Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Stories of Genesis – 5 things (out of 100) your child should know BEFORE Confirmation Class

The Ark of Noah by artist He Qi
While this is the second post in what will be a series of about 20 on the foundations that a child should bring to Confirmation class as a teenager, it is the first in a long string that will relate to biblical literacy.
It is overwhelming to think of an 8th grader having mastered all of these stories. I don’t know many adults who have mastered them. But mastery is not the goal. Acquaintance with the most familiar and foundational stories and basic biblical knowledge are the goal.

Our task in Confirmation class is twofold: we look more closely at some of these stories to appreciate their beauty and pay attention to the details, and we discuss what they teach us about who God is and who we are as people who claim these stories as our own. These are the first real lessons they get in biblical interpretation.

The practice of hearing and telling these stories throughout their life helps a child and then a teenager think of them as their stories, their tradition, their history. This is a feat that cannot be achieved by reading them for the first time sitting around a table (circle of beanbag chairs) in a Confirmation class, no matter how much homework I assign them.

Below I will describe the basic things that they should know from each of the stories and the bigger ideas we can tackle together in a Confirmation class.

6. Creation and other primeval stories
So let’s be honest: there are more than 100 things you could know about the first few chapters of the book of Genesis. But here are some of the most important:

·         The story of the creation in chapter 1: God creates a new element of the earth each day, and each day is good, and God rests on the last, the 7th day. I myself can never keep straight all of the details of what was created when, and I wouldn’t necessarily expect my Confirmation students to either.

·         The story of Adam and Eve in chapter 2: that God puts them in the Garden of Eden and tells them not to eat of the tree; that the serpent tempts Eve, she eats, Adam eats, and they must leave the garden as a result.

·         The story of Cain and Abel in chapter 3: the details of this story are wonderful, but again the basics will suffice – that these were the sons of Adam and Eve, one a shepherd and one a farmer; that they had a fight and Cain killed Abel and got in trouble with God.

·         The story of the Tower of Babel in chapter 11: that at this time all the people of the earth spoke one language; that they all got together and decided to build a city with a tower reaching up to the heavens. God was not happy with that plan, and so he scattered them and made them speak different languages.

When students come to class already knowing these stories, we can do interesting things with them. Once they know the story of creation in the first chapter in Genesis, they can read the second story of creation in chapter 2 and talk about other ancient creation stories and what they tell us about humanity’s relationship with God. We always talk about reading the Bible as a “theological” textbook NOT as a scientific textbook. We can have a discussion about original sin. Do we blame Adam and Eve or do we see ourselves in them? Do we pity Cain or do we understand that it is possible to sin against God and against one another? When we read the Tower of Babel together we can think about the diversity of the human race, something that even ancient people recognized, and consider what God’s design is for the future of humanity.

7. Noah's Ark
Technically the story of Noah and the Flood should be counted among the primeval stories above, but since it has such a large presence in our biblical psyche, it deserves its own number. You can read here how I have written previously of the pitfalls and possibilities of teaching this story to children.

In Confirmation we can use the story of Noah to talk about several biblical themes: sin, punishment, forgiveness, and covenant. Does God really need a reminder to not destroy the earth? Were people before the flood really vegetarian? Isn’t the world as bad or worse today as it was then? Should we make a connection between natural disasters and the wrath of God, or is God more forgiving than he was before? These questions don’t have easy answers, but raising them in class helps students learn how to ask hard questions about Bible stories.

8. Abraham and Sarah
The stories of Abraham and Sarah span chapters 12 – 23 of Genesis, and there really are just a few key stories within these chapters that students should be expected to know. First is the general story of Abraham’s call and God’s covenant with Abraham. This story actually repeats throughout, but the key theme is that God has promised to give Abraham land and many descendants. In one instance God tells him that these descendants will be as numerous as the stars. In another, three visitors come to Abraham and Sarah, who are quite old at this point, and announce to Abraham that Sarah will bear a son. Upon overhearing this, Sarah laughs out loud. This is the origin of the name of her son Isaac (laughter).

The other key story in this section is the sacrifice (or as some call it “binding”) of Isaac in chapter 22. It is not a pretty story. It is also one of the few difficult stories from the Bible that I have included in this list.

These stories help to introduce the biblical themes of call and covenant – that God calls us to do difficult things we sometimes feel unequipped for, and that God wants to be in mutual relationship with us. Abraham and Sarah can be a model for what it means to take a leap of faith. Talking through the story of the sacrifice of Isaac can help us to ask why such difficult stories were told. We can introduce information about other ancient religions of the time which did practice human sacrifice, and how the God of the Hebrew people was different.

9. Isaac and Rebecca
This one it is a bit of a pipe dream – I have never had students come with enough biblical knowledge that we got to sit down and talk a lot about the stories and themes in chapters 24 – 27 of Genesis. I believe it is important, though, that a student be able to trace the family tree of Abraham through Joseph. The Bible is full of genealogies that no one memorizes. The least they can do is learn Abraham begat Isaac who begat Jacob, who begat Joseph. Aside from that, it is important to see how vividly these ancient stories can capture the drama and intrigue of human interaction. They should know that Abraham sent a servant to find a wife for Isaac at a well, that Isaac and Rebecca had twin boys Jacob and Esau, that Jacob stole Esau’s birthright once by tempting Esau with a hearty stew and again by dressing up like Esau and tricking the nearly blind Isaac, and that this forced Jacob to flee from his home and the wrath of his brother.

To read these stories together provides the opportunity to talk about the nature of marriage and families in the Bible, of betrothal and inheritance, and of betrayal.

10. Jacob and his Sons
Once again, these are lengthy and detailed stories that round out the book of Genesis from chapters 28 through 50. I would say that the most important ones are the story of Jacob’s dream of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending, the story of Jacob wresting with the angel and receiving the name Israel, and the story of Jacob’s sons Joseph, Benjamin, Judah, Naphtali, Zebulon, Issachar, Gad, Reuben, Levi, Simeon, Dan and Asher, who go on to represent the twelve tribes of Israel.

I am less worried that they won’t know the story of Joseph the favored son with a special coat whose brothers sell him into slavery, and of his rise in the Egyptian court and eventual reconciliation with his brothers. If only Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote musicals about all the stories in the Bible.

In Confirmation I can teach the stories of the women from these lengthy narratives: Rachel and Leah, Dinah and Tamar. I try especially to spend at least a little time on the story of Tamar because of her inclusion in the genealogy of Jesus as found in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 1:3).

This last round of stories in Genesis is especially helpful in connecting the book of Genesis with the beginning of Exodus. Why were the Israelites slaves in Egypt? When did they become a tribal people? Where are they returning to when they leave for the Promised Land?

I was right. This is way more than five things.

What from the Book of Genesis do you think is foundational for the development of faith, either stories that we should be teaching to children OR that youth should come to learn as they grow in their faith?

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