telling bible stories to children — the violence and sex edition

Artwork © 2007, Scott Gustafson — see his gallery here and buy this print here


Yesterday I wrote about the Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha, which is the celebration of Abraham’s willingness to obey God by sacrificing Ishmael.  Our own Hebrew story is very similar, though the son who is nearly killed is Isaac.  Kind of in jest, I wrote the following in asterisk form:

While I do support teaching children the whole of the Bible (over time), I don’t think of this tale – either version — as an especially good “children’s story.”  I’d rather not get into this with Baylor’s until she’s old enough to not worry if her God-fearing father is making plans to walk her up Geita hill for anything other than a nature hike.

I didn’t mean a great deal by this, as I’ve honestly not given much thought to the appropriateness of Bible stories for my nearly one-year old daughter, Baylor.  But a few of you responded, and one of the shepherds from our sponsoring church asked:

Will you teach your kids about the cross?

Obviously, my answer is “yes.”  But new questions arise — like when and what about other stories?  On Baylor’s first Easter, Christie and I together told her the story of God, including Jesus being hung on a cross to die.  [Not that Baylor understood the story as a 4-month old, but we wanted to do this together as a family.]  I realized this morning, however, that I ought to be thinking through the details of when to share what types of stories with my children.  Are all Bible stories appropriate for all ages?  Should we leave some until the children can understand them better?  Or is it better to introduce them to the stories from the very beginning, and let their understanding grow slowly?  I’ve now got all kinds of questions — especially for those of you who’ve already made some of these decisions.  Here are just a few:

  • How do we tell Bible stories to our children without making them sound like just another fairy tale or untrue bedtime story?
  • How do we tell stories of death and violence?  Do we downplay the gruesome details, or share them from the beginning?
  • When do we talk Jesus being murdered on a cross?  Do we explain that God wanted it that way even when our children are very young?
  • When do we tell the story of Abraham being willing to kill his own son?  And our God having told him to do so?
  • What about stories of babies heads being dashed on the rocks and entire nations murdered?
  • Sex, adultery, and prostitution?
  • Do we wait until the children will understand these stories, or do the stories themselves help to develop proper Christian understanding?  Or, in other words, do we allow a worldview to develop which will provide a safe place for these stories — or do these stories actually help to bring about said worldview?

Your advice is more than welcome. I have nothing intelligent to say at this point.  [Some of you are thinking, “What else is new?”]

Except I do have this one intelligent thing to say:  If you have children and you’re not telling them Bible stories, I think you’re missing out on an extremely valuable opportunity to Jesus-shape your children.  Time spent with our children is crucial — and parents sharing with their children the stories of God (when lying down and when awake) is meant to be a formative time in the life of young Christians.  I kindly encourage you to get on that.



Filed under family

35 responses to “telling bible stories to children — the violence and sex edition

  1. I think we have to teach them what they are able to understand. I wouldn’t suggest taking a 7 year old through the blatant sexual facts of Song of Solomon.. however, I would present the beauty how the people in the Songs love each other dearly.

    Even teaching the cross comes in many nuances. Can you teach Philippians 2 without going through the blood and gore? Paul seemed to be able to do it and get a major point across.

    While telling the child the stories is good, allowing them to read the bible and encouraging them to raise questions about what they have read is just as fundamental. Some day they will have to make their faith their own. And that can only be done when they are able to verbalize or internalize their own questions.

    I think you raised another great question when asked how to relay the messages without making them another fairy tale. For some reason, I want to say context is important here… and purpose. When we relive stories about our relatives or friends, we don’t usually do so to push for a ‘moral of the story’ or ‘packaged application’ – we retell them as we perceived them.

    That is not to say that the bible doesn’t have application but that it doesn’t have to read like an Aesop’s fable either.

    I need to think about this one some more.

    • tony, good ideas on encouraging children to read the stories for themselves — and ask questions of them. i also like your ideas on not always pushing a “moral of the story.” i look back on my childhood sunday school classes, and a lot of what we were taught was extra-biblical and not very good theology at all. better to let the story be a story than to give it meaning probably not intended.

  2. The Devil

    Your all NUTS!

