; (2)
the Pcopfeets; (3) the Writings. It is agreed among schol-
ars that the first division of the canon, the Law, 27 was
constituted and officially adopted through the influence of
Ezra and Nehemiah 28 in the fifth century B. C. The sec-
ond division, the Prophets, 29 was probably not completed
before the third century B. C. 30 The third division, the
Writings, 31 was closed in the year 118 A. D. when the
Council of Rabbis meeting at Jamnia decided in favor of the
canonicity of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs which
up to that time had been in dispute. 32 From the above data
it is evident, ( 1 ) that the canon was not finally determined
until the second century A. D. ; (2) that there was in exist-
ence among the Hebrews, at least three hundred years be-
fore the Exile, a considerable body of written literature.

When did the three R's come to be of such general use
as to be considered essentials in education? It is generally
Reading and agreed that the Hebrews adopted, during their
Writing. conquest and settlement of Palestine, the Cana-

anite systems of writing and of weights and measures. 33
However, this does not prove that a knowledge of reading,
writing and reckoning became general at this time, nor does
it preclude the existence and use of earlier systems. 34 "The

27 The Law includes Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deu-

28 C. A. Briggs, Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture, p. 120.

29 Included in the Prophets are: (1) earlier prophets: Joshua,
Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings; (2) the later prophets:
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve "minor" prophets.

30 C. A. Briggs, Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture, p. 123.

31 Included in the Writings are: (1) Psalms, Proverbs, Job; (2)
The Five Rolls: Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes,
Esther; (3) Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles.

32 C. A. Briggs, Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture, p. 130

33 Ismar J. Peritz, Old Testament History, p. 118.

34 "The cuneiform script was perhaps still in use in Palestine in the
tenth and eleventh centuries B. C., meanwhile the north-Semitic al-
phabet appears (about 850 B.C.)." S. A. Cook, "Pakstine," Enc.
Brit., llth ed., XX, 608-609a.


Mesa stone of Dibon erected by a contemporary of

Elijah, exhibits so clearly and perfectly the characteristics
of cursive script as to demonstrate the existence in Israel
of a long practised art of writing." 35

Probably the classes first to make an extensive use of
writing were the priests, the prophets, scribes and court
UsebyReiig- officials. The priests as the oldest of these
iou* and official f our classes were undoubtedly the first to use
it and may have employed it in certain tribes
prior to the Conquest. The establishment of the monarchy
resulted in the rise of the last three classes named above,
each of which found a knowledge of the three R's a most
valuable asset. The later prophets wrote extensively. 38 The
establishment of the monarchy brought with it the demand
for written records of court transactions. Alliances, treaties,
royal proclamations, messages of the king to chieftains ab-
sent on the field of battle, chronicles of the king's exploits,
all afforded abundant opportunity for the royal secretary
or scribe. "From the days of David recorders and scribes
figure among the court officials." 37 That some members
of the nobility were able to read and write is suggested by
the statement that David wrote to his captain Joab, and that
Jezebel wrote letters in Ahab's name. 38

It is impossible to estimate how widespread was the
knowledge of the three R's during the Native Period. The
Popular Use Scriptures contain many passages which sug-
and Knowledge. g est> though they do not prove conclusively,
a widespread knowledge of reading and writing. 39 It is
related that a young man of Succoth captured by Gideon
described or wrote down a list of elders and princes of

35 Carl H. Cornill, Culture of Ancient Israel, p. 90.

36 See below, paragraphs on Literary Work (of prophets) and
note 62.

3T C. F. Kent, Israel's Historical and Biographical Narratives, p. 3.

38 2 Samuel xi. 14; 1 Kings xxi. 8.

39 See Deuteronomy vi. 9 ; xxvii. 8 ; Joshua xviii. 9.


Succoth. 40 The instances of David and Jezebel just re-
ferred to are frequently cited as arguments of a consider-
able popular knowledge of reading and writing among the
masses upon the basis that both David and Jezebel took it
for granted that those to whom they were writing could
read. The evidence of such passages is not conclusive.
David and Jezebel both may have employed scribes ; more-
over Jezebel was a foreigner.

In 1880 was discovered chiseled into the rocky wall of
one of the aqueducts leading into the Siloam reservoir in
Jerusalem an inscription as old at least as the time of Isaiah,
perhaps as old as the reign of Solomon. 41 However it is not
safe to conclude from this inscription, as has sometimes
been done, that the three R's were in common use among
the laboring classes. The inscription is in a cursive hand
which suggests that it may have been traced by a scribe
and then cut by a workman. Moreover, even if the hand
that traced and the hand that cut were the same, the work
may have been that of a highly educated prisoner of war,
taken captive and enslaved. Nevertheless such an inscrip-
tion scarcely would have been made unless there had existed
at the time a considerable reading public.

