Last year when my son had his best friend over for the night, I lay down with the two of them late in the evening to try to get them to go to sleep and offered to tell them a story. Totally zapped of any creative energy, I refused to invent a story off the top of my head, but instead began to tell them the story of Joseph. They had just been studying it in Sunday school for the past few weeks, so I knew it would be fresh in their minds.
I tried to be as dramatic as possible, while also struggling myself to remember some of the more detailed plot twists. In the end I got Joseph to Egypt and the rest of his family moved there as well.
Just as they expected me to stop, I said something like “…and the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied in Egypt, and a new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph. This new Pharaoh was worried about all of the Israelites filling the land, so he ordered that all of the newborn Israelite boys be killed to keep them from continuing to grow. Now there was one mother who had a baby boy and hid him so that he would not be killed; she took a basket and lined it with tar…”
Well, if the point of the exercise was to get them settled down, I had just blown it. They started whooping and wailing at me, accusing me of mixing up my stories – making sure I knew that they knew that this was not the story of Joseph but instead the story of Moses and the Exodus.
The story of the Exodus is one of the most compelling of the entire Bible. It has been retold through the centuries in Passover observances, and in our own time in movies and music. For all the drama, my favorite part is the opening chapter, which I paraphrased for the boys above – a seamless transition from one story to the next.
This week, thinking about what to say in regards to the essentials from the story of Exodus that each child/teenager should know, I had hoped to find an easy solution by watching the 1998 film “Prince of Egypt” with my son. Not so much.
While it is a beautiful film, by its own admission it takes quite a few liberties with the story of the Exodus, and so we spent the movie noting the omissions and the additions to this ancient epic – no mention of Moses being nursed by his own mother, no mention of his brother Aaron being called to stand with him in his pleas for liberation from the Pharaoh, a strange gloss of Moses’ murder of the Egyptian slave-master depicted instead as an accident, and an even more disturbing inclusion of Moses’ Midianite wife Zipporah presented to Moses as a gift while he still lived in the Pharaoh’s house.
Despite its omissions, “The Prince of Egypt” does provide a compelling (if inaccurate) image of the call of Moses and the voice of God coming from the burning bush.
In the end, probably the best way to teach this story to children is simply to tell it to them. Even though I have listed five key elements of this story, in reality there are hundreds of beautiful and meaningful details that can truly capture the imagination of children.
One of the most distinctive parts of the Haggadah – the liturgy for the Passover feast – is the way that the readers are called to identify themselves with the story of the Exodus. The story is not just one that our ancestors experienced, but one that we ourselves have lived. This is the epitome of embodying the biblical story. In an ideal situation, even Christian children would know and live this story in the same way, bringing that same identification with the Exodus and the stories of Moses to their Confirmation explorations.
11. The birth of MosesWe can look at the similarities between the birth of Moses and the stories of Jesus’ birth found in the Gospel of Matthew: the threat against newborn boys, the flight into Egypt. This helps students to remember that the first Christians (Jews) would have also known the stories of Moses by heart, and would have immediately recognized the similarities between the two.
12. The call of MosesRelated to the notes above, knowing the story of the burning bush and God’s call to Moses can help students thing about the theme of call in the Bible – God revealing promises and plans, human beings often trying to beg off or questioning the wisdom of God’s choice of them, God’s self-revelation to those being called, giving them a vision of who God truly is.
This also provides an opportunity to talk about how we hear God today. How does God speak to us and call us to serve? Obviously not through burning bushes – so how can we be open to the call of God in our lives in more subtle ways?
13. The plaguesOutside of the two facts that the plagues that God brings upon the Egyptians are pivotal to the story of their liberation and that they are totally captivating to seven-year-old boys, the stories of the plagues can also be a starting point for understanding how God works in the world. While we try to teach that God works in the world for good and that natural disasters are not the movement of the hand of God, there are still these kinds of biblical stories that force us to face the idea of God’s wrath and the power of God’s anger.
14. The ExodusWhile the entire book of Exodus centers on the theme of liberation, knowing the details of the actual flight from Egypt is essential to understanding the climax of the story. This liberating moment, bringing the destruction of the Egyptian army, provides fodder for discussion about the Bible’s message of freedom for God’s people. We can ask who in our world is in need of liberation – from poverty, from oppression, from illness – and how Christians can help in that liberating work. This is also a great moment to talk about the significance that the story of the Exodus has had for the African-American Christian community.
15. The wilderness experienceFinally, it is essential that students come with an understanding of the trials that came after liberation – that with freedom comes struggle, with community comes mistakes, and with new laws (10 Commandments) come the inevitable moments when they are broken. The stories of God giving manna from heaven can inform our conversations about the bounty of Communion, and the water springing forth from the rock connects to the water stories throughout scripture.