Friday, August 9, 2013

Iconic Characters of the Old Testament 5 (out of 100) Things Your Child Should Know Before Confirmation

The only time I have ever had a student drop out of Confirmation Class was on a
day we talked about Jonah. 

Samson with a distinct Grecian
look about him.
Biblical stories, especially the ones we teach in Sunday school, can take on a real air of mystery and meaning for children. We teach them that this is the Word of God, and they believe us. Unfortunately, we don’t always teach them what it means that this is the Word of God. In many Christian traditions, what it means is that the Bible is the dictated words of God which should be read both literally and as absolute historical fact.

In other Christian traditions (such as the one in which I teach) we believe that the Word of God is inspired by the work of the Holy Spirit. This means that we believe that human beings, inspired by God, wrote down their experiences of God, their religious practices, and the stories of their tradition. Imbued in their words is a Word of truth that we continue to seek after today.

In my experience (and in my specific tradition), much of the Bible study we do in Confirmation is about helping students make this shift from a literal and factual  reading of these stories of the Old Testament to a more literary and theological reading  which helps them seek that biblical truth for themselves.

For some students, making this transition is actually a relief - they are grateful to finally be shown a way to read scripture that makes sense based on what they have learned in school about oral history, folk tales and fables, ancient mythology, and science. This time in Confirmation is about helping them to stop worrying about the facts of the Bible and find meaning in the larger truth that these stories teach us about God and God’s people. 

For some students, however, this transition is very hard to make. It is difficult not just because it is a more nuanced way to read scripture, but because it contradicts their entire understanding of the Bible and their faith. That is not something that can be or should be stepped away from lightly.

In my congregation, we spend a lot of time talking about being a church where people hold a wide spectrum of beliefs. For this one student he (and his family) were not interested in being a part of a church that had such a wide spectrum - especially when they were on the opposite side of the spectrum from their pastor.

One of the things that I try to do with younger students, and with my own son, is to teach them to know and to love these ancient stories without ever adding the additional implication of historical accuracy or literal accuracy. A response that I have been known to use with my son, when he asks if I believe these things really happened a long time ago, is to say, “I believe that people really told these stories a long time ago, and I am grateful that we can still read them and learn from them today.”

As we continue through this list of the 100 things your child should know before Confirmation class, below is a very brief summary of the story of each of these iconic Old Testament characters and what larger biblical lessons we can talk about in class. 

I should also take a moment to say that in the past I have assigned each student one of the stories to read in its entirety, so that they might retell it on the day we discuss these stories in class. It is a great idea, and one that I have held onto through ten years of teaching Confirmation. 

In reality, though, it is a hard class; since most of the students do not come already knowing these stories, it means that they are learning them secondhand from each other. Most of our precious time is taken up in the telling of the story and very little on the ideas laid out below. Essentially this is the premise behind this list of 100...because class time is spent teaching them the story, time is too short to teach them why the story was important enough to have been preserved for thousands of years.

36. Jonah
The book of Jonah tells the story of a reluctant prophet whom God calls to preach a word of judgment to the people of Nineveh. He turns tail and sets off in the opposite direction aboard a boat for Tarshish. God is so upset at Jonah for disobeying him that he sends a great storm to rock the boat. Knowing he is the cause of the storm, Jonah sacrifices himself and allows his fellow passengers to throw him overboard and is then swallowed by what is described as a giant fish. After a time of seclusion and prayer, the fish spits him out and he is once again called by God to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. He relents, and upon hearing of their fate the people do indeed repent. The story ends, though, with a part that we often forget to teach to children, when Jonah pouts and complains that God is too merciful. God puts Jonah in his place and tells him that the mercy of God is for God’s use at his own discretion.

Going along with the pattern that we tend to teach children stories in the Bible that involve animals, usually students can give the outline of the story as I have done above. The story of Jonah allows us to talk about the tradition of folk tales or fables in the Bible. We can try to determine the difference between literal truth and a larger theological truth contained in a story. For the story of Jonah, that truth might be that as humans we are often quick to judge and very quick to assume God’s judgment on others. In truth, God’s mercy is something that we can never fully comprehend, and God’s ability to forgive (thank goodness) is much stronger than our own.

