Teaching Old Testament Violence to Children

By: Nate
March 12, 2014

childrenfightingI teach Old Testament to the 7-8 year olds.  Sometimes I wonder if I should really be teaching them about the bloodthirsty Jehovah of the Bible.  How much should I emphasize Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt, the wicked being burned, the righteous being saved, Moses slaughtering thousands those who built the golden calf?  However, taking inspiration from the violence in the original Grimm fairy tales, I decided to see if my kids could handle an unedited account of Old Testament violence.  Sure enough, the kids seemed to accept this wrathful God without any dilemma or questioning.

The Violent Nature of Children

pulling girls hairIn my experience children seem to be obsessed with justice.  They constantly scream about fairness, and they don’t shy away from using violence to accomplish their aims.  When adults argue about things, they rarely throw things, hit or bite each other.  But this is the natural state of children.  It is a bit ironic that we try to shield children from violent movies.   They could easily stomach violence, if it is in the service of justice, like Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds for example.   That film was written to the maturity level of a child.  Violence is immature, peace is mature.

Children are instinctual creatures, reacting solely to their emotions, without much ability to “bridle their passions.”  While it is true that children can sometimes show great love and compassion, you will frequently find that they are using that love in a desperate attempt to get attention.  They can be surprisingly astute masters of manipulation.  All these traits are manifest from a very early age, even before the age of accountability at 8 years.

The Bible as a Symbol of the Journey from Child (Old Testament) to Adult (New Testament)

AngryGodSeeing just how naturally children accept the wrathful God of the Old Testament, and witnessing their own violence, made me wonder if the Old Testament can be read as symbolic of childhood, and the New Testament as symbolic of maturity.  Jesus said, “It is written, and eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but I say unto you love your enemies.”  This is the constant refrain of teachers on the playground, who try to get children to forgive those who have stolen toys from them.

Paul said, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”  As a “child,” Paul was a proponent of the Law of Moses, and as a “mature adult” he was a proponent of Christ.  The Law of Moses treats people like children, giving them clearly delineated boundaries and simplistic obedience paradigms: obedience=blessed, disobedience=cursed.  But the Law of Christ encompasses paradoxes, justice and mercy, wheat and tares, etc.  These are also basic nuances that all adults must learn as they move away from the innocence of childhood into the complexities of maturity.  This also seems to be the journey of civilizations more generally, as they move away from gruesome public executions and imperialistic warfare, towards a more peaceful, democratic society of reciprocal empathy.

Why We Need the Old Testament: Wendy Watson’s Not Even Once

4375One might ask, if children are naturally inclined to justice and enforcing it with violence, why would we want to emphasize this in the Old Testament?  Shouldn’t we start trying to get them to subdue their natural instincts by emphasizing Christ’s forgiveness?

That is a question I have struggled with.  Yes, it is extremely important to emphasize Christ from the beginning.  But I think that Christ’s forgiveness can’t be properly understood without understanding the immutability of the Law.  Christ doesn’t destroy the law, he fulfills it.  He doesn’t make it obsolete, he overcomes it.  After Christ, sin is no less serious, nor are the consequences any less dire.  Understanding the wrathful Jehovah helps us appreciate just how merciful and sacrificial Christ was, to offer himself as a ransom on our behalf.

Additionally, I think it is useful to understand the Old Testament from its own perspective.  If children are taught that Jehovah smote Uziah for touching the ark, then they will be appropriately struck by Jesus’ phrase, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  We must set the children up for paradox, as this is the fundamental nature of life and religion.  We should allow children to be challenged by Jesus, not just to be indoctrinated.  Jesus is asking children to transcend their very nature, their very understanding of God and justice, just as He asked His own followers to transcend their understanding of the Law.