In conclusion it may be said that it seems safe to as-
sume that putting into writing laws designed to be known
by all the people 42 would be the beginning of a widespread
demand for instruction in reading and writing. As soon as
commerce became an important element in general life 43 a
demand would arise for a knowledge of the elements of
reckoning, moneys, weights and measures. As there were
no schools whatever for the masses, any instruction chil-
40 Judges viii. 14.

4 * A ; ' ? a y ce - Light from Ancient Monuments, p. 5 ; p. 82 gives
V^e inscription. Sayce relates in detail the story of the find-

JI1 6J PP-

42 Deuteronomy xxvii. 2-3 ; Joshua xxiv. 25-27.

13 This occurred as early at least as the days of the monarchy.


dren received in the threeJR's must have been given in the
home by the parents or by private teachers.

The impossibility of treating religious and moral edu-
cation 44 apart from training and instruction in other fields
of activity is already evident from the pre-
ceding paragraphs. 45 It has been pointed out
/ that dancing was originally a religious as well as a festive
exercise. Much of that large body of literature which for
centuries existed only in oral form was religious and rnoral_
in character. Although religion did not^ dominate life in
this early period to the extent that it did in the centuries
following the Exile yjt_ there was no phase of life and no
field of activity into which it did not enter. Meetings of
family or tribe, the shearing of the sheep, the gathering
of the harvest, the birth of a child, departure for war,
victory or defeat, changes in the seasons and in the moon
were all occasions for religious observance. Through be-
holding such observances, through assisting in preparing
for them, and through listening to such explanations as
parents and elders saw fit to give, the child received his re-
ligious training and instruction.

The Hebrews were no exception to' the general rule
that the moral qualities emphasized by any people depend
largely upon industrial, social and political
conditions. Surrounded by powerful enemies
and forced to live in a state of continuous military prepared-
ness, the virtues they most esteemed were courage, loyalty
to kindred and to the nation's god, absolute unquestioning
obedience to those in authority and to the laws of the fam-
ily, of the tribe and of the nation ; kindness toward kinsmen,
hospitality toward the defenseless wayfarer, mercilessness

44 The meagerness and uncertainty of our information regarding
many family religious rites and customs necessitates postponing to
the Period of Reaction to Foreign Influences any attempt to describe
in detail family education, in religion and morals.

45 See especially Chapter I, concluding paragraphs, and Chapter
II, What Was Taught.


toward foes. Although the antiquity of many Hebrew pro-
verbs suggests that from very early times precepts were
used to inculcate virtues, most moral education was a matter fci
of training rather than of instruction : boys and girls learned
to be industrious by working within the dwelling or in the
field ; to be courageous and loyal by facing concrete situations
demanding courage and loyalty ; to be obedient by obeying.
Such training was enforced further by tales, legends and
traditions setting forth the deeds and virtues of ancestors
and of tribal and national heroes.


Very early in life the child began to be made conscious
of, and later on began to come into contact with, many
communal, tribal or national institutions, customs, festivals
and activities which stimulated and guided his thought and
conduct. 46 Among the most important of these were public
festivals, 47 war, hunting, expeditions, courts or places of
judgment and temples.

Throughout the greater part of the J\ T ative- Period the ^
domain of the Israelites was dotted with a multitude of
Tem les shrines and temples presided over by bodies

of priests. Every such temple fulfilled a vari-
ety of functions. In addition to being a place of worship,
it was a place of instruction in religious rites and law. 48
Every symbol and rite was a stimulus to religious feeling
and a potent teacher of some belief, law, tradition or con-
ception. The epecliDJiJiL^oJpjmpn's temple (dedicated 963 "
B. C.) was an event of great educationafas well as of great
religious importance. Its services and its priesthood must

46 See above, paragraph on Religion.

47 Reserved for discussion in The Period of Reaction to Foreign
Influence, see above, note 44; cf. below, Chapter V, "Festivals."

48 See below, paragraph on Functions Teaching.


have exerted a widespread educative influence. From the
story of Baruch 49 we learn that in the time of Jeremiah
the temple court was used as a place of public instruction.
This custom, undoubtedly far older than the time of Jere-
miah, was still followed in the time of Jesus.

Teaching Orders.

The rise in post-Exilic times of the order^pf scribes may
be regarded as the beginning of a distinct teaching profes-
sion among the Hebrews. Nevertheless the Native Period
was by no means destitute of orders certain aspects of
whose work may well be described as educational. It would
be misleading as well as confusing to designate either the
priests or the prophets as teachers. The former were essen-
tially ministers at and guardians of the shrines of Yahweh,
and the latter were essentially preachers. Aside from the
training and instruction they gave to novices or to members
of their own orders they probably seldom if ever acted as
teachers in the ordinary acceptation of the term. Certainly
they organized neither schools nor classes for the masses.
Yet in fulfilling the very work to which theyhad been con-
secrated, they were in a very real sense stimulating and
guiding the religious and moral consciousness, furnishing it
with content and with forms of expression and, in a word,
Levites and were educating it. It is therefore impossible
priests. j- o exclude from even a brief account of an-

cient Hebrew education some consideration of the teach-
ing or educational services of these two orders.

