Many specialists believe that schools began to appear in Israel after the exile of Judah. Others argue that there were schools before the exile. The reason for the discrepancy is that biblical data on the topic is unclear. We are forced to deal with inferences and circumstantial evidence. I will begin with a general description of schools in the ancient Near East, followed by a brief examination of biblical evidence.
1. Schools in the Ancient Near East:We begin with what is accepted as historical fact: namely, there were schools in Mesopotamia and Egypt long before there was an Israelite. One could easily argue that Moses attended those schools. It has been suggested that in Egypt there were temple, court, and military schools that provided professional and technical training needed from those who would work in those places. Much emphasis was placed on learning to write, a task that took several years due to the complexity of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Those who attended the schools were primarily male children of upper class Egyptians. The Pharaohs’ daughters attended some of the schools.
The school system in Mesopotamia flourished around 2500 B.C. for students from wealthy families. While some evidence indicates that in Egypt the teaching took place inside buildings, in Mesopotamia the courtyard was the main location. Students sat on pieces of cloth spread on the ground with small piles of sand in front of each student to practice writing. Years of training were required to learn the hundreds of signs of the Sumerian and Akkadian script. The schools trained temple personnel and young people to work at the royal court and as military leaders. They learned languages, music, divination, math, algebra, astrology, and other matters related to the well-being of the country.
2. Schools in Israel: The education of children in Israel rested primarily on the parents. They were responsible for basic religious instructions (e.g., Deut. 6:4-9, 20-25). Professional instruction was the responsibility of the father, who taught his son his own professional skills. Because the Hebrew alphabet consisted of 22 consonants, it was relatively easy to teach and to learn to read and write. This would suggest that literacy in Israel might have been a little better than in Egypt and Mesopotamia (cf., Josh. 18:9; Deut. 24:1). Acrostics were used in order to facilitate the memorization of the alphabet. The poem of the virtuous woman (Prov. 31:10-21) is an acrostic and contains the basic skills expected from women in Israel. These included household administration, horticulture, weaving, design, and child rearing. This training could have taken place at home or at a school.
Several arguments support the existence of schools in Israel. First, the fact that schools were common in other nations of the ancient Near East would make it likely that there would also be schools in Israel. Second, there was a need to instruct Levites and priests on matters related to the Temple, such as types of sacrifices (Lev. 1–5), distinctions between clean and unclean (Lev. 15), rituals (e.g., Lev. 16), festivals (Lev. 23), etc. Third, young people needed training to work in administrative positions and as counselors to the kings. These positions required not only literacy but also learning foreign languages, development of military strategies, making weapons, and training in their use, etc. Fourth, there was a constant need for scribes to serve the people in general and also to work for the king in drafting official legal documents, recording the chronicles of the kingdom, and preserving the religious books that we find in the Bible. These schools would have satisfied the religious and administrative needs of the people and the palace. The so-called “schools of the prophets” most probably served those purposes (cf., 2 Kings 2:3; 6:1).
3. God as the Teacher: There was a strong conviction in the nation that the true teacher of Israel was the Lord (e.g., Isa. 2:3). In that case, every teacher was an instrument of God in the formation of the character of the students and in the development of the knowledge and skills they needed to serve the Lord, the people, and the kingdom.
Should we not continue to expect the Lord to teach our young people through dedicated, consecrated teachers? Of course we should!