    You talk as if your kids can be used and abused like dogs.
    How about – you don’t fill your poor innpocent Kids head with Fantasy dressed up as Fact. How about you leave your craziness at the door and let your kids grow up to discover for themselves the wanders of the universe….the fact it isn’t 5,000 years ago and there isn’t a Magic man in the middle of the universe who controls everything we do.

    Get out of the ancient times and into the Now!

    • dear devil,

      while you may be right that i’m nuts — and while i certainly appreciate your thoughts — i have to disagree with you. i don’t believe telling my children bible stories is using or abusing them. especially not like dogs. i’ve never abused dogs, but i assure you if i ever were to decide to do so (and i wouldn’t), it would not be by telling stories about old testament characters and a powerful God.

      i agree with you completely that there’s no magic man in the middle of the universe controlling everything we do. i think the big guy’s given us lots of freedom to make our own decisions. and i take advantage of that freedom by choosing to believe the fantasies you speak of are indeed fact and not fiction. but i also support your freedom to believe otherwise. after all, you’re right that we should all discover for ourselves the wonders of the universe.

      thanks for the letter. it was certainly written with greater kindness than i’ve always supposed would be a letter composed by you, the evil satan.

    • El Diablo,

      I do adore Walnuts. I like to crack them open carefully so that I can eat the individual halves as whole pieces. That seems like an oxymoron, does it not.. whole halves?

      In any case, when viewed through my eyes, the halves look like little brains.

      That probably makes me different. Maybe even a little nutty.

      SO, there I am in my living room eating tree brains while watching the news. I can change the channel and find another news station. Both channels are portraying what they perceive as the facts of the story. Sometimes their individual facts are contradictory… especially those rascals we call the weathermen.

      I hear tomorrow it is supposed to be sunny… I think I will carry an umbrella.

      I am nutty that way.

  3. Pingback: eid al-adha (or a tale of two sons) (or two tales of one son) (or why i can’t get anything done today) « aliens and strangers

  4. I don’t have any kids, so I can’t really advise on any of this, but I do appreciate you writing about it and posing some of your questions. It is something important to start thinking about now and discussing with Jason so we are ready with our approach when the time comes.

  5. Kim

    That was a really classy response to the previous comment. Nicely done!

    I tend to agree with Tony’s view on sharing. You don’t necessarily have to give the gory details to get the overlying story across. As they grow, they will ask more specific questions and will require a more detailed answer. Until then, I think getting across the major points is more important than the more mature details. Just my opinion though.

    Above anything else I believe as her parent you will know best what she can or cannot handle.

    And on a sidenote, when is the care package list coming out? I have been anxiously waiting 🙂

    • i like what you and tony are saying. but what about stories like abraham being told by God to kill his son? or the israelites being told by God to wipe out entire nations, killing them all? i can see how these ideas could be especially disturbing to a young kid — even without the gory details of death.

      oh, and i’ll get on that care package list soon. i thought it would be last week, but i got busy.

      • JLynn

        When my son was elementary aged, I told him the story of Abraham. But I also wanted him to know the back story. Why did God ask this of Abraham? Abraham came from a culture that killed their children – sacrificed them to gods. God had no intention of having Abraham kill his son. But he did want to know if Abraham revered Him as much as the people Abraham came from revered their gods. Then God knew. I think to leave out some of this can build up a weird concept of God – as is clearly seen today in the beliefs of some.

        • JLynn

          PS – The same kind of thing applies to the wiping out of entire nations. When you look into what was going on in those nations, it is apparent that they weren’t just living in the wrong place at the wrong time. God didn’t want any of the filth of their actions to infiltrate the people of God. Unfortunately, they didn’t completely obey this command and idolatry resulted.

        • jlynn, you said, “[God] did want to know if Abraham revered Him as much as the people Abraham came from revered their gods. Then God knew.”

          i’m not suggesting we shouldn’t tell our children this story. but it seems God would have already known. we don’t have to pass a test for God to know if we’re faithful or obedient, do we? so i’d hesitate to tell the story that way to my children. it sounds to me like a convenient way to explain what God did?

