Education in Ancient Israel: Across the Deadening Silence / Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures

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Education in Ancient Israel: Across the Deadening Silence, by James L. Crenshaw. Anchor Bible Reference Library. Doubleday, New York, 1998. 320 pp. $34.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-385-46891-1.

Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures, by Philip R. Davies. Library of Ancient Israel. Westminster John Knox, Louisville, 1998. 224 pp. $24.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-664-22077-0.

TAKEN TOGETHER, THESE BOOKS PROVIDE AN INSTRUCTIVE COMPLEMENT to each other. Crenshaw investigates the hows and whys of education practices in ancient Israel and the culture of literacy that such practices undergirded. Davies focuses on the canonizing process, which he regards as an "inevitable by-product of a consciously literary culture" (p. 9). Each deserves its own place in the emerging discussion of scribal education in ancient Israel.

Drawing upon a wide range of ancient sources, Crenshaw examines Israel's shift from an oral culture to a literary one. The evidence suggests that writing flourished in Israel during the last century of the monarchy (roughly from 722-587 BCE), when environmental, political, and social factors combined to produce the most favorable circumstances for the emergence of formal education. Palestinian inscriptions point to the existence of schools in Israel from at least the eighth century on. Biblical texts, especially the wisdom literature, indicate that the primary responsibility for education fell to the sages, whose concerns with religion and knowledge were applied to such themes as creation, the fear of God, personified wisdom, and the formation of character.

According to Crenshaw, sages searched for truth by three principal means: (1) observing nature and human behavior; (2) testing traditional truth claims for present reality; and (3) encountering the "Transcendent One." Given the tension between human inquiry and divine revelation, the question arises whether the sages thought of knowledge as personal achievement or divine gift. Crenshaw argues that they embraced both kinds of knowledge, the enlightenment obtained by self-disciplined research and the mysterious, surprising disclosures that can only be received as God's gift. The need to communicate such knowledge across the ages, whether from parent to child or teacher to student, often met with resistance-not least because true wisdom required that one yield with equal passion to both the "restraints of reason" and the "humility of prayer."

That the teaching-learning process did not dead-end or succumb to silence, Crenshaw concludes, owes much to the fact that the sages pursued the knowable and the mysterious as if both were equally sacred seductions that could not and should not be resisted. One might observe the same quality in Crenshaw himself. He, like Israel's sages, has learned to be at home with what can be known, verified, and taught about God and the world and with what cannot be fully comprehended. He affirms, for example, that schools existed in ancient Israel, but he concedes that the evidence does not allow us to peg the exact date of their emergence, the details of how they functioned, or how the teaching-learning process itself was enacted. He listens carefully to these ancient teachers and offers reasonable hypotheses about their lessons, their pedagogy, and their contemplative life, but he recognizes that we can hear only one side of the conversation. The students addressed by the teachers are the "missing voice" in the process. He refines our understanding of the rhetorical devices employed by the ancient sages, but he insists that when we try to move from literary genre to social setting, a current preoccupation of biblical scholarship, we are inevitably thwarted. No single setting can do justice to a shifting aesthetic, ethical, and apologetic objectives that we encounter in books like Job and Proverbs. Others will not be content with the limitations Crenshaw observes and will no doubt confidently propose answers where he sees only questions. …