How Education Developed in Ancient Israel

Normally, when we consider the people of Israel we think of the ceremonial traditions they zealously maintained–and rightfully did they do so. We fail to compare and contrast this nation with the rest of the world. We take them for granted in the same way we take Moses for granted. Let us consider them with a fresh look at who they are and what they mean for us in the history of education.

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Before we enter upon this reflection, we must prepare ourselves to enter with faith in the content of Sacred Scripture. We must accept the propositions of Scripture for what they are–the word of God–and allow them to become the new premises by which we renew our minds. If you are not willing to do so, you have no hope of understanding and might as well get your money back now.

The Patriarchs & Moses

By the time Moses dies, we have this great multitude that possesses something no other people on earth possess: the true story of the origin of the world and the law of God for mankind. We must stop here and not move on until this reality is fixed in out minds. To this point in history (ca 1400 BC) men knew of God or the gods by means of reason. Revelation was scarce and what there was of it was dark and mysterious. For example, a covenant was made with Abraham that was personal, not legal, leaving man’s relationship with God to be understood as a relationship with and through a man. Jacob saw angels ascending and descending upon a ladder into heaven, but what did all this mean? Worst of all, this was the condition of the chosen people! If the light among the sons of Abraham was dim, how dark was that among the nations? Yet, through Moses a great light is fixed in Palestine and that light begins to enlighten every man coming into the world from that point on.

The next great light is found in the great kings David and Solomon. Once again, silly Bible stories have robbed them of their dignity and magnanimity and have discouraged us in our interest in them. When we hear the name David, we think Bathsheba and when we hear Solomon we think of his wives. We move on with no profit from the mystery and wisdom that enshrouds these two ancient men and all that they have to offer us in understanding the nature of true human education.

Before we look at them individually, we must keep in mind that they are among the first generations of men to start with the light of the five books of Moses (the Torah). Therefore, we find in these men the next radical advance in human wisdom as the revelation of Moses supplies the first principles to these great minds. Moreover, we find that new revelation is prepared for them.

King David

As stated above, most of what we know of king David comes from children’s books. We know of his time as a shepherd. We know he played the harp and sang Psalms. We know he killed Goliath. We know he stole Bathsheba from Uriah–and so on. However, if this was the true message of the life of David, would it justify the use of his writings as the core of all true worship in the Church? There must be something more to David than these superficial children’s stories. God help us to understand David.

In our first introduction to David we find him not as a king, nor a warrior, but as a musician. By our lack of reflection and ignorance of history we miss the point of this: there are not many musicians in the ancient world (here 1000 BC). The art of music is in its earliest development and David is a shepherd boy. Where does this art of music come from and how did a lonely shepherd boy acquire it?

We learned through Moses of the origin of musical instruments. However, the manufacturing of musical instruments and our understanding of the proper uses of music are two separate arts, with the latter being superior. What we find in David is the first true musician. David’s musical skill is a divine gift that demonstrates the power of this skill to man and that in reference to God, which is wisdom. The Scripture does not present music to us as a source of leisure or entertainment. Scripture reveals that music has an enchanting effect on the soul of man. Through the story of King Saul’s spiritual attacks, and the relief David’s music brings, we receive yet another glimpse into the invisible world, which is essential for our progress in true wisdom. Music has a power to deliver man from evil and maintain a sound mind within him.

This understanding of music will be central to our discussion of the liberal arts for the rest of history, but we find the world’s earliest divine musician in David. The Greek legend of Orpheus and the mystery which surrounded his skill should add to our admiration of David, whose achievements are “more sure” than those of the famous Greek.

However, before we move on to Solomon, you may want to see where exactly the knowledge of the classical liberal arts is found in David. Remember that the arts are not present in their tidy little categories as we know them now, for that is the development that will follow in coming centuries. We find in David the mass of wisdom, but not an awareness of all of its proper divisions.

Let us consider an iceberg to understand how to examine the wisdom of ancient men and David in particular. We know that the visible portion of the iceberg, that which protrudes above the surface of the water, is but a sign of the great mass that exists below. In the same way, the wisdom of the ancients is not seen in formal, systematic teachings, but in their deeds. When we see men capable of amazing achievements in judgment, oratory, poetry, politics or military affairs, we must conclude that the wisdom prerequisite for those arts exists beneath the surface. It may not be articulated in a systematic manner, but it is there and the deeds are its signs and symbols.

We find in David a mastery of poetry. Poetry assumes a mastery of etymology, syntax and prosody–the arts within Grammar. We find in David a deep understanding of philosophy–moral and natural. The means to philosophy is Logic, and therefore it must be present in David. David demonstrates mastery of military affairs, politics and international economics all of which presumes a knowledge of Arithmetic and Geometry (which includes Geography). There is no need to discuss David’s comprehension of the art of Music. Lastly, we find throughout the Psalms reflections upon the heavens such as this:

“The heavens shew forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of his hands. Day to day uttereth speech, and night to night sheweth knowledge. There are no speeches nor languages, where their voices are not heard. Their sound hath gone forth into all the earth: and their words unto the ends of the world.”