          • JLynn

            I don’t think I was making anything up to make it convenient. Are we to only teach those scriptures that fit our theology? Just saying.
            Genesis 22:12

          • jlynn, i stand very corrected. i am not one at all to teach only scriptures that fit my theology. i’m a big proponent of inductive bible study. i just had not read this story in quite some time, i suppose.

            but you’re exactly right — it’s very clear. definitely the simplest way for us to understand the text is that God wanted to know that Abraham feared him and would not hold back his son.

          • jlynn, i stand very corrected. and humbled. i am not one at all to teach only scriptures that fit my theology. i’m a big proponent of inductive bible study. i just had not read this story in quite some time, i suppose.

            but you’re exactly right — it’s very clear. definitely the simplest way for us to understand the text is that God wanted to know that Abraham feared him and would not hold back his son.

  6. Jason Miller

    Dude, Satan has internet access? I wonder if it is ADSL or DSL? Or dial-up? Does he pay? Or is it gratis? The questions, the questions….

  7. this probably sounds nuts, but I’m leaning towards not having my child go through Sunday school at church. I don’t agree with how much of the Bible is presented and I want to have a say in what my child hears. I think I lean towards not exposing them early on, but rather waiting until they can understand the story.

    • charlie, that’s really interesting to me. so does your church have a sunday school time? and do you guys just not go as a family? have teachers been open to tweaking what it is they’re presenting in class — or how? or do they close their ears to your concerns?

    • Erin

      The idea of not exposing your child to church early on frightens me. Proverbs 22:6 says “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

  8. Do you think the parental conversations commanded in Deuteronomy 6 omitted the plagues, Red Sea victory, we-were-scared-of-God-so-we-did-not-want-to-hear-his-voice story, etc.? (I wish some parents I know were as concerned about the stuff their kids are exposed to on TV, movies, video games and the internet.) Impressing the 10 commandments on our children will require some interesting discussions like stealing, murder and adultery.

    Parents are responsible for making these calls. Parents are responsible to God for the calls they make. The worldview our children grow up with will be formed by the stories they eat, drink, sleep and breath. They will be surrounded by stories–that’s a given (contra Satan’s earlier suggestion). What stories will set their worldview? Will they grow up with a strong sense of love? Will they grow up with a strong sense of right and wrong? Stories–the ones you teach because you know them to be fundamentally, irrevocably true–will give them their view of the world. You will give them one, just as your influences gave you one.

    They may choose later to replace those core stories with other stories, but that will only happen as they become aware and believe that these different stories better represent the world. What you include and omit will have a powerful influence. Choose wisely.

    • john, i appreciate what you’re saying. and i was thinking of deuteronomy 6 when i suggested that a worldview might be developed by hearing just such stories. you said, “Impressing the 10 commandments on our children will require some interesting discussions like stealing, murder and adultery,” and i agree. you also stated, “What you include and omit will have a powerful influence. Choose wisely.” you seem to lean towards this being a decision for individual parents to make, but would you offer any advice on how much to include or omit with very young children?

      i realize you’re asking me to think for myself. and i’m asking you to give me an example…

      • The incredible thing about young children is they don’t worry about things that are “over their heads.” They are usually ahead of what parents think they are (at least here in the U.S. when they are in day care and/or school). TV, video games and the internet expose them to issues way too early–in my humble view.

        At twelve Jesus had already grasped much of the Law and the Prophets. His family likely did not own a personal copy, but he had absorbed much from what was read and discussed in the synagogue. I believe Joseph and Mary did exactly what Deuteronomy 6 talks about. It is no wonder Jesus quotes from this passage, years later, when asked what the greatest commandment was.

        Read the Word well. Tell it from memory. Discuss how it shapes your life. When the details raise questions, then you know they are ready to grapple with more of those harder parts.

        Pray for wisdom. Trust the Holy Spirit to guide you in imaging God to your children.

        Hebrews 11 gives us the only biblical commentary on the Abraham offering Isaac story. Abraham demonstrated a faith that God could raise Isaac from the dead. But our problem usually is not with Abraham, it is with God. This story challenges our view of God. We have to make sense of this–what if someone asks us about it.

        We can say, “I don’t know.” We should always say that when we don’t. But maybe it would be better to say, “I don’t know, but if your are really interested, we could study Abraham’s life to see if we can make sense out of it.”

