Words for Teach in the Old Testament

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. You can find the intro post here.

I have been approaching this subject from a few different angles, but the most important is to ask what the biblical text itself has to say about education. This is a pretty broad subject so we are going to take it in parts. We are not going to find the word “education” in the biblical text itself but there are a lot of related concepts and subjects to be had.  Today I thought we would begin by looking at words for “teach” in the Old Testament. I am starting with the Old Testament for 3 reasons: 1) My own training is in biblical Hebrew so I am more comfortable with the Old Testament 2) It has more to say about parents and children in general and 3) It comes first. But don’t fear — we will get to the New Testament too.

Before diving in, if you haven’t read this post on biblical interpretation, I suggest at least skimming it so you will know how I deal with the text. Today’s object is to gather evidence. We may make some beginning stabs at drawing conclusions but I want to be rather hesitant with those. Our goal is not to build a philosophy of education on one obscure verse in Job but just to start to see what we can learn about education from the Bible.

One final note before we get to the meat — I have previously posted on discipline in the Bible. This was done in the context of a series on Charlotte Mason’s philosophy but it is still worth reading. Parental discipline and teaching are closely related concepts as we shall see. I am not including in this post the word “train” as in Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child . . .”) but you can find out what it means in Hebrew in that earlier post here.

Words for “Teach” in the Old Testament

Translators have a lot of leeway in how they render words so I can’t promise that this is an exhaustive list, but I have found nine Hebrew roots which may be/can/have been translated as “teach.” I am going to begin by going through them one by one. There are certain passages which have more than others to say about teaching and learning; if you want something more coherent to dig your teeth into, I suggest reading through Deuteronomy 4-6, Psalm 119, and the book of Daniel, particularly chapters 1 and 8-12. Proverbs, of course, all has a lot to say, enough that I think it is probably worth giving it its own post.

Working in order from the least to most used, we have:

Sh-n-n**– The primary meaning of this root is “to sharpen.” It is related to the word for  “tooth” and is used commonly of swords (Deut. 32:41; Ps. 64:3) and arrows (Ps. 45: 5; Prov. 25:18). In one instance, in Deuteronomy 6:7, is may be translated “teach.” The context is shortly after what is called “the Great Shema” (Deut. 6:4; shema in Hebrew means “hear”).  The section reads as follows:

“Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God the LORD (is)*** one. And you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. And these words which I am commanding you today will be upon your heart, and you will teach them (sh-n-n) to your sons and you will speak them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the path and when you lie down and when you rise up.” (Deut. 6:7; my translation)

We translate “teach” here for lack of a better word. The context tends to make me think something stronger is needed. As I said above, the usual meaning of this word is “to sharpen” as one sharpens a sword. So perhaps “inscribe” would be better, as in “you shall inscribe them on your sons’ (hearts).” Though this is one of our more iffy translations, I think we can note two points: 1) fathers are to make sure their children know God’s words and 2) this is not a casual instruction but is accomplished through regular repetition and much talking throughout daily life.

Moving on, the next root is ‘lp (that’s an aleph for the first letter, Hebrew scholars). This root is identical to that which means “thousands” but I don’t think there is an inherent connection; they may merely be unrelated homophones. It is used with some idea of teaching in three verses in Job and in one in Psalms. In Job 33:33 and 35:11 God is said to teach wisdom to Job or mankind. In Job 15:5 one’s iniquity teaches his mouth and in Psalm 22:25 one is warned not to befriend an angry man lest he learn his ways. None of these have inherently to do with teaching children. If I were to draw any conclusions for our greater enterprise they would be that: 1) it is God who teaches wisdom to mankind and 2) one can learn the wrong things from bad companions.

