Why I Don't Read Old Testament Stories to My Kids

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If there were Grammys for small town libraries, ours would clean house. It has life-size building blocks, dress-up sets, hand puppets and a reading nook with a real loft. Come to think of it, I have never seen kids actually read in the reading nook, only push and scream in the reading nook. Some people’s kids… tsk tsk.

With one million children living in our house, it is nearly impossible to assess every book before it follows them home from the playland/library. During reading time one afternoon, one of the smalls thrust a hefty, yellow book in my hands. Isn’t it sweet when they want to read about Jesus? Only this Bible story book wasn’t just about the Messiah and his posse, it included Moses and his. Only this Bible story book didn’t just have a sweet little picture on every page, it was fully illustrated. Using LEGO.

In that moment, I remembered why I steer my kids towards the New Testament.

You have probably already noticed the square block rating on the back of your Bible. It isn’t G-rated, is it? The Bible boasts a solid R rating. Not because it is bad, but because it is written for a mature audience. The stories were recorded for various reasons and not one of them includes coloring pages or action figures. Not that those things are inappropriate in every setting, just that Sunday School children were not the intended audience.

Are many of the Bible’s stories adaptable for young kids? Absolutely. Jesus healing a blind man with mud and feeding crowds with a kid’s lunch box are relevant and interesting stories for our kids. Much of the New Testament is kid-friendly and PG-rated.

But just because we read the stories of Jesus to our kids doesn’t mean we must also read the stories of pillaging and destruction, disasters, rape, cutting off private parts, or death by stoning to our kids.

We can give bite-sized, age-appropriate pieces of Black Panther to our first-graders without allowing them to experience all the intensity of the two hour movie. In the same way, we can give our young kids age-appropriate pieces of the ways of God without allowing them to experience the R rated sections of the Bible.

Observation #1: The stories in the OT are violent.

There is an abundance of killings, murders, and even genocide mentioned in those pages. Bloody battles and laws about who should be killed and how. Warriors die violently, but so also do women, children, and babies. The people of God are sometimes the ones killed and other times the ones doing the killing.

Let’s look at some classic Bible stories from the OT:

The Flood (Genesis 7-8): the drowning of all humans, save eight.
Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22): a father intending to stab his son to death.
The Fall of Jericho (Joshua 6): a city collapses on itself and its citizens are killed with swords.
David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17): a boy knocks over a giant and cuts off his head with a sword.
The Ten Plagues (Exodus 7-11): disasters of insects, darkness, blood and destruction end with an angel of God killing all the oldest sons in the country.
Elijah and the Prophets of Baal (I Kings 18): self-mutilation and the killing of false prophets.
The Fiery Furnace (Daniel 3): three men are tied up and tossed into a blazing fire to die.

If these adventures were found any where else, would we tell them to our kids? Even if there is a happy ending to the story, we understand that content is just as important as conclusion for little ears.

Observation #2: The ways of God are complicated.

As we look back through those OT stories, much of the violence is recorded as coming from God’s own hand or sanctioned by him. “God wiped out every living thing on the earth- people, livestock, small animals that scurry along the ground and the birds of the sky. All were destroyed” (Genesis 7:23, NLT). God ordered Abraham to kill his own son and it was God who decided that the first-borns of Egypt would die in their sleep.

If we are completely honest, there is much in the scriptures that we grown-ups don’t fully understand. The man stoned to death for collecting firewood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36) and God’s people having their noses and ears cut off as punishment (Ezekiel 23:22-27), for example. Rules that seem to devalue women (Deuteronomy 22:13-29) and psalms that beg God to “consume [my enemies] with your wrath” (Psalm 59:13, NIV) are complicated. And that is ok. The Bible is an ancient text written by cultures vastly different than our own, in different languages, for multiple purposes. It is divinely inspired and useful for understanding the most complex, wonderful Being in existence. If Bible scholars haven’t figured out its intricacies yet, regular parents like you and me surely don’t need to feel we have it all figured out.

This doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the Old Testament and the old stories about God. This doesn’t mean we don’t trust him or his words on the page. But it does remind us that they are complicated. Perhaps above the typical eight-year-old’s comprehension.

Here is what we can do instead:

Read the New Testament to our kids. Teach them about Jesus calling his disciples, resisting temptation, raising the dead, searching for the lost, reaching for the untouchables. Notice how Jesus was kind and powerful and fearless. Note how he had boundaries and friends and enemies. Learn his ways and practice doing them as a family.

Let’s not steer away from the Bible as a whole because we don’t understand every single story in it or because our kids can’t digest the deepest mysteries.

Perhaps the God who ordered stoning is too complicated for our kids. But the God who became a baby so he could help us and heal us isn’t too complicated.

If our kids understand that the Jesus who is our friend and our savior in the New Testament is what God is truly like, then one day they will flip back to those complicated, often violent Old Testament stories with Jesus as their lens. And that will make all the difference.

EDITED TO HIGHLIGHT AND CLARIFY:
I am happy to point my teenagers to the Old Testament stories and dialogue with them. I do not omit the Old Testament or ignore it, only save it for after my young kids have learned the foundational ways of God through Jesus.

SECOND EDIT AND DISCLAIMER:
These views and practices are my own and are independent of the church I am a part of. Even though the kids ministry at my church does not hold these views, it is a fantastic ministry, I support it, and am happy to send my kids to it.

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4 Comments

  1. Carissa, we should dialogue about this sometime. I have made exactly the opposite argument! I agree that we don’t want to terrorize our children with R-rated material. But I think it’s far more dangerous to sugar-coat God or crop away his character into a more palatable G-rated version. How then will they learn to fear Him?

    I’ve always been amazed at what little kids can handle. I remember a little preschool girl (Who couldn’t even handle watching 101 Dalmatians because she was terrified of Cruella Deville) responding to the story of Achan and his family being swallowed up by the earth after he stole the gold and hid it, saying, “That daddy sure did make a bad choice for his family.“

    Exactly. Moving on…

    I really would love to dialogue about this sometime! We should do an Instagram live or something. :-) I’m sure we both have some great points to make and we could probably find some helpful common ground.

    • Growing up in a church setting that taught every story to every age, I can attest that yes, kids can handle violence. It only later came back to haunt me. :)

      Remember, I am not advocating omitting the OT in our homes, only waiting until our kids are older (I have five teens) to start unpacking those complicated OT stories, after they have a foundation of Jesus.

      I would love to have a conversation with you sometime!

  2. This is a hot topic! I appreciate your approach to it. I think it’s especially important to be wise about it as our culture becomes less and less familiar with the OT stories. What we think of as normal some newcomers might find completely offensive. I also agree that there is a time to introduce the more difficult stories. Often the most important distinction to make is that just because someone is in a bible story doesn’t mean they made the right choice. Usually it’s the opposite. Cautionary tales are pretty rare for kids nowadays so I think it’s important to make that clear to them.

    • Thanks for your reply, Laura! I see it too. With the scripture awareness decreasing, we may need to adjust our strategies, as every generation does, in the church and wherever we believers represent God. And you are so right about cautionary tales. When I was a kid I thought every Bible should surely be a hero. Right? Great thoughts!

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