The origin of the Hebrew priesthood is wrapt in ob-
scurity. During the nomadic period and for some time after
. . the settlement in Canaan the head of every

family acted as its priest. 50 Judges xvii seems
to indicate clearly that as early as the time of the "judges"
the LeiE&es were recognized as an order or tribe of priests
whose ministrations were peculiarly efficacious in gaining
49 Jeremiah xxxvi. 4. 60 Cf . above, paragr. on Who Was Taught.


the favor of Yahweh, 51 but how long before Micah's time
a distinct priestly order existed cannot be stated. Early
times knew no distinction between priests and Levites but
called the ministers of all Yahweh sanctuaries Levites. 52
It is probable that the reforms of Josiah (621 B.C.) were
responsible to a large extent for the distinction which
arose in later times. These reforms specifically provided
that the Levites in charge of the many shrines outside
Jerusalem should be brought to the capital city and attached
to the national temple. It is easy to understand how the
order of priests already in charge of the royal sanctuary
would assign to the newcomers the more humble temple
duties and a humbler rank in the now national order of
priests, claiming for themselves a superior rank and the
more important offices.

Among the most important functions of the_early_priest-
hooiLaiere divination, guarding and ministering at the shrines
b Functions ^ Yahweh, and teaching. Kent on the basis
Services as of Deuteronomy xxxiii. 10 ("They shall teach
Jacob thy judgments") and certain other pas-
sages asserts not only that the early priests acted as judges
but that it was through the exercise of this function that
much of their most important educational influence was
exerted. 53 In 1 Samuel iv. 18 we read that Eli had acted
as a_4ndge for forty years. There are, however, serious
objections to ascribing this function of acting as judges to
the priests except in cases where some matter of ritual was
involved as where a tabu had been broken. But even if
we deny that the priests acted as judges in any general
sense and if we exclude from our conception of their work
the forceful though indirect presentation through the chan-

61 Judges xvii. 13.

52 Emil Schiirer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of
Jesus Christ, Div. II, Vol. I, pp. 223-229, gives an excellent brief ac-
count of the rise and development of the order of Levites.

53 C. F. Kent, The Great Teachers of Judaism and Christianity.
pp. 44ff.


nel of their judgments, of civic, political, moral .and relig-
ious lessons, there nevertheless remain many activities in
which they appear discharging a teaching function. ' Through
their declaration of the will of Yahweh, discovered by the
use of the sacred lot or by some other means of divination,
they created and disseminated conceptions of Yahweh. They
organized and directed public festivals many of which were
little less than dramatized lessons in religion and history.
They taught to the individual resorting to them in private
and to the multitude publicly assembled in the temple or
in the open, forms of worship. They collected and trans-
mitted (at first orally, later by writing) laws, rites, cere-
monies, myths, legends and history (cf. Malachi ii. 7).
compiled, edited and transmitted this literature. They
put much of it into forms easy to grasp and remember and
taught it to the people. Through their literary efforts they
began the compilation of that great body of literature which
still remains the world's unsurpassed text for religious and
moral instruction. Their communities were the first organ-
ized groups in ancient Israel providing definite and special
instruction for a class (the priesthood) definitely, though
by no means solely, devoted to teaching. 54

Saul, unable to find his father's asses, resorted to Samuel,
the seer, much as some to-day resort to fortune-tellers or
Prophets or Ora- clairvoyants. 55 Undoubtedly long before Sam-
tor-Teachers. uel's time many a seer (Heb. roeh) and diviner
(Heb. kosem) was to be found living in the
various tribes. Such individuals were believed to possess un-
usual means of ascertaining the divine will or of communi-
cating with divine powers. The soothsaying priest and the
kosem, and probably also the roeh, based their declarations
largely upon the observation of objective physical phenom-
ena. It is probable that the prophet (Heb. sing, nabi, pi. ne-

54 For a discussion of the priests as teachers see Chapter V, De-
cline of Priests and Prophets as Teachers.

55 1 Samuel ix. Iff.


bum) emerged by a process of continual development from
the earlier roeh. 56 It is possible also that "The signs or sym-
bolic acts of the prophets originated in actions of sympathetic
magic." 57 However that may be, "the prophet's function
became in an increasing degree a function of mind and not
merely of traditional routine or mechanical technique." 58 In
other words the nabi himself became the subjective channel
through which Yahweh spoke.

