Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sunday School Stories for Naughty Children

Bible stories. They are a source of both education and entertainment for children in Sunday school which teach them about God throughout the Bible from His awesome power (the parting of the Red Sea) to His eternal love (The Crucifixion). They are meant to inspire, illuminate, and illustrate how to be good little Christian boys and girls. Of course there are a few stories in the Bible that would give these children nightmares and might even traumatize a few of the younger ones. We only tell these to the adults to keep them in line . I'm sure children would find some of the untold Sunday school stories troubling at times although adults seem to accept it without question as the will of God. I, on the other hand, can not accept that God would cause innocent or guilty people to be butchered and killed throughout the Bible just to further His mysterious cause. I also can not accept the mass genocide and the deaths of innocents found in the Bible being the Will of God anymore than the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 9/11 attacks being a part of His plan. I may be mortal and unable to see the grand scheme, but if I, like Abraham, question God's sense of justice, does that mean that mankind has a better sense of justice than God? Or are these horrific stories just an image of God written by the authors of 2 Kings during the Axial Age? Is this image of a vengeful God still relatable in the 21st century?

[Cover of Illustrated Stories From The Bible by Paul Farrell]

How then do we reconcile the good stories with the bad? And what does this tell us about God? Would God really cause innocents to suffer just to further His Will?

I have not read Illustrated Stories From The Bible by Paul Farrell, an agnostic, who brings up a challenging point just by looking at the cover: we pick and choose certain tales to tell our children. Let's take a look at the tale of Elisha and the two She Bears (illustrated on the cover) found in 2 Kings 2:23-25:
23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. "Go on up, you baldhead!" they said. "Go on up, you baldhead!" 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths. 25 And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.
This IS horrifying! Elisha calls down a curse in the name of God and two bears maul 42 of the youths. So I believe a question worth asking is why would God send bears to kill these kids (or youths, but kids make it sound a bit more shocking)? [Click here and here to read a couple interesting views on the text.] Notice, I'm not asking why God allowed this to happen because terrible things happen everyday without divine intervention. The interpretation by Traditional Christians would be something along the lines of "Don't mess with God and His prophets, EVER!" Talk about a loving God who doesn't use fear tactics. How would a child interpret this story? Would they believe that if they're bad that God would send something awful after them? This may be a reason why Christians sugarcoat certain parts of the Bible during Sunday school.

Although I don't know what the authors originally intended by including this story (other than "Don't mess with God") I agree with David Kerr over at Lingamish that the bear attack was purely coincidental and that we, the readers, made the connection between the bear attack and God being sore about the name-calling. 2 Kings ends with Nebuchadnezzar taking God's Chosen people into captivity and burning down the house of the Lord. You would think that God would be pretty peeved for burning down His house and send a whole army of bears after Nebuchadnezzar.

Let's go back to our main question: why would God send bears to kill these kids?
I believe that if God is a bloodthirsty, violent character who demands worship then 1) this story would fit in perfectly with his character and 2) we're all in a whole heap of trouble. A God who uses fear to encourage His creation to Love him is not an image of a loving God no matter how you try to cram the two different views of God into one Almighty. It just doesn't work. I'm sure other Christians would claim that I'm taking the portions of the Bible that makes God look bad (and there are quite a few) out of context without looking at the Big Picture. This doesn't get us anywhere because I can say the same thing about how Traditional Christians portray God by focusing on the stories that only show God's goodness while ignoring the troubling ones. If God's Character is indeed found in the Bible then we must look at ALL of the texts, both the good and the bad.

I do not think that stories like these reflect a God of Love and tell us more about mankind then they do about God. Is it not possible that these are just stories and not literal history? Is it not possible that the authors of the Old Testament penned myths and legends from oral tradition that speak about how they viewed Reality? If we read scripture literally then we are trapped making excuses for all of God's bad behavior. When read spiritually we can learn and delve into fathoms of knowledge of our inner most selves, the human experience, and the reality we call God.


Anonymous said...

I agree that this story says more about the writers of the Bible than it does any imagined perfectly loving deity. I have heard defenders of the Christian faith argue that the victims in this very bloody scenario were young men and even a gang of thugs and that this was somehow self defense. The truth is that no one knows how old the victims were, but the Hebrew best indicates between children and young teenagers. Young’s Literal Translation calls them “little youths”. But even if we put them as old as little teenagers, this doesn’t excuse the extent of the retribution.

