Violent Bible Stories We Tell Our Children

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?

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8 responses to “Violent Bible Stories We Tell Our Children

  1. Wow! I guess I’ve had these thought before but never really looked into how I felt about it. You make some really good points. And yes, my kids do kind of look at me crazy when we are reading a few bible stories. Reading this I know I will be more aware of what I am reading to them. I def. don’t think we need to leave these parts out but like you said maybe hold off until they are better equipped to understand the whole picture. I love the idea starting out with teaching them God’s love. That foundation will help later on when they do learn the rest. And probably make them more open and less fearful when hearing it. Gosh! You are good at getting my brain working! 🙂

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  2. i agree. i was going to suggest the Jesus Storybook Bible, but you already mentioned it. we also are using Long Story Short for family devotions- same idea of pointing to Jesus as the redeemer needed from the begining of time. i don’t want to gloss over stories entirely- but obviously the appropriateness of particular stories at a particular stage of child development has to be taken into consideration (ummm. Moses and his wife- how she performed the required step for little Hebrew boys, and then she wiped the “discarded portion” on Moses’ feet….not a good bedtime story for a little boy) but growing up in a family that did not know Jesus as the redeemer- or Jesus at all- I don’t want my kids to be totally in the dark about what happened in the Bible either. Neither do i want to make the story into a shiny happy polished story either- Noah’s Ark is not the wisest choice of nursery decor- if you’re wanting to fully embrace Biblical accuracy is it? So my opinion of how to teach children the Bible? Lots of prayer. Lots of praying that God would speak through His Word as we teach our children. It is a relief to know that my sinful self can be used by God in spite of myself to teach the children He has been gracious to allow me to raise. by the way, i love Harris’ explaination of why he was throwing rocks. it’s Biblical. out of context, of course, but a bit funny all the same.

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  3. I’m so glad “you’re back”, Emily, into the blogging world = ). Have missed your writings.
    I see what you are saying, but I’m not sure I agree with you totally. I agree with you that we need to use discretion. I agree with you that we need to focus more on Jesus, just as the Jesus Storybook Bible says over and over again, “every story whispers his name”. The story of Abraham and Issac is a story of redemption and points to Jesus in that He would be the son that would climb the hill, trusting His Father and obeying him, just like Issac does in this story. It also teaches our children that God will ask us to obey Him at all costs, just like Jesus proclaims in the Gospels, to take up the cross and follow Him. Now of course it’s important to point out that God is never going to ask us to kill our children, etc. So basically, let’s tell those hard stories, let’s point out the Jesus-saturated Truths, but let’s have balance in telling them how we see God working in our lives today and how that it differs from the methods He used in the OT (even in the NT).
    Isn’t the story of Jesus dying on the cross the most gruesome, horrifying, gut wrenching story of all times. That’s what our sin does. Yes, a Father sent His Son to die a horrifying death because of our sin. It’s hard to swallow, whether you are 3 or 33. I fear if we skip over these OT stories, we are skipping over the horridness of sin. Sin = death. Praise be to God! He sent Jesus for our sin that we may have life. !!!! We point out to our children their sin a lot, with sadness AND with hope because we ALWAYS follow that with the Gospel.

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  4. I see that this post is from september but I just came across it. When both of my sons were taught these stories, not by me, but by church and the religious based school they attended at the time, they came home with many questions, and were not satisfied with any of the answers. They basically concluded that God must be really cruel. There’s no refuting that if He does exist, He is indeed brutal. I just feel there’s no way to teach kids these stories, and at the same time teach them that God “loves” us. The very definition of love does not fit in with these stories. Kids are simple-minded, yet smart, and will see this right away.
    I’ve always struggled with these stories, and, as the author said in the article, my conscience simply will not allow me to worship a God with this type of character. I hid my feelings from my kids, to allow them to decide on their own, but now we have all admitted to being agnostics, and we are no longer Christians.
    The bible itself is what turned me, and my children against Christianity, so my advice would be to be very careful and picky about what parts you expose your kids to if you really want them to believe.

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  5. I love what you wrote. My wife and I talk about this all the time. We are a little disappointed that churches sugarcoat the stories for kids. But all too often kids grow up and never learn the stories any different. The story of the arc is always about the animals. The story of Jonah is more about the fish instead of gods “crazy” idea to save Nineveh.The list goes on but I would love to hear more ideas and opinions on how to handle this situation.

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    • Hey, Josh, thanks for sharing your thoughts! It’s been a hard balance for us to share parts of the Bible that are important for my kids to understands while also making sure it’s appropriate for their age-level. Lately, my three year-old has been scared at night of giants, and I finally traced it back to the David and Goliath story he heard at Sunday School! That launched into a conversation about killing the giants which is really not the direction I wanted to go! At this stage, we’re mostly emphasizing God’s love, presence, and acceptance, and we’re trying to bring-out those themes from the bible stories our kids hear instead of “oh wow, a big fish!” 🙂 I do avoid a lot of them that I think aren’t age-appropriate yet.

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  6. Saw the reference to this post on your sidebar, and just had to throw my thoughts into the mix:
    I’ve been the Director of Children’s Ministry for a large ELCA Lutheran congregaation for 11 years – previously taught elementary kids in public schools. So I have a strong interest in both theology and child development. The subject you raise is one I’ve specifically discussed with our pastors, around our annual gift of story bibles to three-year-olds. Here’s our take, n a nutshell: As recipients of the Gospel, we see the O.T. through the lens of Jesus. That doesn’t nullify what the O.T. has to tell us, but it does force us to reevaluate what’s there in a new light. In addition, we value the Bible as a living document, and fully believe that it is our duty to interpret what’s there from the perspective of our current understanding and our personal experiences of God. One of the things this means is that there are many, many facets to every story found in the bible. And because our youngest friends are at a developmental to understand concepts only at a very basic level, it’s totally appropriate for us to tell it to them at their level. We certainly omit a lot of details when telling some stories that, when you dig deeper, have extremely adult themes. But that’s not lying, or sugar-coating, or ignoring the truth of those adult themes. Rather, it’s living out some of the “Big Ideas” we have for our kids (these Big Ideas are cornerstones of our children’s ministry programming): 1. God loves me and every single bit of God’s creation, unconditionally; 2. Every word of the Bible exists to help us understand God’s love; 3. It is part of God’s plan for us to understand God’s word in different ways in different stages of our development. Just as Luther translated the Bible into the language of his people, we use translations of the Bible that are appropriate for people where they’re at, and children are people, too.

    Sorry for the novel, but this question is right in my wheelhouse, and something I feel strongly about! Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!
    -Amy at http://www.momgoeson.wordpress.com

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