Definition of the Subject.

It is but proper that at the outset our subject be defined. The subject as it reads is already limited. In this essay our subject says we will not treat of “education” generally, but of education as this historically existed and as it was an institution in Israel. True, even thus defined, our subject has significance for the general concept “education” and for the practical task of educating our children in our day and world. This we hope to point out in its own proper place.

Speaking of “Israel” one can think of the whole church of God, both in the Old and New Testament dispensation. Thus Paul speaks in Gal. 6:16 of the “Israel of God. It here refers to the church of God as to its elect nucleus. But the term also has a somewhat different application in Scripture, and then refers to the theocratic nation of Israel, called out of Egypt under Moses, and established in Canaan, the land of promise.

Thus defined “Israel” can be and has been viewed in the different stages of its national existence. In our study in this essay we wish to ignore this distinction, and look at Israel in its entirety as it lived and moved in the dispensation of the types and shadows under the revelation of God’s Covenant.

A second element in our subject, which must not be overlooked, is the term “education.” Education has been defined “as the sum-total of those processes whereby society transmits from one generation to the next its accumulated social, intellectual and religious experience and heritage” (Dewey). There are elements in this definition with which we disagree, and there are also elements lacking, when viewed under Biblical perspectives. But in the main this definition will serve our purpose as a working principle.

Having determined the meaning of “education” we believe it in order to call attention to the following elements which are present in all education. (1) The subject matter. (2) The Educator. (3) The Educated (the pupil). (4) The technique of the actual imparting of education. In this essay it is more particularly to the “subject matter” that we wish to call attention.

Method of Acquiring the Data.

Before calling attention further to the subject proper, we feel that a word is in order as to the method of acquiring the data. There are only two possible sources. The one is by the way of empirical research, studying the hieroglyphics etc. of that day and age. The other is that recorded in the inspired Word of God.

The former of these two sources yields little or nothing for our purpose. We do not believe that to be the God-ordained way for us to arrive at knowledge of the education in Israel. The “education” that we are studying lies beyond the pale of secular history. Parchments and the writings on stones and other objects yield next to nothing. At best they are scanty and fragmentary, and can only aid us when they are compared with, and explained in the light of the Scriptures. Were we to take these fragmentary notices as sources, and had we time to study them, they would at best have inferential value, and would lead, uncontrolled by Scripture, to the wildest speculation. Proof of this we have in the Critical Schools of the 19th century.

We do well, and are on safe terrain only when we go to the Scriptures, the written Word of God.

This does not mean that Scripture is an encyclopedia of the educational courses given in Israel. What we know must be gotten from passages specifically teaching us these matters, and from passages and the joint-testimony of Scripture from which legitimate inferences can be made.

This requires a comparative, synthetic study of the data of Scripture. In as far as others have left us the product of their endeavors along these lines we can and should make use of them, and thus benefit from their labors.

Education’s Formative Place in Israel.

Upon collecting the data having bearing on the subject under consideration, we could not escape the conviction that “education” had a most important place in Israel. Indeed it was of cardinal, primary importance in their religious, national-theocratic life.

The educating of the children and youth in Israel was directly an institution of Jehovah. This is implied in what we read in Gen. 18:19 where God’s Word speaks of Abraham’s relation to his children and posterity as a patriarchal teacher. Thus also is the implication of the Lord’s injunction to Moses as recorded in such passages as Exodus 10:2; 13:8-10; Deut. 4:9; 11:18, 19. Further this is evident from many Scripture passages stressing the importance of instruction, teaching and teachers. Instruction is valued as one’s life, Prov. 4:13; 6:23, and because of lack of instruction and wisdom one dies, Job. 4:21. Again Scripture emphasizes that it is the truth that makes man free, John 8:32.

Above all else, Israel might not live by “cunningly devised fables” as did the heathen, listening to the tales and folk-lore of their fathers. Neither might sorcery, exorcism, witch-craft guide and influence them in life. To prevent them from being carried to and fro by every wind of doctrine positive instruction was the order of the day. Except for this instruction, Israel would sink away in the bottomless mire of superstition and idolatry. Through the God-instituted educational functionaries Israel must learn the meaning and implication of its worship, types, symbols, history; must learn to appreciate its own peculiar place in the world, and its relation to God.

Consequently there was no room in Israel for “private interpretation”. None might serve God in his own chosen way. Ever and anon the call is: to the law and the testimony. If they speak not according to this word, there is no morning for them. Is. 8:20.

Subjects on Israel’s Educational Curriculum.

Speaking of the “curriculum” we do not mean to imply that Israel had a curriculum in the modern technical sense of the word. It is extremely difficult, if not wholly impossible to determine in how far the educational material was classified in Israel. It is doubtful whether they had any in the sense in which we have it now.

This does not mean that a careful study of the Scriptures would not allow us to conclude which subjects were definitely taught, when this same material is cast under the technical educational headings of our day. Doing this latter we are confident that the following subjects must have been taught in Israel: Reading, writing, history, music, symbolics or typology, hygiene, ethics and civics. It is also possible to add astronomy to this list. We do not pretend that this exhausts the list, but we believe that it quite well covers the field.

To begin with “reading” and “writing” permit us to remark, that we can safely infer that this art must have been quite general in Israel, even though not as general as in our day. In fact, this must have been emphatically the case in the tribe of Levi. These had the work of writing the law, and teaching the same to the people. There were no printing presses, and books were scarce. Paper was not yet invented. This made the art of writing necessary. Of this there can be little doubt.

