I told the following story for our school assembly last Thursday afternoon.
Once upon time there was a boy named Ben Levite. Ben’s father, Jamin, was a scribe by trade. He worked long before computers or typewriters when every book was written by hand, including God’s Law. Ben’s dad enjoyed his job and took his job seriously because he didn’t want to make any mistakes with Scripture.
Ben loved that his dad had such a uncommon and privileged career. Most of Ben’s friends had dads who farmed or shepherded. Some of his friends’ fathers were soldiers in the King’s army, others worked at the palace cooking or in construction. A few of Ben’s cousins had dads who were priests. But Ben took pride in telling others what his dad did.
Copying the law was hard labor. Guiding an ox to plow a straight line in rocky soil takes one kind of strength and determination, but constant focus on jots (dots, small letters such as the Greek iota) and tittles (serifs or an small accent marks) takes all of another kind of muscle and backbone. Scribes worked six days a week and many hours each day. When possible they worked near windows but most of the time they toiled with only the light from candles or oil lamps.
Sometimes the manuscripts they worked from were ragged or faded. Other times the manuscripts were in fine condition but the previous scribes’ penmanship looked like a Kindergarten phonogram test. The work was also very difficult because writing supplies were limited. Papyrus (a sort of paper made out of plants) was not always available and papyrus (a thin material made out of animal skin) was very expensive. Because of these things, most writers used all the space possible and left very little margin. In Ben’s dad’s day the scribes used no punctuation; they didn’t even use spaces between words so that they could save room for more letters. All the sentences ran together making it easy to skip a letter, or words, or accidentally add extra ones.
The work also involved copying from scroll to scroll. Books with spines and numbered pages hadn’t been invented yet. So letter by letter, line by line, scribes paid close attention as they carefully, repetitively dipped pen in ink and stroked out a new copy.
Ben appreciated his dad’s diligence. Going to synagogue services each Sabbath he knew that the priest read from his dad’s handiwork. Most nights at dinner Jamin would tell the family stories from the section of Scripture he had transcribed that day. Ben heard the stories of Joseph in jail due to Potiphar’s lying wife, of Moses leading the people through the Red Sea out of Egypt, of David and Goliath, and of Daniel and the lions’ den. Many dads told their kids about the Passover, but few had read it for themselves in the ancient scrolls.
Ben’s family threw him a party for his 13th birthday. Many family traveled from out of town and all his neighbors came. When the evening was almost over Ben’s dad brought out one final present. Ben quickly untied the string and unwrapped the cloth covering. He could hardly believe what he held in his hands: his very own copy of “Solomon’s Book of Wisdom” (what we know as Proverbs). Ben’s dad had been saving since Ben was born to buy extra scraps of parchment and stayed a little longer at work a couple evenings each week to copy this special edition as a gift. He gave Ben something even he didn’t have himself.
Jamin gave his son a treasure. He also gave his son something transformative. Jamin knew that the word makes a young man wise. The word protects a man’s steps. The word strengthens a man’s hands. The word rejoices a man’s heart. The word lights a man’s path. Ben had been given a gift that would change his life. The whole community would know about this present. They would also see the effects of the book in his life.
Solomon described a similar gift in the first chapter of Proverbs:
Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching,
for they are a graceful garland for your head
and pendants for your neck.
(Proverbs 1:8–9, ESV)
The “garland” and “pendant” (or necklace) were symbols of health and prosperity. They were treasures worn, gifts from parents that adorned their kids. Solomon says listening to instruction and obeying teaching make a son look good. They are visible signs that your parents sacrificed to get you something expensive.
In our day, we do not need to handwrite copies of God’s Word to give to our kids. Buying Bibles is easy for us, and many of you will have multiple translations on your phones. Maybe some day your watches will shine holograms of the text in 3-D images. But all your parents and teachers are working hard to give you a great present just like Ben.
Ben’s copy of Proverbs was a costly gift. Your education at ECS is also, paid for with dollars, time, energy, and sacrifices. Your parents are working diligently, and most of the time with happy hearts, to give you something great, something more precious and more apparent then jewelry. We hope that one day you will graduate and that your worship of God will be obvious to the world. We are not copying literal pages of the Bible but we are copying Latin worksheets, science sound-offs, and teaching models for you to have. We are learning songs with you, singing Psalms with you, and stitching raggants onto sweaters for you.
All of this is to make you look good. We want you to listen (hear instruction) and obey (forsake not teaching) your parents (and the teachers your parents partner with). Then your life will be decorated with the gifts of wisdom and God’s blessing.