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by Rebecca Koerselman
Have you ever read the Bible to a child? Or teens? If so, how do you manage the dicey bits?
Our two-year-old daughter especially enjoys the pictures of The Jesus Storybook Bible. We decided to read this version of the Bible to her at nighttime because, frankly, she does not pay attention very well when we do our more adult-level family devotions after dinner. Now that we have read through the whole storybook Bible, it is clear that pictures are central to our daughter’s interest in the Bible.
This book that we read to our daughter is not an actual Bible. It is a sanitized version of the Bible, appropriate for children. It contains a select number of stories that often paraphrase or quote specific parts of the Bible. It also connects each story to our need for Jesus to rescue us. It is a simplified message for younger children to understand.
But this raises some interesting questions. Does the Bible need to be sanitized for young listeners/readers? And if so, what is the difference between sanitizing and cutting out or ignoring the parts that are uncomfortable for adults and youth? Should we be editing God’s word? If so, where do we start and stop? Thomas Jefferson famously cut out all the references to Christ’s divinity or any miraculous signs and wonders that did not fit into his worldview based on the human ability to reason.
When I was in elementary school, my Bible teacher did something I will never forget. As students, we were reading through the book of Genesis and took turns reading a few verses at a time. It was the story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel (a complicated story, even by today’s standards) and the part about Laban pursing Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. When Laban came to Rachel’s tent searching for the household gods that Rachel had stolen from him, Genesis 31:35 reads, “Rachel said to her father, ‘Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.’ So he searched but could not find the household gods.” While we were reading this passage, a student started reading verse 35 and got to “I’m having my,” when my teacher called out for the student to stop. “That’s a bad word,” she said. So of course, we all looked very carefully at that passage to see what was so bad about it. We then picked up with the next verse and kept reading. No explanation. No discussion.
I do not tell this story to throw shade on my elementary school Bible teacher. She was (and is) a wonderful woman that I respect. I learned a great deal from her about the Bible and many other subjects. But the story always stuck with me because it illustrated the difficulty of explaining the dicey bits of the Bible to young people. Setting aside the gendered implications of equating a “period” with a “bad word” (that is a post for another time), I remember thinking, “why is this bad and if it is in the Bible, what does that mean?” Surely my Bible teacher was one of the best people to explain why this was in the Bible and how we should understand stories like this? My elementary-age mind certainly could not figure it out on my own and I was too embarrassed (or found too many social/peer-related consequences) to ask about it.
The Bible is full of dicey bits. From the mountain of foreskins to polygamy, to sleeping with maidservants, prostitutes, Jael and her trusty tent stake, circumcision, brothers raping sisters, Noah getting drunk and naked, the laws in Leviticus, a virgin birth, Solomon’s partners, and all that business with Lot and angels in Sodom and Gomorrah, frankly there is a lot of R-rated material. How do we encourage our children and youth to read the Bible, yet help them to understand the tricky parts? And some of the deeper implications are quite troubling. If all of that is in the Bible, why are Christians so outspoken about protecting our young people from the harmful influences of the culture we live in, yet often ignore or refuse to discuss and explain the dicey bits in life or in the Bible to our kids?
Now, to be fair, I do not recall if my teacher discussed Jacob’s multiple wives, or sleeping with various maidservants to produce children. My guess is that we did not discuss it and perhaps my teacher just hoped no one would ask too many questions about it. But isn’t it people like my faithful elementary Bible teacher who should be the ones to help explain the difficult passages in the Bible? Wouldn’t she be the best qualified person to help me understand? I trusted her, she was a good teacher and very knowledgeable. And if not her (or other Sunday School teachers, parents, youth leaders, Bible teachers, catechism teachers, mentors, elders, etc.), then who?
Maybe the story of Laban and Jacob does not work great for a felt board (a felt board joke shout out!) Sunday School lesson. But does that mean we should never discuss it? It is in the Bible, and kids are probably reading it and may or may not understand it. I am not saying the story of Dinah is necessarily appropriate for a children’s message in church on a Sunday morning. Or a skit (the horror). At the very least, adults should be able to take the time to carefully explain the difficult stories in a kind and caring way and with the right level of appropriateness. Ignoring the dicey bits or pretending they do not exist sets a dangerous precedent.
Then again, I don’t recall the last time I heard adults discussing the dicey bits with each other. If we can’t even talk about the difficult parts of scripture with other adult Christians, what then?
Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.
I love this story Rebecca. . . your reflection is kind and thoughtful too. The story reminds me of my second grade teacher’s take on Rahab. We had a bible “lesson” every day in school and when I heard about Rahab the harlot, I asked what a harlot was. After a tiny pause, my teacher said, “Oh, she’s the kind of woman, who if she lived today, would smoke.” I always pictured Rahab with a Virginia Slims after that.
Goodness me! My master’s adviser told a story about a Sunday School teacher from her past that said if you were still a virgin when you arrived in Heaven, you received a very special crown. And we wonder why some kids that grow up in the church have some hang-ups about the church 🙂
Thanks for this, Rebecca. It made me remember the first time I read the story of Samson and Delilah with “adult” eyes. The biblical text was quite different than the flannel board (another shout out!) stories I remembered.
Thanks for another flannel board shout out, Sara
Loved the article. Really well said.
Glad you liked it, Micki!
I always kind of regretted learning the “sanitized” versions of Bible stories as a kid because as an adult, I felt like I had confidence that I knew the story but when I re-read them, I obviously did not. I also have recently found this book/website that addresses this issue in a slightly crass but kind of humoroous way: http://www.awkwardmomentsbible.com/
Thanks, Josh, for sharing. I guess the question is, at what point should young people start reading the actual Bible instead of the sanitized versions?
Hi Rebecca! Your blog post reminded me of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and other myths and folk tales that were often told to children in other centuries. They were often gruesome and, pardon the pun, grim. Ive heard it argued that these tales had the benefit of preparing children for a difficult, sometimes dark, and ambiguous world as adults.
Is it possible, that the stories from the bible can and have served the same purpose until recently? Think of all the people who learned to read from the bible. They survived their childhoods (at least some did) by being exposed to the stories.
I’m not a parent, and I would argue that there are many areas of a child’s life that are sanitized in current culture. Children are driven to and from school; have arranged play dates; and rarely are left only with only their imagination at their disposal. I grew up playing in the forest, running up and down rivers, trying to build rafts out of floating logs, swinging on rope swings, and introducing myself to new kids in the neighborhood. I walked to and from school and usually to my friends’ houses.
I didn’t read the dicey parts of the bible at least until I was 18 (that “Songs of Solomon”… Wow!), the least dicey part of my childhood was running around in the woods, as home life emulated some of the darkest fairy tales. And yet, I survived and thrived. Knees a little skinned, but still here.
And…I TOTALLY loved the felt boards! Always wanted my own.
Absolutely! Sanitized, censored, and protected. Does that really help our youth manage in the real world? Great to hear from you, Deon!
Great to “see” you too!