The other day we were at a park and Harris had collected a couple of rocks he was playing with. To be silly, he threw one at me. I took them away and told him he couldn’t keep playing with rocks if he was going to throw them, and he said, “But Mommy, David threw a rock at Goliath!”
I’ve had a problem for a while about the way certain stories in the Bible are told to kids. A couple of problems, really.
Problem #1: Why do we pick the bloodiest and most violent stories of the Old Testament to be the ones that we put in children’s Bibles and retell as Sunday School and bedtime stories?
Problems #2: In picking short little snippets of the stories of individuals in the Bible without always placing them in the larger context, we miss communicating the larger narrative arc of God’s redemptive plan.
Let’s look at a few Bible stories that we typically find in children’s Bibles or Sunday School:
David & Goliath- I think we like telling kids this story because it becomes a story of how a little boy was brave for God. If you look more closely, you’ll see that it’s actually a story about a murder in the context of two nations on the brink of war. True, David was brave in facing Goliath who was taunting the God of Israel, but the larger story is about God and how He is the one who will defend His people and His name. And really, how is this a helpful story when I’m trying to teach my son to not throw rocks?
Noah’s Ark- This story is one that bugs me the most as it’s become about cute animals and a theme to decorate your nursery with. The story of Noah’s ark is more than just a zoo in a boat, it’s about God wiping-out every person on the face of the earth except for Noah’s family and the animals.
A couple of years ago Clay was reading Evelyne a book he found about this story, and he was surprised when he came to the part about the flood and there were pictures of helpless people drowning in the water, arms raised to Noah for help while he floated safely in the ark and they were covered by the waves. This is not a children’s story. This is a story of God destroying His creation because of wickedness. Sure, the cute little animals escaped, but everyone else died a horrible death. There is the redemption of the rainbow and His promise to never do it again at the end, but this is a hard story for many adults to wrap their heads around. Do we really think it’s a smart idea to tell our children about it before swim lessons or a thunder storm?
Joshua and the Walls of Jericho- Here’s another classic children’s Bible story about a brave man who played a trumpet in a marching band. NOT. This story is about a violent war… a genocide, really. God showed his presence and faithfulness to Israel in the way that He gave over the city of Jericho to them, but after those walls fell down, do you know what happened?
“And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, both young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword….And they burnt the city with fire, and all that was therein; only the silver, and the gold, and the vessels of brass and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of Jehovah.” (Joshua 6: 21, 24)
Upon the command of God, the warriors of Israel went into Jericho and killed every living thing, including women and children. Then they looted it and burned it. This is much more than a story about a trumpet and marching and some walls falling down. It’s a God-ordered massacre.
Abraham being told by God to kill his son Isaac on an altar– Really? A father holding a knife over his son, we think this is appropriate for a children’s book?
Baby Moses being rescued by Pharoah’s daughter while he was floating in a basket- Because Pharoah was killing all the little Israelite boys! A strong, important king coming to get little kids, that’s the stuff of nightmares!
These are some examples of what I think are entirely inappropriate stories for us to teach kids about the Bible and the character of God. I’m not arguing that we should pretend these stories don’t exist, just that we should show some discernment in the age-appropriateness of the stories we tell our kids whether they come from the Bible or not. I’m pretty sure most parents wouldn’t take the sexual parts of the Bible and teach their three year-old about the Song of Solomon, how Onan “spilled his seed”, or how Abraham slept with several different women in order to conceive a baby. I just don’t know why we can’t apply the same principle to the overly violent parts.
These are hard stories. Many, many adults struggle with the idea of God ordering Israel to wipe-out entire civilizations and with his destruction of His entire creation. How do you really explain to a child that God asked a father to kill his son and have that child not be fearful of that God? Or in our protection of him as parents. After all, these are some of the stories that help make atheists, the ones that people simply cannot allow their consciences to sit with.
How is it that Jesus said we are to love our enemies but God tells Israel kill their enemies? Why do we teach our kids not to throw rocks at people but glorify David killing Goliath with a rock? How can we give our children confidence that we and God will always love them and then share the story about how God told a parent to kill his child? Kids aren’t psychologically ready for these things. These stories are bloody and confusing and should be wrestled with by teenagers and adults who have stronger psychological structures to handle it.
So what about the Bible should we be telling our kids? Everything else, particularly the parts about Jesus. The life of Jesus seems to be conspicuously absent from some children’s Bibles we have. If I were to only read those, my children would only know that He was born, He multiplied some food for a bunch of people, and then He did. That’s it. I think the Church needs to do much more when it comes to teaching our kids about who Jesus is and what mattered to Him. (I myself need to do much more, the finger is pointing right back at me here!)
Besides the stories of what He taught, what He did, we can teach the values of what it means that He is King of our world and restoring all things unto Himself. Even when we teach Old Testament stories, they should be put in their proper theological context of how God is redeeming us and the world and how it all points to Jesus. (The Jesus Storybook Bible does an awesome job at this, though there are still several parts that I skip over when I read it due to the violence and hard issues that I don’t think my kids are ready to grapple with yet.)
Focusing on Jesus with our kids doesn’t ignore the other half of the Bible, it emphasizes the fulfillment of those stories. He is the “telos” of the story of the Bible, the “end-term of a goal-directed process.” He is the “image of the invisible God,” somehow the most full expression of who God is, Old Testament massacres and all, is in Jesus. When God wanted to give humanity a picture of who He is, He came as Jesus. So I’m going to keep focusing on Jesus as the best expression of God to my kids and when they’re older, we’ll talk about all the hard passages, hopefully after they have a firm foundation of God’s love in their hearts.
So, I’m interested in hearing what you think. Have you ever found yourself reading a violent Bible story to your kids and wondered why in the world you were doing so? Have your kids ever been confused or disturbed by issues found in the Bible that they aren’t ready to understand? Do you disagree with me?