Ancient sagesI want to close this discussion on Daniel’s wisdom education by calling attention to what was most likely included in the tutorial process. I have found William McKane’s seminal, little book Prophets and Wisdom Men wonderfully helpful in this.

In his work, which includes the large and dense volume Proverbs: A New Approach, McKane has shown that Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Israelite political officials and advisers would have been trained in the wisdom tradition. And of the wisdom literature itself, McKane has concluded that it was for the most part “a product not of full-time men of letters and academics, but of men of affairs in high places of state.” Further, “the literature in some of its forms bears the marks of its close association with those who exercise the skills of statecraft” (Prophets and Wise Men, p. 44).

This is “particularly evident,” he writes, “in the case of the Egyptian ‘Instruction’ whose aim is to lay down the first principles of statesmanship and to define the fundamental intellectual attitudes which are [to be desired] for the aspiring statesman or administrator” (p. 4-5). That seems like an apt job description for Ashpenaz, the lead tutor in the Chaldean school of wisdom where Daniel (and his three Jewish friends) studied. Previously, we considered the likelihood that Ashpenaz would have first tested the four devout Jews in Jerusalem, to see if they had the “intellectual attitudes” essential in anyone aspiring to be a royal court official. When Ashpenaz found them to be budding scholars, he took them back to Babylon for three years of graduate studies in wisdom, which included the “writing [literature] and the language of the Chaldeans” (Daniel 1:3-6).

ancient wisdom schoolTo return to the Egyptian scene, McKane also found evidence that its wisdom literature was associated “with the practice of government.” This “is underlined by the circumstances that the authors of these pieces are sometimes represented as having spent a lifetime in the service of the state in the highest offices.” Further, the Egyptian system was largely a tutorial process conducted in government departments by senior officials who made “available a bank of practical wisdom accumulated from the experience of those have who have in the past shown themselves to be the most shrewd and perceptive men of affairs” (p. 45).

McKane and other scholars have also concluded that these schools were only open to the children of royal families and other elites. And the apprenticeships, to summarize McKane, included familiarization with the functions of bureaucracy, mastering competence in government administration, cultivating proper mores and intellectual attitudes, studying the cultures and politics of surrounding nations, and becoming skilled in protocol. It was through this educational process that “intellectual probity and fastidiousness and a maturity of judgment” was gained for dealing wisely with complicated domestic and international situations (p. 45).

McKane suggests that we envisage the kind of schools “where the fundamental disciplines of reading and writing were mastered” as well as more advanced institutions “where the various subjects of a more specialized higher education were pursued” (p. 39). And since this was not religious instruction per se, it was “not authoritative in the sense of recommending a doctrinaire approach to politics or in prescribing a simple set of rules” (p. 45).

The Egyptian history is significant. McKane sees Israel as taking some cues for its political bureaucracy from the Egyptian system, especially during the long reigns of David and Solomon (Israel’s second and third kings), when Israel was often closely in the Egyptian sphere of influence (p. 23). Citing, for example, Solomon’s alliance with Egypt through marriage, McKane writes that “the Israelite state was modeled on the great states of the ancient Near East and so acquired a structure similar to that of Egypt.” It was a “political structure” in which there was associated with the king “a class of royal officials who had to do with the army, finance, foreign embassies and administration. Such officials were a ‘people of the king’ and had a common interest with him in maintaining the regime and suppressing popular resistance and discontent” (p. 43).

All of this gives us a general idea of what the education of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah in Babylon most likely encompassed (this is supported by a host of other scholarship). It also gives further credence to the assumption we made, that the four devout Jews, who were from royal or noble blood (Daniel 1:3), were taking, or had finished, their undergraduate classes in wisdom education in Jerusalem to prepare them to serve as officials in the royal court of Judah (before Judah was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar’s army). Ashpenaz thus finds them “proficient in wisdom” (Daniel 1:4, Jewish Study Bible) and hauls them off to Babylon, where he admits them to a specialized course of studies in the “Chaldean Institute at King’s University” in Babylon. There, they received the specialized tutoring requisite for holding positions of responsibility and power in the state.

This educational regimen, from both Jerusalem and Babylon, was huge in the various kinds of skill in wisdom that Daniel acquired as a diplomat-statesman. Beginning with the next post we will start to identify those skills.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer


  1. This makes me connect with Luther’s call to magistrates to reform the church if the church can’t reform itself in his Address to the Nobility. Wisdom is not the monopoly of the clergy which is often implied. Daniel and his friends were sort of lay believers doing of course the right, wise things. Maybe the other accent is on the fact that they were doing good to everybody without seeking revenge. That is a powerfull message for our world full of hate…


    • Yes, so true, Alexandru, so true, that “they were doing good to everybody without seeking revenge.” That’s clearly true in wisdom’s emphasis on shalom (peace) amid diversity. Daniel and his three Jewish friends, I believe, would have understood that from their wisdom education in Jerusalem and modeled in in Babylon. And what you say is, of course, especially the case with our Lord himself, as a teacher of wisdom. I think you must be reading my notes somehow! Because I plan to say more about this aspect of wisdom in the next few posts and how it influenced their relationships with even those Chaldean colleagues whom they could have easily have taken revenge on. But they did not. This, as you also say, is a powerful message for our world full of hate.

      Would love to hear any further thoughts you may have on this. Would love to hear from others on this too, as it is far too important a conversation not to have today.


  2. Charles, I enjoyed your observation that the proverbs were the product of men who experienced public administration and not necessarily university courses. While higher education is important, as you mention further on, being mentored by proven men and women is an important key. Today we have it just the opposite. Go to university first an then get mentored when it should be find a mentor and then go to school.


    • Daegmund, thx for stopping by and taking time to write. You have brought out a good point about wisdom via the education system. David Ford has done a bunch of important thinking on this over many years in the context of what he calls the negotiable university. And being at Cambridge, plus being a wisdom theologian par excellence, plus his occasional participation in some tough, high-level negotiations outside of the university, such as in the economic and political aspects, he’s something of an elder statesman for us in this. For instance, chapter 9 in his important book “Christian Wisdom” is dedicated to discussing “where universities might find sources of wisdom in their thinking about reform.”

      On a more pedestrian note, when I read what you wrote I thought of all the wisdom I learned about the automotive field from my dad. He mentored me in this throughout my teens, and as a result I earned a good living in that field well into my twenties — until I started into whatever it is that I do now! But that practical wisdom, learned sans any formal classroom teaching, sticks. I’m surprised at how often it remains accessible, so long after having left that field, to pull me or friends out of a jam.


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