Such meditations are no accident! David is not merely familiar with Astronomy but has reflected upon the heavens sufficiently to understand their theological and philosophical implications. Once again, though in an embryonic form, we find all of the classical liberal arts as well as the higher arts (Philosophy and Theology) present in the mind of the ancients.

King Solomon

The greatest gift that King David gave to the ancient world was likely his music, but next in value was the instruction he gave to the son of his old age, Solomon. Solomon himself tells us:

“My father taught me, and said: ‘Let thy heart receive my words, keep my commandments, and thou shalt live. Get wisdom, get prudence: forget not, neither decline from the words of my mouth…My son, hearken to my words, and incline thy ear to my sayings. Let them not depart from thy eyes, keep them in the midst of thy heart: For they are life to those that find them.”

Those are some confident words spoken by David! He says, “My words are life to those that find them.”, and this was obviously a key part of David’s notion of true education learning and reflecting upon his words, which we find in the Psalms. No wonder they are central to Christian worship!

We know of Solomon’s famous request for Wisdom from God, and the fact that God granted his request. What we fail to appreciate is the nature of that wisdom and its contribution to the continued development of the classical liberal arts. We saw all of the arts present in the mind of Moses. We can see them all in the mind of David, most especially Music. However, in Solomon we find the liberal arts radically improved in a very short amount of time as knowledge that flows from yet another divine gift fills the world with light.

The key passage for us is in 1 Kings 4. There we find the author of the sacred history describing the wisdom that Solomon possessed:

“And God gave to Solomon wisdom, and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, as the sand that is on the sea shore. And the wisdom of Solomon surpassed the wisdom of all the Orientals, and of the Egyptians; And he was wiser than all men…and he was renowned in all nations round about. Solomon also spoke three thousand parables: and his poems were a thousand and five. And he treated about trees, from the cedar that is in Libanus, unto the hyssop that cometh out of the wall: and he discoursed of beasts, and of fowls, and of creeping things, and of fishes. And they came from all nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who heard of his wisdom.”

Let’s look carefully into this passage and see exactly what it tells us about Solomon and his wisdom.

We are told that at this time in history, the wisdom possessed by Solomon was the most excellent of all the earth. It was superior to that of the eastern philosophers as well as the Egyptians. Some may recommend to us the ancient wisdom of the Chinese or Indians, but what we have in Solomon is greater. Now, we must understand that the wisdom of the eastern wise men and the Egyptians was in essence the knowledge of the classical liberal arts. What we are being told here, then, is that Solomon’s mastery of this true knowledge (for theirs was in many respects true) has reached a degree to which none have reached before. There is no subject not treated in the Proverbs or in Ecclesiastes. Solomon raises the bar for human wisdom throughout the world.

We are told that Solomon possessed a special interest in natural philosophy. We see that he had great knowledge of all four classes of animals: beasts, birds, reptiles and fish. What is important here is the classification of creatures, which reveals the development of a scientific understanding of nature. Very rarely do we speak of Solomon’s knowledge of the natural world, or consider that the wisdom God granted filled the study of nature with divine light. God enlightened man’s understanding of natural philosophy, providing a true and God-oriented understanding of the world. True natural science is not taught inductively as all modern science textbooks do, but deductively as classical natural philosophy has always done.

We are told of the means of Solomon’s instruction. He himself taught in proverbs, parables and poems. What we find here is the development not only of knowledge, but in the means of its transmission, that is, in pedagogy. The book of Proverbs is not a mere collection of sayings for the adornment of bulletin boards. It is an instruction manual in philosophy, which the preface explicitly states.

“To know wisdom, and instruction: To understand the words of prudence: and to receive the instruction of doctrine, justice, and judgment, and equity: To give subtilty to little ones, to the young man knowledge and understanding.”

We are told of the scope of Solomon’s influence. Remember Solomon lived somewhere between 1000-900 BC. We are told that at that time, “they came from all nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth.”. We must consider then that not only did wisdom come from God to Solomon, but also through Solomon into every nation. Again, this wisdom is being taught hundreds of years before the Greek masters Homer (800 BC), Socrates (469), Plato (429) and Aristotle (384) were even born. So, when we find amazing philosophical achievements among pagan nations, let us not forget that the inspired premises upon which this wisdom was built is likely to be traced back to Israel. This is no mere post hoc argument, for Scripture confirms that he did not merely come before the Greeks, but that his fame spread into all nations.

Thus, we see a philosophical tradition emerging in ancient Israel that is directly inspired by God. It is God that draws Moses out from the world that he may receive the knowledge of the origins of the world and the law of God. God calls David from the pasture to fill the world with divine music. Lastly, God raises Solomon to yet another level of understanding. We must see more than just these individuals being lifted up, but all of human thought, for the knowledge given to these men spreads throughout the world.

More importantly we see an increasing attention to instruction. We have moved from Moses’ narratives and laws to David’s songs and now to Solomon’s proverbs, parables and poems. The classical liberal arts curriculum is beginning to take shape, and as attention is directed increasingly at instruction, the demand for systematization will also increase.

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