37. Daniel
The book of Daniel recounts the trials of a young man and his friends who are among the Israelite captives taken to live in exile under the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. The stories in the first half of the book mostly center around the struggle of ancient Jews to remain faithful to God and obedient to the law in a foreign place. Again and again they receive miraculous favor from God. At one point Daniel is plotted against by some of the king’s men and ratted out for his faithful maintenance of daily prayer to God. He is thrown into a den of lions and comes out unharmed. Once again an animal story - but in my experience students don’t come with a real sense of who the “enemy” is in this story much beyond a “bad king.”

In a class conversation about Daniel, we can review the time of the exile and what it meant for the people of Israel to be removed from the land they had been given by God. Does that mean that God no longer shows them favor? In these stories we can see that the people came to believe that even in exile, if they were faithful to God, God would be faithful to them. Daniel also provides great fodder for conversations about what it means to have a minority faith. How do we show our faith or live out our faith when the culture in which we live disagrees with it?

38. Ruth
The story of Ruth is one of the most artfully crafted in scripture. It is the tale of a foreign widow who chooses to care for her Israelite mother-in-law who is also recently widowed. Ruth accompanies her home to Bethlehem and takes to the local fields to glean for grain to help them survive. She meets a distant relative of her husband who in a generous interpretation of the law marries her and provides for Ruth and her mother-in-law. In addition to the beautiful way that the story shows how laws might have been interpreted in real life situations, this story also provides a genealogy for the future King David who is Ruth’s great grandson.

In this story of Ruth students can learn the practical implications of those endless laws found in books like Leviticus. What does it mean to care for other people not just out of obligation but out of what the Bible calls loving-kindness? What does it mean that the greatest King of Israel is descended from a foreign-born widow? Ruth provides a great opportunity to talk about why certain stories were preserved. In a conversation about Ruth we might also take a look at the genealogy of Jesus found at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. What does it mean for us as Christians to have someone like Ruth in Jesus’ family tree? Why would the Gospel writer have taken the time to include her?

39. Esther
The Book of Esther tells the story of the Jewish diaspora living in Persia. Esther, after hiding her Jewish identity, is selected to be the new Queen to King Xerxes. In a parallel storyline, one of the King’s advisors has it in for the Jews and tricks the king into calling for their genocide. Once Esther finds out about the plot and is given some pretty forceful encouragement by her uncle, she confronts the King and his advisor and essentially saves her people.

One of the pitfalls of studying and discussing a story like Esther in Confirmation class is that there is no possible way to do justice to the entire story, with its colorful characters, subtle humor and political intrigue, in such a short time frame. For teenagers, though, the story of Esther provides a great starting point for a discussion of destiny and call that goes beyond the traditional call stories we find in the rest of the Old Testament. Esther receives no vision and hears no voice of God. All she has is the voice of her family and of her conscience. How will those guide her? How do they guide us today? 

40. Samson
The stories of Samson are found in the Book of Judges, which recounts the slightly disorganized period of the judges, after the Israelites’ entrance into the land of Canaan but before the creation of the Israelite kingdom. Samson is a Nazarite, which means he neither cuts his hair nor drinks alcohol. For reasons unknown he has developed superhuman strength that allows him to do things like kill lions with his bare hands. Samson never seems to function according to the traditional pattern of the other judges - he neither provides leadership to the people nor leads them into battle. Instead, his portion of Judges is filled with tall tales about his feats of strength and his weakness for women. Most prominent is the story of his relationship with Delilah, to whom he reveals the source of his strength - his long hair. She betrays him to the Philistines, but Samson has his revenge: he is given one last burst of strength to pull down the Philistines’ temple around them, killing himself in the process.

The stories of Samson provide both a look at some of the seedier parts of the Old Testament as well as some of the fantastical stories of the “heroes” of the Bible. We often use this phrase Bible Heroes to teach children to be more like Abraham or David, but the stories of Samson fit very well into the ancient paradigm of hero as found in other ancient stories such as those that came from Greece and Rome. Like many of these heroes, Samson has both admirable qualities and character flaws that prove fatal to him in the end. Discussions of Samson can help students reflect on the Biblical stories as being part of a larger tradition of ancient stories that take on similar patterns and traditions. Samson, while not necessarily the kind of hero we might admire, is very much a hero in the tradition of Oedipus and Achilles. 

What other characters from the Old Testament (not already on the list of 100) do you think it is important for our children to know?


  1. Replies
    1. Great suggestions! You can find them on the larger list of 100 at numbers 10, 11, and 12.