Wendy Watson’s Not Even Once is fundamentally an Old Testament view of religion: noteven-oncemaking oaths never to disobey, upon fear disasterous consequences.  This book provoked a backlash, because it didn’t include Christ.  But most of the Old Testament doesn’t include Christ either, yet we read and study those books regularly.  My view is that Not Even Once can be an important addition to children’s pedagogy, because it is an appropriate expression of Old Testament orthodoxy.  If this orthodoxy is well understood, then the contradiction with New Testament grace can be more fully appreciated.

The Bible is not a comprehensive treatise on the fulness of the gospel.  Rather, it is a disjointed hodgepodge of stories and teachings from diverse prophets and spiritual leaders who all understood God in different ways.  We do the Bible a disservice by trying to edit it into something cohesive.  Let the Bible speak for itself, and let children come to their own understanding of it piece by piece as they mature into adults.


  • Should we edit some of the violence in the Old Testament when teaching children?
  • How much should we emphasize the Law, and how much should we emphasize Christ’s mercy?


20 Responses to Teaching Old Testament Violence to Children

  1. Carly Phillips on March 12, 2014 at 10:33 AM

    Of course you soften it when teaching young kids but at the same time it is scripture and the Bible is Not fairytales, which even there contain monsters, wicked witches etc, these accounts are real though and its important that the kids you teach know them also as well as the accounts which are sunnier. . So yes you can get the point across ( use the Friend, Primary Manuals for help on this) and make it so its still told but in a gentler way- leaving the lesson on postive note as possible. Explain in terms they can understand why things had to be done . If kids dont learn about consquesnces of disobeying God’s law they will not know there are consquences and that is a very important concept to know and understand the scriptures taught at their level is a excellent source not only for us but tor them to know this and so they can remember when faced with their own situations.

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  2. Mormon Heretic on March 12, 2014 at 11:51 AM

    I have to say that much of the Old Testament seems to teach quite questionable morals, and I think we shouldn’t teach it to either adults or children in the way that we do. I think that the Old Testament represents a primitive view of God. The wrathful God was how the ancients explained the unexplainable: the flood. While we call floods, hurricanes, earthquakes “acts of God”, in reality, they are just natural occurrences that God allows. God doesn’t cause earthquakes or hurricanes, but he allows them. The primitive mind misconstrues “acts of God”, and I think it is high time we start disavowing the morally questionable ones (such as human sacrifice in the Abraham story.)

    There are other interpretations of Abraham that I find much more compelling, such as using Abraham as breaking the cycle of child abuse, or that Abraham was deceived and an angel stopped him from human sacrifice. I personally find the idea that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son as HUGELY problematic, and it is much easier to digest that Abraham simply misunderstood God and an angel saved him from performing human sacrifice. That is a much more compelling and inspiring story, IMO. It does seem that the prophet Jeremiah, when confronting human sacrifice among his people, used Abraham to say that it was a story in which human sacrifice is abominable before God, rather than God would command such a revolting thing.

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  3. Douglas on March 12, 2014 at 12:24 PM

    #2 – To accept the traditional view that Abraham was commanded to slay his son Issac and offer him up as a sacrifice, does, IMHO, imply that “Gawd” was screwing around with Abraham (and likely Issac, who may have indeed been at least an adolescent and perfectly capable of resisting or at least running away if he thought the old boy had gone off his rocker…). Assuming that the commandment to slay Issac was genuinely of the Lord at least implies that the story was rather exceptional. Of course, Issac, in that role, would be what the scriptorians call a “type” of Christ. This might have been the best way to teach this principle to the man who would be “father of many nations”.