Root number three is zhr. Though we usually think of this root as having to do with light or shining, it is used in the sense of “to warn” in a number of passages. The book of Ezekiel uses it frequently when Ezekiel is being told to be a watchman to his people. His job is to warn them about their sin lest he bear the punishment due them (Ezek. 3:17ff; 33:3ff). The idea is similar in other passages (Exod. 18:20; 2 Kgs. 6:10; 2 Chr. 19:10; Ps. 19:12). Ecclesiastes seems to imply that such warnings are suited to the young:

Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice (zhr).” (Eccl. 4:13; ESV)

But at the end of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher warns young men against too much study:

My son, beware of (zhr) anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Eccl. 12:12; ESV)

Ecclesiastes 12:12 is an interesting verse for forming a theology of education, but we will have to return to it another time.

Next up: s-k-l (that’s a sin as the first letter, Hebrew scholars) is a root meaning “to be prudent” and “to prosper.” It occurs, for example in Proverbs 21:11:

“When a scoffer is punished, the simple is made wise; and when a wise man is instructed (s-k-l) he acquires knowledge.” (my translation)

In Psalm 32:8 God instructs and in Nehemiah 9:20 the Holy Spirit is said to instruct men. In Daniel 9:22 it is the angel Gabriel who instructs Daniel. These verses show again that God is the source of instruction, but none of them inherently has to do with the education of children.

The root b-y-n is a common one meaning “to understand.” In Hebrew there is a conjugation which essentially makes verbs transitive so in this conjugation (the hiphil) to understand becomes “to cause to understand,” i.e. “to teach.” Interestingly, it is also very similar to the preposition “between” so the underlying idea may be of discernment, that is, distinguishing between things. The Levites are often said to cause Israel to understand (2 Chr. 35:3; Neh. 8:7-9). Job tells us again that understanding comes from God:

But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand.” (Job 32:8;ESV)

This idea is repeated in Psalm 119:169. The root itself occurs many times in that famous wisdom Psalm (Ps. 119: 34, 73, 125, 130, 144, 169) and in the book of Daniel (Dan. 1:17; 8:16, 27; 9:22; 10:14; 11:33). At the beginning of the book of Daniel we are told that God gave Daniel and his young friends specific wisdom:

And these four youths God gave them knowledge (root y-d-‘) and skill (s-k-l) in all literature and wisdom (h-k-m), and Daniel He made understand (b-y-n) all visions and dreams.” (Dan. 1:17)

Though the different roots here seem to imply different kinds of knowledge, we would be hard pressed to make clear distinctions between them. In fact, as we shall see when we look at specific passages later, the various words for “wisdom” and the like are often used together. Words for wisdom, and for that matter words for sin or folly, were to the Hebrews like words for snow to the Eskimos, and at the distance we are from them, both culturally and temporily, we would be hard-pressed to grasp all the nuances.

One last observation on b-y-n — it is used of music a few times. We are told, for instance, that Chenaniah, a leader among the Levites “understood” music (I Chr. 15:22; cf. 1 Chr. 25:7-8).

The root y-s-r (that  is a samech) has the primary meaning of “to chasten” or “to discipline.” I discussed this root previously in that earlier post on discipline. As I said at the time, “discipline” is often harsh in the Bible, involving whips and scourges. Still there are passages in which “instruct” seems a better translation of this root (Ps. 16:7). It is something that man gives to his son as God does to His people (Deut. 8:5; cf. Prov. 19:18; 29:17). And in Proverbs 31, it is the mother who gives instruction (Prov. 31:1).

The root y-d-‘ (that glottal stop is an ayin) means “to know” so, in the hiphil (transitive) again, it comes to mean “to make know” or “to cause to know.” In Psalm 90:12 God teaches us to number our days. In Proverbs 9:9 the wise man is taught. But God needs no one to teach Him (Isa. 40:13). As with other roots, one of the main things that it taught is the law of God (Deut. 4:9; Ezra 7:25).

