Parents, School and Community in the Old Testament
Our time generates questions about how we do things and whether they could be done differently from the ways our parents did them. In education, that sometimes means that parents opt to home school their children, even if there is a local Reformed elementary school. Some debate the extent of the school’s role in education. Should the school take on more roles, such as organizing group outings, even if not directly related to the curriculum? Should the school be allowed to perform a function that goes beyond its primary purpose of teaching a more or less academic curriculum? In order to address questions such as these, we need to consider that Scripture does not require us to have schools as we know them. It is not a matter of principle that the school exists, even though there is scriptural room for the existence of a school. At the same time, there are roles for which a school is particularly well suited. It is well, then, to carefully consider the role we give the school.
In this article I illustrate how, in the Old Testament, the Lord gave the task of bringing up children primarily to the parents. This task was not a burden that lay on their shoulders alone, however. Within the covenantal context, He provided others who were jointly responsible for aspects of this task and for the environment in which it was to be done. The Lord even provided judges and prophets to lead his often rebellious people back to his ways. In subsequent submissions I intend to address other aspects of my query.
In the Old Testament, bringing up the next generation was the task of the parents. Adam and Eve had a task to be fruitful, to multiply, to fill the earth, and to subdue it (Genesis 1:28), and they were the obvious people to introduce their children to God’s world and their cultural mandate. It would always be the parents who were first responsible in bringing up their children, not just because it was the natural order of things, but also because God decreed it for Israel in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. This was maintained in Psalm 78, and alluded to on several occasions in the book of Proverbs. Mothers were to instruct their children (Proverbs 1:8; 6:20; 31:1), and fathers had to teach their sons the words of the covenant and the history of redemption (Exodus 10:2; Deuteronomy 4:9; 32:46-47; Proverbs 3:1, 2; 4:4; 7:2). Thus, like fathers taught their sons a trade, mothers taught their daughters how to be wives and housekeepers. Even today, serious Jewish fathers learn from the Talmud that they must act as priests in their family, and teach their sons the Torah, a trade, and how to swim (perhaps in the realities of life).
Scripture explicitly tells fathers to answer their sons’ questions. When a son asked about the pile of twelve stones in the Jordan River, Dad had to tell him that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the Ark of the covenant of the Lord (Joshua 4:1-7). When he asked about the meaning of killing the Passover lamb and the surrounding ceremony, Dad had to answer that it is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when He struck down the Egyptians (Exodus 12:26; 13:8). When, for instance at the time of the Feast of Booths, a son asked for the meaning of the annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem and of the Lord’s laws and statutes, Dad had to explain that the Lord had the Israelites live in booths when He brought them out of Egypt (Leviticus 23:43).
These answers were hardly impressive in themselves. The crossing of the Jordan might have gained significance if the father added that it was a raging torrent at the time, with all the spring rains. However, it referred to all that the Lord had done for his people in the preceding days and months and years, to what He did on that day, and to much that was yet to come. The twelve stones were reminders that the Lord was fulfilling his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that nothing would stop Him. It brought to mind the covenant God made at Horeb and God’s deliverance when they were attacked or his mercy when they rebelled. It showcased the Ark of the covenant as a centre-piece during the crossing, as a symbol that God alone could bring salvation and bring them into the promised land. The monument in the Jordan signified that God was the God of Israel, and that they all, together, were his people. Dad’s explanation to his son placed them squarely in the context of God’s covenant with his people.
Similarly, the Passover spoke of much more than the death of the Egyptian firstborns and the survival of the Israelites. The Passover feast also spoke of the bitterness of slavery and the threat of death and annihilation; it spoke of God’s power, judgment, and mercy that gave death to some and life to others; and it spoke of the coming Messiah whose blood would be shed as redemption from slavery to sin and Satan. As all fathers explained the matter to their sons, it was in communion with them all, just like God had communion with the entire people, unbroken like the bones of the Passover lamb.
Likewise, the Feast of Booths spoke of more than living in tents for forty years. Israelites had to remember that they together were God’s people, and that He had given and sustained their life. He did so because atonement would be made through the coming Messiah, and the abundance of his mercy shown in the harvest from the land would one day be fully revealed through his Son. Again, this was a communal feast, celebrated as a covenant community in the presence of God. Parents had an explicit task to teach their children, but what they were taught and how they were taught received meaning in the covenant context of God with his people.