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  4. Hedgehog on March 12, 2014 at 12:44 PM

    #1 Of course fairy tales have been continually softened, even since I was child. The versions I grew up with Red Riding Hood’s gran was eaten by the wolf, the first two Little Pigs were eaten by the wolf, the Little Mermaid became foam on the waves, the girl with red shoes had to cut her feet off to stop dancing. My grandfather gave my sister and I an old and seriously gruesome book of Grims fairy tales. I don’t think I ever finished it, but the story of the girl who was bathed in boiling water, boiling milk and boiling oil (should have been dead 3 times over) is forever seared into my memory, and is horrifically disfunctional (thanks grandad!), because the ‘prince’ had been bewitched… I don’t even want to think what the message in that story was meant to be. And then my school reading book at age 6 contained the delightful fairy tale of the Hobyahs, which I later came across in a classic collection of English fairy tales, in which the horrid old couple get taken away by the Hobyahs having night after night ignored the warnings of their pet dog (and punished it by chopping bits off each night until it could warn them no longer).

    I think a bit of context is important in telling these stories, though I have known primary children to relish the tale of Ammon chopping off arms.

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  5. Sue on March 12, 2014 at 1:19 PM

    I to teach 8 year old’s the Old Testament. I love teaching them and I love teaching them in the “Come Follow Me” format. It allows me to teach the kids with lots of flexibility and guidance from the spirit. I am more aware of the kids needs and try to adapt my lessons to meet those kids needs. I have them get in front of the room and teach what they think something means. They are really smart and capable of learning. It is the principles taught in the story that I think can be brought out showing how much God loves us all. We can study the time periods and see how culture has played into some of their thinking. I try to study lots and answer their questions.

    I do think that the Old Testament is a physical or child-like spiritual law and as we journey into the New Testament we grow-up. Today we can live either law depending on how grown-up we feel like being. I think we all grow at different levels and we all have to start somewhere. What matters is the direction and faith in the journey.

    Your thoughts are many of what I have been pondering as I have studied as well. Thanks!

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  6. Chris on March 12, 2014 at 4:31 PM

    I read the entire Bible each year (the gospels several times) and perhaps my view of the Old Testament is different than yours. If God truly is the same yesterday, today, and forever, the God of the Old Testament is the same God that we discover in the New Testament, although the law of Moses was fulfilled with the death and Atonement of Jesus Christ. I see God as a magnificent, glorious Creator who sets a high standard for his children (Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament and levitical laws in the Old Testament), who pleads with His children to obey Him, and who is merciful with those that make mistakes, which includes almost everyone in the Old and New Testament, including Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Noah, David, Peter, Paul, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, etc. The Bible is a book about imperfect people being made whole through the mercy and power of Jesus Christ. As a consider the strengths and weaknesses of those who are portrayed in Scripture, it gives me hope that I, too, am loved and valued by God.

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  7. Jettboy on March 12, 2014 at 4:34 PM

    Its nice to know that the Jewish Scriptures, that doesn’t have Jesus Christ or the New Testament, is nothing more than questionable morals and violence. Of course, modern Jews have for the most part rejected their own religion or tried to downplay it as the Word of God.

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  8. Nate on March 12, 2014 at 5:25 PM

    Excellent point Jettboy. It is the liberal Jews that are keeping the peace in Israel and holding back the Zionists and Orthodox from further violence and persecution of the Palestinians. Orthodox Jews go to the Western Wall and recite the curses from the book of Psalms upon their enemies that are worshiping above them at the Dome of the Rock. Muslims don’t recite curses upon their enemies as part of their prayers, but they also have a Mosaic inflexibility in their doctrine. Without the New Testament, you have to ask yourself: wouldn’t the Jews be better off without even the Old Testament? That’s a question I don’t have an answer for.

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  9. Nate on March 12, 2014 at 7:32 PM

    MH, your view is very appealing, and I’ve thought of adopting it myself. However, I don’t want to limit God’s expression of Himself to only those ways I personally find morally palatable.

    Like Chris says, God is the same today, yesterday, and forever. Yet He acts extremely differently at different times. For me, this doesn’t mean God Himself was different back then, but rather that He perhaps operates in a much more expansive way than we imagine, perhaps on different dimensions.

