Today we’ll move from the previous post’s examples of seeking wisdom from the natural world to look at three models of wisdom-based schools that were common during Bible times in the cultures of the old world Middle East. These educational models were the temple schools, the royal court schools, and what today we might call home schooling. The first two are broadly analogous to what today we would call religious training and college, respectively. (See the previous post’s introduction to this short 3-part series.)
Because the old-world sages were vital to the development of the wisdom tradition itself, and to their cultures’ education models, let’s begin with a word about what the sages were on about, for their callings were quite different than that of prophets and priests.
Writing about ancient Israel, the Hebrew scholar Leo Perdue makes this helpful distinction: “Unlike prophets who received the knowledge of God in revelatory states (e.g., standing in the council of Yahweh) or priests whose religious experiences included theophanies…, sages came to their understanding of God and the moral life through ways of knowing that included memory, sense perception, reason, experience, and reflection.” He continues: “[By] using their powers of observation and the ability to think rationally, the sages sought to understand God, social institutions, and the moral life through their reflections on creation and human experience, including their own.”
Wisdom scholar Ben Witherington, writing about wisdom and experiences that are common to humanity, put it this way when referencing ancient Israel: “The sages dealt with and drew deductions from the repeatable patterns and moral order of ordinary life, both human life and the life of the broader natural world. For the most part they were trying to explain how God’s people should live when God is not presently intervening and when there is no late and particular oracle from God to draw on.”
Noted Old Testament theologian Gerhard von Rad calls the sages’ kind of learned wisdom “experiential knowledge,” noting that every old-world culture “devoted itself to the care and literary cultivation of this experiential knowledge.” “No one,” he reminds us, “would be able to live even for a single day without incurring appreciable harm if he could not be guided by wide practical experience.” It teaches us to understand events in our surroundings, to foresee the reactions of others, to apply our own unique resources at the right point, “to distinguish the normal from the unique and much more besides.”
To sum up, it was from their studied observations over time that the sages derived and built up a body of knowledge of learned lessons both from the created order of the world and from human behavior in the world. Insights applied from learned lessons are vital to gaining wisdom, and these became huge in the curricula of wisdom education. Over time, sages’ insights were collected and organized into forms of written instruction and used to educate the young about wise, practical decision-making in virtually every area of life in the old-world Middle East.
Previous to its organized and written forms, wisdom was transmitted orally down the generations, usually from father to son (occasionally from mothers), as instruction about life in the world. This kind of “home schooling” is partly what we see in written form in the book of Proverbs. Much of this kind of instruction was taught in a style called the “act-consequence connection.” Here are a few examples. For lack of guidance, a nation falls; do not love sleep or you will grow poor; do not speak to a fool, for he will scorn the wisdom your words (Proverbs 11:14; 20:13; 23:9). A popular one today is: you reap what you sow (Galatians 6:7).
Early forms of home schooling, whether oral or written, were designed to encourage the kind of responsible living that would put the young in harmonious agreement with the divine order that was assumed by old-world cultures to exist in the world. It usually contained proverbs and exhortations, and it emphasized concrete, practical instruction rather than hold up abstract ideals to follow. It emphasized right decision-making in everyday life. And, again, all of this was based on insights that sages had gained from their investigations into the orderly processes of nature and through their years of studied observation and experience of human behavior and interaction.
Over time, such insights were developed into instruction on a wide variety of topics, such as: gaining knowledge from the created order of things; cultivating moral conduct, prudent behavior, and virtue; recognizing principles for living well; understanding the outcomes of one’s choices; and recognizing contrasts, as between the wise and the foolish, the just and the unjust, the good and the bad. The instruction, learned and applied, was meant to free the young person from making costly errors of judgment later on.
Insights about such matters in Proverbs is often artfully crafted in pithy sayings such as maxims, epigrams, adages, or proverbs, intentionally brief in length, compact in meaning, easily intelligible to their audience, memorable, and every now and then delivering a graphic kick. E.g.: Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion; food gained by fraud tastes sweet to a man, but he ends up with a mouth full of gravel (Proverbs 11:22; 20:17).
The royal court schools provided instruction at various educative levels, including what today we would call higher education. The broad purpose of royal court schools, wisdom scholar William McKane concluded, was to prepare recruits “for the learned professions in general and notably for the higher offices of state.” Recruits typically came from the top layers of society, such as children from the royal courts, from courtiers’ families, from the homes of royal officials or temple personnel, from the wealthier families, and suchlike. Only the elite need apply.