The root y-r-h  means “to throw or shoot” and from there comes to mean “to point out.” Perhaps as an extension of this, it can also mean “to teach” or “direct.” We have been working our way from less common to more common words; y-r-h occurs a few dozen times with the meaning “to teach.” It is used as many of the other roots we have seen for God’s instruction of His people (Ps. 25:8; 32:8; Isa. 30:9; Jer. 8:8; Job 22:22), but there are also others who “instruct.” Not surprisingly, parents, both mother and father, instruct (Prov. 3:1; 4:2, 4, 11; 6:20; 7:2). In Exodus the craftsmen who work on the tabernacle instruct others (Ex. 35:34). In Psalm 78, the psalmist instructs (Ps. 78:1), and a wise man  instructs others (Prov. 13:14).

Our final root, and the one that most nearly means just “to learn” or, in the transitive, “to teach,” is l-m-d. This root is used in many of the same ways and contexts as the others we have seen. God teaches (Ps. 25:9; Jer. 32:33). Fathers are to teach their children the law of God (Deut. 4:9ff). Mothers teach (Songs 8:2); even lion mothers teach their young (Ezek. 19:3, 5). The Levites teach the law of God (2 Chr. 17:7), and the Preacher of Ecclesiastes teaches the people (Eccl. 12:9). A Psalm may teach us (Ps. 60:1).  The law is learned, even by the king (Deut. 17:19). Wisdom can be learned (Prov. 30:3). So too one may learn righteousness (Isa. 26:9-10), to do good (Isa. 1:17), to fear God (Deut. 14:23), and to do His will (Ps. 143:10). People learn laments (2 Sam. 1:18) and they learn the art of war (Judg. 3:2; cf. Isa. 2:4; Mic. 4:3).  On the flip side, people can learn the wrong things (Deut. 18:9; Ps. 106:35; Jer. 12:16).

Of particular interest are those passages which speak of children — In Psalm 71, the psalmist says that God has taught him from youth and asks that He will continue to do so into old age (Ps. 71:17). In Deuteronomy 31, when the law is taught, the whole congregation, even the smallest children are present to learn it:

Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” (Deut. 31:12-13; ESV)

As I discussed in this post on words for children in the Old Testament, those “little ones” are toddlers and they are included in the assembly of God’s people.

Conclusions

Here is what we have seen so far:

  • Who teaches? Primarily God. All instruction and knowledge is from Him. But also parents and religious leaders (i.e. the Levites and Moses himself). Poets (aka psalmists) teach through their art and craftsmen teach their crafts.
  • What is taught? Above all, the law of God with a host of similar subjects — righteousness, goodness, etc. But practical subjects are also taught, e.g. craftsmanship, war, and music. Wickedness can also be learned from the gentile nations and from bad companions.
  • Who is taught? Even the youngest children learn God’s law. Youths are particularly the subjects of instruction, but learning continues throughout life.

Next time we will look at teaching in the New Testament.

Nebby

**Hebrew words are by and large built on trilateral (i.e. 3 consonant roots). If you know Hebrew, I apologize for my lack of fonts and poor rendering of the Hebrew letters.

***”LORD” translates the divine name sometimes rendered as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.” Words in parentheses are not in the Hebrew.

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] We recently looked at words for “teach” in the Old Testament; now it is time to move on to the New. My own training is in biblical Hebrew and, though I have taken some Greek, I am pretty rusty at it, so I will be relying a lot more on my concordance for this post. The point of all this, if you will remember, is ultimately to build a reformed Christian theology of education. We are in the beginning stages now where we are collecting evidence and simply answering the question: What does the Bible have to say about education and teaching? I suggest skimming this post on methodology if you yet. […]

    Reply

  2. […] the time, at least not in the way we now know them. Of course there was education in some form (see this post on teaching in the Old Testament and this one on the New), but I cannot think of a single reference to organized group education of […]

    Reply

  3. […] in the pre-exilic period. (You can read my own post on teaching and education in the Old Testament here.) I agree with him that what happened most likely happened not in formal schools and through […]

    Reply

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