    Violence is inherent in the creation. His animal kingdom is filled with violence. God sent His son down to embrace a fulness of that violence on the cross. In Christianity, we are redeemed through human sacrifice, same as any other barbaric tribe.

    Modern man understands violence as a bad thing, even an evil thing. But ancient men did not have that understanding. Violence was ritual. Violence was participation in the creation, and participation WITH the Creator. Why wouldn’t God have worked naturally within that paradigm, given that God created a world filled with so much natural violence, indeed, a world whose very diversity and wonder relies upon the violence inherent in survival of the fittest?

    We should not let God off the hook for “acts of God” as you call them. The Book of Job places the responsibility for the violence to Job squarely on God’s shoulders (apart from the strange introduction which implicates Satan.) When Job complains, God has no answer for him, other than to wow him with His glory in the laviathan and the bohemeth. God does not need to answer. Who are you to question God in His glory?

    So it is a mystery. I don’t think we should eliminate the mysteries of God, and the mystery of violence and suffering is one of the greatest mysteries of all.

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  10. Jettboy on March 12, 2014 at 9:20 PM

    Nate, and you have no sense of anti-semitism in what you just said? You know, the religion that has been around for thousands of years and persecuted in much of that time using the same excuses you just laid out. I believe God is a loving and merciful being. I also believe He is a violent and judgemental being to those who deserve (according to His righteousness) wrath. The Book of Revelation is in the New Testament as well, and Jesus didn’t exactly teach roses and unicorns for those who he called unrepentant sinners.

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  11. katerp on March 12, 2014 at 10:40 PM

    My 12 yr old son left the church after a lesson on God killing all the first born sons who had nothing to do with the political situation going on.His teacher couldn’t give him a good explanation to the unfairness that was apparent to my son. I couldn’t explain it either in a way he thought was fair. Fairness is very important to kids. Haven’t they learned that people are responsible for their own sins and not the sins of others?

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  12. Nate on March 13, 2014 at 8:04 AM

    Katerp, your experience gives me pause. Like Sue said, the most important thing is to try and follow the Spirit, and perhaps in many cases, editing may be a good idea.

    The militant atheist Richard Dawkins proposed that every child be required to read the Bible in school, so that they could clearly see just how inhumane it really is, and thus give up religion. The problem with that is that religious people have been reading the Bible for centuries, and most of them are not giving up on religion. Why is that? Why don’t more people leave?

    I think the answer is that the scriptures are more than just a collection of eccentric factoids about God’s dealings with ancient people. The scriptures are the “bread of life.” They are portals to a personal experience with the divine. People don’t really read the Bible for information. They read it for spiritual connection. The facts inside it are secondary to that spiritual connection.

    So ultimately I think that a teacher, like the teacher who taught your son, should think about how to bring the Word of God that it might be written upon the hearts of their students. The story of the deliverance of the Israelites is tribal and inhumane when read as mere literal history. But when it is read as symbolic of God’s deliverance of every soul, then it can have a connection.

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  13. Jeff Spector on March 13, 2014 at 10:11 AM


    “Additionally, I think it is useful to understand the Old Testament from its own perspective.”

    This is the most important point. The Church tends to try to shove the Gospel into it and most folks try to shove their modern views into the narrative without the proper context.

    In spite of what most seem to think, most Jews do not dwell on the acts themselves as much as they do the learning about God and what He expects from us as His children.

    What is clear to me is that the Old Testament is a history of trying to God’s children to accept Him as Their God and Father and to accept His teachings and commandments in order to prepare them to receive the Savior.

    If you really think about it, in spite of some of the extremes we read in the Old Testament, it is really about our own struggle to keep the commandments and live a good life.

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  14. Mormon Heretic on March 13, 2014 at 12:20 PM

    “God is the same today, yesterday, and forever. Yet He acts extremely differently at different times.”