In Babylon, for instance, two types of such schools existed. One was called “the table house,” where reading and writing were taught. Today, this of course falls into universal elementary education, but 3,000 years ago it was a privileged education, in which young men were trained with the two essential skills needed for entering royal court service. The graduates were often known as scribes, and those who served as diplomats and ambassadors would also have been trained in the language and culture of important surrounding nations. Ezra the priest, as he is typically know by Christians, was also trained as a scribe. We know from the biblical book that bears his name that he served the Babylonian king Artaxerxes as a shuttle diplomat between the Babylonian capital and Jerusalem.
The other Babylonian school of higher education, according to McKane, offered sons of the elite studies in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, magic arts, theology, and all the varied branches of “‘the learning and tongues of the Chaldeans’ (Daniel 1:4).” The royal courts had their pick of young men from elite families who showed aptitude and potential to serve as public officials. It seems to have been normative for the chosen ones to learn wisdom through tutoring or apprenticeships. The Hebrew young man Daniel and his three friends were among the elite classes of ancient Israel who were taken prisoner in exile to Babylonia, where they were tutored in the studies just described as a prerequisite to entering service as political advisors and officials in the Babylonian royal court.
In ancient Egypt, a long section on Egyptian wisdom “Instruction” details the normative apprenticeship requirements of that nation’s public officials. McKane writes that this Instruction is “an educational manual for one who is to hold high public office…” He concludes that this corpus of teaching “establishes the conditions of effective and successful statesmanship in Egypt. If an official is to succeed in affairs and become a weighty statesman, these are the conditions to which he must attend and give respect.” (The story of the Hebrew slave Joseph rising to high political office in Egypt may hold insight for us about this.)
Careful readers of Proverbs will have seen many proverbs and sections in that book that detail qualities requisite in officials serving in the royal court, including admonishments to Israel’s kings (as rulers) about their behavior and decision making. Von Rad writes that these particular passages “presuppose conditions at court.” They indicate “the royal court as a place where wisdom was traditionally nurtured. This would correspond exactly to what we know of the courts of Egypt and Mesopotamia.”
Scholarship about the temple schools of the old-world Middle East has also shed light about the wisdom-based education of the time. The temple schools, as the name indicates, were attached to a nation’s temples and therefore had a particular religious identity, depending on the nation. Formal religious training for a nation’s priesthood took place in such schools. In ancient Israel, the religious identity would have been monotheistic, centered on Yahweh. In other nations, it would have been polytheistic, centered on a nation’s most prominent gods.
McKane, however, from his extensive research, concluded that we should not think that temple schools dealt only in instruction related to the religious cultus of the nation. In the Egyptian temple schools, for instance, there seems to have been a amalgam of learning. He somewhat compares them to schools founded by cathedrals in the Middle Ages, which were grammar schools and not formal seminaries. There “is no reason to suspect,” McKane writes, “that the temple schools of the ancient Near East were less devoted to the basic elements of academic discipline…”
This may help to explain a basic feature of the old-world Middle East. Quite unlike in the West today, but not unlike some Middle East countries today, religion, social life, and politics were all consciously a whole piece of cloth. One clear illustration is worth noting: in the court systems and the royal courts of both Egypt and Israel, jurists and rulers were to exercise impartial justice when deciding cases and in law-making.
In Israel, this derived from the religious teaching based on the fear of Yahweh (see, e.g., Proverbs 1:1-3; 2:1-9; 8:15; 24:23; 28:21). In Egypt, it derived from the religious concept of Maat,” which put clear ethical constraints on the officials. McKane writes that an Egyptian official “cannot exercise power in the context of the Egyptian state unless he respects at all times the demands of equity, and endeavors scrupulously to act fairly without respect of persons… [Thus] a passion for [impartial] justice was an important ingredient of power and … whoever did not have this capacity for probity and fair dealing in public affairs was disqualified from holding office by a self-regulating process of selection.”
To sum up, wisdom, as theologian David Ford points out, was taken for granted as “the crown of education,” as what was “most desired in a parent, a leader, a counselor, a teacher.” And it was the sages who made this possible.
I do wonder, now that I am at the end of this article, what our country would be like today if the practice of moral conduct; if the cultivation of virtue and prudent behavior; if instruction in principles for living well and for understanding the consequences of one’s choices; and if many other features of wisdom-based old-world education were part of the curricula of our public schools.
©2017 by Charles Strohmer
Images via Creative Commons. Pencils, by Mark Bonica. Sages, by anon. Skeleton key, by Aphrodite. Surprised look, by George Thomas.
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Excellent overview, Charles. Lots of help in understanding the social and educational context of the Book of Proverbs. Just finished a performance project in Psalms and Proverbs.
Good to hear from you, mon ami. Wish I lived nearby so I could enjoy your performances. Thx for stopping by here. I think you’ll particularly like the next short article on wisdom and the art in Scripture, next Monday. Thinking your students might benefit from it.