Puritans’ Home School Curriculum, Part 2

Dear Reader,

I recently did a post on the Puritans’ Home School Curriculum as a part of my continuing series on different approaches to homeschool. There was one more idea raised by this curriculum which I didn’t have room for in that earlier post but I wanted to spend some time on.

The central unifying verse for this curriculum is Proverbs 22:6:

“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” [ESV]

This verse provides the folks at puritans.net with the reason for and goal of (or at least part of it) of their educational plan. But they also go beyond that. From this verse they get the idea that children should receive a thorough theological education by age 13.  They argue that the phrase “when he is old”  should be translated more literally “when the beard grows.” Since a boy reaches puberty and begins to get facial hair around age 13, they take this to mean that the bulk of one’s theological training should be accomplished by this age [J. Parnell McCarter, “Teacher’s Manual for Implementing the Puritans’ Home School Curriculum,” pp.11-12].

Personally, I kind of like this idea. I have argued before that we do not give our children enough theology. We feed them on watery gruel of simplified Bible stories when they can handle something much meatier. And I do think by age 13, the average child should be able to understand at least the core of our theology.

But the question for me is does this verse support this idea? I should back up here and say that I studied biblical Hebrew in a graduate program for too many years. I have a Master’s degree in it and was well on my way to a Ph.D. when I started having children and decided to quit and stay home with them.

So turning to the Hebrew, the word on which their interpretation hangs is yzqyn which the ESV takes as “he is old” but they wish to translate (more literally they say) as “when the beard grows.” They contend that this verb is originally derived from the noun for beard and that this is therefore its primary meaning.  I have a couple of problems with this statement. First of all, the most common use of this root is the adjectival form which is usually translated as “old.” Secondly, even if what they say were true and the original meaning were beard, I don’t think this necessarily argues for their translation. I am very wary of translating words and placing a lot of interpretive weight on them based on their etymologies. When people use words, they use them with the meanings they know. They do not generally consider the origins of the word.

The form used in this verse is neither the adjective (“old”) nor the noun (“beard”). It is a verb. This verb is usually used in a different conjugation and is translated “to be (or become) old.” It is used of women as well as men (see Ruth 1:12). As it is used here (in the hiphil conjugation if that means anything to you), it appears only twice, in this verse and in Job 14:8. In the latter, it refers to the roots of a tree. I do think it is reasonable to translate the hiphil as “to show (one’s) age” and perhaps the idea with the roots is that as they grow they also become hairy (though that depends on the kind of tree I suppose). But my conclusion in the end is that this is an awful lot of weight to place on one little verb. I am just not comfortable deriving a new doctrine from the etymology of one word in the Hebrew text.

The other evidence they refer to to back up this interpretation are Luke 2 in which Jesus at age 12 argues with the elders in the Temple and a legend about Solomon that  he was 12 years old when he judged between two women.But I could equally well argue that since these two are the wisest men who ever lived, that these episodes are given to us precisely to show how very wise they were even at an age when such wisdom is not usually displayed. And I am not at all sure that I accept the assertion that Solomon was 12 at the time of his wise decision.

The far more interesting word in this verse is the verb in the first half which the ESV just translates as “train.” The Hebrew is hnk. The most common use of this root is in the nominal form where it means “roof of the mouth” or “palate.” But I notice that there is no interpretation of this half which says “train” really has to do with eating (for example). As a verbal form, this root only occurs five times. Of those, four out of five have the meaning of “to dedicate” a house (see Deut. 5:5 [2 occurrences], I Kgs. 8:63, and 2 Chr 7:5). The fifth occurrence is the verse we are looking at, Proverbs 22:6. There is one occurrence of the root used adjectivally in which it may mean something like trained in Genesis 14:14 in which his “trained” ones is used in parallel to “the youths of his house.” There are far more occurrences, however, of a nominal form meaning “dedication” or “consecration.”

So what I wonder is if we are to put so much weight on the verb in the second half of the verse which is used in its most common meaning, why not spend more time on this verb from the first half which does indeed seem to be used in an unusual way? I honestly don’t know what to make of it. How do I dedicate or consecrate my children? It sounds to me like this is more about giving my children over to the Lord than about training as we usually think of that word (meaning education and discipline).

So I guess the conclusion for me is that while I really like the idea of giving even younger children a sound theological education, I juts do not see textual support for it in this verse.


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