Carr-the role of texts as curriculum

It is easy to get lost in David M. Carr’s wide ranging discussion of the contents of the Hebrew Bible in Writing on the Tablet of the Heart. He has many interesting insights. But we need to remember that his main point is that the Hebrew Bible came to function as an educational and enculteration aid mostly for officials and other elites in ancient Israel.

Some of the writings had other purposes to begin with. For instance the prophets often had a strong anti-elite bias. They denounced officials and priests. Yet their writings came to serve as part of the broader educational background precisely for officials and priests. Carr takes the last verse of Hosea as an addition stating this purpose:

Who is wise?
Let him discern these things!
Who is discerning?
Let him understand them!
For the ways of the Lord are right;
the godly walk in them,
but in them the rebellious stumble Hosea 14:9 NET Bible).

Whereas in Mesopotamia astrological wisdom played the role of introducing the educated to the divine revelatory aspect of life, prophetic oracles played this role in Israel. He points to the inscription from the seer Baalam discovered in Jordan (see here) as another Western Semitic, but non-Israelite, example of this use for prophetic oracles.

In the Pentateuch there are two kinds of long duration texts originally serving different purpose that are now part of the Torah or teaching and thus adapted to educational purposes.

The first of these is priestly material originally meant for instruction about performing rituals. The books of Leviticus and Numbers are full of this kind of thing. The parts of the Pentateuch labeled the P source originally developed for cultic rather than more general education.

The second kind of long duration texts now incorporated into the Torah are narratives about Israel’s origin and pre-monarchial days. Some of these are about creation and pre-history. Some are about the patriarchs and some are about battles. They are founding legends parallel to those of other nations. They may have once been campfire tales developed for the love of storytelling. But now they serve as primary texts that convey the cultural and spiritual values that leaders need to master.

Psalms and songs have the same dynamic. They once served as accompaniment to worship or other occasions. (He thinks the Song of Solomon was once used in banquet settings.) Now they have been given a teaching purpose. Some of them are acrostics and some are practically wisdom literature.

Their presence in the Bible and their characteristics point to the educational use of these texts.

One passage that gives us insight into master scribes in Israel is in 2 Kings 18:26 and Isaiah 36:11. Eliakim, the official over the palace, Shebna, the royal scribe, and Joah, the recorder, ask Rabshekah of Assyria to speak Aramaic so that the ordinary people will not understand him. This tells us that these government workers had an education the common people did not have. They understood a foriegn language.

So there must have been a two-track system of scribal education, partly in the common language of Mesopotamia and partly in Hebrew. We know that Bronze Age Ugarit and Amarna also had two-track educational systems. If Israel had such a system, then Eliakim, Shebna, Joah and others so educated would have had to master the limited set of primary Mesopotamian texts. This is our best explanation for the influence of Mesopotamian literature upon the Bible.

In an oral culture written texts were not for the ordinary people to read as a pass time. They were for leaders to master as an aid to their own formation by the tradition and to help them orally transmit that tradition to others. At least that is what I understand to be the position Carr is building.

It is a very thought-provoking theory. And on the way to developing it, he is giving us many associated new perceptions about the Bible.

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About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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