Hear my son to your father’s instruction (musar), and do not forsake your mother’s teaching (torah). Prov 1:8.
Can we afford to outsource most, if not all, of our children’s early learning experience to public education system? In our busy high-tech society where often both parents work, children have no option but to go to public schools and private tuition all day and every day. And we cannot afford keeping our children from schools either. In fact we try to find the best and most reputed schools for them. We believe that these schools prepare them for an all round development to face the challenges of life. In addition, Christian parents like their children to attend Sunday Schools in their churches followed by cell groups. This is well and good. But are we saying that the church and school can teach everything our children would need to know and be in life and character? Or, we may ask, ‘what else could we do? We have our own jobs, friends, peers, and we need time for ourselves too?’
However, the Bible seems to say that parents have an immense responsibility towards their children especially during their formative years. Proverbs 1:8 appears to say that learning in its earliest and most primitive forms originated from the basic units of society, such as family and clan/tribe, who on the basis of their faith perspective taught their children about the benefits and blessings of their learning, traditionally called ‘wisdom’, about what is right and wrong and what makes one successful and happy or vice versa.
Instructions related to these would include commands, prohibitions and observations from daily life. This is clear from the many references to practical advice in a family setting (Prov. 10: 1; 15: 20; 20: 20; 23: 22), father’s role as one who corrects and teaches discipline (musar; Prov 1:8; 4: 5), and mother as one who teaches and counsels (torah; Prov 1:8; 31: 1-9). Both father and mother are included in instructing children (Prov. 1: 8; 6: 20; 23: 22-25) probably taking a cue from the fifth commandment (Exod. 20: 12). Therefore there is no need to think that the frequent reference to’ son’ is not literal but metaphorical to mean a ‘teacher-pupil’ relationship. This is likely in a number of cases, but here the reference to mother is not a stylistic device but the recognition of a mother’s role in teaching children is probably a genuine observation in Israel and probably a matter of wisdom in itself as mothers are the first to teach children about anything even as a child’s first language come to be known as ‘mother tongue’.
There is no special pleading here of parents as instructors and teachers and home being the first site of a child’s character formation and the origin of traditional wisdom. It is a parental instinct to help children with what is right and what makes one successful and happy, as well as warn children of dangers of evil, laziness, bad friendships, and what makes one unsuccessful and unhappy. Over the time these instructions have become a body of commands and prohibitions passed on orally to begin with, which probably formed the basis for the sophisticated counsel and legal enquiry that developed later.
This does not mean that there were no other avenues where learning in Israel was taught and developed. While Yahweh becomes the source of knowledge, and wisdom was created by him and for the instruction of humanity (Prov 8), Israel did not reject disciplined learning or insightful and practical observations (2 Sam. 8: 15-18; 20: 23-26; 1 Kgs 4: 1-6). So Israel understood that secular wisdom by its very nature has three basic sources, namely observations about the nature of reality that is created order, and instructions based on age and experience, and reflections on deeper question of the meaning of life. Their focus is entirely on humans and their interaction with creation and experience, and therefore their conclusions are not absolute truths but work most of the time. Therefore, Israel’s contribution is to show this very limitation of human wisdom. The book of Job is an extended illustration of how traditional wisdom failed to account for the freedom of God who can overrule the order of creation. Similarly, Ecclesiastes is a deep reflection on the search for the meaning of life, which can be found only in God and his rule. So also the book of Proverbs, the embodiment of wisdom literature, links wisdom intrinsically with the ‘fear of the Yahweh’ which is a religious experience and shows that without wisdom being rooted in the plan of God it would be a failure or misguided.
And the NT declares that Christ is the embodiment of all wisdom, and to know him is life and to serve him is complete freedom. Israel and the early Church did their job and passed on this wisdom to the world. Now what is our role as the contemporary church? In my opinion we had better take our responsibility seriously to prepare the present generation with a Christian mind to impact its own generation. There is a huge confusion in our society today about personal and sexual ethics, gender and identity, freedom and dignity, marriage and family, not to mention life after death.
Last Saturday’s The Straits Times carries a special report on Sex Education (‘D’ section) in Singapore schools which is running for a decade, but the kids still seem to be confused as they hear different voices from Government, teachers, parents and churches. We may not solve the differences to everyone’s satisfaction, but we can always offer a Christian alternative. Given that our children would surely join one or the other services in our society- politics, bureaucracy, judiciary, banking, business- in short the marketplace, we cannot afford to relinquish our responsibility of ‘Training a child when it is young, and it would not turn aside when it is grown up’. (For a course on this topic, see below)