        The thing that always strikes me is God does what he calls Abraham to do. He offers his son as a sacrifice and there is no goat caught in the thicket. That amazes me, especially when I think of how special (one of a kind) he was! But then again, Jesus became my replacement.

        • JLynn

          Very well articulated, John. It DOES raise questions about God. I personally believe that when that happens we should dig into His Word. I know too many people who rely on others’ opinions to get their answers. We need to teach our children to be critical thinkers and how to study scripture for themselves.

        • Erin

          I really appreciate your response; it was well worded and very wise.

  9. I’ve been thinking about this lately myself. My son is only six months old, but he is already so interested in exploring the world. I have always believed in not sheltering children or sugar coating things, but each day I feel a little more of the need to control and balance what he is exposed to, especially during these first 12 to 16 years. Faith is most important, and most difficult, in this regards. More than anything else, it is important that Samuel discover God and find his love in his own life, in his own way; At the same time, what I share with him — or more importantly, what I show him through my lived experiences — concerning my own faith and my understanding of God will matter more than anything else I can hope to impart.

    The Akedah story is an excellent example. As a child, I remember hearing several different interpretations of this story:
    • God was jealous of Abraham’s love for Isaac, so he needed to be sure that Abraham still loved God the most.
    • God wanted Abraham to kill Isaac just because, then he changed his mind. Who can understand God? Just do what feels right.
    • Abraham really wanted to kill Isaac, but God needed to teach him that was not the way to treat your children.

    And the list goes on.

    It’s really a wonder anyone could make it out of some of these Sunday school classes with a healthy worldview and still have a desire to seek out God.

    In April, I wrote my first exegesis paper in seminary on the Akedah, partly because of this tendency to focus on it as a children’s story, and then draw totally off-the-wall theological statements from it; partly because I wanted to study it before I had a son so that, if I have a desire to give it a hard look again down the road, I can compare my own changes in perspective; and partly because it’s just a tough, wonderful text that we will never fully understand.

    (As a side note, I happened to be in the process of reading Fear and Trembling the week that Samuel was born. I spent much of his first week at home reading Kierkegaard aloud in his room to help him get used to my voice and such; I don’t think he really got the message of the text though. If he did, he can explain it to me once he learns to talk.)

    I think reading some of these key stories of the faith to our children is important. I don’t think we should ever teach our children ANYTHING that we will have to unteach once they get old enough to “really handle it.” I don’t know at what point I’ll pull out Genesis 22 for bedtime though. There is much to be gained from Abraham’s story, from the creation narrative, from Noah, from Babel, from Joseph, Moses, Samuel, Saul and David. I look forward to sharing these important stories with my son, but I don’t feel like its necessary to jump right into the most difficult passages of scripture with him before he is even able to read Cat in the Hat for himself. This doesn’t mean that I plan to keep things from him, or to simplify God or ignore the hard parts of life.

    While all of scripture is rich and deep, there are clearly many stories that are easier to understand and deal with than others. These are the ones I plan to start with, not only because it is more comfortable for me as a parent to read and talk about them with my son, but they will also be easier for him to think about and start drawing ideas from on his own. That is the point of parenting, isn’t it? To teach them to think for themselves, to understand how God has moved in the lives of people from history, so that they can better see how he is present in their own lives. If my son can figure out for himself why God wouldn’t want people to waste their lives building a tower to heaven, or how Joseph could love his brothers enough to forgive them, or why Jesus made it a point to stop and get to know the hurting people that others just walked by, then he’ll be better prepared to think about why God would want to flood the Earth, or why killing Egyptian children was the best way to make God’s presence known, or how a man who commits murder and adultery could be the man of God’s own choosing, or why the Lord would tell a faithful servant to raise a knife against his own son.

    I think it’s important to be able to tell our children “I don’t know.” I think a lot of Sunday school teachers are afraid of those words.

    As far as distinguishing Bible stories from other fairy tales, or even insightful fables, I think that will come off naturally with the sincerity and value they see that we place on these stories. I think it is important at times (though not all the time, as I think I’ve already made clear) to point out the important truths and lessons that we, as parents, have drawn from these stories and tell our children how they have affected our lives; don’t just leave drop abstract morals in the air and walk away. That application, and demonstrated sincerity, is what will set the stories of scripture apart from the many, many, other valuable books and stories I plan to share with my son.

