Teaching Old Testament Violence to ChildrenBy: Nate
I 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
In 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)
Seeing 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
One 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: making 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?