Remember Yahweh is a self described “man of war” and certainly a very violent character in the Old Testament. I actually have read this book and once you put the stories together, you get a very different picture from the one normally delivered from the pulpit or in Sunday school. The people writing at that time would have seen nothing wrong with violently putting down any taunting of prophets of Yahweh.

That’s why “biblical morals” are being questioned more and more. Too much of the dark side of the Bible has been hidden for too long and it’s about time stories like this were brought to the lay public for discussion. I think most Christians (other than hard core apologists) would be deeply disturbed to find this and other stories in their “holy book”.

Eruesso said...

Public discussion is exactly what I seek especially on disturbing stories like these. I do not remember being told this story when I was a child and I don't remember questioning any story that deeply disturbs me now that I am an adult.

In fact I went back and looked at my ten volume Bible Story Set by Arthur Maxwell and they did in fact include this story(Vol 5, pg 63). Maxwell described the children as bad little boys who "ran for their lives." He goes on to say that nobody knows how badly they were hurt but that they had learned an important lesson: don't disrespect a man of God.

I do believe there are some moral gems found in the Bible (as in other holy books) but I can not bring myself to believe that the entire book can be read as a foundation to set my standards upon while living in the 21st century. Stories like these should be brought out and discussed so that we may question our personal morality regardless if we believe in God. Thanks for the comment.

May peace and blessings be upon you and yours.

Anonymous said...


I hadn’t heard of Maxwell’s Bible story books for children and I’m amazed that this story was included. It just goes to show how our ideas about violence and retribution are changing in our society to think that not so long ago the tearing apart of children by wild bears could be likened to a benign spanking. Maxwell is right that the Bible doesn’t explicitly say how badly the children were hurt, but I used to work for the Parks Department and I can tell attest to anyone that two bears which “tore” children would be a horribly brutal and traumatizing event and the chances of survival without ambulance, paramedics, surgeons or scientific medicines would be very unlikely.

What’s really interesting about people like Maxwell is that they are able to sugar coat things without dropping their illusory faith guard long enough to realize how absurdly vindictive and unmerciful such acts really are. It’s not really a productive or effective way to teach a lesson.

Thanks for bringing this to my attention. It brings to mind another story in Farrell’s illustrated Bible story book called David’s Census where Yahweh kills 70,000 people ostensibly because King David counted his troops. I’m guessing Maxwell didn’t include that story. One wonders, with some amusement, how he could spin that into a positive teaching lesson, since the 70,000 were certainly all killed. Not much of a “lesson” can be learned if you’re dead.

Eruesso said...

Volume 4 Page 113 "Angel Over Jerusalem"

Maxwell has David (not God nor Satan as read in 2 Samuel 24:1, and 1 Chronicles 21:1) count his armies because he was proud and sought to make himself strong. He forgot that God was his strength and power.

The lesson (as Maxwell describes it) was for David as he watched others die for his pride. If I were a child I could not imagine any other lesson than be humble, depend on God, and if you screw up your friends or siblings might get hurt.

They are beautifully illustrated set of books and I enjoyed them as a kid. I honestly don't remember any of the horrific stories because they were told in a way that made it okay. If God did it, then he had a reason.

Rereading them as an adult (and happy father of two) I have a better understanding of the Bible that I wish to pass onto my children and their children. Maybe they can pick up the pieces that we shatter today from religious warfare, hatred, misunderstanding, and prejudice.

Roger said...

Eruesso: “The lesson (as Maxwell describes it) was for David as he watched others die for his pride. If I were a child I could not imagine any other lesson than be humble, depend on God, and if you screw up your friends or siblings might get hurt.”

Yes and when I’ve brought the story of David’s Census with my Christian friends, this is one of the answers I get, that it was a lesson to trust god and not be so proud. It’s truly amazing that Yahweh devotees are able to dismiss what amounts to more than 3 times 9/11 in order to make some point about self reliance instead of god reliance. As if a god wouldn’t be able to present such a lesson without killing 70,000 people.

Eruesso: “They are beautifully illustrated set of books and I enjoyed them as a kid. I honestly don't remember any of the horrific stories because they were told in a way that made it okay. If God did it, then he had a reason.”
Yes, how easy the mind of a child is to manipulate. And when I say the mind of a child, I could include the child-like mind of so many adults who choose to follow blindly rather than question critically.