As people were to live in their community, it was quite by God’s design that not only parents had an impact on the development of their children. Yet, the antithesis of Genesis 3:15 set a division between people who would and who would not serve God, who would and who would not develop culture in devotion to Him. Now, at home and outside, children were to not only learn about God’s world and their mandate, but also learn to discern whether people were devoted to God. The latter was quite a challenge. While Seth’s descendants humbly called on the name of the Lord, Cain’s descendants proudly exalted their own name, and before long society no longer encouraged antithetical discernment. Noah’s intoxication quickly proved that the problem had not disappeared in the flood.
In Israel, God provided a setting in which people could be encouraged to keep his ways. Children could learn discernment when they heard the elders teach and the judges rule at the gates (Deuteronomy 6:9; 21:18-21). At the watering places they might hear from the singers of God’s righteous acts (Judges 5:10, 11). On their way to Jerusalem they heard pilgrims sing the songs of ascents (Psalm 120-134). They would frequently see the tassels with blue cords on people’s clothes (Numbers 15:37-41). Joseph and Mary could assume that Jesus was in good company (Luke 2:44), and children would be allowed to play with each other (Zechariah 8:5; Matthew 11:16). Society impacted on children, for better or for worse.
The community was also responsible to maintain an environment in which parents could teach their children antithetical discernment. The context of Deuteronomy 6 shows that the whole community was addressed, rather than just the parents or certain leaders. All Israel was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” All Israel was told that “these commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.” All were to “impress them on your children.” All were told to “talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up, and to tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and your gates.” God set a standard for his people: it had to be a society in which everything and everybody was devoted to God, and in which all were to help keep it that way. To be devoted to the Lord their God was their life, their salvation, their righteousness (Deuteronomy 32:47).
Similarly, in Psalm 78, Asaph relates what he learned from his father. As he speaks of “our fathers” and of “their children” and the “next generation,” he appears to instruct the people that they together, as a society, “would not be like their forefathers – a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God, whose spirits were not faithful to Him.” Asaph clearly speaks about education in a covenantal context.
Erosion and Recall
Throughout Israel’s history, the normative expectation of a supportive community often got eroded again. One theme in the book of Judges is that everyone did what was good in his own eyes. As the community drifted away, God gave oppression from enemies and subsequent direction through prophets and judges. They pronounced judgment on apostasy, and announced redemption for the faithful. Their message, to old and young alike, was that a nation is blessed only when it serves the Lord. Later, when Bethel’s youths mocked God’s messenger (2 Kings 2), the immediate punitive response was a call to take God’s Word and messenger seriously.
The Old Testament not only assumes a covenantal context and responsibility for raising the next generation, but also assigns specific teaching tasks to people outside the immediate family context, for instance to elders (Deuteronomy 32:7). Priests had to teach the people, and, as well as other counsellors, were often called “father” in that role (Genesis 45:8; Judges 17:10; 18:19; 2 Kings 2:12). Samuel was instructed by Eli, and King Joash by the priest Jehoiada (1 Samuel 2:2; 2 Kings 12:2). In the ninth century BC, King Jehoshaphat sent priests, Levites, and officials throughout Judah to teach the book of the law (2 Chronicles 17:7-9). After the Exile, Ezra prayed before weeping men, women, and children about their unfaithfulness (Ezra 9, 10:1) and later he read the law to “all who were able to understand” (Nehemiah 8: 2).
In the Old Testament, there were many opportunities for parents to elaborate to their children on the covenant God made, the deliverance and care He provided, and how they were to live in anticipation of full redemption. Quite naturally, just like it was Adam and Eve’s task to teach their children about God’s plan and their cultural mandate, bringing up children in the fear of the Lord fell in the first place to the parents (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). It was within the safe family unit that the fundamentals of the children’s tasks, the monuments, the feasts, and even the Lord’s statutes and ordinances had to be taught. However, parents had to fulfill their task in a covenantal context of God’s love and mercy, in the midst of his people, who were mandated to learn to show similar love and mercy to one another. They helped each other to remain holy to God and maintain an environment in which children could learn discernment and grow in the fear of God.