Monday, November 26, 2007

bedtime bible stories

Let me caution parents against reading Bibles with their children if they think it's going to be all peaches and ice cream. There's sweets in there, but there's a few rocks to be found too.

Like many children's Bibles, the one we’re reading with Rachel right now streamlines the accounts of Scripture so you don’t encounter situations like reading the story of Jesus four times in a row, or reading about the history of the kingdom from David to the Exile, and then starting it all over again. And like other children's Bibles, it also makes sure kids get the officially proper understanding of the story, not quite to the point of Mary saying, "Oh, Joseph, I feel so happy that our baby will take all our sins on himself and save us from the fires of hell by dying in our place!" but it’s still got a few unnecessary whetstones to sharpen its point. (Strange we think that so necessary when the Scriptures themselves don't have that degree of polemic.)

But at least it’s (mostly) tolerable. It’s no Prayer of Jabez or Rhema Bible College children's Bible, and though it adds a few details to make the story more interesting, they at least appear to be historically accurate and provide the bonus information preachers usually provide in their sermons. I have one children's Bible that used to be my mother's, with a very definite colonialist bent. It actually says that Nimrod pleased God because he went out and conquered the superstitious peoples of the world. Um, yeah.

For Evangeline, we read the actual Bible. So far we've read Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Esther, Daniel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts, more or less in their entirety. (We skipped the genealogies in 2 Chronicles, the law part of Exodus, and some of the more graphic stuff in Judges.)

As a result, bedtime Bible reading with Evangeline has been an education and a half by itself. We've read stuff I think many people don't read with their children, or at all. We've wrestled together with the story of Jephthah and his decision to offer his daughter as a human sacrifice to God, and concluded together that while God may indeed have appointed Jephthah to lead the Israelites in war against the Moabites, only an idiot would think that he was qualified to be a spiritual leader as well. And that led us in turn to a discussion of leadership and authority, and how God sometimes will give people authority in one area but not in another, and how we should stop and evaluate whether their leadership in a second area really is valid. (I was thinking of our president in some nebulous way, and of preachers who tell their parishioners how to vote, more specifically.)

We just started Nehemiah last Tuesday night, after finishing the book of Ezra on Monday, and I found myself wondering at the sharp differences in the writing style between Ezra/Nehemiah and the other historyish books in the Tanakh. The books from Genesis through 2 Chronicles have a very clear sense of God as a participant in history. The authors ascribe words and motivations to God for what happens, and there's a sense of wonder and awe about God that permeates, and develops through, the books. In Ezra and Nehemiah, the books read more like the sort of thing you would find in a Christian bookstore or hear during testimonials night. "The hand of God was upon us," the writer says as an explanation for why things worked out well. God is more removed in these books than elsewhere in the entire Tanakh, with the exception of the Esther, where he's not even mentioned. (Though at least that book is so well structured that you get a sense of God's involvement as the plot progresses.)

In all honesty, Ezra and Nehemiah aren't books about God’s dealings with Israel as much as they're books about having a proper nationalist spirit, and why other peoples shouldn't mess with the Jews. The one begins with the reconstruction of the Temple and ends with the exiles purging themselves of all the unclean Gentile women and half-breed children they've polluted themselves with; and the other is about the city of Jerusalem itself and the efforts to repair the damage inflicted a century previous, by Nebuchadnezzar. It's been a while since I read Nehemiah, but if memory serves, it also ends with some sort of purging. The chapter we read Friday night has Nehemiah flipping out over 1 percent interest being charged against fellow Jews on loans.

Anyway, Evangeline is asking all the questions you'd expect her to, the questions that simultaneously make you want to cheer her on because it shows she's thinking, and tell her to stop being so difficult because they show you that you haven't been thinking enough.

For instance: Ezra is beside himself with grief that the exiles have married non-Jewish women and actually had children with them, and he convinces the people that in order to be right with God, they have to divorce all these foreign wives and send away both them and their children. That's horrible, and I found myself cheered immensely when I read that there were two clans that refused to comply.

Evangeline, naturally enough, wanted to know why they did this. So I gave the traditional explanation that the Jewish people were meant to be a unique people, possessed not only of the knowledge of the One God but of a special relationship with him that required keeping themselves separate from the pagan peoples around them. Why? Well, because if they married people with other religious beliefs, they might be led to worship other gods, their children might, or the worship of the Lord could be mixed up with the worship of other gods.

"Solomon did that," Evangeline said.

"True, but look at how it worked out for him," I said, thinking of Solomon’s idolatry.

"Yeah, but he did it to keep peace."

And from there she made the leap to interfaith marriage today, wondering what was wrong with it if both people believed in God.

What she didn't ask, and to be honest, I was grateful for it, was why if Ezra did the wrong thing, the book doesn't make it sound like he did. I mean, let’s be honest: 21st-century Christian sensibilities aside, the point of the book is that Ezra did do the right thing by demanding that everyone get rid of their non-Jewish family members. There's no voice from heaven saying "Straight up!," and Christians like to use that as silence as evidence of God’s disapproval (and by extension, of his support for our strong pro-marriage stands), but the implication of the book is that this was the appropriate response.

Tuesday night she asked why it was such a big deal to repair the Temple, since we can worship God anywhere. Again, I gave her the traditional explanations about God's Name inhabiting the Temple, and Jesus' death changing everything, but at the same time, I was aware of the deficiencies of the explanation. The Israelites worshiped God at any number of shrines before Solomon built the Temple, and he was fine with that then; and he’s fine with it now, and I was starkly aware of how many inconsistent doctrines of God and dispensationalist thinking I've picked up over the years.

To be honest, I deserve this. I keep telling my children that wisdom lies in the questions you ask, and not in the answers you give, and I encourage them to ask tough questions in church. So it's only fair that they hold my feet to the fire too.


Liadan said...

I love that you not only encourage her to ask questions, you don't give her answers you don't have. I really wish I'd had that when I was little.

marauder said...

That is something I need to do more of. Instead of just relating "the traditional explanation" and mentally ruminating on its weaknesses, I really should be relaying those weaknesses to her, and encouraging her to find an explanation that satisfies her.