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Old Testament scholar Christopher Rollston, in his 2015 book Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, makes the case (among several related cases) that literacy in ancient Israel was almost exclusively confined to an elite, educated class, and not something that your average Jacob and Rachel Israelite could handle.

It’s a wonderfully informative book, even it presumes of its readers that they have some familiarity epigraphy.

Having said that, there is some stuff in there that made me feel affirmed and understood. Rollston collected some quotes (pp. 85-88) from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia lauding the scribal profession, and they show that the writer’s mentality hasn’t changed much in the last 4000 years.

Writers want to:

(1) make money

[S]trive to (master) the scribal art and it will enrich you, be industrious in the scribal art and it will provide you with wealth and abundance.

( 2) rub elbows with the rich and famous

[The scribe] makes friends with those greater than he. . . . You will be advanced by your superiors. You will sent onRollston a mission.

. . . you may become one whom the king trusts; to make you gain entrance to treasury and granary. . . . To make you issue the offerings on feast days.

(3) work without supervision

There’s no profession without a boss, except for a scribe. Hence if you know writing, it will do you better than those professions I’ve set before you [smith, jewel-maker, potter, farmer], each more wretched than the other.

(4) get out of doing manual labor

I have seen many beatings; set your heart on books! I have watched those seized for labor; there’s nothing better than books!

Be a scribe. It saves you from toil and protects you from all manner of work.

(5) live forever

Man decays, his corpse is dust, all his kind have perished; but a book makes him remembered. . . . Better is a book than a well-built house, than tomb-chapels in the west.

It’s like these ancient texts are looking deep into my own soul and telling me what they see there.

But hey, at least I have goals.

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Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.