Education is essential for the survival of any social group, since a community ensures its existence and development only by passing on to the next generation the knowledge it has accumulated, the power it derives from it and its ideological aspirations.
The situation is paradoxical: on the one hand, the number of schools is constantly increasing and the educational tools are becoming more sophisticated; on the other hand, the quality of education is declining. The sterile debates on this issue highlight the weaknesses and inability of political systems to find practical solutions. But beyond the fault of governments, there is the crisis of the family. The family is gradually losing its identity as the primary instrument of education, abandoning the educational tasks it is supposed to undertake and redirecting the responsibility to the academic systems.
For contemporary Christian society, the biblical vision of education is an important source of inspiration. The sacred writings of the Old Testament suggest that the success of the Israelite community and the continuity of its culture were conditioned by knowing and obeying God’s revealed law. After escaping from the chains of Egyptian bondage, the Jewish people were commanded by God to organise their entire lives around the divine commandments: “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it” (Joshua 1:8). Ensuring the prosperity, growth, and longevity of the Israelite people depended on educating their descendants in the spirit of the sacred books. Parents were dedicated to teaching their children to love God and to keep His laws and commandments (see Deuteronomy 6:1-9).
The textbook used to educate Jewish children in Old Testament times was the history of the people of Israel and how Yahweh led them. Bible readers will be struck by the emphasis on the need for parents to tell their children the story of the exodus from Egypt. “In the future, when your son asks you, ‘What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?’ tell him: ‘We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand'” (Deuteronomy 6:20-21). The parents were to pass on to the new generations their vocation, identity, and mission, sealed by their covenant with God. “A knowledge of God, fellowship with Him in study and in work, likeness to Him in character, were to be the source, the means, and the aim of Israel’s education—the education imparted by God to the parents, and by them to be given to their children.”
“The first and most effective educational agent was the home, the father and mother being the first teachers of their children.” The family (or bet av) was the basic socio-economic unit in Israel and played an important role in meeting the needs of its members, including the education of the young. It was considered that “not to provide the necessary support for the education of the child is an impiety towards God and society.” According to Israelite law, parents began their children’s religious education as early as possible.
On strategy and curriculum
Dimensions. Hebrew education was both objective (externally and content-oriented) and subjective (internally and personally oriented); it was cognitive (with special attention to the development of the intellect) and affective (with emphasis on the development of the will and emotions); it was active (with exploration and participation by the student) and passive (with the use of memory, while the child was taught to reflect on what he or she had discovered). Specifically, the teaching-learning process involved persistent observation, experiential learning (learning by doing), listening, recitation, and imitation. The learning experience also included specific guidance (direct study), correction of mistakes, and admonition.
Purpose. The ultimate purpose of education in the Old Testament is summed up in what God said about the patriarch Abraham in the context of discussing the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah: “For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord” (Genesis 18:19). Abraham proved to be a special man before God precisely because he was to raise his children in a spirit of obedience to the divine law. The passage quoted suggests that the ultimate goal of education is the development of a character that leads to the love of justice and righteousness. In this sense, the development of critical thinking skills was an important first goal of the educational process, and usefulness in daily life was the second.
Content. Genesis 18:19 cryptically describes the content of Hebrew education: “the way of the Lord.” What does this phrase mean and how does it relate to the religious aspect of education in the Old Testament? From a general perspective, “the way of the Lord” refers to knowing God’s will and obeying His Word—the divine will revealed in deed and word in the history of Israel. God’s way or will for humanity reflects His personal character and attributes. By loving their neighbour as themselves (Leviticus 19:18), living a righteous and just life (Genesis 18:19) and pursuing holiness (Leviticus 11:44), people follow the way of the Lord by mirroring His character.
Moral regression and institutional advancement
When the people of Israel entered and conquered the land of Canaan, they did not fully obey God’s command to destroy the nations living there. These peoples, who worshipped pagan idols, exerted a negative influence on the Israelites, who gradually fell into the trap of worshipping foreign gods. In time, intermarriage between Israelites and pagan nations or tribes changed the original vision of education. Having become indifferent to God and His commandments, parents no longer fulfilled their role as educators of their children with the same rigour. Influenced both from outside and within the family, young Jews began to receive an education different from that intended by God.
As the role of the family in the educational process diminished, the role of the prophets in the educational process increased. In this context, the prophet Samuel stood out, who established schools of prophets: one in Ramah (1 Samuel 8:4) and another in Kiriath-Jearim, where the Ark of the Lord was located (1 Samuel 2:3, 5). Later, in the time of the prophet Elijah, two more such schools appeared in Bethel and Jericho (2 Kings 2:3, 5). The students of these schools supported themselves by doing various jobs and by learning crafts from their parents. Until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian armies of King Nebuchadnezzar II, the schools of the prophets were the main means of education.
During the Babylonian exile, the Jews established the famous yeshiva schools (academies), where the emphasis was on the study of the Torah, and the task of teaching and interpreting the laws fell to the rabbis. The synagogue was also created, and after the Babylonian exile it became the “first formal educational institution the Hebrews had developed” and was also present in the New Testament period. After the Babylonian exile, the Jews produced their fundamental work, the Talmud.
A lesson of history
More than ever before, humanity has at its disposal extraordinary informational and technical resources. Yet despite this progress, children, adolescents and young people display a spirit of disobedience and recklessness unmatched in any previous era. The lack of discipline in so many educational institutions leads many to wonder whether they are still useful. There is an acute need for schools in which young people learn self-control, perseverance and confidence in their own powers, respect for authority and reverence for God. The first and greatest lesson to be learned from the people of Israel is that strict adherence to a religious and moral system provided the Israelites with unity—something no political system could achieve.
Nothing replaces family
The current philosophy on education is radically different from the system presented in the Bible. Even the phrase “the seven years of home,” so often used in popular parlance, has lost its consistency and relevance as the term “home” now is more likely to mean children’s homes, kindergartens, extended schools, after-school institutions and other family surrogates. Despite this, the family is the school where the child receives his or her first lessons, with the most lasting effects. No institution can take over the role of mother and father as role models. Parents should stay at home more, but given the accepted social model, this ‘more at home’ is almost utopian. Many parents are away from home for long periods of time, some even abroad, working to provide a future for their children. Unfortunately, it is precisely their absence that affects their future.
At the same time, it should be emphasised that family and academic education are two complementary systems, which should not confuse their roles in the educational process. The relinquishment of this responsibility by parents endangers the spiritual, moral, emotional and even physical integrity of the child. Re-establishing the family’s status as the most important instrument in the educational process, however, requires, first and foremost, a re-education of the family about its role. The family must regain its identity and its role as an educational instrument. Society has less need of geniuses and more need of people of character, and character formation begins in the family.
The word ‘education’ means more than a course studied at university. Education begins with the baby in the mother’s arms. While shaping and building the character of her children, the mother is educating them. Parents send their children to school, and when they finish school they think they have educated them, but education is a notion whose dimensions few realise: it encompasses the whole process by which the child is educated from infancy to childhood, from childhood to youth and from youth to adulthood. A child’s education must begin from the moment he is able to formulate his first ideas.