Reading the Old Testament to Children?

Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month Matthew Schlimm will be discussing how we can approach the Old Testament as a friend in faith, in spite of its strangeness.

*Also, as part of this series we are giving away three copies of This Strange and Sacred Scripture. The winners will be announced at the end of the month, and you can enter here.*

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I remember the first time I tried to tell my oldest child Bible stories. As an Old Testament professor, surely I’d have no difficulty coming up with age-appropriate stories that connected with my four-year-old son.

Let’s see, I thought to myself. Even unchurched kids hear about Noah. But then again I don’t want to get into the whole earth drowning to death. Plus, there’s that whole matter of Noah’s nakedness once he gets off the boat. (See Gen. 6:5-9:29.)

Well, I could talk about Samson. But what would be the take-away value? My son should never get his hair cut? That it’s okay to kill Philistines? (See Judg. 13:24-16:31.)

Cover ArtDavid. There’s a good guy. But he does kill Goliath. And chop off his head (1 Sam. 17). And then there’s the whole matter of him having sex with Bathsheba and him killing her husband (2 Sam. 11-12) and, good grief, I need to look elsewhere.

There’s Abraham. But he does lie repeatedly (Gen. 12; 20), have sex with his wife’s slave (Gen. 16), and have weird encounters with God that involve things like a smoking oven moving between bisected animals (Gen. 15).

Who else? Moses. But Moses kills a man (Exod. 2:11-15). And I don’t want my toddler to hear about slavery (Exod. 1:8-14). And all those plagues. I could just imagine my son hearing the sound of rain and needing to double-check that it wasn’t frogs (Exod. 8:1-15).

I eventually gave up on coming up with something on my own. I stuck to the G-rated children’s Bibles that my son had.

But questions remain. What do we do with all these crazy Old Testament stories? Why don’t any of them seem appropriate for children? Why do children’s Bibles need to censor so much!?

While writing This Strange and Sacred Scripture, I came across a quote that Bruno Bettelheim wrote while discussing classic fairy tales:

“Many parents believe that only conscious reality or pleasant and wish-fulfilling images should be presented to children—that they should be exposed only to the sunny side of things. But such one-sided fare nourishes the mind only in a one-sided way, and real life is not all sunny.”

Bettelheim makes these comments, observing that fairy tales speak of horrid happenings. When wolves aren’t demolishing homes, they’re swallowing grandmothers whole. Bettelheim’s point is that fairy tales’ disturbing content can actually be helpful. They prepare children for the threats and dangers the world presents.

The Bible doesn’t talk about big bad wolves. It talks about a big bad humanity. But maybe kids need to learn about that. Perhaps not when they’re four years old. But my son, for example, is now ten. And we recently set out to read 1 Samuel before bedtime. We’ve encountered some pretty messed up stuff, like what Eli’s sons do at the meeting tent (1 Sam. 2:12-25). But I said to him, “How do you think that made God feel?”

“Bad,” he replied.

“Right,” I answered. “So let’s see what God does in the future when people are that disrespectful of God’s house.” As we read on, we talked about how God’s house stopped being at Shiloh. God moved elsewhere.

My son is into it. He’s learned that religious leaders can do evil things—and God opposes those things. In a world filled with scandals, that’s a good message for him to know.

And maybe when he’s older, he’ll be better equipped for the harsh realities that life no doubt will present to him. If he one day learns of a pastor who does something awful, maybe he’ll emerge with his faith intact. I want him to know that the Bible is God’s gift to us not only in peaceful moments when everything comes together, but also in disturbing times when everything falls to pieces.

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Matthew Richard Schlimm

Matthew Richard Schlimm (PhD, Duke University) is assistant professor of Old Testament at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He previously taught at Duke Divinity School and has held various ministry positions in United Methodist churches. He is the author of From Fratricide to Forgiveness: The Language and Ethics of Anger in Genesis and coeditor of the CEB Study Bible.