The Hebrew prophets were not primarily nor chiefly
foretellers of the future. Their importance is due to the

^Entrance into P art the y P la y ed in P ublic affairs and to their
Public Affairs service as public teachers. Their rise to the
Characteristics. posit j on of public leaders in Israel is contem-
poraneous with the rise of the monarchy. Among the causes
which explain their entrance into the arena of public affairs
three may be mentioned: (1) the need of seers at the royal
court to declare the will of Yahweh when important under-
takings were being contemplated and upon other occasions ;
(2) the need of religious reform; (3) the need of social

Religious and social abuses (e. g., idolatry and the in-
creasing oppression of the poor), combined with a constant
fear of outside foes, resulted in bringing together devout
men, endowed with a greater vision, yearning for reform
and moved by religious and patriotic zeal mounting fre-
quently to frenzy. Such bands went by the name of prophets
or "sons of prophets." They appear to have lived in com-
munities frequently in the vicinity of some famous sanc-
tuary as Beth-El and Gilgal. Some prophets, such as Sam-
uel and Elisha, were intimately associated with such com-
munities ; others, like Elijah, generally worked independently.

56 1 Samuel ix. 9.

57 Wm. Robertson Smith and Owen C. Whitehouse, 'The Prophets
of the Old Testament," Enc. Brit., llth ed., XXII, 442b.

58 O. C. Whitehouse, "Hebrew Religion," Enc. Brit., llth ed.,
XIII, 182a.


In contrast to the priestly order the prophets were a lay
qnler. They were also an open order,~T e., the spirit of
prophecy might come upon any one, whereupon he would
begin to prophesy and would be numbered among the proph-
ets. 59 Women as well as men were included in the ranks. 60

"The seer appears individually With the prophets it is

quite otherwise; they appear in bands; their prophesying
is a united exercise accompanied by music, and seemingly
dance music ; it is marked by strong excitement which some-
times acts contagiously." 61

Such prophets as Amos, Hosea and Isaiah were public
poets and orators. Like Jeremiah they probably spoke their

c. Literary prophecies first and then later committed them
Work, to writing. 62 Their literary products included
orations delivered in public, tracts intended for public dis-
tribution but not oral recitation, codes, 63 history 64 and sum-
maries of their own actions. They cast their utterances into
poetic form, choosing the meter best adapted to the mes-
sage. These works, oral or written, served as texts for

iXtheir own disciples and for future generations.

It is futile to attempt to state how extensive was the
provision made by prophet communities for training and

d. Education in instructing their members. It is impossible
Prophet Commu- to accept the view presented by some writers

that the prophets established colleges presided
over by a senior member, in which music, oratory, poetry,
law and other advanced studies were taught. However, in
view of the general state of culture in the monarchical

59 1 Samuel x. 11-12; xix. 20-24.

60 E. g., Deborah, Judges iv. 5 ; Huldah, 2 Kings xxii. 14.

61 Wm. Robertson Smith and Owen C. Whitehouse, "The Prophets
of the Old Testament," Enc. Brit., llth ed., XXII, 441c.

62 Jeremiah xxxvi relates how Jeremiah dictated an epitome of
his prophecy.

63 E. g.jl'he Book of Instruction.

64 Charles F. Kent, Beginnings of Hebrew History, p. 36. The
Judean prophets began writing a comprehensive history of Israel
about 825 B. C.


period and of the need the prophets would have of a knowl-
edge of reading, writing, literature, oratory and composi-
tion, there is no valid reason against the assumption that
some provision was made for instruction in some or all of
these branches. Isaiah evidently had a group of disciples
who wrote down his utterances and recorded his work. 65

The prophets were wandering teachers. In their own

eyes and in the eyes of the people, they were Yahweh's

divinely commissioned messengers. Wherever

e. Services as , . 111*

Teachers Times there was an opportunity to make known his
and Places of w ju wherever there was need of protest against

Instruction. ., . . t

evils or of encouragement in righteousness,
thither they betook themselves. "Sometimes he (the prophet)
appeared in the court before the king and princes, some-
times he appealed from the rulers to the people. Often the
temple court. . . .was the scene of the prophet's teaching." 68
Many examples might be given from the work of Hosea,
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and other prophets, showing the j,

extensive use the prophets made of symbol-

f. Methods. . , . . . Z-

ism, the object lesson and the dramatic method.
Jeremiah, wishing to dissuade the Judeans from joining
Egypt and the surrounding tribes in a revolt against Baby-
lonia, made a number of wooden yokes. One he wore him-

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Online LibraryFletcher Harper SwiftEducation in ancient Israel : from earliest times to 70 A.D. → online text (page 3 of 10)