Education in the Biblical World—Proverbs 1

The word “education,” a relatively modern term, does not appear in the Old Testament. Yet the Scriptures are rich with information about the concept, and its wisdom literature abounds with references to the process of education. The Hebrew word most associated with the word “education” is hanak, meaning “to train” found in Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child.” First Samuel 12:23 uses a related term (“teach”): “I will teach you the good and the right way.”

Other terms also reflect various aspects of education, such as “to discipline,” “to correct,” “to admonish,” “wisdom” and “instruction” (Prov. 1:2; Isa. 28:26); “insight,” “understanding” or discernment” (Prov. 9:10; 2:3); “teachers” (Prov. 5:13); “wise” (Prov. 15:7); “disciples” (Isa. 8:16); “children” when associated with “teach” (Ps. 34:11). Also, the Hebrew word musar (meaning “to discipline, correct or chasten”) has some connection with education and appears five times in Job, 30 times in Proverbs, 36 times in Ecclesiastes, five times in the Wisdom of Solomon, and eight times in Jeremiah.

Most education took place in the home and immediate community. Parents taught their children the skills they would need to survive. Boys would learn to farm and herd, or those they would employ in various crafts such as carpentry and pottery making. Girls would acquire the basics of cooking, weaving and sewing, and child care. Even more importantly, young people would see—daily demonstrated in the kind of wisdom they must have to live a worthwhile life—the wisdom, insight, and understanding continually stressed in the book of Proverbs. The most critical form of education was learning self-discipline.

But some also received more formal education. It is widely accepted that ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt had organized educational systems designed to prepare individuals to become scribes or civil servants. Archaeology has established that smaller nations such as pre-Israelite Canaan and ancient Israel had some form of educational instruction.

An ostracon with an abecedary and schoolboy exercises from the latter half of the tenth century BC (First Temple period) found at Tel Zait indicates that writing was present in small towns and fortresses during the Israelite monarchy. Many scholars assume that the Gezer Calendar inscription from around the same period (ca. 925 BC) was a schoolboy’s writing tablet. The fact that it describes the months of the Palestinian agricultural year suggests that some peasant farmers were also literate.

Seals and seal impressions, such as that of a ring of Hanan, son of a priest, and a seal impression of his brother the priest Azariah, as well as a seal of Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch from the late seventh to early sixth-century BC before the destruction of Jerusalem, all point to the ability of individuals to sign official documents. A recently discovered inscription from Khirbet Qaiyafa, potentially the oldest Hebrew inscription found to date, shows that literacy existed even at the borders of Israel, far from Jerusalem. The Lachish Letters, which record the troubled events described by the prophet Jeremiah during the final days of Judah’s kingdom, also point to the use of writing in daily affairs. The Dead Sea Scrolls shed light on the continuing importance of copying and preserving scriptural texts. The Jewish historian Josephus mentions his education and indicates that he was so knowledgeable in the Torah that high priests and the men of Jerusalem would come to him for advice on its interpretation and Jewish practice.

In addition to these archaeological discoveries, the Old Testament indicates that specially trained individuals knew how to read, write, and conduct land surveys (Josh. 18:6). Scribes are often mentioned in the Bible (1 Chron. 24:6; 2 Chron. 26:11; 34:13) including Baruch (Jer. 36:26) and Ezra, who was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses (Ezra 7:6, 11; Neh. 8:4, 9, 13) and an official teacher in Israel.

The education of children, as described in the Old Testament, was a religious duty. It was generally an informal activity centered around the family unit where parents took on the primary responsibility of teaching their children (Deut. 6:7; Prov. 1:8; 4:4; 13:1). They did so mainly through precept and personal example, something that needed to start right from the birth of a child (Ps. 22:9). Thus, oral teaching, which the book of Proverbs alludes to, was indispensable. By participating in the home activities, weekly Sabbath and special holiday rituals and activities, and taking part in pilgrimages, children learned about Israelite history, morals, and God (Exod. 10:2; 13:8; Deut. 4:9; 32:7). The importance of home education never diminished (Deut. 6:1-9) even after Israel introduced centers of worship and schools. The latter served to support the parental efforts and did not eliminate their responsibility.

Various factors affected education in Israel. Political changes, as well as the influence of surrounding nations such as Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Greece, had an impact on how children were educated. Also, we should not assume that it was the same throughout all levels of society. It differed from cities to rural villages, and it varied throughout history as the need arose. However, despite the changes and outside influences, the Bible remained the primary curriculum for teaching, for teachers themselves had written some of its most important sections. Its general purpose and emphasis were not only to pass along the religious heritage (Rom. 15:4; 2 Tim. 3:16) but primarily to educate, correct, and train children (Deut. 6:7) in the knowledge of God and His laws.

When Israel did establish formal educational institutions, mainly boys attended, probably starting at the age of 5 or 6 (1 Sam. 1:24; Isa. 28:9, 10). Girls also gained knowledge of the Scriptures but generally received their instruction at home and then married at an early age. Because most parents needed their children to help with work at home, many could not afford to get more than an elementary education.

In later, postbiblical periods of Jewish history, schools offered three levels of education: elementary education or Miqra (study of Scripture), secondary education or Mishnah (compilation of oral instructions or oral study), and higher education or Talmud (teachings of Jewish scholars) or Midrash (study of law, especially the analysis and exegesis of the text of the law). Children began studying Torah at age 5, the Mishnah at age 10, and the “Gemara” (commentary) at age 15.

The most recognized teacher in Israel was Moses, who had been taught by God Himself (Deut. 4:5). The fifth-century BC priest and scribe Ezra instituted regular public readings of Torah on market days (Neh. 8:1-12). Simon ben-Shetah (75 BC) decreed that all youth aged 16 or 17 years should receive formal education from teachers appointed only in Jerusalem. Joshua ben-Gamala (died AD 69) established elementary education for boys beginning at the age of 6 and called for the appointment of teachers everywhere. Hillel (a Pharisaic leader who taught during the first century AD) and Shammai both founded schools of learning.

Memorization and repetition served as the primary means of learning (Deut. 6:7-9). The goal was never to forget God’s covenant and the overall purpose was the formation of character, a lifelong process. Instruction centered around God’s laws, the practical conduct of daily existence, respect for others and how to get along with them, and becoming wise (Prov. 1:2-4; Ps. 111:10), which meant living a life that loved both your neighbor and God.

But perhaps one of the most critical approaches to education was that of mentoring. A philosopher or rabbi would gather a group of followers and spend time instructing them and demonstrating how the beliefs they shared would shape their lives. Jesus did this when He called His disciples and, for the next three years, demonstrated by constant example how they, as “learners” (mathētaί), should regard “learning” (manthanõ) from Him as a fundamental part of following Him (Matt. 11:28-30). He was the most exceptional mentor that ever lived.


Albright, “A Teacher to a Man of Shechem About 1400 B.C.,” 28-31.

Borowski, “Agriculture,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology, 13-21.

DiVito, “Lachish Letters,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 126-128.

Elayi, “Name of Deuteronomy’s Author found on Seal Ring,” 54-56.

Himelstein, “Education,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, 229-230.

Shanks, “Fingerprint of Jeremiah’s Scribe,” 36-38.

Shiloh, “A Group of Hebrew Bullae From the City of David,” 16-38.

Tappy and McCarter, Literate Culture and Tenth-Century Canaan: The Tell Zayit Abecedary in Context.