    • thank you for your thoughts, david. it’s really helpful to read through another new parent’s thoughts on the subject. i think one of the most important things you mentioned is that we have to learn to be able to tell our children, “i don’t know.” i’ve found myself saying these words quite a bit since moving to tanzania. and it’s one of the best decisions i’ve ever made.

  10. Erica

    My name is Erica and I found you through The Very Worst Missionary because I’ve found that if I’m bored and wanting to find something interesting to read, her commenters are often nice people to visit. 🙂

    Our church (Central Vineyard in Columbus, OH, just so you know our flavor) gave both our kids the Zondervan childrens’ Bible when they were dedicated, and we started seriously reading my daughter the “Jesus stories” (her words) during potty training when we all wound up sitting for hours pants down on the toilet and potty together reading over the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the rest over and over and over in our seemingly never ending quest to praise God by putting our poo-poo where God intended it to go, which is NOT in our underwear.
    Praise GOD she is potty trained.
    And she is not and never has been traumatized by the bizarreness and brokenness of the stories of the people God choses to use in scripture.
    Of course, she’s four now, and we’re still reading that Bible (we love the illustrations. We call it the Super-Jesus Bible, because he’s taking off in a cape when he ascends into heaven. Awesome!) and those stories have prompted plenty of interesting conversations. However, we just let her brother and her take the lead. They let us know what’s puzzling them as we read over the stories again and again (and again, you would not believe how well I know my Bible now) and those are really good conversations.
    So good that when the members of our homegroup recently decided that they wanted to read through Genesis as our next study focus? They decided they wanted to read only the passages chosen by our children’s “Super-Jesus” Bible. We start out each discussion with one of us reading the kiddie version because who doesn’t like a good story? And those are good pictures! And then we go into reading it from a variety of adult translations. It makes for good discussion with adults too.

    I’ve found there’s not so much fear in this as you would think. Go for it. Don’t worry. God’s got your back on this. Really.

    • erica, i’m glad you found the blog. i can only imagine that the blogs of those who comment on “the very worst missionary” would be interesting. i doubt any of them are more real and honest than the vwm, but i’m sure they’re interesting all the same.

      i like your ideas of using the kids’ bible and letting your children determine how deep you go into those stories by the questions they ask.

      even more, i like that your adult bible study group is following the super-Jesus study plan.

      and more than all of those (maybe), i wish my own daughter were potty trained. but we’ve got a while.

      • Erica

        Sorry it took me so long to get back.
        Take hope. Someday? She WILL be potty trained. Oh yes, she will! Someday? My son will be potty trained too … hopefully by my stay-at-home husband before spring break.

        The Bible Study is going well, and as an amusing aside, I found out that we’re not the only ones in town on this course. A high school friend of mine who still worships at my parents’ church is doing the exact same thing with her group. God is so delightfully weird!

        • erica, you’ve returned?! thanks.

          our family has been reading the bible together every morning at breakfast, and i’ve found myself wishing we had a kid’s bible to read from. not that baylor is old enough to really understand it all, but still. i just feel silly reading out loud with her from the niv.

          “God is so delightfully weird.” that’s a good phrase.

  11. Mark

    What about stories we can’t even explain to ourselves like Judges 21 where an entire town is murdered for not showing up at a Census. . .all except the virgins who were taken and basically raped. I am a believer and try to follow Jesus to the best of my ability but lets not pretend that we can wait until our kids are older at which point they will ‘understand’ the stories. Some of these stories seem beyond comprehension. The story is a very violent one. We have to admit this and also admit that there are no simple answers that we can use to ‘get God off the hook’.

    • very true, mark. and (it’s been a while since i wrote this post but i think) that’s kind of what i was struggling with. if i don’t understand the nature of many of these stories — and am at least a little troubled by them from time to time — then when is it appropriate to share them with my daughter? i certainly don’t believe her ability to understand is required; i already teach her of God’s love for her, despite the fact that she can’t possibly understand it (i wonder if i do). but still, i’m not ready to read judges 21 to her…

      good thoughts, and thanks for commenting.

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