An interesting incident showing the scarcity of the book of the law we have recorded in II Chron. 34:14-21.

It may be well in this connection to remember that Israel was not an uncultured horde. Though children of their time, they were of high civilization. Their life in Egypt must have been influenced by the “learning of Egypt.” It was in Egypt that “writing,” (thus it is commonly held) was first developed. Fairbairn in “Typology” Vol. II, p. 190 has the following interesting notation: “How alphabetical writing was invented, or by whom, or whether it was not transmitted from the ages before the flood, and might consequently be claimed by each of the more eminent races or nations, that afterwards arose, as their own, these are still unexplored mysteries and likely to remain such. The opinion is now very prevalent, that the inventing belongs to Egypt and grew out of a gradual improvement of the original hieroglyphic or picture-writing.”

Since one hypothesis is as good as another we feel free to submit the following. We feel that the various languages all originate not from before the flood, but from the time of Babel. And that Moses, evidently the first to write in the Hebrew characters, and schooled in all the learning of the Egyptians was able to write in characters in the Hebrew language.

However this may all be, the consideration of the limited supply of books and writings sheds some light on the method of teaching employed in Israel. It was in all probability oral teaching. A great deal of memorization must have been required of the children and students. Naturally those who received oral instruction did not need to learn to read and write.

The course in “history” which could be given in Israel, was from the very nature of the time in which they lived, not as broad in scope and rich in data as in our day. In secular history we speak of ancient, medieval and modern history. In biblical history we have the history not only which Israel studied, but also much which at that time belonged to the future. These they could not study, but rather they could only look forward to them in hope.

The history that Israel studied was that of their own fatherland. They studied in this connection the birth of their nation and the unique character of their theocratic commonwealth. History study must have been for them not the mere knowledge of facts, but the unfolding of the plan of God; the bringing into review of the mighty deeds of Jehovah in which He saved them as a people, and gave nations in the place of their soul. The true and pious Israelite could listen to this history with the pride of theocratic patriotism, and with fear for God’s majesty lest he “fall out” because of unbelief.

Then there was the subject which we have captioned “symbolics.” Israel lived under the law contained in ordinances. Its life was full of symbolic teaching. Think of the Passover, circumcision, the candlestick, the altar, the priest’s clothing, the Pillar of Cloud, Manna, water from the Rock, the rainbow. Thus there was the symbolism of colors, stones, numbers, dimensions. And all this had to be taught and understood in its God-given meaning.

All this was not so much dead data, but a living integral part of their spiritual religious life. There must have been a close relationship between Israel’s “history” and the “symbolics” that was taught. The symbolism was interwoven with the mighty deeds of God in the past, present and also the future. This is, by way of example, very clearly seen in Exodus 13:8-10. Here God explicitly declares that the symbolism of the “passover” may never in their minds be disjoined from the historical last plague of God upon Egypt’s firstborn, and from the “passing-over” of the angel of death over Israel, God’s firstborn son “called out of Egypt.” More instances could be cited, but space forbids.

“Music” must also have been taught. Proof for this statement is hardly necessary. Israel was a singing, victorious people. Their song and praise was expressive of Jehovah’s mighty deeds. Scripture leads us to believe that there was a great development in the field of music. It was especially David, the “sweet-singer” in Israel who did much in this field. The singing in the temple, both vocal and instrumental was raised to a high plane. And why not? Was this singing not typical of the singing of the true Israelites before the throne of God in the heavenly house not made with hands? The fact that there was progress in this field, does not preclude the fact that Israel also sang and had instruments when they came out of Egypt. Think of marching and singing Israel (Psalm 68) in the desert at the Red Sea, and at the walls of Jericho. This was music not merely for euphony and symphony, but for the praise of God (Psalm 150).

“Ethics” and “hygiene” were also taught. In Israel these subjects were closely connected. The former was the motive of the latter. This is a point, the importance of which cannot be easily overstressed, and should by all means never be lost sight of. The hygiene taught in Israel was not based on empirical-scientific research. Cleanliness and purity of body was part of the ceremonial ordinance and was required for God’s sake. Thus “hygiene” was a principle, ethical matter, and not a matter of utility and other humanistic motives. The body, to put it in New Testament language, is “the temple of the Holy Spirit.” For a further study of the connection between ethics and hygiene see Lev. 12:1-5; 15: 2, 3, 16; 17:15; 18:6-18; 19:22; 22:8.

“Civics” also was a subject taught in Israel. This covered quite a wide field. The laws for civil life must have been taught and known by the people, else their whole national-theocratic existence would mean nothing. These laws we find recorded in the Pentateuch.


In the first place we wish to remark, that our conclusion will not be wider than our discussion. Such conclusions having bearing on the parental character of teaching, will fall outside of these remarks.

It is very evident from this brief and sketchy study of the subject, that all teaching in Israel was theocentric. It all ended in God. History dealt with God’s mighty deeds. Symbolics dealt with the form of God’s revelation of His covenant. Music was the medium of expressing God’s praises. Cleanliness was elevated to the notion of ethical purity.
Education was not an end in itself, but was subservient to prepare the children for their place, their peculiar position in the world, in the service of God.
As such education was a child of its time, but in its ground-work it is the pattern according to which Christian education today should still be conducted. If this latter has in some measure become clear we feel that this essay has not been without positive fruit.