Eruesso: “Rereading them as an adult (and happy father of two) I have a better understanding of the Bible that I wish to pass onto my children and their children. Maybe they can pick up the pieces that we shatter today from religious warfare, hatred, misunderstanding, and prejudice.”

That’s a much better use of the Bible. Another thing I find interesting is that when some Christians try to defend Yahweh’s decree to slaughter six entire nations including the Jebusites, Perizzites, and Hivites, they usually say these nations were involved in cannibalism or child sacrifice. Of course, we know that this is what warring nations do to try to make killing human beings more palatable in order to make them better killing machines. We also know, unfortunately, that during the early church years when they were killing Christians, the killers accused Christians of cannibalism and incest. It’s the oldest trick in the book, literally I suppose when it comes to the Bible.

Anonymous said...

Re previous post, I always think that it's incomprehensible that murdering children as part of a genocide is better that murdering them as part of a religious ceremony.

Also when Abraham??? was odered to sacrifice his son, he didn't say: "I thought the other lot did that?"

Anonymous said...

Do not bring judgement on you friend

Eruesso said...

Greetings from this side of the pond,

As far as I understand Traditional Christianity judgment is upon us already and there is nothing we can do to stop it from coming. It is only by grace alone that we make it past through judgment, yet even those who are saved through grace are still judged. I do not believe that the God of Love is also a God of Judgment, yet lack of belief alone would not absolve me from being judged anymore than believing in it would. If we are to be judged it the only fair way for a Just God to judge would be to judge us by how much we have loved one another in this life.

Peace and blessings from across the pond to you and yours my friend,


Anonymous said...

I would just like to point out a few things...
First, a question. For sake of argument, let's start with the premise that Jehovah is an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God who is loving and merciful, but at the same time, just and holy (this is what I believe, btw). Why do we think that we have the right to judge how He acts and thinks? Honestly, do you think He even cares about whether we think His methods may be a little harsh at times? He created us for crying out loud, it's a wonder He even recognizes our existence.
Also, I think it is interesting that you make the assumption that these stories were not told to children. I have been going to church with my parents since before I can remember and I have been told several of these stories several times each. They did not scare or traumatize me, they taught me Biblical values that shape the core of who I am today.
Lastly, I would like to point out that for every act of divine judgment you find in the Bible, you will find at least two acts of divine grace. Don't judge a book before you have even read it.
I apologize if I seemed a little harsh in this comment, but I get riled up when people who are supposedly "tolerant" are only such when it does not apply to Christianity.

Eruesso said...

Anonymous, I'd like to respond to some of your questions.

"why do we think that we have the right to judge how He acts and thinks?"

- Abraham is our best example of questioning God's actions when he asked "Will not the Judge of all the Earth do right?" If God is a loving and merciful God then there are better methods than sending two bears to maul a group of children which is more than just a little harsh. I do not believe the Old Testament Jealous God corresponds with a Loving God. He's either one or the other, he can not be both precisely because there is no love in fear.

"Also, I think it is interesting that you make the assumption that these stories were not told to children."

-I too was raised in the church yet I don't recall them telling me the part of Noah getting drunk after disembarking from the ark and cursing his innocent grandson (Canaan, Ham's son) for the sins committed by his son, Ham. These stories, if they're even mentioned, are toned down so that they don't paint God as a tyrannical monster out to get them if they misbehave. They're shaped in a way to reinforce that God knows best and still loves us even while he punishes us. And there's nothing absolutely wrong with that if it guides you to becoming a more loving person to your fellow man. My concern is when people take these stories to justify their bigotry against others (The curse of Ham, blaming the Crucifixion on the Jews, the promise land belonging solely to one people etc,etc.). By understanding first that these are JEWISH text (including the New Testament which were written by Jewish followers of Christ)and that they were written for a specific audience with a specific message we can come to a better understanding of what the text means.

As a Christian myself I am tolerant of all religions, yet I analyze all of them with a critical eye so that I may fully understand what is being said. I ask tougher questions on my own faith because 1) I know more about Christianity than other religions and 2) if I do not have the courage to ask tough questions I can never move forward in my spiritual journey. My spirituality is about always seeking the Divine and I can not seek if I am sitting satisfied with a book full of "answers". It is the questions that drive me forward.

Peace and blessings by upon you and yours.


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