    No, these 2 statements contradict each other. I too believe God is the same today, yesterday, and forever. Man’s understanding of God is the thing that is different. Man has falsely ascribed wrath to a loving God. That’s why I reject many of the acts ascribed to God. A Hurricane is not God’s wrath, it is a natural event.

    The glory of God is intelligence, it is not re-telling the same primitive understanding of ancient stories. We constantly learn. We shouldn’t be relying on poor explanations of God. The ancient prophets in the Bible said the earth was flat and could be rolled up as a scroll. We’ve moved beyond that. We need to move beyond traditional explanations of Abraham because otherwise it makes us sound as stupid as if we think the world is flat. Believing the world is flat or that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son is just plain stupid. Yet the Catholic Church jailed Galileo for saying the earth was not the center of the universe because the Bible clearly said that. Let go of stupid explanations, or you sound like you’re echoing flat-earth theories. God would never ask a man to kill his son. We would lock up anyone as mentally ill who did such a thing. The miracle in the Abraham story is that God FINALLY prevented a human sacrifice, whereas he has permitted way too much murder in the past. Any other explanation is unintelligent.

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  15. Nate on March 13, 2014 at 12:34 PM

    MH, I would say that a hurricane is not God’s wrath, but it is nevertheless God’s hand. I don’t like really believe much in the emotional God, the “God who weeps” etc. I think those are natural anthropomorphic assumptions we make to try to understand God.

    But God is mysterious, and He does strange things, contradictory things. How do you explain all the suffering in the world, including the suffering of innocents and animals? Suffering which has no merit? Life filled with so much loss, so much waste, so much darkness?

    I like the Old Testament dimension because it rounds out the Creator into something which includes a dark side, an innexplicable side, however immaturely articulated, a dark side which we see inherent in His creation today.

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  16. Mormon Heretic on March 13, 2014 at 12:51 PM

    “How do you explain all the suffering in the world, including the suffering of innocents and animals?”

    Much of the suffering in the world is man-caused. The suffering in Syria is man-caused. The suffering in war-torn Africa is man-caused. The suffering of drug addicts is man-caused. The suffering in Ethiopia was the result of warring factions preventing food distribution during a famine. Man tried to help, but other evil men prevented that help.

    “Suffering which has no merit? ” It is not of God.

    “I like the Old Testament dimension because it rounds out the Creator into something which includes a dark side…”

    This is not God. I see nothing to like about the “dark side of God.” Are you confusing him with Darth Vader?

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  17. Ken on March 13, 2014 at 2:42 PM


    God cannot murder or he would cease to be God. As our creator, he can and does call people home by ending thier mortal existence. That is his right as a supreme being. As mentioned in Helaman, he does bring about death, terror and famine to humble his children.

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  18. Nate on March 13, 2014 at 4:06 PM

    MH and Ken, I’m not talking about that kind of suffering. I’m talking about the God that ordained that the cat should play with the mouse. The world is filled with the unspeakable pains and terrors of innocent animals children who die before the age of accountability, unable to derive any “humility” or growth from the experience. If the purpose of suffering is only that the wicked may spread misery, and the righteous may be humbled, what of all the other suffering that doesn’t fall into this category?

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  19. Mormon Heretic on March 13, 2014 at 6:55 PM

    Nate, I don’t think God inflicts polio, or cancer, or anything else upon man, and I think such assumptions that God inflicts cancer upon us (an “act of God”) are of a primitive mind. I think God is not an interventionist God. He doesn’t get involved in our daily lives. (Else why wouldn’t he stop Rwandan genocide, or the war in Syria, or a myriad of other atrocities.) His appearances (ala the First VIsion) are unusual. He lets things happen to us. He doesn’t give us cancer, he allows us to get cancer. Some of us derive spiritual benefit from that cancer. Some of us don’t.

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  20. […] Old Testament: Since the CoJCoL-dS is on the OT segment of the 4-year study cycle, even kids get to learn the wonderful morals found within! And naturally we had our Godless Doctrine lesson in which the […]

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